The secret of Indian cuisine lies in its spices. Used lightly but in exciting combinations, they can leave the palate tingling for more, without actually taking a toll on one’s digestion.
As the story goes, the West had discovered and traded with pockets of the Indian subcontinent, primarily for its rich spices.
Although, the beneficial uses of spices have been recorded in ancient treatises, but the usage has known to vary from region to region. Apart from making food palatable, spices also have inherent ‘cooling’ and ‘warming’ properties. They are added to the food intended for pregnant women, for invalids, for the old of course for the very young, to aid recovery or to impart stamina.
The basic Indian spices along with salt, are jeera (cumin) to impart fragrance to food, haldi (turmeric) to give colour and laal mirch (red chilli) to spice up the food. Amchur (dry mango powder) adds piquancy and a mere pinch of heeng (asafetida) adds a unique taste and also aids digestion. Fresh coriander is the most common garnish and also adds a light fragrance.
Since fruits are seen as energy-giving, dried fruits are used extensively in India. Parts of fruits, berries or vegetables are dried and stored, as condiments. Several seeds too are used, each with a marked taste.
Saunf (funnel) is added to desserts and some vegetarian dishes to act as a flavouring agent. Methidana (fenugreek seeds) gives a touch of bitterness, kalonji (onion seeds) is used in ‘heavier’ cooking or for pickles. Raee (mustard seeds) adds sourness to food while khus-khus (poppy seeds) enhances the flavor of meat. Fresh imli (tamarind) imparts a sour taste and kesar (saffron), India’s most expensive herb, impart a fine fragrance along with a rich yellow colour.
That Indian spices can be used almost in any fashion and enhance any taste, is obvious from the fact Indian tea too uses spices! Elaichi (cardamom) is added to tea for flavouring, while saffron and almonds are added to Kahwa (Kashmiri tea).