‘Mom’ ‘Masala’ and ‘More’
I was in engineering first year and used to stay at the hostel. It was altogether a new experience for me. Staying away from home, taking care of things my own, which mom used to look after. One time I was down with a bad cough and cold and had submissions the next week. Cough syrup makes you feel sleepy, and I couldn’t afford that. That’s when I remember, mom used to make ‘Kadha’. She always preferred home remedies over allopathy. I called mom and told her everything, she told me to take one-litre water and add Ginger, Tulsi (Holy Basil), Cloves, Pepper and little Honey and boil everything and reduce the water to half, then have this decoction.
If you think of it, it’s very clever. Charaka said - “The great thing about Ayurveda is that it’s treatments always yields side benefits, not side effects.” Just see, Kadha has Tulsi in it. Tulsi has anti-bacterial properties. Ginger helps with cough, congestion and sour throat. Warm water helps in soothing the throat. Black Pepper and Cloves can help clear the throat and loosen the mucus by acting as an expectorant. Last but not least Honey, it adds flavour and has anti-inflammatory properties. The long-term supervised consumption of this Kadha helps as an immunity booster.
I remember, when I was young, fell from a bicycle and had a cut on my ankle. My mom’s immediate response was to apply turmeric powder to the affected area. Then she took me to the Doctor for a Tetanus injection.
Now I am a mother of one, even now all the home remedies from my mom come in handy. All the spices and herbs in the spice rack can do more than provide calorie-free, natural flavouring to enhance and make food delicious. They are also an incredible source of anti-oxidants and help rev-up your metabolisms and improve your health at the same time.
When we discuss Indian food and we don’t discuss spices, then the discussion is meaningless. Spices are the soul of Indian food. Every region has a plethora of recipes but the core of every recipe lies a secret masala, which is guarded by the community’s jealousy.
When I was just a newly-wed, my husband’s grandmother gave me a masala box. I could see the passion in her eyes as she told me the importance of the masala box. She said, “Spices are the foundation of our cooking. It can transform any dish into a tasty meal and can give life to the simplest ingredients.”
My Masala Box
My cooking includes whole spices and most important of all ‘Garam Masala’. I like to call the Garam Masala ‘The Magic Masala’. It is used to balance flavour so we can use less of other seasonings like salt.
Did you know the earliest written record in India on spices is found in the Vedas? During the Vedic period information was primarily handed down orally from generation to generation through the medium of the hymn. The Rigveda contains references to various spices. There is also a reference to Black Pepper in Yajurveda.
The spices which go in my Masala Box are-
1. Asafoetida (Hing) is very aromatic, add to hot ghee or oil. Just a pinch is enough. It gives beautiful flavour to lentils or any curry.
2. Then comes Cumin (Jeera). This is an essential ingredient. It can be added as a whole to tadka (tempering of oil or ghee) or can be roasted and make powder. It has many medicinal properties.
3. Mustard Seeds (Rai) are pungent. Just drop them in hot oil and wait for them to crackle and then they release their flavour. They are a great source of Omega-3 Fatty Acid, Iron Calcium, Zinc, Manganese and Magnesium.
4. Turmeric Powder.- along with whole spices I use powdered spices also and the most important amongst them is Turmeric Powder. It is a bright healing powder. It gives a beautiful colour to curry and has anti-inflammatory properties.
5. Red Chilli powder can be mild or hot depending on the variety of Chilli. I use Red Chilli as a whole and in powdered form while cooking.
6. Coriander powder, apart from being an aromatic spice, it has many curative and cooling properties. Coriander powder taken in constipation with a pinch of Asafoetida and Rock Salt is considered an aid to the digestive system. It aids in stimulating gastric juices and insulin production to manage blood sugar level.
7. Then there is Garam Masala powder. In the traditional Hindu Ayurvedic medicines, Garam Masala is a warming spice that is intended to raise body temperature and improves metabolism. It is made up of Coriander Seeds, Cumin Seeds, Cardamom Seeds, Peppercorn, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Cloves, Mace etc.
‘Garam Masala’ this name is deceptive because its name suggests the spicy heat in curry. The spices in Garam Masala vary, but nearly always include Black Pepper, Cardamom, Cinnamon and Cloves, which gives it pungency but not heat. It is called Garam Masala in the sense of raising body metabolisms.
Indian cuisines consist of a variety of regional and traditional cuisines native to the Indian subcontinent. Given the diversity of soil, climate, culture, ethnic groups and occupation, these cuisines vary substantially and use locally available spices, herbs, vegetables and fruits. Not only is Indian food diverse but also changes every 100 km. Enriched with different varieties of Dal, Sabjis, Roti, Rice and infinite category of Fruits. Indian Cuisine is colourful in every aspect.
Regional Masala Powder
With the variety of regional cuisines comes different curry powder. Garam Masala was originated in North India. Each type of masala powder or curry powder features ingredients that provide a unique flavour to the dish.
Eastern states of Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand and Assam uses ‘Panch Phoran’. This means five spices (Panch - Five Phoran spices). Ingredients of Panch Phoran are a blend of five spices- Nigella Seeds, Fenugreek Seeds, Cumin, Black Mustard and Fennel. Except for Fenugreek Seeds, the rest all the four spices are used in equal parts because of their bitterness. Panch Phoran is traditionally used in tempering in mustard oil or ghee, in the cooking of Vegetables, Chicken, Mutton, Fish, Lentils and Pickles.
Goda Masala is a Maharashtrian spice mix. This is used in Maharashtrian cuisines predominantly. Goda Masala includes Dry Coconut and Sesame Seeds along with dry spices while Garam Masala only includes spices. Dry spices used in Goda Masala are Coriander Seeds, Cumin Seeds, Cloves, Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Stone Flower, Dried Red Chillis, Cassia Buds etc.
