A spice tour with Suchitra

The Spice Box–every Indian home has at least one. If you haven’t experienced opening one before, it is magical. The shiny stainless steel container holds cups of fanciful spices that bring the rich flavors of Indian cooking to life. In creating the Western Indian Culinary Explorer with Suchitra we got a chance to not just take a peek at the key spices in her spice box, but to also take a whole tour of her pantry. That sparked today post and the first of many Culture Kitchen Master Cook Pantry Interviews, giving you an insight into the visually stunning and aromatic experiences of real home cooks.

Masala. You hear it all the time, but what does it mean? A masala is simply a spice blend. It could be a blend of many spices or just a key few. You can buy masalas at the grocery store or create your own mix at home. Suchitra uses store-bought masalas and makes her own masalas from scratch for a richer flavor. Garam Masala is commonly used in many Indian dishes–each region of India and each Indian family has their own version. Different ratios of cumin, cloves, coriander seeds and cinnamon make up these family masalas and give varied flavors for their prized veggie, chickens, and other seafoods or meats. Suchitra uses Garam Masala in both the Chicken Tikka Kebabs and the Spiced Vegetables in the Western Indian Culinary Explorer. They offer a layered flavor from the varied combinations of spices.

But Masalas aren’t the only way to add flavors and color to dishes: Suchitra uses many individual spices in her cooking. Here are her top picks for what makes this month’s Culinary Explorer special.

Asofoetida, the devil’s dung, hing, or the stinky gum is probably the strongest-smelling spice we’ve ever encountered, and Suchitra agrees. Asafetida comes from the gum of a root and in its natural state is like a rock, but as used in Indian cooking and Suchitra’s Dal recipe, it is pounded into a fine powder. Suchitra keeps this stinky spice hidden in the pantry in three ziplock bags and a tupperware container, but somehow, its pungent smell still escapes throughout her pantry and sometimes even the entire kitchen. It is commonly found in veggies and lentil dishes throughout India, as it is believed to help with digestion.

Turmeric, bright yellow and fine as flour, is an unmistakable spice that helps bring Suchtra’s Dal and Spiced Veggies a unique flavor and adds to their color. Although used fresh in other cultures, in Indian cooking Turmeric is almost exclusively used as a powder or for its fresh leaves in fish curries, since the leaves give a much lighter flavor. This spice, although flavorful, doesn’t just come in handy in the kitchen. Turmeric is common place in Diwali, the festival of lights, where it is used for its bright color. But the most interesting tidbit we learned from Suchitra was about turmeric’s potentially antiseptic and medicinal qualities. She remembers falling as a child and having her grandmother yell for the turmeric to be rubbed all over her wounds. Suchitra says all the pain and bleeding stopped, but she had a yellow knee for days as a memory of the fall.

Amchur, a more uncommon spice in India, is Suchitra’s key to adding a sour flavor to the spiced veggie. Amchur is dried mango powder. It has a sweet fruity smell and is, in fact, quite sour. The dried mango it comes from is not ripe. The mango skin is green and the flesh is pure white. This spice is commonly used in the North where Suchitra’s family is from and is an alternative to Tamarind. Tamarind is commonly used throughout India, but in the North Amchur is used for a slightly different flavor and to prevent any color change in the food.

Saffron is by far the most expensive and coveted spices in Suchitra’s menu. Used in the saffron rice, this spice comes from a flower. It can be found growing a few places in the North of India but is mainly imported from Spain. According to Suchitra, ask any Indian what kind of Saffron is best and they will undoubtedly say, “Spanish Saffron is very good.” Don’t use too much saffron because excessive quantities will give your dish a sour or metallic taste. This spice is all about appearance, as it adds a light yellowish color to rices and desserts to make the meal appear more luxurious.

This is just the beginning of our spice tour! We will continually bring you more ingredients and ways to use them as you enjoy good food, good company and, of course, explore.

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