Category Archives: Spices

Meet My Herb Garden

curry leaf plant

Meet Gopi – my new curry leaf plant

apple mint and chili plants

Chilies and Apple Mint

cilantro plant with coriander seeds

The cilantro plant bolted. But I can plant these coriander seeds!

There is supposedly a green thumb gene that runs through my mom’s family. My grandmother’s garden used to be full of fruit trees, roses and different flowers every year. That garden bears witness to many childhood memories. We spent many summers there with my cousins playing Shark, a game we made up, climbing trees, enjoying tea parties on the lawn and getting bit by the biggest mosquitoes known to seven year olds.

I’ve never grown anything before. I mean I’ve watered potted plants and sprouted seeds for a Biology class experiment. But I’ve never really had a garden. I’ve even managed to kill cacti. Yes multiple ones. And we (here I share the blame with my husband) even managed to kill an indoor palm tree that was supposedly a pretty easy plant to take care of. It’s a long story, but we think the nursery was at least partially complicit.

So it was with some hesitation that I decided to start an herb garden this year. Where we live, we have access to a great backyard. Now, every time I *must* have curry leaves, it involves driving all the way over to the “Eastside” where the Indian grocery stores are. It’s such a chore. So I really wanted to grow my own curry leaves.

There are a few nurseries in the US where you can buy plant starts online. After one order fell through as the nursery had actually oversold their curry leaf starts, I found another source. They were fantastic, they shipped right away and the little plant arrived in a shipping tube all bundled up. I had to name him. He’s Gopi.

Once bit by the planting bug, I went further and planted apple mint, cilantro and two different chilies. The cilantro has already bolted (flowered) which means I won’t get herb from it. But, I can plant those seeds you see for new plants. The mint plant though is doing really well.

I’m crossing my fingers for chilies, cilantro and most of all for curry leaves. I hope I don’t kill Gopi in the weeks it will take for the plant to get well established and I can harvest the leaves.

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Curry Leaves and Curries

Curry leaves

Fresh curry leaves

It’s been a while since I posted a recipe and I hope to make amends with this guest post. This is a post for Chitra Agrawal of The ABCD’s of Cooking, a kindred spirit in NYC. I met Chitra on Twitter a couple of months ago and love what she’s doing with her blog, videos and events to educate people about authentic Indian cooking techniques and share homestyle food . If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll check out her cooking events and supper club. About that same time I met Chitra, I had also ordered a curry leaf plant start online. So when Chitra asked if I would contribute a post on her Spice Route segment, I knew what I’d have to write about. Alas, the curry leaf plant never made it to me. The farm had more orders than plant starts and they canceled my order. But, the blog post did happen.

So, I’m excited to introduce Chitra here and send you over to her cool site for more on curry leaves and a Cauliflower Curry that marries the earthy flavors of curry leaves beautifully with the sweetness and richness of coconut milk.

Enjoy!

mise en place with spices and herbs, finished cauliflower curry

The ingredients are simple and few to make this yummy cauliflower curry

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Heavenly Curry Leaves

Fresh curry leaves

Fresh Curry Leaves

Having a bad day at work? The weather got you down? Had a fight with someone you love? All things that happen to everyone. How do you deal with a down day?

When the oil’s hot and the mustard seeds start sizzling, I add the curry leaves. That aroma, the bright, citrusy and fresh aroma instantly lights up my day. I love the smell of tempered spices and it never fails to transport me to a happy place.

Curry leaves are from a tree that is native to India and often grows in the wild. This herb is a must-have ingredient in most South Indian dishes and Sri Lankan curries. Curry leaves are almost always used with vegetarian food and rarely ever in meat curries.

The moniker given this herb is unfortunately very confusing. While curry leaves are used in curries, curries get their flavor from many other ingredients as well. Curry leaves are NOT what Curry Powder is made of. Curry powder is a western invention, a weak imitation of Indian spice blends. Curry powder includes many spices like coriander, cumin, chilis, and turmeric and is often used in fusion food to add a touch of India to the dish.

