Lots of spices! [Photographs: Max Falkowitz]

Many of my friends, new to Indian food, think that it's all spice and fire. But that's not true. Sure, there are spices, but it's not all chili. It's cumin, cinnamon, cardamom; fragrant spices, robust ones, peppery ones. And they're used carefully and thoughtfully. Each has its own aroma and adds its own character to a dish.

Let's get one thing straight: There is no such thing as curry powder in an Indian kitchen (and certainly no Madras curry powder). The jarred stuff you find on supermarket shelves is a purely Western convenience product. Sure, for some applications it'll do in a pinch, but by using pre-mixed curry powder, you end up with dishes that taste very similar to one another. In India, we make our own spice mixes that vary by region and even household, with different blends used for different types of meats and vegetables. The varieties are simply mind-boggling. Each spice has its own pride of place on the kitchen shelf and combined with each other, hey create another kind of magic.

You've probably heard the term 'masala'—it's the closest thing we have to Western curry powder: A mixture of spices and herbs that form the base of Indian dishes and gives them their characteristic flavors. Every Indian kitchen has a 'masala dabba' or two; round stainless steel containers with an inner and outer lid and about six smaller round containers inside that are the heart and soul of our kitchens. One masala dabba will hold the whole spices and the other, the powders and personalized blends of spices. Why do we need both whole and powdered versions of the same spice, you ask?  Well, every dish has many layers of spice that come together in various techniques. Some may use whole. Some use only powders in different proportions. Some, both.

A masala dabba. [Flickr: jo-h / CC BY 2.0]

Spice mixes can be complicated, but they need not be. Indeed, most of my recipes call for only a handful, but treating those spices correctly is key to maximizing the flavor you get out of them. In this series, Working with Indian Spices, we'll go through the basics, from blending to roasting to frying.

The three main ways to use spice in Indian food are to dry-roast and grind; fry in oil and then pound; or to simply use them whole in what we call a tadka. Dry-roasted and fried spices can then be ground into wet or dry masalas (spice mixtures) and used according to the requirements of the dish. Today, we'll have a look at dry-roasting whole spices.

Why dry-roast?

Dry-roasting is done for a number of reasons. First, it drives off excess moisture and makes the seeds and spices crisper, so they grind more easily. Second, and this is a big one, it changes flavor. As whole spices heat, they release volatile aromatics. These aromatics can then break down and recombine to form dozens of new compounds, adding complexity. Have a taste of raw coriander seed and its roasted version and you'll see a marked difference. The former is floral and lemony. The roasted one is intense, grassy and earthy. It's a completely different flavor you're getting out of one ingredient in two ways.
 
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The other reason spices are roasted in many Indian homes is the seasonal monsoon dampness. Ground spices and moisture are great enemies, and a good deal of effort is made to keep India's annual watery onslaught far from our spice cabinets. Jars of masalas usually have their own cupboard—a place that is tried and tested for dryness. If moisture does get into powdered spices or spice blends, they're as good as ruined—within days, the moist mixture will be riddled with bugs that'll infest the whole batch.

For this reason, most homes make their masalas during the hot summer months and use them throughout the year. These powders are usually stored in stainless steel or glass jars with tight lids. In the olden days, people would use ceramic jars with a distinct white and brown coloring—such jars were synonymous with preserved masalas and pickles. The key characteristic that all three types of jars possess is good protection from the elements.

Can I roast powdered spices?

Powdered spices are generally not roasted. This is because in their powdered form, spices have a vastly increased surface area, which means that those volatile aromatics escape far more easily, and the spices are more prone to burning.

How do I roast spices?

The best way is to toss whole spices in a dry skillet, stirring and tossing frequently over medium heat, until they begin to smell toasty and fragrant. Transfer them to a bowl and allow them to cool before incorporating into dishes or grinding in a mortar and pestle or a dedicated spice grinder.

What types of Masala mixes are made using dry-roasting?

Dry-roasted spices have various uses. Some are kept individually, while others are more frequently blended into ready-to-use mixes. Here's a look at a few common ones.

