May 22, 2011

More Spices The Better?

May 22, 2011
Masala, a ground spice mixture is perhaps the most common way of using Indian spices outside of India. Even the small supermarket close to our home sells garam masala and curry powder. It takes a little effort to combine spices at home, but there is a huge difference in aroma.

BLACK SALT (Kala namak)

Kala namak is a type of natural volcanic halite. It is a purplish/pink, salty and pungent smelling condiment mainly composed of sodium chloride. The odour is due to the sulphur content. Please, don’t get alarmed but the smell is sometimes described as similar to rotten eggs! As a matter of fact, kala namak is a necessary ingredient when making mock scrambled eggs with fresh paneer (cheese) and turmeric. In India, it is sprinkled over just about anything from fruits to savouries.

Kala Namak is considered a cooling spice in ayurvedic medicine and used as a laxative and digestive aid. It is also believed to relieve intestinal gas and heartburn.

In spite of this unflattering introduction, it is worth trying. It is such an interesting mineral, always found in my spice cabin. It does make a difference in salads, yogurt, fresh cheese and on the top of a watermelon slice!


Fresh curry leaves are something I would crawl to get if they were available anywhere in this God forsaken country. So far I’ve had to be grateful for and satisfied with the inferior, dry ones.

Curry leaves are used especially in South Indian cuisine. They are generally tempered with mustard seeds and hing, and added to dals, fresh coconut chutney or vegetable dishes. Tearing or crushing the leaves will enforce the release of essential oils.

The leaves are small, pointed and in clusters, giving out a strong, delightful aroma, faintly reminding that of citrus and anise.

Contrary to popular belief, the curry leaf is not the origin of curry powder. It is mainly a seasoning leaf, used in specific curries to provide tanginess. If I’m not mistaken, curry powder is an invention of Englishmen.


Nigella sativa is an annual flowering plant, native to south and southwest Asia. The flowers are delicate, usually pale blue and white. The fruit is a large and inflated capsule composed of three to seven united follicles, each containing numerous seeds. The seed is used as a spice.

Because there is so much confusion about the English name of this spice, let’s refer to it by the Hindi name kalonji. The seeds have hardly an odour, but when ground or sautéed they develop a smoky scent vaguely reminiscent of oregano. The taste is unique and slightly bitter.

Kalonji is well used in Bengali cuisine and known as kalo jeera (black cumin). It is not to be mixed up with caraway, jeera or a seed called black sesame. It is a part of a five-spice combination called panch phoron.

Although you may not be familiar with kalonji, you might have tasted it on the top of naan-bread without knowing. Also fritters, like pakora, and salty crackers are sometimes spiced with it.


  1. Oh dear! I wish I could send you fresh curry leaves! I discard mine even if they are slightly dry! Need them to be fresh, green, soft and shiny! Love what kala namak does to so many dishes. And the spicy unique kick that kalonji adds!

  2. Thanks Anushruti for the kind thought! Last week I found fresh curry leaves in a Vietnamese shop and made rasam & fresh coconut chutney to go with paratha and the rest. It was heavenly. Curry leaves are wonderful. They don't preserve well in the fridge, though. I wonder how difficult it would be to grow the plant on a window sill? I have a friend who has been successful with kusa, tamal, karela and other Indian plants. We have Tulasi at home and it requires a lot of attention due to the harsh climate and darkness.

  3. Curry leaves are popularly grown here on window sills! Why not give it a try?

  4. Curry leaves were the hardest to find in Finland! But we did find some in the ethnic market in Hakaniemi once and they freeze very well. I wonder if it's possible to grow them? I'm living in the UK now perhaps I can look into it for you. Imagine if you could have a small curry tree growing inside your house to harvest from any time you like! :D

  5. Lisa, thanks! I've also gotten fresh curry-leaves on a stick in Hakaniemi. It seems to be a seasonal item. Sometimes they have it, sometimes not.

    It would be possible to grow it on a window sill. However, I'm afraid Finnish winter would be too dark. I have Tulasi at home and she does well, because I have installed artificial light for her. Without it, she wouldn't survive. Maybe next time when we go to India, I'll try to smuggle a curry-plant :-). Before that I will experiment if it would grow roots on the stick.