If you can, use fresh curry leaves as they have more flavor than dried. Fresh curry leaves will only last about a week in the fridge. Since I don’t live too close to an Indian grocery store, I buy many packs of the curry leaves when I do go. I keep a pack or two in the fridge to use within a week. I spread the rest out on paper towels on a clean surface and leave them out for 2-3 days. Once dried, I store them in an airtight box. Before using, I simply crush the leaves with the palms of my hands to release some flavor.

I’m told that curry leaves are easy to grow when it is warm out. I can’t wait for spring to try for myself! Look for seedlings or seeds of Murraya koenigii if you want to grow your own curry leaves plant.

tarka or tadka masala

A simple “tadka” of mustard seeds, curry leaves, and dry red chili. this would add great flavor on Daal or lentil curry

Curry leaves can be air dried

Air dry curry leaves

curry leaves

My favorite herb!

Recipes that use curry leaves: A South Indian eggplant dish and a mixed vegetable curry

Veena’s Market kits that contains curry leaves (air dried): Delicious Daal

Online source for curry leaves: Veena’s Market pantry 

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The third most expensive spice in the world

If you guessed cardamom, you’d be right! This tropical spice is native to India but now most of the world’s production comes from Guatemala and Costa Rica. True cardamom or green cardamom are what most know as cardamom. There are however other varieties. The cardamom pods grow at the bottom of the stems just above the ground. On my recent trip to South India, I saw many cardamom bushes in my family’s coffee estates. Here’s a short video and my lucky find.

 

 

White, green and black cardamom

Green Cardamom

The fresh, floral and woody aromas of cardamom are best highlighted in contrast with milder flavors such as rice puddings. Simply sprinkling some freshly ground cardamom on sweet lassis or other desserts wakes up the taste buds and adds sophistication! In Indian cooking, cardamom is used in savory dishes and spice blends. Whole pods are often used in rice dishes. One of my favorite uses for cardamom is undoubtedly in Indian Chai.

I recommend buying organic to ensure that the cardamom has not been chemically treated to maintain its green color. Better quality crop will naturally retain its bright green color. You can see the difference in shades in the photo below. The green cardamom pods will fade and lose flavor over time.

Different shades of green

White Cardamom

There are two broad varieties of true cardamom, Mysore and Malabar. Green cardamom is typically of the Mysore variety. Malabar cardamom pods start turning white on the plant when their flavor peaks. After harvesting, the pods are sun dried or chemically bleached to make a uniform white. Most of the white cardamom available in the US has been bleached and is therefore considered inferior. But the Malabar cardamom, according to On Food and Cooking has a high concentration of the more delicate flavor compounds. By organic white cardamom from a trusted source to ensure it has not been chemically bleached.

The cardamom in the video above is of the malabar variety.

Black Cardamom

Pods of black cardamom are larger than true cardamom. It is also called Nepal, Chinese or brown cardamom. The flavor of true cardamom is much more complex than that of black cardamom owing to the presence of more flavor compounds. The pods are smoke dried resulting in a spice with a smoky flavor. Black cardamom is used in many North Indian spice blends.

Other varieties

According to Gernod Katzer’s Spice Pages, there are many other varieties of cardamom grown in Vietnam, Indonesia and so on. One variety that I just learned about has piqued my curiosity: Ethiopian Korarima. Like in India, korarima often grows wild with coffee plants.   It is freshly roasted and used to flavor coffee much like gahwa or Middle Eastern cardamom coffee. It is also included in one of my favorite spice blends berbere.

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How Seven Beans Changed the World: Indian Coffee Part 1

Seven coffee beans were enough

It was the 17th century. An Indian priest, Baba Budan, went on a pilgrimage to the Middle East. He had had coffee and was so enamored of the drink that he wanted to take it back home with him to India. But the coffee bean and the plants were carefully guarded. Any beans sent outside the Middle East were boiled and sterilized so no coffee could be harvested.

