Cost of Spices Skyrocketing

24 Mar

The cost of food is rising around the world as the human population finally wakes up to the fact that there are too many of us to survive using our current system of food production (and waste – let’s not forget just how much food we throw out every year here in North America).

But it’s not just the basic commodities, like grain, that are raising the cost of basic food stuffs and contributing to the civil unrest in the Middle East at the moment. The cost of spices is going up, and has been for months now. I’ve seen article after article in the South Asian press discussing the rising cost of cardamom and coriander, and now the Independent has written a thorough article on the rising cost of specific spices, including my favorite one, black pepper.

Would you believe that it is mostly due to natural disasters? It isn’t your imagination – the last few years have seen Mother Nature wreaking havoc on her citizens in a way that hasn’t been seen in recently memory. The year 2009 was particularly bad, with earthquakes and monsoons destroying plantations in South and Southeast Asia.

But it’s not only due to damage to crops:

In Britain prices have followed the upward trend in the £250m a year herb-and-spice market where demand is fuelled by a growth in ethnic cooking and health concerns: reducing the salt level in diets has resulted in an increased use of spices, said Anthony Palmer, UK General Manager of Schwartz.

Technically, I guess that I myself am contributing to an increase in the demand for exotic spices, and I try to encourage people to spice up their food while cutting back on the fat and sugar. Sorry, folks. I didn’t know it would come to this.

Considering Curry: What is REAL Indian food?

21 Mar

Photo by Sarah Ackerman

First things first: I am far too lazy to explain the origins of the meaning of the word “curry” right now, so for the sake of brevity, let’s just say that when we refer to curry on this website, we are referring to dishes that are cooked with a series of spices that are common to South Asian cuisine. Southeast Asia (and even East Asia) also have a series of curries that have their own unique flavor, and I’ll talk about those another time.

Anyway, I tend to gravitate toward Indian cuisine. Gah! See, I’ve run into a problem already. There is no such thing as “Indian cuisine” per se, because the food that you will find throughout India varies so much. The kinds of dishes you would enjoy in, say, Punjab, are drastically different from the kinds that you would find in Tamil Nadu. I like them all, mind you, but they are different. Continue reading

How to Cook Spices Before Everything Else

20 Mar

These pictures might look strange when viewing this blog in Internet Explorer. I recommend using Firefox.

Cooking spices before everything else

When you watch an Indian chef, one of the first things you might notice is that they will start throwing spices into a pan full of hot oil, willy-nilly, before adding anything else to the pot. They COOK spices before cooking the rest of the food. The spices will roast in a dry pan, or crackle in oil, long before the other ingredients are tossed in.

One of the hardest things to do when learning to cook with spices is learning to trust yourself to cook the spices adequately. Many spices, like turmeric and cumin, are so much better after having been cooked in oil, that you really do have to heat them for a while to bring out their goodness. This can be tough to remember when you are cooking them, though – the coriander starts smoking a bit in the cooking oil, and the panic sets in (made worse, of course, when you have an overly sensitive smoke detector).

These need to be cooked

I still have to force myself to let spices cook long enough before adding other ingredients. I’ll be standing there, watching the cardamom bubble menacingly in the vegetable oil, thinking, “Any minute now, this is going to spontaneously combust.” I’ll be holding a strainer full of spinach, eying the spices as they jump around in the pan, willing myself to wait, just a bit longer, before tossing the vegetables in the pot.

My fiance, who (to be fair) has a good 8 years on me in terms of cooking experience, is an old hand at cooking spices. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that he did spend a good portion of his childhood in India and Bangladesh (and Iran, and Thailand). So for him, cooking spices good and long before adding onions or tomatoes (the heart of many north Indian curry dishes), is second nature. For me, it’s a battle of will.

Tonight, I challenged the fiance to make dinner using only what we had in the house, which was paltry. We didn’t have any onions or tomatoes, for instance, but had plenty of spices (of course), some frozen spinach, and a pound of shelled clam meat from the Korean store that had been sitting in our freezer for a couple of months. Truth be told, I think we were kind of scared of the clams. But anyway, we managed to scrounge up two decent curry dishes (clam curry and my version of a dry-cooked saag, minus paneer) without going to the supermarket.

This wasn’t a noble challenge of any kind. I just really didn’t want to go to the supermarket at 9PM to get onions.

Heating the oil

Step one is heating the oil. The second step to is begin adding spices to the hot oil, and allowing the spices to cook without allowing them to scald. A little burning is OK.

Adding the first spices

My fiance allows the oil to heat and carefully adds the remaining spices. I believe in the photo below, we’re talking about panch phoran, lemongrass, bay leaves, cumin, chile, and green cardamom.

Chile, panch phoran, lemon grass, bay leaf, green cardamom, vegetable oil

Whole seeds and leaves go in first. Next up is lime leaves, curry leaves, and turmeric powder.

Turmeric is a tricky spice – it really has to be cooked adequately in order to get its medicinal flavor out. There are few other spices that are as displeasing undercooked as turmeric.

Cooking powdered turmeric

After that come all of the other powdered spices. Garam masala, cumin, coriander, and amchur powder.

Cooking ground spices

“OK,” you are probably thinking, “add the damn clams already.” Ha. Hardly. First, my fiance will add a pinch of salt. I asked him to explain the reasoning behind this, and then I forgot what he said because I was drinking a glass of wine and there was a Phil Collins song playing in the background.

Next comes ground ginger and garlic. At this point, I believe that the heat was reduced. Garlic does have a tendency to scald, and the burnt sugars in garlic don’t make for good eats.

Cooking ginger and garlic on lower heat

Next, all of the spices are cooked on medium low and stirred. This is the point where I just about lose my mind from impatience, which is why I am not the one cooking the clams. Check out the crazy stirring action there.

Takin' our sweet time, cooking spices

OK, now, FINALLY, the clams are added to the mix.

Clams, like, after 15 minutes of cooking spices

The clams had arrived at our house pre-shelled and frozen, which is the only way to buy them, frankly. Much less sandy this way. Before adding them to the pot, the clams were soaked in water with a teaspoon of turmeric. Turmeric is an amazing disinfectant – it kills bacteria and removes fishy smells. It is commonly used to wash seafood in Bangladesh.

Letting the clams bask in the spicy oil

I didn’t get a single bite of sand the entire night, but my man did get a couple grains in there. I don’t know why karma sucks so much – he did all the cooking, it seems like he should have gotten the better bites of clam curry.

Speaking of better bites, how good/perverted does this look?

Bite of clam curry

Yummers, right? Well, it totally was.We did add a couple tablespoons of yogurt at the end for a bit of creaminess, and I talked my fiance into including a tablespoon of tamarind paste, as well – the dish lacked a certain je nais se quois, and the fiance claimed it was the lack of onions (whatever, YOU go run to the grocery store at 9PM by yourself, then), but I think the tamarind did a nice job replacing that loss of sweetness.

My saag dish turned out not too bad, as well, which is saying something, because I can ruin a saag dish like no one’s business.

My wrist isn't really that fat. I'm moving, OK? It's the movement.

So, dinner was a relative success – I’ll be honest, it was delicious. We skipped rice or bread (both of us are learning to but back on carbohydrates, so we’ve learned to just enjoy dishes that we make without the added calories – although I do miss naan sometimes).

Totally delicious, but small portions, because of my fat wrist

Masala Mac-n-Cheese

10 Mar

How on Earth did I not think of this? I put masala on everything, including chewing gum. I love Indian spices. And I love mac-and-cheese. And I am engaged to marry a man who uses Indian spices to make casseroles fascinating and delicious.

Macaroni and cheese is one of my favorite dishes, and alas, one I am able to enjoy only through tiny bites. I’ve had macaroni and cheese from Kraft, of course, but I prefer the gourmet kind – my favorite is Ultimate Macaroni & Cheese (scroll down after jump for photo), found at Seattle’s icon Grill, and is sort of an insane combo of macaroni, cheese, tomato snow, and more cheese. Then, they add some cheese. It’s a decadent, wonderful experience that has to be followed by approximately six hours of extreme cardio.

My other favorite enhanced mac-n-cheese dishes feature pancetta and truffle oil in rather copious amounts, but these toppings might seem a bit obvious now. Truffle oil is pricey, but its earhty aroma is to be found in most European restaurants in some dish or another. Pancetta? Fancy bacon, basically.

So why would Indian spices not have made the list of perfectly acceptable macaroni and cheese additions? I honestly don’t know. I dropped the ball on this one.

Fortunately, someone was there to pick up and dribble that ball of pasta and cheesy goodness. Behold: a recipe for masala macaroni and cheese. Better Homes and Gardens also has a South Indian version of macaroni and cheese.

Note that this recipe contains mustard oil. Mustard oil is awesome – like MSG, its much-maligned reputation is undeserved. I was afraid to use it for years because a friend (from India, no less) told me that the fumes from heated oil would burn my skin. This has been disproven, as my fiance has been delighted to use mustard oil liberally in am amazing range of dishes, including eggs, which is a really good combination. I’ll write more about mustard oil later. Just had to get this mac-n-cheese thing to spread further on the interwebz.

Welcome to Fear Not The Spice

14 Dec

Welcome to my blog! I’m pretty excited to get started in helping people find ways to cook more flavorful, wonderful food using relatively inexpensive spices that can be found in ethnic food markets or in your local grocery store.

Black Cardamom

14 Dec
Black versus Green Cardamom

Photo by Leslie Seaton

Because it’s a very popular spice in lots of desserts, many Westerners have heard of cardamom by now. Even if you have never cooked with it, if you’ve been out for Indian food, you’ve likely picked it out of your basmati rice, where it is used as an easy way to give rice a little kick.

We can talk more about cardamom later, because today, I want to talk about black cardamom. Continue reading

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