Coz' Variety is the Spice of Life
I love a pantry full of spices and dried herbs from every corner of the world - Number 1: Because I don't like to go hunting for dried ingredients last minute, and Number 2: So I can easily whip up delicious meals in no time.
Growing up in an Indian home, every year before the monsoon set in, my father took a few kilos of whole spices like turmeric, and coriander seeds to the town spice mill and got them ground there. The ground spices were then carefully packed away (accompanied by some dried bay leaves of course) in a dark, cool corner of our storage room. Spice mixes like garam masala, on the other hand, were ground every few months by my mother in her handy-dandy mixer-grinder at home. Those were simpler times when commercial vacuum-packed spices were unheard of, and heavy blenders did not exist.
Things have changed now, with multiple different brands adorning the spice isles of international supermarkets. The only thing to remember when buying spices is to always always go for certified organic brands, as much as you can. Non-organic spices may contain chemicals, preservatives, colorings and occasionally, even gluten. Pure, organic spices, on the other hand, may not look as bright and beautiful, but taste way better than their non-organic counterparts.
CAN I GRIND MY OWN SPICES AND WHAT DO I NEED?
The answer is yes, absolutely! Like me, if you are obsessed with Southeast Asian food, then go for it! Nothing beats freshly ground, homemade spices - they are super-easy to make and last a long time in your freezer. And once you've had butter chicken made with home-ground spices, there is no going back.
A dedicated coffee grinder is your best friend when it comes to making your own coriander, garam masala, and the like. But, if you'd rather invest in a proper spice mill, Mustafa in Little India has quite a few different brands of Indian mixer-grinders - good old "Philips" comes with 2 traditional stainless steel jars, and works beautifully. I personally have a Thermomix and use it for grinding spices too - I am in no way indicating that you should invest in one, in fact it's a rather expensive investment to make for just grinding spices ;)
A little tip: It is a good idea to always dry-roast your spices in a hot pan for a few minutes until aromatic, before cooling and placing them in your spice grinder to make a powder. Spices like cumin, coriander, garam masala all benefit from the toasting process, as it not only releases their oils and intensifies their flavor, but also removes excess moisture to store them for longer.
Cumin, coriander, and Garam Masala are three Indian spices that I always grind at home, and I have included their recipes below.
HOW LONG DO SPICES LAST?
These days I only ever buy enough spices to last me a few months, because of ease of availability. And that is really the right thing to do, as spices lose their essence if you leave them out in hot and humid weather for too long. They also become home to nasty pantry weevils. On the other hand, in cool and dry climates spices will last for months at room temperature - just remember to store them in air-tight containers in a dark corner of your pantry. In hot and humid weather, it is best to refrigerate spices.
So how do you tell if your spices are still good? Simply smelling your spices should give you the answer, but if you are unsure, take a pinch in your hand, then taste and smell it. If the flavor or aroma is too faint or not obvious, it's time to replace it.
SO HOW MUCH SHOULD I BUY AND HOW DO I STORE MY SPICES?
Buy just enough to last you a few months and take packaging instructions seriously! The sign that says "Store in a dark place away from heat and light" is there for a reason. You see, herbs and spices are photosensitive, and will therefore begin to break down and deteriorate if left in direct light on your countertop. And like many, if you store your jars of Mccormick right above your stove top, they ain't going to last that long as they will damage from the steam rising from your store top.
Conclusion: if you are buying small amounts, store them in airtight containers in a cabinet away from heat and light. More importantly, go through them quickly, and if you don't, they must be stored in the fridge or freezer. If you're like me and have a hundred different bottles, label them and store them in stackable jars in the fridge or freezer door - these stackable jars (picture below) are life-changing ;)
A little tip: If storing at room temperature for a few months, a few bay leaves or cloves in your spice jars also help keep weevils away. This handy little hack works for flour, lentils, spices, pasta - really anything that is prone to weevil infestation.
I am including the recipes of three basic spices that I always make at home - cumin powder, coriander powder and Garam Masala. All three of them are extremely easy to make, and will last for months on end, when stored in the fridge or freezer.
I use cumin powder in Indian, Thai, Indonesian and Mexican recipes, and usually make about 200g at a time. You can start with just a few tablespoons of cumin seeds if you don't use it as much. To make cumin powder, place cumin seeds in a dry frying pan and toast for a few minutes on low-medium flame until aromatic. Transfer the seeds into a mortar and pound with a pestle, until fine. You can also use a coffee grinder or spice mill to grind your cumin. Transfer into an air-tight container and store in the fridge or freezer.
Coriander powder is used in Indian curries to enhance their flavor and it is what we use most of, out of all our ground spices. I usually make about 250g coriander powder at once, and go through it within a few months. You can make less but do note that you'd be using about a tablespoon each time you make an Indian curry. To make coriander powder, place coriander seeds in a dry frying pan and toast for a few minutes on low-medium flame until very fragrant. Let them cool, then transfer into a coffee grinder or spice mill, and grind until fine. Store in an air-tight container in the fridge or freezer.
Garam Masala literally means warm spices - it is a mix of several different roasted, warm spices like cinnamon, black and green cardamoms, cumin seeds, black cumin seeds, bay leaves, cloves, star anise, nutmeg, mace, black peppercorns etc. The ingredients and quantity of spices vary from one Indian region to another. Packaged garam masala is easily available at international supermarkets, Indian and Pakistani grocers. However, the quality is not as good as homemade garam masala as expensive spices like cardamoms and cloves are often substituted with cheaper alternatives like coriander and fennel seeds. Make sure you always add garam masala toward the end when making curries. My recipe below makes about 100g.
75g cumin seeds
15g black peppercorns
2.5g green cardamoms
2.5g black cardamoms
2.5g cinnamon sticks, cracked into small pieces
2.5g bay leaves
1/3 cracked nutmeg
1 mace peel
1 star anise
Dry roast all the above ingredients in a hot wok for a few minutes, set aside to cool. Once cool, place all ingredients in a spice mill or coffee grinder. Store in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer.
Payal Thakurani is a cooking instructor, consulting chef, and author of the popular Southeast Asian cookbook “Curries for the Soul”. Originally based in Shanghai China, chef Payal has been in the food industry since 2012, working in training and brand development in central kitchens. She was also the proud owner of a cooking school and several food brands in Shanghai. She now lives in Singapore and heads Commune Kitchen in Downtown Gallery, where she hosts affordable, hands-on cooking classes for all ages.