Risking his life, Baba Budan strapped seven beans to his chest and smuggled them to the foothills of the Western Ghats in South India. The beans were planted and the bushes thrived. The area of Chikmagalur became the birth place of Indian coffee.

It was a very good thing that Baba Budan did not have to go through an x-ray machine at Customs because coffee then spread to the rest of the world from India.

But the story of coffee goes back another 500-600 years. Legend has it that a goatherd observed his flock eating some red berries after which they became very energetic. He took some of the berries to the village priest. The priest boiled the red berries in water and had a sip. Coffee was born.

Coffee cherries ripe for harvest

A coffee nursery

Saplings

Today, while Indian coffee is very popular in India, especially in the South where it is grown, it is virtually unknown outside of the country. About 75% of Indian coffee is grown in the Southern state of Karnataka in Chikmagalur, Sakleshpur, and Coorg. India mostly exports coffee to the Eurozone and very little finds its way into the US.

Even with a sizeable domestic market, the life of coffee planters is not secure. Fortunes are made and lost with huge fluctuations in the coffee market. When Vietnam ramped up its coffee production, prices for Indian coffee dipped low. My aunts and uncles who live in Sakleshpur and have coffee estates say that another big problem today is that labor is very hard to get despite offering high wages and other benefits.

Many spices, such as pepper, vanilla and cardamom are grown along with coffee. This gives the estate owner some additional revenue. But the market for spices is not a stable one either. The prices for vanilla for example, a labor intensive spice as it has to be fertilized by hand, have gone as far up as 15,000 Rupees per Kg down to just a couple of thousand Rupees per Kg.

Coffee estates are beautiful and are a lot of fun to visit especially during harvest time. The coffee from my family’s estates is shade grown. This means that there is a diversity of tall trees providing cover to the coffee bushes below. The trees of course attract all kinds of birds. We’ve even spotted peacocks!

While coffee tourism has started, it is in its infancy and there are only a few coffee estates that offer home stays and tours of their estates. So if you are ever in South India, I’d encourage you to get off the well-worn tourist track and visit one of these estates to learn more about one of the world’s most popular brews.

Coffee estates are beautiful

Coffee pickers tallying up how much they picked so they can get paid

Pepper, cardamom, vanilla, oranges etc are also typicallly grown in coffee plantations

Gorgeous pepper vines are everywhere in a coffee estate!

You'll see all kinds of chili plants on estates as well

p.s. I’m back after traveling in South India for almost 6 weeks. I hope to get posting more regularly again.

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Spices: Mustard Seeds

Darius, the King of Persia famously sent a box filled with sesame seeds and among them, a lone gem, to Alexander the Great. With the sesame seeds, Darius threatens Alexander with his large number of troops. Alexander, unperturbed, sends a bag of mustard seeds. After a soldier, ordered to eat the mustard seeds, spits them out, Darius finds out that the mustard seeds are much more potent in flavor than sesame seeds. Alexander goes on to wipe out Darius’ army with Darius narrowly escaping with his life.

The mustard seeds are native to Eurasia and have been in use for at least 5000 years. There are even mentions of the mustard seed in the Bible and Buddhist parables.These little mustard seeds don’t have much aroma when you smell them, but bite into them, and you will be hit with a pungent fiery flavor. The essential oil of mustard is very potent indeed but being volatile, its potency is lost rapidly.

Many Indian recipes call for mustard. Only some specify what you really need: black mustard seeds. Not the yellow condiment you put on your hot dog.

black mustard seeds vs yellow mustard seeds

There are three kinds of mustard seeds – black, brown and yellow. The black and brown are very similar in appearance and flavor though black mustard seeds are slightly sharper. The yellow mustard is more mellow and is what is normally used in the condiment. These varieties though come from different plants:

  • Black – Brassica nigra
  • Brown – Brassica juncea
  • Yellow – Sinapsis alba

Black or brown mustard seeds are used whole in Indian cooking, especially in South Indian cooking. Many curries and vegetables are flavored with oil tempered with mustard seeds, curry leaves, green chilis and sometimes asafetida. Mustard powder is rarely used in Indian cooking with the exception of pickles. In eastern India, in Bengal, mustard paste is frequently used in preparing fish dishes like shorshe machh (mustard fish).

