Some heart-warming secrets to spice up the routine….
It is a difficult task: choosing ready combinations of Indian spices for someone who’s a good cook, is familiar with Indian food, but possibly daunted by their number and diversity. Especially because I rarely use ready mixes myself, except for some “standard” mixes like sambar powder and panch phoron.
But even those aren’t standard to the initiate; there are variations within, but for people like you and me, most sambar smells about the same, and the substitution of hard-to-find radhuni (wild celery) by mustard seeds in the Bengali panch phoron is barely noticeable.
I usually temper vegetables with fresh ginger or green chillies, a pinch of turmeric powder and little else. Some, particularly vegetarians in Uttar Pradesh, use cumin and asafœtida as a default, as I do salt.
Meat and egg curries are usually cooked with a complex, multi-layered mixture of spices, which generically are called garam masala. Garam means hot, as in intense; not piquant and chilli-hot, as in capsaicin. Possibly it derives from the traditional Ayurvedic and Unani concept of the “warming” nature of the spices, the effect they have on tumours. It usually comprises black peppercorns, cumin, cinnamon, cloves and black and green cardamom. These are toasted (or not) and ground together with water, coconut, vinegar, or just by themselves. I personally HATE black cardamom, and never buy it. As for the rest, I like different mixtures depending on what they are added to.
Both cinnamon and pepper, when ground, darken the curry, so I prefer to use them whole, if I’m using them at all. And then their flavour. If a small stick of cinnamon or a few whole peppercorns are added to a simmering soup or stew, they add a different aroma than if they had been sautéed in oil to temper the curry, or if they had been powdered. If I had to pick a standard combination, I’d take the seeds of four green cardamoms, two or three cloves, half a blade of mace and a pinch of grated nutmeg, grind them all together and stir the powder into a simmering wet thing: adding it directly to hot oil would scorch and ruin the flavour.
So I’m sorry to complicate matters, but this is completely subjective: you could use a ready garam masala powder, and add other whole or ground spices to make up the missing elements. There are times when I use only cardamom and cloves, the proportions depending on the mood of the day — sometimes in the initial tempering and sometimes later.
The smell of cooking panch phoron (five spice) announces its provenance: the East — and all its constituents add up to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Equal proportions of cumin, nigella, fenugreek, black mustard (or radhuni) and fennel seeds — although some say that the fennel seeds should be double the others and fenugreek less… Anyway, this is how it’s used: heat some oil, preferably mustard. But if that’s hard to come by, or too strong smelling, pick any vegetable oil and, when it’s hot, sprinkle with a couple of pinches of the combined panch phoron. Some crackling and popping will happen — watch out for burns — and slide the vegetable you want to cook into the pan.
An alternative is to pour the oil, complete with fried spices, into a cooked curry, turn off the heat, cover and let the flavours come together. Or you can heat a dry heavy skillet, toast some panch phoron on it, stir with a fork, wait for the mustard to start popping and a good smell to start wafting, and quickly transfer to another plate (because the skillet retains heat for quite a while and could burn the spices). Then, when it’s cool enough to handle, grind it in the smallest jar of an electric food processor or, since the moisture’s evaporated and the spices are dry, pound in a mortar till it’s coarsely ground. This will take less than a minute. Sprinkle onto an almost fully cooked dish, stir to mix, continue to heat a bit and serve.
Sambar powder is usually added to sambar, the thin lentil “soup” of arhar (also toor and tuvar) dal, but when used judiciously in other tart curries, gives a characteristic “south Indian” flavour. It’s a good shortcut, but since most packaged brands are quite chilli hot, be cautious.
Tandoori Masala is another story. The ingredients listed on the wrapper are the usual garam masala suspects as well as red chilli powder, onion, ginger and garlic. There must be a secret ingredient — I haven’t been able to put it together in my own kitchen. It doesn’t add much to a curry — I use it most often to marinate chicken or fish before grilling, but a good vegetarian hors d’oeuvre is paneer tikka.
All you have to do is to smear large squares of paneer liberally with the powder, let it sweat for a few minutes, then sprinkle with flour, preferably chickpea, and grill in a hot, lightly oiled non-stick pan, for a minute or two, just until it begins to brown and crisp. Then “smoke” it by placing a red-hot piece of coal in a “cup” of tinfoil in the centre of the paneer, pour some butter directly on the coal, and cover with a tight-fitting lid for five minutes. Serve at once.