Indian Cuisine

Indian Cuisine

That is how Shakespeare would have undoubtedly put it…..talking about Indian Cuisine, which, with its immense variety, has carved a niche for itself internationally. People from other parts of the world, especially in the West, simply adore Indian cuisine, despite the fact that a majority of its dishes are spicy, tangy and hot ! Indeed Continental as well as American cuisine (save Mexican) is rather bland when compared to their Indian counterpart. Down the centuries, Indian spices have always lured the adventurous, sea-farers and explorers to come to India and carry away bulk quantities to their native lands. All that is a part of our history now.

Indian Spices

The list of spices used is virtually endless: Cardamoms, green and black, Cinnamon Sticks, Cloves, Fennel/Aniseed, Sesame, Bishops Weed (Ajwain), Cumin, Coriander and Melon seeds, ordinary Peppercorns, Nigella (Kalonji, onion seeds), Nutmeg, Mace, Bay / Cassia leaves, dried Ginger (Saunth), crushed Pomegranate seeds(anaaardana powder), Mustard and Fenugreek seeds, Turmeric ( tubers or powder), not forgetting the highly aromatic Asafoetida and the priceless Saffron, (literally worth its weight in gold !) used mainly in either pilafs or desserts. Fresh Ginger, Tamarind (pulp, minus the seeds), Amchoor (dried mango pieces or powder) provide a tang wherever necessary.

Several herbs too figure in this list — Coriander leaves (akin to Cilantro), Mint (leaves / powder), Kasuri Methi (dried Fenugreek leaves) as also the ubiquitous Curry leaves — a sine qua non for all South Indian dishes (except sweets). There is also an entire range of chillies from the slender, finger-like ones to the Jalapenoes (commonly known as achar wali mirch) which are stuffed with spices and used as pickles.      

Out of this list, there have evolved several interesting permutations and combinations of spices. For instance, the paanch phoran (five spices) used by the Bengalis comprises fenugreek, nigella, bishop's weed, aniseed and cumin seeds. The North Indian garam masala (literally = hot, strong spices) has many more components (apart from two kinds of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves and bay leaves) than its counterpart in Eastern India. (The latter combination leaves out peppercorns).

Before modern appliances had made their appearance, activities like grinding, crushing and mashing of different spices were often carried out with the help of a Himam Dasta, a large bowl shaped stone mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle were sometimes made out of metals too. To make a smooth wet paste of spices, the Sil-Batta was extensively used. The Sil is a flat granite or sandstone tablet 12-18 inches long, 1.5-2 inches thick, patterned with shallow ridges, which was placed on the kitchen floor. The Batta is a hand-held roller which is worked back and forth across the surface of the Sil. Although sticklers for perfection still prefer to use this traditional method, packed spice powders are more commonly used nowadays.