Friday, January 29, 2016

Spice blends - Part 2


                Let's bring our spice conversation home to Mumbai. Talking about spice mixes, it's imperative that Mumbai and its cultural diversity would give birth to a lot of spice mixes...
East Indian Bottle Masala - Bottle masala making is an annual event amongst the East Indian community of Mumbai that takes place prior to the monsoon, when hot sunny days are guaranteed. Masalas are mixed according to the house recipe. The masala consists of 20 spices or more in varying proportions with the main ingredients being - dry red chilies and coriander seeds. The spices have to be dried in the hot sun, prior to each condiment being roasted on a slow fire and then pounded in a wooden mortar with a wooden pestle. The bottle is then sealed and if sun dried and hand ground (well traditionally) then filled up traditionally in beer bottles (so the name). It is then used round the year to flavour their rich cuisine. The East Indians use it for everything. As with all good things, there are women in the community who specialise and could make it for entire villages of East Indians in suburban Mumbai! Bottle masala differs in pungency, flavour and even colour depending on the ingredients used. If properly stored, it can last a long time. 

Parsi Dhansak Masala - This is a traditional Parsi spice mix used to make Dhansak, a dish which was born out of the amalgamation of Persian and Gujarati cuisines. Dhansak became very popular in the late 19th century, with the rapid growth of Mumbai and Karachi. The working men were provided with tea and snacks by Parsi immigrants from Iran, who had set up small tea stores on street corners selling soda water, biscuits, tea, omelets, and also dhansak. Hence Karachi and Mumbai, the coastal cities of the sub continent, became the two favourite cities of Parsis to settle in. Dhansak is a hearty lentil and vegetable-based mutton or lamb curry. It is made by combining bay leaves, mustard, cloves, cardamom, turmeric, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, mace, chilli and pepper. Although a Sunday staple it's traditionally a mourning dish and never served on weddings.
Maharashtrian Goda Masala - This is a typically a Maharashtrian spice mix, predominantly used to flavour vegetable and lentil preparations. It's traditionally made in a large mortar pestle or Khalbatta. It is prepared by combining roasted and powdered red chillies, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, poppy seeds, turmeric, asafoetida, dagad phool (stone lichen), naag keshar and badal phool. Because the spices are roasted the masala is dark, almost black in colour. Also called Sundåy masala as it's sold in Sunday haats in the Konkan region. 
                 Yet there is no masala conversation complete without the mention of Awadh. Like the legendary Lazzat-e-Taam, a spice mix with a minimum of 32 spices, but more about Awadh in the next column. Happy eating!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Spice blends - Part 1

             In most cuisines around the world, the all-important "secret ingredient" is often a blend of spices. Just a small amount stirred into a dish can add a world of flavour or connect us to home! Somewhere in their culinary evolution, humans began using herbs and spices to flavour their food. And as cuisines and classic recipes evolved, so did the use of combinations of spices and spice blends that were used to cook and flavour foods with.

             India being the home to spices is of course home to numerous spice blends. And the making of spice mixes is still an activity that is sacred and in many places secret. They can also be defining of a cuisine. To begin at the milder end of the spectrum, the USA is home to Cajun Blackening Spice, which is a combination of salt, garlic, onion powder, thyme, oregano, hot and sweet paprika, white and black pepper, used to season roasts, stews, grills Cajun-style pan blackened dishes. With the phrase "as American as apple pie' so popular, it isn't surprising that American spice blends also include a couple of charming blends on the sweeter end of the spectrum. 
              While the Apple Pie spice blend is a perfect flavouring combination made of cinnamon, Cardamom, nutmeg and clove, it is the Pumpkin pie spice blend of "warming" spices, that is the general purpose spice blend made of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove, allspice and mace, that is used to uplift a bland pie to rich dessert standards; and is also stirred into sweet potato pies, cakes, cookies and custards. 
               Jamaica is home to the Jerk style of cooking in which meats (pork, chicken, fish, beef, sausage and now even tofu) are dry-rubbed with a fiery spice mixture called Jamaican jerk spice; made of allspice and fiery Scotch Bonnet chilies, combined with clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme and garlic. The marinated meat is then barbecued over aromatic wood charcoal. In Europe and the Mediterranean, Quatre épices is a blend mainly used in France but also popular in the Middle Eastern kitchen. Literally meaning "four spices", this blend combines pepper (white, black, or both), clove, nutmeg and ginger and is typically used in soups, stews, vegetable preparations and also in sausages and salamis. 
                 Ironically Britain's claim to Spice blend fame is Curry powder - a blend of spices created by any companies after the days of the Raj, to recreate the the flavors of India, for Englishmen homesick for India. Almost always made of coriander, cumin, turmeric, and fenugreek, recipes vary in their addition of ginger, garlic, red pepper, mustard seeds, cloves, black pepper, and other spices...but the most hilarious aspect of the Curry powder is the total absence of curry leaves!! 
                 Options get more exciting as one comes to the Middle East, Iran, Lebanon and Eqypt; there are a variety of spice blends that aromatize the food. Literally meaning "top of the shop," Ras el hanout is perhaps the most renowned Moroccan spice blend that can contain more than 30 ingredients. For Moroccan spice merchants it is a point of honour to have the most sought after version of this blend in the entire souk or market. Legendary spice blends that spice merchants have created for clientele might include ingredients as bizarre as hashish or even the notorious Spanish fly!