  • Spices that are roasted and ground individually: The ones that usually fall into this category are dry red chilies, cumin, coriander, curry leaves, and fennel seeds. Roasted powders are used as garnishes for finished dishes or to modify spice blends while you're cooking. They don't need to be cooked further, since they're already roasted. These individual spices are sometimes stored in the masala dabba and sometimes in individual smaller glass or stainless steel jars. They are used in various combinations in dishes that do not call for specific pre-blends.
  • Dry-roasted and pounded spices mixed with roasted and pounded red chilies: This is the closest thing to what could loosely be termed a "curry powder." There are many spices that go into the mix—sometimes as many as to 20 or 25. This chili-based blend is used at the start of the dish, when the flavors of the curry are building, added when the vegetable aromatics (such as tomatoes and onions) are frying. Again, there's no one type of blend; every home and region differs. A small amount of asafoetida is sometimes added to keep the mixture fresh and dry for longer.
  • Roasted and pounded spices (a.k.a. garam masala): this literally translates to hot spices. But the heat referred to here is more the intensity of the spices than capsicum heat. In fact, it's distinguished from other powders in that it doesn't use red chili. The heat comes from other spices, like black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, etc. Again, there is a whole host of ingredients in this blend, too. It is mostly used as a final sprinkling over a dish to enhance the flavor, but could also be added in the beginning depending on the type of regional cuisine. Because it incorporates many strong spices, it's used sparingly. Too much will ruin the flavors that are built into the dish; a little will balance it all nicely.
    • What are some common uses for individually roasted spices?

      There are dozens of uses for single powdered spices, but some common ones are:

      • Roasted and ground coriander seeds and red chili can be used as a simple marinade on paneer before frying.
      • A pinch of turmeric can be added to a rice dish to enhance its color.
      • Roasted and pounded fennel seeds can add lots of flavor to yogurt-based raitas and flatbreads.
      • Powdered cumin seed is used as a garnish on top of yogurt-based salads and drinks.

      What dishes use dry-roasted masalas?

      The answer to this is all...and some. Garam masala can be used on almost everything, but takes center stage in more robust meat dishes. Chili-based spice blends (curry powder) can be used with almost all dishes, acting as the flavor base for the entire dish. It's used for vegetables, meat, and legumes, though you'd use more with meats. As for individually roasted spices, they give you the flexibility of adding what you want right at the moment of creating your dish on the stove.

      It's important to remember that not all dishes use garam masalas, not all dishes use chili-based blends, and not all use individually ground spices—but some will use all three.

      When should I be adding spices to a dish?

      You may notice (and be understandably frustrated) that there's no real rule of thumb when it comes to how and when to use each type of mixture. But it can be a liberating realization: simply put, there is no rule of thumb. Many curries get their characteristic red color from a chili-based spice blend, but contain a completely different set of spices in the garam masala, which may be added at the beginning, middle, or end of cooking. Some individual spices may be ground and sprinkled on top just before serving, or it may be a blend. Spices added at the beginning tend to mellow in flavor, while permeating the gravy and coating the meat or vegetables. Those added at the end will retain a sharper pungency.

      You get the picture: It's a wide world of curries out there, and your best bet is to look towards individual recipe for specifics.

      Spices can be expensive. Is there a good way to store leftovers?

      First off, your best bet for long-term spice storage is to buy your spices whole. Whole spices lose flavor less rapidly than pre-ground spices, and give you the advantage of being able to roast them until the desired flavor is reached. If you've got one of those counter-top spice racks that sits out in direct light all day, throw it out! All you're doing is wasting money on spices: light and heat just cause them to lose flavor faster.

      For long-term storage, it's best to keep whole spices in a well-sealed container in a cool, dark cabinet. Spices stored this way can vary from batch to batch, but you can expect at least a few months' worth of full potency before they slowly start to lose pungency (always follow your nose—if the spice doesn't smell nice out of the bottle, it won't smell nice in your food!) For even longer storage, the fridge or the freezer is a good way to go—just be sure to note that you'll have to roast them a little more carefully than usual, since chilled spices will collect condensation from the air when you take them out of storage. In cold storage with well-sealed containers, spices can last for years.

      Stay tuned for a deeper look at frying and blending spices in future installments, and in the meantime, take a look at some of my recipes for ideas on where to use these spices.

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