A country born of multiple cultural influences, India offers a very colourful cuisine. At its heart you will find vegetables, fruits and spices. Just like us, let yourself be enchanted by Indian cuisine through its spices.
At the crossroads of historical, cultural and spiritual routes stands India, a fabulous jewel of diversity. Indeed, India was historically passed through by multiple influences, religious and cultural, at different times. This diversity is reflected in your plate, as an invitation to travel to dozens of various destinations. For example, the gastronomic tradition has been marked by the Persian expansion in the 6th century A.D., the Muslim conquest and the reign of the Mughals in the 8th century, but also by European influences with the colonization from the 18th century. There have been multiple exchanges. For example, pepper was exported to Portugal and American chili was imported to India. One can also observe borrowed traditions such as the way of tasting tea influenced by the British reign.
This diversity extends to the regional scale since, with no less 1.24 million square miles of surface area, India presents very marked territorial differences. This can be seen in the ingredients that make up the basis of Indian food, notably fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices. It is therefore more relevant to speak of “Indian cuisines” in plural as the ingredients are so different.
They are different but also complementary. Here lies the secret of Indian cuisine: in the balance of flavors. This must allow the body to find its own. To be, fully and simply, that implies to feed oneself with all that can enable to reach the perfect balance. Indeed, Ayurveda is a central principle in Indian cuisine that influences both its tasting and preparation. Known as an ancestral medicinal practice, it is also a spiritual principle. It originates from the Veda, a collection of sacred texts from the precepts of ancient India. In Sanskrit, it means “the knowledge of life” and proposes an art of living to the individual who is in balance between his body and his mind. According to a widely spread philosophy in India, each food could reflect its progress towards the spiritual balance. And it is by following this principle that the search for harmony in the Indian diet is done.
Spices are an essential part of Indian cuisine, their proportions and combinations make all the difference. Each of them has a story to tell and refers to a facet of Indian culture, that’s where the secret lies.
To understand the secrets of the subtility of Indian dishes, here are the secrets of these spices in 5 key points.
Cumin is a spice that has been used since the Middle Ages, sometimes as a currency, sometimes for mummification of the Pharaohs. Cumin seeds are the basis of many traditional Indian dishes. Needing heat for its growth, this spice is cultivated mainly in India, Turkey and China. In its plant state, cumin resembles a carrot with thin stems of about 2 inches and white umbellate flowers.
There is a type from Ethiopia called nigella seeds, or black cumin seeds, which ranks among the most expensive spices in the world. Also known as “devil-in-a-bush” or “love-in-a-mist” this variety costs about 50 dollars per pound.
The medicinal properties of cumin, including an anti-inflammatory effect, have been known for a long time. Cumin seeds are used to soothe digestive disorders for example, thanks to the magnesium it contains. It is also rich in iron and phosphorus, and helps the oxygen flow in the body and the proper functioning of nerve cells. Finally, many studies have shown that this spice was a good asset in the fight against bad cholesterol and diabetes.
From the same family as cumin, this aromatic herb is one of the oldest in the world. Collections of Roman recipes from Ancient times mention the use of coriander in dozens of concoctions. It is then used in the form of infusion in the Middle Ages, for its aphrodisiac virtues. Its name is derived from the Greek word koríandron, kóris meaning “stink bug”, because of the strong smell that the plant gives off.
When talking about coriander, it is important to understand the difference between the seeds and the fresh herb. Even if we mainly consume the dried fruits (seeds) and the leaves (as an aromatic herb), it is important to note that the whole plant is edible (roots and stems too).
The seeds are sometimes grinded and used in powder form to flavor meats or bread. As for the herb, it is mostly used in Asian or Oriental dishes. In the typical Indian cuisine, coriander helps to maintain an internal body temperature that is not too high, since heat can increase blood pressure. It is therefore very good for health, since it also facilitates digestion, and helps to fight against insomnia.
Turmeric, also called Indian saffron, has been known for thousands of years. Another essential element of Indian gastronomy, this spice is one of the main components of curry, and it is it which brings this yellowish coloring to it. Its bright color makes this spice a good dye, formerly used in textiles.
Besides being part of our recipes and wardrobes, turmeric sometimes finds its way into our medicine bags in the form of a powder or essential oil. Like cumin and coriander, turmeric has recognized medicinal properties. It is widely used in Ayurvedic medicine (traditional medicine of Indian origin). Its virtues vary, from anti-cough, to fever reduction, through immune strengthening. Curcumin is a powerful antioxidant, which prevents premature aging of cells. Like the previously mentioned spices, it has anti-inflammatory properties. It therefore reduces the worries linked to a difficult digestion, but turmeric also acts on joint inflammations.
As you can see, turmeric is widely used for its beneficial properties, as well as for its taste.
As a red nugget that heats up the dishes, chili is a key element of Indian spicy dishes. And yet, it originates from a country located at 4,800 miles from Delhi: Portugal. In the 16th century, the Portuguese colonists set foot in the country to collect their favorite pepper, the malaba. They then exported this fruit from America. Initially cultivated in the region of Goa, it became popular because of its many virtues. In hot countries, eating chili pepper helps to cut thirst, and helps to keep water in the body. That’s why Indians eat a lot of chili. The hot sensation comes from the main molecule of the pepper, capsaicin, when it irritates the mouth. It also has the property of being insoluble in water, which is why many Indian drinks contain milk, such as lassi for example.
A popular legend has it that there is a second reason why chili became popular. It is based on the belief in the strength it would provide. During the Maratha Empire, warriors used it to increase their power against their opponents.
This quest for power in the dish has always been a key element of Indian cuisine. Indeed, before the arrival of chili pepper thanks to the Portuguese, the Indians used very strong varieties of pepper like pippali. Moreover, in the Hindi language, the designation of chili pepper is an etymological derivative of the word pepper (“kalimirch” pepper and “harimirch” chili pepper).
There are many kinds of spices cultivated in the country. These adapt perfectly to the South Asian climate, making it one of the cheapest spices. From North to South the landscapes differ according to the products. In the fields of Jodhpur, the long peppers are so red that the plains seem to be colored with blood. This production meets about 55% of the international demand and the majority of the country’s consumption.
The spices are so prominent that they go with everything. They are served all day long. Chai masala, the traditional spicy national drink, is a great example. Under the influence of the British colonies in the country, the consumption of tea has been transformed. The medicinal drink that black tea provided became the drink of a whole people. From the 20th century onwards, large British campaigns succeeded in establishing it as a permanent part of the consumption pattern. Tea gardens have grown in the Assam region, which has become famous for its black tea.
The term chai, which means tea in Hindi, is originally derived from “cha” in Mandarin which also means tea.
Chai masala is now recognized for its many benefits due to its spices. It gives a boost of energy in the morning and warms the body during the winter. This comforting beverage is consumed very hot and the spices help to stimulate the body.
To brew it, just take Assam black tea, mix it with spiced milk. For spices take fresh ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, Malabar black pepper, cloves and star anise.
From a health point of view, black tea helps to fight against free radicals that are responsible for cell aging. This is due to its concentration in antioxidants, theaflavins and thearubigins. Here are some of the benefits of its spices:
To conclude this journey around spices in Indian cuisine, here is a little idea for a chai masala recipe. It’s your turn to play with all these secrets: