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Masala & all things spice

Posted by admin on September 06, 2013

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When you think of Indian cooking the first word that often comes to mind is – yes you are right, SPICY! The fragrance that makes up Indian cuisine is derived from the blend of correct spices that are used for each dish.  It enhances the taste and flavour and often spices are even used as preservatives. Certain spices are toasted or dry roasted in a pan and ground before use. This process releases the aroma & enhances the flavour of these spices even more.  A common kitchen equipment found in most Indian households is the mortar & pestle and these days the coffee grinder or spice grinder!

A spice is different from a herb, although generally the term herbs & spices are used together. Spice usually contains the seeds, roots or pods of plants or flowers; whereas herb constitutes the leaf or green stems of the plants. Spices are harvested from parts of plants grown often in tropical regions whereas herbs are the plants as it is or the greens and roots of plants.  Often herbs are dried and used for e.g. rosemary, thyme, parsley but they still are herbs and not spice!

Apart from its culinary uses, spices are used for its medicinal purposes, making perfumes, aromatherapy and as beauty products. It can even be used as a weapon (pepper spray)!

All right lets now get down to the basics. There is this great misconception, especially in western nations that the only spice used in Indian cooking is curry powder – only there is no such thing or spice as curry powder! Actually Indian curries are made using a blend of different spices, the most common of them being turmeric, cumin, coriander and chilli. These 4 form the basic Indian curry spices or “masalas” (the term used for spices in India).

Then of course there are spices like cinnamon, clove, cardamom (black & green), fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, mace, star anise, bay leaf, which in varying proportions make up your garam masala –“garam” in Hindi means hot so like the name suggests these are the spices which gives heat or boosts up the spice quotient! Apart from the garam masala, there is the chaat masala, the chai/tea masala (why go to coffee shops when you can make your own chai latte), the paanch phoran (the Bengalis use this), the pav bhaji masala and the list goes on. 

There are also some other spices like asafoetida. garlic, ginger, mustard seeds, basil, poppy seeds, pomegranate seeds,  saffron, sesame seeds, carom seeds, carom seeds, nigella seeds, black salt, mango powder, ginger, peppercorns, tamarind etc. which are used according to the regional culinary preferences. Asafoetida is generally used for tempering dals & lentil dishes. It is often used as a digestive aid & is said to decrease flatulence often associated with eating lentils. Tamarind is used more in the south of the country & is also used as a meat tenderizer. Likewise each spice has its own flavor and use and in combination with the food or ingredient used for cooking adds up to the uniqueness of the dish!

It is always a good idea to store spices in airtight containers and in a cool dry place.

And now here are the commonly used spices from the Indian subcontinent and their Hindi (since this is the national language) names. 

Asafoetida - Hing

Basil - Tulsi

Bay leaf - Taj patta

Black salt - Kala Namak

Black Cumin/Caraway - Shahjeera

Cardamom (black) - Badi Elaichi

Cardamom (green) - Elaichi

Carom seeds - Ajwain

Chilli – Lal Mirch

Cinnamon – Dalchini

Citric Acid - Nimboo Phool

Clove – Laung

Coriander seeds – Dhania

Cumin – Jeera

Fennel Seeds - Saunf

Fenugreek seeds -Methi dana

Garlic - Lehsun

Ginger - Adarak

Mace - Javitri

Mango Powder -Amchur

Mustard seeds - sarson/rai

Nigella/Onion seeds - Kalonji

Nutmeg - Jaiphal

Oregeno/Carom seeds - Ajwain

Peppercorns - Kali Mirch

Pomegranate seeds - Anardana

Poppy seeds - Khus khus

Rock Candy - Mishri

Saffron - Kesar

Salt - Namak

Sesame seeds = Til

Star anise - Chakra Phool/Badiyan

Sugar - Shakar/Chini

Tamarind - Imli

Turmeric – Haldi

Vinegar - Sirka

 


It's Only Rice

Posted by admin on July 16, 2013

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The other day I was busy flipping channels while doing my tread mill and I saw this recipe for Spanish paella on the food channel. As our family is going on a Spain holiday this December, I was very interested! Turns out paella is a basic Spanish rice dish very popular made with rice and vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower and spinach or chicken, rabbit or duck meat or seafood like fish, shrimp, lobsters, mussels and oysters. Then there is also the mixed paella, which has any kind of meat, seafood and vegetables and sometimes even beans.

We were in Italy in 2009 when I first came across the authentic risotto. Risotto is basically an Italian rice dish made with meat, vegetable or chicken broth and topped with cheese, butter, onion and mild spices.

Pilaf or pulao as it is commonly known in India is a rice dish that originated in Persia (now Iran). It is usually made with lamb, chicken, beef or some kind of vegetable.

The famous biryani is another rice dish that is often layered with rice and meat, vegetables, fish or even eggs. It is made in many different countries of the world today –India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Singapore, Srilanka, Philippines, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In India, there is a dish called khichdi or khichri which again is a rice dish made with rice and some kind of lentil or dal. It is a food that can be easily digested and is often given to old people or those who are sick.

Look at how many different recipes can be made with using only rice as the main ingredient! I’m sure there are many more rice dishes like this world over, it’s only when we get to know about it that we learn it’s so similar to what we make in our own homes! 


Is Cooking Fun

Posted by admin on July 16, 2013

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While growing up I had a full time working mom and all of my early memories related to cooking is of my mom hurrying about the kitchen to get either lunch or dinner going. But Sundays were a different matter altogther...mother would be more relaxed...there would be some favorite television shows going on & there would be a delish aroma coming from the kitchen! It's not that my mother could not cook. But on weekdays she was on a time constraint...cook, clean, eat, leave home by 10 in the morning...get back at 6 in the evening, have tea, cook dinner & bed time around 11 pm. There is nothing novel about this. About three fourths of the women and men around the world must be having some such routine. So the question is how can it be fun when it's something just to be dealt with? Everyone has to get chores done....atleast no one can procastinate on that for long! Of course now we have people who cook for the entire week and or get take outs or frozen dinner almost every week nights. Nothing wrong with this too...as long as you like what you eat and your families stay healthy. After all one does not live to eat...we only eat so that we stay healthy! 

Here are some time tested tips for making cooking fun & not a chore:

Start off with a clean work area...the kitchen is the heart of your home & if it is cluttered and unclean, you will not feel like cooking. Make a habit of cleaning up after you cook, load the dishwasher and wipe the counter tops clean. Declutter your working area and keep your spice rack & shelves organised. 

Listen to your favorite music while cooking...be it on your iPod, radio or CD player..have a blast & see how the mood sets you...I sometimes even ask my daughter to practice the piano when I am cooking...it is therapeutic & so much fun.

Do you feel like people don't appreciate your cooking? Stop cooking to please others & cook what you enjoy the most! I have tried this with my youngsters & sometimes people don't realize what they truly like until the food is  in front of them. 

Don't hesitate to take help in cleaning up. When I was younger I could do chopping, cutting, cleaning, cooking, all at one go...but as the years go by one realizes that you don't have the same energy you had as an adolescent, teen or even youth. This is a good time if you already haven't set a routine to involve the entire family in lending a hand. If you are the main person doing the cooking, let others pitch in to do either the prep work or the cleaning. 

Know what you have in the pantry and refrigerator. Often we go grocery shopping when we are tired and hungry and sometimes end up buying things  we don't really need. This often stays at the back of the pantry or refrigerator and sometimes certain perishables end up in the trash! We would contribute towards this kind of waste if only a little planning is done as to what is available & how it can be used. 

I do hope that these few tips would help in making cooking for you not just a chore but fun.


A Family That Stays Together

Posted by admin on July 10, 2013

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Lent season is here and for practicing Christians, it is a season of abstaining from meat and such other dishes and a period of prayer and fasting. Times have changed and hardly a few people practice these traditional customs now.

 Lent can be an excellent time for the entire family as a unit to practice spirituality. Picture this. In a typical family these days, the mother and daughter may be having a quick dinner at home before the daughter has to be driven to her dance school. The father is meanwhile fetching the son from soccer practice and they are so hungry on the way that they grab some fast food on their way back; half of which is eaten in the car and the rest while watching their favourite hockey show on the television at home. Oh and then they don’t feel like eating dinner anymore and the food goes into the fridge.There are children who are so involved in multiple activities and parents who are so over worked and tired that sitting down together becomes a great ordeal. Children have to be hauled into so many activities or else parents feel that they will remain behind. It is a vicious circle. Parents behave more like chauffeurs than as parents. In the process most of us forget that we are “human beings”and not “human doings”! We forget to just breathe and live but are instead busy doing things and rushing through life.

There are so many examples of excellent parents bemoaning about their children leading confused lives. It need not be so. Children tend to pick up strongly from what goes on in homes. If everyone is busy and eats their meal at different times, it becomes challenging to build a connection among members. I personally consider television the biggest bane of family time. It also leads to mindless eating.

With the rapid increase in technology and technological gadgets, life instead of becoming simpler, has become even more complex and busier. The same technology that connects people around the globe, in many ways creates distances between individuals within homes. Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter,Google plus, phones, IPhones, PlayStations, videogames, texting, music downloads all are good things and keep people, especially children busy but when it gets in the way of communication within families, then it becomes an issue.

Even if it is only one mealtime a week, everyone should adhere to it and come together for sharing time at least that one time. Everyone can pitch in and help during such time. The children can set the table, while the mother finishes her cooking and dad can help with the dishes. This can be fun and make your children independent by learning and observing what you do. Don’t we do this all the time during those Holidays...Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, etc.? Why not make a habit of it? It has been proven that children who have regular family meals get better grades in school, are better nourished, are more well mannered, do not binge and are better communicators.

We come across the symbol of breaking bread so many times in the New Testament. It is a sign of love and communion that has been taught to us from the biblical times. There are so many things going on in the world right now, so many influences that children are exposed to these days, it is very challenging to keep them grounded. But if we as parents initiate some rules then it becomes easy for them. Some sort of thanksgiving can be given before each meal. After all everyday is a gift to us. It could be a simple prayer such as the one taught to children in Catholic schools here in Canada:

Bless us O Lord,

For these thy gifts,

Which we are about to receive,

From thy bounty,

Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Or the youngest member of the family can come up with a new prayer.

And then it would not be wrong to say: “A family that eats together stays together”!