  6. Karthika GuptaNovember 15, 2011

    Hi there,

    Just stumbled upon your blog and your images and words take my breath away! - Love it...Curious about your Tulasi artificial light. I live in Chicago and every year my Tulasi devi does not make it with the cold weather. This year I managed to get my hands on Krishna tulasi seeds and my devi is growning well but I am dreading the cold. Can you talk about your artificial lighting? I really want her to survive this winter!

    Thank you

  7. Dear Karthika,
    plants, including Tulasi, benefit from the light temperature around 5000 Kelvin (K). That is as close as it gets to natural daylight. Right now I'm using two 36 W fluorescent tubes (T6) with 5500 K above Tulasi. Their light providing propensity is much higher than the regular 36 W tubes / bulbs. I'm keeping the light on for about 8 hours a day. She is doing well. She is about 1 meter wide and high.

    When Tulasi was younger and smaller, she had a regular energy-saving bulb of 5500 K. If I remember correctly, it was 32 W.

    Over the years I've had several arrangements, but I find these energy-saving options the best. First of all, they generate almost no heat. They can be kept close to Tulasi without burning her. They also fit into regular lamp bases. And they are available in well equipped shops. They also save energy :-)

    In fact, we have changed all our light bulbs at home into these 5500 K ones, because they give natural and neutral light. They are a bit more expensive than regular bulbs, but they last longer and have much better quality.

    The brand we have is called Viva-light. There are other companies who produce them too. But to give you an idea, you can visit the website or Google full spectrum lighting.

    Tulasi is the queen of our household. She deserves the best service. Giving her some extra light during the dark months is wonderful.

    If you have any questions about the lights, please e-mail me by clicking the link on the navigation bar on the top of the page.

    Good luck! And thank you.


  8. Lakshmi,
    If you have managed to keep the dainty and ever sensitive Tulsi plant alive, curry leaf plant would surely survive with your methods..
    Have posted tips on keeping curry leaf plant alive in winter, hope that helps :)

  9. Hi Lakshmi, You have a beautiful blog! Just wanted to add a line to preserving curry leaves,
    I live in Copenhagen, perhaps I get a little (just a little) more sun than you do these days ;)
    I have a window curry plant that hasnt produced a single new leaf in the past 5 months! Its alive and green though.... Waiting for the summer...
    About preserving, if you get fresh curry leaves, here is an easy method my aunt taught me.
    Remove your curry leaves from the stalk, and wash them well. Drain the water and dry them on a kitchen towel.
    Now heat a wok about 7 on an induction stove. It will be quite hot in a few mins. Add the curry leaves and toast on the hot wok for about 10-15 mins. Constantly stir, separating the leaves by hand if necessary. The leaves should not turn brown, but will turn a shade dull and eventually turn crisp. Note that the leaf is still green. Once you are sure all the leaves are well toasted and there is no water left (it will crumble between your fingers) add just 2 drops of oil and saute. This will coat the leaves well and preserve the colour, aroma and crispness.
    I always change about 70% of my curry leaves to this and save it up. It stays for many months... The key is to make sure there is no moisture left.
    And the best thing is that when you crumble it in oil, it infuses so well, and everyone at home just eats it, no picking it out of the dish anymore..Given that curry leaves are so good for you!
    Do try it! I hope it works for you.

  10. PM, thank you! What a great tip! I will preserve the leaves your way. It sounds perfect!

    Ps. I was in Copenhagen (sort of :-) last night when our plane from a holiday stopped for fueling. It was snowing. But you are right, it is snowing here even more with less sunshine.

  11. Sauteeing curry leaves on a hot wok is a great way to keep the flavours.I normally like mine completley fresh and off the tree, so have grown a small plant which so far has been doing splendid.
    Curry leaf plant can grown really tall and will give out leaves all year round if given a lot of light. So maybe you could try installing artificial light for this one too.

    Did you know curry leaves are excellent tonic for hair? My grandma told me so and she made me eat every leaf on plate! It must have worked cos i really seem to have healthy shiny hair and never need to take too much effort to make it look great!

  12. Neha, thanks for the tips. I'm yet to find curry plat seeds, it's a work in progress :-)

  13. Curry plant seeds are available in Hawaii. I will look up the source and repost.

  14. Love your blog, love the Pics as well as recipes. could you please fix the link for Buckwheat roti, it brings to ghee page not Buckwheat roti recipe. Also just curious, the left images, next to Kalonji seeds reads Kalajeera, which is another spice altogether?