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.