Apart from its usefulness in flavoring, mustard has many health properties. It is a good source of selenium and omega-3 fatty acids. It is an anti-inflammatory and is also said to speed up the body’s metabolism.

Looking for  recipes that use black mustard seeds?

Recipe kits that already contain black mustard seeds:

black mustard seeds are more pungent than yellow mustard seeds

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Why Buy Organic Spices

Cassia - organic or not?

Can you tell if the Cassia cinnamon in the picture above is organic?

No?

If not, and it costs more, why buy organic spices?

Great question. To make the best food, you have to start off with the best ingredients. Most commonly used spices are now available organic. Except for a couple of exotic spices, all our spices are certified organic. Organic spices are more expensive but we make it a point to source organic ingredients for two great reasons: flavor and health.

Spices typically come from the Indian sub-continent, Southeast Asia and Central America. To be sold in the US, the spices have to be sterilized in one of three ways.

Fumigation 

This method involves the extensive use of pesticides or herbicides. These chemicals are not only known to be carcinogenic, they are also harmful to the environment where the spices are cultivated. This is the most commonly used method to sterilize spices sold in the US as it is the cheapest. The USDA allows the use of many chemicals in spice sterilization that are deemed hazardous in the EU and Australia.

Irradiation

Spices are exposed to radiation in order to destroy the bacteria and other microorganisms. While irradiation reduces the microbial count, it also reduces the flavor of the spices in the process.

Steaming

Sterilizing spices using dry steam also destroys bacteria without introducing chemicals. This method retains all the flavor of the spice to boot without harming the environment. Spices that are certified organic can only be steam sterilized.

So if you want to buy spices with the best flavor, and the least risk to your health, go for the organic spices. To reduce costs, buy whole spices in bulk.

For more on spices, check out these posts:

 

 

Looking for one of our recipe kits? Click here

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Spices – Devil’s Dung

A pinch of asafetida is enough

Yes that’s one of the names for it. Asafetida, as it is normally called, is derived from the dried resin of a rhizome. Most people describe the smell of this spice as pungent and unpleasant. Think of asafetida as the frog prince. One kiss with hot oil and the spice blossoms, exuding not only the combined flavors of onion and garlic but also something more, something mysterious to a dish. If you’ve ever had South Indian food and tried to recreate it at home without using asafetida, your dish probably tasted great but not quite what you had at the restaurant.

The aroma of powdered asafetida is less strong than that of the resin and will deteriorate after a year or so. The resin form on the other hand will last forever.

Asafetida is native to Persia (Iran) and is used in that cuisine as well. Gernod Katzer’s spices pages states that asafetida was brought to Europe as early as Alexander the Great’s time. Devil’s Dung is actually a translation of the German and French names for this spice.

You might have noticed that many Indian recipes that include lentils call for this spice. Indian recipes may also refer to asafetida as hing. Asafetida not only adds a burst of flavor but also has many health properties. It reduces bacterial build up in the intestine aiding in digestion of foods like lentils. It is also reported to be anti-viral.

Commercially available asafetida includes the powdered resin stabilized with gum, rice flour or wheat and possibly other ingredients as well (see ingredient list in the picture below). If you suffer from celiac disease, please check the ingredients as the spice used may not be gluten-free. The resin form is gluten-free but is much harder to find.

One small kiss is all it took for the frog to become a prince. So I hope you will give asafetida a try especially if you are cooking with lentils and vegetables. Who knows, your dish may get transformed! Just remember that a pinch is all it takes.

