If you had to sum up the vast and complex tradition of Indian cooking with just one word, that word is most likely to be ‘spices’. The heady scent of fragrant spices brings to mind all the exoticism of India and one of the most interesting features about using this variety of colourful spices in your cooking is the subtle effect they can have, depending how you choose to handle them.
For those of us without too much experience of Indian cooking, we might feel most familiar with the racks of cheap, store bought, ground spices that we can spoon delicately into our dishes without too much thought. However, the advice from those more in the know regarding the subtle art of spicing recommend cooking up fresh, whole spices for a depth of flavour that is nearly impossible to achieve using the ground varieties alone. Just try out a meal at one of London’s best Indian fine dining restaurants and you will experience the range of subtle flavours that just seem so difficult to recreate at home.
To Fry or to Roast?
So, you’re ready to prepare your whole spices, ready to cook up a storm in the kitchen… but should you choose to fry or dry-roast them? It seems the world is on board with dry-roasting – it is considered by many to be an excellent way of enhancing the flavours, allowing the essential oils of the spice to be released. Dry-roasting spices involves heating them in a heavy frying pan, keeping them moving until they become aromatic and begin to pop. Be careful not to let them smoke – this could mean they are starting to burn.
However, more people are beginning to discover the method of frying spices and the completely different flavour this method of cooking produces. In comparison to dry-roasting which changes the fundamental flavours of the spice and gives them an earthier tone, frying them in a little oil has the effect of developing and intensifying the flavours of the spice – essentially making them bolder, brighter, more vibrant versions of their original selves.
What About Storage?
Dry-roasting spices could be more popular due to the fact that they can be stored after toasting for several weeks, as when kept in an air-tight container they won’t lose too much flavour. Fried spices are not meant for storing; they are known as a wet masala and need to be used straight away.
How to Fry Spices
There are three main methods of frying spices and all involve a certain degree of attention – spices are fragile ingredients and can burn easily without due care. The first method involves frying in a little oil before they are removed from the pan and ground to a paste using a good, old-fashioned pestle and mortar. The second is also known as bhunooing – this refers to gradually frying the spices along with onions. The final method is caaled a tadka and involves frying the spices quickly on a hot heat, allowing them to crackle and pop in the oil before the entire mixture is poured onto a dish as a spicy garnish.