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Spicing: the homemade art in India

In India, usually the food is heavily judged upon the balance of spices in it rather than anything else.

This is the time of the year when the annual ritual of pickling onsets in India. Small green mangoes are cut, their flesh smeared with salt and turmeric and spices added: fenugreek, asafoetida, fennel, kalaunji and a dash of red chilli powder.

These will then pickle in oil and sunlight for a few days before the achaar is ready. This pickle of mango is similar to the one made in many other homes in Uttar Pradesh – the taste determined by the melange of spices women add through their experienced guess and not strict measurements.

However, in these dyas of convenience food, it is also possible find roughly a similar mix packaged and retailed as a generic “achari masala” that can be instantly added to pickles, vegetables, and meats by cooks who do not understand a basic thing about Indian cooking: how spices are used in specific ways depending upon the season, the region which the recipe belongs to, and most importantly, ingredients.

When my mother pickles red chillies in the winter, her spice mix changes: rai or brown mustard seeds replace fenugreek.

Since the main ingredient – chilli – is bitter, there is an instinctive understanding that you cannot add bitter fenugreek seeds to the mix. Instead, there is amchoor powder for tartness, coriander for a whiff of sweetness, crushed cumin and rock salt to balance the flavours and provide heat suitable for the winter chill. These specific ways in which we use our spices makes Indian food tough for beginners to cook. Anyone can follow recipes and pick up packaged masalas but creating regional and seasonal flavours requires a deep understanding of how spices are combined to balance tastes.

Like classic combinations in other cuisines – rosemary-potatoes, avocado-chilli and tomato-basil – Indian cuisines too have their own classic combinations.

This is something that is usually overlooked because as chef Manjit Gill says, “There are recipe books but no book that teaches the principles of Indian cooking.” Home cooks instinctively cook up traiditions combinations, which are based on Ayurvedic principles even if this knowledge itself is lost.

Combinations like potatoes with fenugreek seeds, green mango or okra with fennel, eggplant with onion seeds and fish with ajwain (carom) are all classic flavours of Indian cookery which every home cook instinctively knows.

If you study these at a deeper level, you realise they have come about as a result of balancing the heating-cooling doshas and as a result of balancing the heating-cooling doshas (ascribed to each ingredient in Ayurvedic texts) and as a result of balancing tastes (sweet, sour, salt, bitter, astringent and pungent).  In theabsence of this understanding, a cook may douse a preparation like eggplant (bitter) with garam masala laced with pepper and successfully kill it.

The art of Garam Masala

In India, garam masala is used as an ornamentation to spice up dishes. “Spices in Indian dishes are added at different stages of cooking. Less volatile and stronger spices are used at the start in a pounded or whole from when they are fried in oil to leech out the flavour. More aromatic ones like green cardamom are added at finish, fro aroma. This creates a sort of pyramid of smells,” says restaurateur and Chef Marut Sikka. What he is describing is the artful layering of flavours, almost like the construction of a perfume that is the hallmark of Indian food.

Garam Masala, which is always added at the finish and not while starting off a dish, may have been concocted as a hack to mask shortcomings in basic cooking, feel Sikka and Gill.

A combination of “hot” spices with a predominance of pepper originally, the masala may also have been concocted exclusively for heavier winter recipes such as meat stews to keep the body warm. It is interesting to note that traditional families in Old Delhi use different garam masala (made at home) in winter and summer. “Not all ingredients go into the masala for summer. Cloves, nutmeg and mace are not used in the summer because they have a warm taseer (efficacy).

The curry powder muddle

The combination spices have always escaped Western understanding. As a 19th century cookery book written by Henrietta A Hervey for English memsahibs (madams) gives a glimpse into the utter confusion around these. Hervey gives recipes for three curry powders – Madras curry powder, Bombay curry powder, corresponding to the three presidencies under the British raj. As we know, curry powder is an invention by the British. And going through the recipes, one will know how British knew just a little about regional cuisines.

For instance, the Madras curry powder mentions three quarter pounds of saffron as a key component. And since saffron is not intrinsic to south India, the logic doesn’t apply here. So, the recipes are somewhat similar with just tad differences in the proportions and addition of cinnamon in the Bengal recipe.

Fortunately, no one in India uses curry powder that much. And as every home and region in India uses its own mix of spices, the diversity in cooking is still retained. Such as the goda masala and sambhar powders and the east Indians’ bottle masala came up as conveniences.

Even the home cooks, who started to assembling and storing their own combinations of spices, still maintain their individual recipes which vary from home to home. However, the packaged retail versions will not only rob of India’s culinary diversity but also the understanding of spicing Indian minds are ingrained with. Therefore, if Indian cooking is to show up widely at global level, one key challenge is to demystify spicing and make the people at large understand the nuances and intricacies of spicing.