Curry Spices

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Ray Street

When you think of a curry, you think “spices”. It would be hard to make a curry without spices but that does not mean that the curry has to be so spicy “hot” that it sets your mouth on fire. There are hot curries but there are just as many, if not more, mild and medium spiced curries. And there are some curries where the spices are so mild that you might not notice them at all.

The most often used curry spices are chillies, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, pepper, saffron and tamarind. There are a lot more spices used in curries but I’m not just going to produce a huge list of them. One good book that gives huge amounts of spice details is Jill Norman’s “herb & spice, the cook’s essential companion”, available from most good libraries.

One thing that I keep getting told is that spices are expensive. Well, yes and no. Relatively, they definitely don’t cost as much as they did in the 15th century when the high price of spices set Christopher Columbus on his search for a new route to the ”Spice Islands”. And you don’t need a lot of spice in a curry to make it taste delicious – most recipes call for about one teaspoon measure of a spice (sometimes a tablespoon full, but not many recipes use this large quantity of a spice). Saffron is easily the most expensive spice (being extracted from the stigmas and styles of the saffron crocus) but you need only a few strands of saffron to add colour and flavour to rice.

You can lower the cost of spices by buying them from the bulk spice containers in Indian supply shops. My local New World even has bulk spice bins. Buying spices in those little glass or plastic bottles is probably the most expensive way to buy spices. I keep all empty glass jars once they are empty of their original contents, give them a good wash and keep them for use as spice jars. My spice containers are a real hotch-potch of jars (no tidy row of matching containers in my cupboard).

One important thing to do is make sure that you don’t keep the spices too long because spices lose their power and pungency after a while. I seldom have spices in my cupboard for more than three months. And it also helps to keep your spices in a dry, dark place because spices also lose their power in sunlight. It’s best to keep your spice jars in a dark cupboard rather than sitting out on the bench (or in a kitchen spice rack).

One advantage of buying spices out of a bulk bin is that you can take as much, or as little, as you need. Sometimes I only buy about a tablespoon amount of a particular spice – no shopkeeper has ever complained that I’m taking too little.

And you don’t need to buy every type of curry spice all at once. You can buy the spices as you need them. Once you’ve been making curries for a while, you’ll be surprised at how many different spices you’ve accumulated.

And spices have another major benefit on top of giving your curries a great taste – they are good for you. Spices have been used to treat a wide range of ailments and illnesses for centuries. In particular, curcumin (a component of turmeric), capsaicin (the active ingredient of chillies) and garlic have a wide range of medicinal uses. And these uses are not just in the “alternative” treatments – some spice compounds are being used in “mainstream” medicine. If you want to see what I mean, just Google “curcumin medicine” to see what a huge amount of research is being undertaken on this spice compound.

You will never be disappointed with spices if you keep them fresh. And a curry without spices?


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