None of the kits sold on Veena’s Market use asafetida to ensure that our kits remain free of gluten ingredients. If you would like to purchase this spice, follow this link and scroll down for a couple of options.

Hing or asafetida (contains gluten)

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Spices – coriander vs cilantro

Cilantro

Explorers and spice traders in the middle ages can be blamed for creating a lot of confusion through the ages when it comes to the names of spices and herbs. Christopher Columbus, for example, in his quest for a shorter route to India and it’s source for black pepper, ended up in the Americas instead. Here he tried chilis and since they had heat, called them pepper. Ever since, we’ve been stuck calling them peppers or chili peppers.

But when it comes to coriander, I’m not sure who to blame. The herb is called coriander in some countries and cilantro in others including the US. The coriander plant is very useful in flavoring food. Its seeds can be dried and used whole or ground and its leaves are used as an herb in many cuisines. But its roots and stems can also be used. In many countries, India included, all parts of this plant are referred to as coriander. You know to use the herb or seeds based on context. In many Indian recipes the term coriander only refers to the herb and coriander seed is specified as such. When I started testing recipes for Veena’s Market, I know I confused many people by using coriander and cilantro interchangeably. Now I’ve learned to make an effort to say cilantro every time I refer to the herb.

Gernod Katzer who maintains one of the best resource sites on spices posits that people called coriander herb cilantro since culantro, aka cilantro extranjero in Mexico, has a very similar flavor. That makes sense.

Don’t like the taste of cilantro? Think it tastes vile?

Did you know that it is because of a genetic defect? To many people, the flavor of fresh cilantro comes across as soapy. Coriander seed on the other hand, is fine. Personally, I’ve never heard of Indians or Chinese who hate cilantro but have heard of lots of Americans and Europeans. Of course this is very unscientific and anecdotal, but it makes me wonder if Asians don’t have this defect or whether they’ve gotten accustomed to the taste.

Are you someone who hates cilantro? Do you hate it only when it is used fresh? Can you discern the taste when the cilantro is cooked into the dish?

Coriander seeds

Wondering if any of the Veena’s Market kits contain coriander? The following incorporate freshly ground coriander in the spice blend that is provided in the kit:

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Spices – Cassia vs Cinnamon

Ceylon cinnamon

Someone asked me the other day what spices go into my Chickpea Curry blend. As I rattled off the list, I was asked a question that I often get. I add both cassia and true cinnamon to this blend and I almost always have to explain what cassia is. So I thought I’d write about this. If nothing else, it might score you some trivia points some day!

In reality there are many kinds of cinnamon that are roughly broken down into cassia and true cinnamon:

Ceylon cinnamon vs. cassia cinnamon

Cassia

What’s commonly sold as cinnamon in the US is actually cassia cinnamon/chinese cinnamon or just cassia mostly from China, India and Vietnam. It has a more intense and less delicate flavor and is a harder and thicker stick than the real cinnamon. The bark of branches and even the trunk of the tree is used in making cassia. The species Cinnamomum aromaticum is used for cassia production in China. Other species are from Vietnam (Cinnamomum loureiroi) and Burma (Cinnamomum burmannii). The latter are very similar in flavor and texture and are also sold as cinnamon in the US. Burmese cinnamon has the least essential oil content and is therefore the cheapest.

Cinnamon

True cinnamon aka sweet cinnamon or ceylon cinnamon has deeper and more subtle flavor. The texture is flaky as the sticks are made up of many thin layers. Only the bark of thin shoots are used in the production of ceylon cinnamon. True cinnamon is grown primarily in Sri Lanka, parts of Southern India, Bangladesh, Java and Sumatra. If you want to buy the real thing, look out for the scientific name Cinnamomum zeylanicum or Cinnamomum verum.

Click here for a recipe that uses cinnamon or cassia. Looking for Veena’s Market recipe kits that use Ceylon Cinnamon? They are:

Our Veena’s Vindaloo kit uses organic Cassia.

Ceylon cinnamon sticks

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