The use of spices in Indian cuisine is probably as old as the country. Besides lending distinct flavors and tantalizing aromas to Indian dishes, spices also increase the palatability, add characteristic coloring and many serve as a preservative in place of artificial colors or preservatives.
In addition to its ubiquitous use in Indian kitchens, spices have also been valued for ages in India for their medicinal, health promoting and rejuvenating properties. In recent years, extracts of Indian spices have found their way into pharmaceutical products, while their exotic aspect and aromatic nature have made them a vital ingredient in many cosmetics and perfumes.
Some of the widely used spices in Indian cuisine include the 5Cs, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander and cumin, as well as fenugreek, ginger, pepper and turmeric. Different parts of a plant are incorporated in Indian dishes to impart distinctive flavors, including from the root (ginger), bark (cinnamon), buds (cloves), seeds (cumin), berries (pepper), and flower (saffron).
Of the nearly 80 popular spices found around the world, more than 50 are grown and used in various parts of India. While many of these spices are common in most Indian households, there are also extoic varieties that are specific to certain regions of the country. In a recent issue of ‘India Perspectives’, the flagship magazine of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, the country’s well-known celebrity chef, Sanjeev Kapoor, explores a few of India’s lesser-known spices.
The article titled, ‘India, the spice bowl of the world’ notes that the country is popular for its myriad aspects, including its traditions, rich heritage and diverse culinary styles. People from outside the country are often extremely curious about the ‘secret’ ingredients used in Indian dishes that make them so uniquely flavourful. But what they generally tend to overlook is that it is the indigenous spices, which make Indian food so irresistible.
When we talk about spices, the one thing that is common in every Indian household is a masala dabba (spice box). A quintessential part of every desi Indian kitchen, masala dabbas are fascinating. And even though these spices are added in chutkis (pinches), they play a very big part in turning a dish from just palatable to simply delectable. Apart from the wonderful aroma and flavor, Indian spices also have medicinal and immunity-boosting properties.
For generations, Indians have traditionally used commonly-available kitchen ingredients to prepare healthy concoctions like kadha (a healing Ayurvedic drink made with herbs and spices) and haldi doodh (turmeric milk) to cure common cold. Popular spices such as jeera (cumin), saunf (fennel), sarson (mustard) and methi (fenugreek) feature in masala dabbas across the country, and much has been said and written about their exceptional culinary properties. Therefore, here we explore some of the lesser-known indigenous spices from various parts of the nation, which will prove once again that India, truly is, the ultimate land of spices.
Since we are talking about spices, let us begin with the ultra-spicy pepper or raja mircha, quite popular in the Northeastern part of India. Also known as ghost pepper, Naga chili and bhut (or bhoot) jolokia, it was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the hottest chili in the world in 2007. It is best when freshly plucked as it tends to lose its intensity with time. Another popular way of savoring this spice is by pickling it with oil, salt and vinegar. Nowadays, people are experimenting with it, which has led to the making of the bhut jolokia tea by an Assam-based tea company. When consumed in limited quantities, it is said to help in improving blood circulation and digestion, lowering blood pressure and boosting metabolism.
Also known as daagar ka phool, pathar ke phool or black stone flower, kalpasi is the Tamil word for litchen. This special yet rare spice, which aids digestion, reduces inflammation and acts as a pain reliever, is primarily used in Maharashtrian and Cheinad cuisine (of Tamil Nadu). The upper surface of this spice is dark green or black in color. It has a strong earthy aroma and a dry texture, and is incorporated in the preparation of such popular indigenous spice mixes as Maharashtra’s kala masala and goda masala, and Hyderabad’s potli masala.
Lakadong and Salem Turmeric
Turmeric or haldi is probably the most common Indian spice. It enjoys a pride of place in every desi household and deserves more appreciation than otherwise given. It is rich in curcumin, which has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and immunity-boosting properties, and also imparts a beautiful yellow hue to every dish that it is added to. The two varieties of turmeric that are said to be the best in India are Lakadong from Meghalaya and Salem from Tamil Nadu. This humble superfood has traveled from traditional Indian kitchens to global food hotspots and has found a place in several international recipes like Morocco’s pastilla (spiced meat and apricots wrapped in filo pastry), Sri Lanka’s kiri hodi (dried Maldive fish cooked in coconut milk gravy) and the extremely popular turmeric latte.
A spice that finds a special place in Bengali cuisine yet continues to remain obscure to the rest of the country, radhuni is often confused with ajwain (carom seeds) because of their similar appearance. Radhuni, seeds of wild celery, forms an integral part of the quintessential Bengali panch phoron — a traditional five-spice mix comprising kalo jeere (nigella), rai (mustard), mouri (fennel), methi and radhuni. This indigenous spice aids digestion, and helps reduce pain and inflammation.
Alkanet root or ratan jot is a unique spice from north India, especially Jammu, Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. It is a herb that comes from the borage plant family and its roots produce a unique red color, which has made this spice so popular. The flavor is more earthy than spicy. Rogan josh, the classic Kashmiri meat dish, gets its rich red color from this spice. It has also been used as a medicine since ancient times for treating infections, skin wounds, rashes, burns and several other health problems. Perhaps, it is a precious ‘ratan’ or jewel after all.
Kudam puli or Malabar tamarind is a popular souring agent in South India and is often used as a substitute for the regular imli or tamarind. Its appearance is similar to kokum but it has a strong smoky flavor and is added to a variety of fish curries, which is why it is also called ‘fish tamarind’. This spice is known to not only aid weight loss but also promote cardiovascular health and boost energy.
A popular Indian celebrity chef, author and TV show host