I learned to cook at my grandmother’s side. One of my first jobs was grinding the spices. She had a large, heavy brass mortar and pestle. it was one of her most treasured possessions. She patiently taught me the importance of slowly dry roasting the spices and letting them cool before grinding them in the mortar. If I ever over-toasted the spices she would make me throw them out and start over again.
She was patient and kind, but believe me, my Biji had high standards of quality. We ground the spices fresh for every meal. My connection to the world of spices was handed down to me through my grandmother and by extension, from all the cooks who came before her. I love having this connection to my ancestors.
A distinguishing characteristic of Indian cooking is our extensive use of spices, both whole and ground in making sauces. As a home cook there are three important lessons to be learned:
- Buy your spices in small quantities so they don’t lose their flavor. For home use, I only buy an ounce or two at a time, but I admit that I am spoiled because I am close to so many excellent purveyors of fresh spices. Spice oils are sensitive to light and heat and quickly lose their potency, so store them in a cool, dark place to preserve their freshness.
- Find a place that is busy and turns over its inventory frequently to assure that the spices are fresh. The best way to tell if the spices are fresh is to smell them. If they smell pungent, they’re fresh. If the smell is faint or musty, the spices are past their prime.
- Buy all your spices whole and only grind them as you need them. As soon as spices are ground, the flavor begins to dissipate rapidly. Within an hour, much of the flavor is lost. Today’s coffee grinders are super for turning whole spices into powder. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to use—just label one for spices only and make sure never to use it for coffee.
If your recipe calls for a teaspoon of ground cumin, for example, lightly toast a heaping teaspoon of whole cumin in a dry skillet over medium heat until it smells fragrant and then remove the cumin from the pan and let it cool before grinding in your coffee grinder. The reason we toast spices is to activate the essential oils that the spices contain; it makes the flavor more vibrant and exciting. The only spices that we don’t typically grind ourselves are cinnamon stick, dried ginger, and turmeric. Only a very powerful industrial grinder can turn thesd spices into a fine powder.
An easy method of using spices to add flavor to dishes is infusing oil to be used on marinades or as a salad dressing.