Chettinad Masala has come from the Chettinad region of Tamilnadu. This cuisine includes the uses of freshly ground spices like Cumin, Fenugreek, Fennel, Cloves, Bay Leaf, Turmeric and Tamarind. The secret ingredient of this cuisine is Dried Flower Pods Black Stone Flower. They stone grind the spices with lots of Coconut and Tamarind. This cuisine is loaded with aromas and flavours.
There is an interesting fact about Sambar Masala. The food historian K.T. Achaya says that Sambar was originated in the kitchen of Maratha ruler Shahuji’s chef. Now those who are familiar with India and its diversity will understand the beauty of this fact. Sambar Masala includes Cumin, Black Pepper, Grated Coconut, Cinnamon, Red Chillis and Roasted Lentils (Chana Dal, Urad Dal, Tur Dal).
There are so many other varieties of curry powder. The use of spices and curry powder is a very vast topic. Why do use so many spices and make different curry powder or masala powder? Daniel Gilbert says – “The secret of happiness is variety but the secret of variety, like the secret of all spices, is knowing when to use it.”
Not just Indian, every country has its own ethnic traditional way of cooking that has more than commonly used spices. Ours is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. We harvest throughout the year. A Peppercorn harvested in June tastes much different to that harvested in January and so there’s a good variety.
In India, language and culture change every 50-100kms. Food, being necessary to survive, has a history of its own. Talking in the Indian context, food is the centre point of the country’s past and present. We have a documented record of the book “Charak Samhita” written in the 6th century C.E. It contains a range of recipes for healthy living. It consists of 8 books with 120 chapters in total. Few chapters are dedicated to ‘Aharttatva’ or ‘Dietetics’. They contain many elaborated recipes of various ailments of health condition even during pregnancy, fascinating right.
The history of human civilization reflects that change has been an integral part of our existence. With the invasion of land, our food also has undergone a lot of significant changes.
Every year during summers, the entire country celebrates the arrival of the king of all fruits – Mango. Mango has many uses, but the one we enjoy all year round is Raw Mango Pickle or better known as “Kachhe Aam ka Achar”. Unlike the Ripe Mangoes which are sweet, raw Mangoes are very sour. Now, these Raw Mangoes are cut into small pieces and smeared with Salt, Turmeric and spices like; Asafoetida, Fenugreek Seeds, Fennel, Rai (Mustard Seeds), Onion Seeds (Kalonji) and Red Chilli powder. Then add oil and let it sit for a few days either in sunlight or just like that.
In India for Pickles, spices are used in a specific way depending on the season. My mother makes Red Chilli Pickle (Lal Mirch ka Achar) in winter, her spice mix changes from Rai (Mustard Seeds) to Fenugreek.
For making Green Chilli Pickle (Hare Mirch ka Achar), she adds Mustard Seeds because Green Chilli is bitter in taste. She can’t add Fenugreek in this pickle. There is an instinctive understanding that you cannot add bitter Fenugreek Seeds to the mix. Instead, there is Amchoor Powder (Dry Mango Powder) for tartness, Coriander Powder for sweetness, Fennel Seeds, Salt and Mustard Oil. It requires a lot of creativity and a deep understanding of how spices are combined to balance the taste. This has been passed on us from generation to generation.
Chef Marut Sikka has beautifully described “Indian cooking as an artful layering of flavours, almost like a construction of a Perfume.”
The use of spices in our cooking is based on the Ayurvedic principle. Every Indian home cook understands the traditional combinations like Potato with Fenugreek, Green Mango or Okra with Fennel Seeds, Eggplant with Onion Seeds, Fish with Carom Seeds (Ajwain) etc. If you study the use of spices in our cooking, you will find out that it is the result of balancing the heating and cooling Doshas (according to Ayurveda) and also balancing the taste like sweet, sour, bitter, astringent, pungent.
Science Behind Eating with Hands
Not only our cooking is based on Ayurvedic principles but our practice of eating with hands also originated with Ayurvedic teachings. We believe that our bodies are in sync with the elements of nature and our hands hold a certain power. It says that each finger is an extension of one of the five elements,
- Through thumb comes space
- Through forefinger comes air
- Through mid-finger comes the fire
- Through the ring finger comes water
- Through the pinky finger comes earth
In every Indian restaurant, there is a hand wash station so you can clean your hands before and after food. The proper etiquette is to use only the tip of the finger while eating. The scientific reason behind eating with your hand is, ‘our body has a certain kind of bacteria that protects us from other harmful bacteria, present in the environment. These good bacteria reside in places like hands, mouth, throat, intestine, gut and rest of our digestive system.' That’s why washing hands before eating; to get rid of bad bacteria.
When we use our finger to pick up food, millions of nerves ending in our finger relay message that you are about to eat. This preps the stomach to release digestive juices and enzymes.
Our eating habit includes sit in Sukhasana and then eat. Do you know why?
Our cooking, eating and sitting while eating revolves around Ayurvedic principles. We sit on the floor in Sukhasana and bend forward to eat and go back to the natural position. This back-and-forth movement helps the muscle in the abdomen to secret digestive juices.
When we sit on the floor our body posture is automatically corrected with – our back straight expanding our spine and pushing our shoulder back, beating of the frequent pain aches that are caused due to bad posture. Sitting crossed legs improves blood circulation.
Keith Bellows (Editor-in-chief, National Geographic Society) says “There are some parts of the world that once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses, with a pure, concentrated intensity of its colour, taste, smell and sound. It was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolour.”