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Indian Spices 101: How to Work With Dry Spices

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.

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.