Some Spicing Tips

I’ve written the post on Don’t Dry Roast Spices here, and wanted to do a quick one on a couple of tips.  A week or so ago I was asked by Carl if I had any tips for a Goan curry he was making, to which I answered no, but I said I do have a couple of general tips for curries, he found them usual enough to make note of them as he’s writing his ebooks, and I hope you do too.  I first mention my layering of the spices in a curry post  Quick Everyday Creamy Curry here.

I make my own curries often, usually by staring at my spice rack thinking I might add fennel seeds, should I go for yellow or brown mustard seeds, or add nutmeg at the end…that’s my process.  I first took notice of how to flavour the curries in layers from a friend’s house over 20 years ago and have been paying attention ever since through watching others.

Starting with Fat

Layering flavour in a curry will usually start with spices in hot fat, usually whole spices like I have here but it can be with ground spices or spice paste.  Recalling all the programmes I’ve watched of cooks traveling and watching other cooks, usually making home style curries, this stage appears very common.

People tend to do something in cooking over generations for good reasons, and there is one here when analysing it.  The reason is;  fat carries flavour.

Fat Carries Flavour

It’s easy to think of this in other forms such as infusing oils with herbs or spices for flavoured oils.  Water is not a good carrier of aroma generally, and if you’re thinking right now of flavoured vinegar and alcohol, well, McGee points out in respect to this that the acetic acid in both “…are small cousins of fat molecules and help dissolve more aromatics than plain water could.”  

Fats carry aroma well, aroma is flavour.  The aroma in the plants themselves are carried through their essential oils.  Some dried spices contain as much as 15% by weight of essential oils, and many between 5-10% according to McGee.  Fat is a very good transporter of aroma.

Adding spices to the fat in the beginning of the curry will flavour the fat, the fat will be dispersed throughout your curry, and the result is, a tasty curry.

Whole Spices & Flavour Componds

Though you can add ground spices to hot fat, adding whole spices at the beginning of a curry is common.  I do notice the improvement in my curries when I do this.

Whole spices especially with longer cooking will release their flavour over a period of time.  Although the crush surface of a spice/herb releases the flavour quicker, the whole spices will carry on releasing some of their aroma compounds over a longer period.

Herbs and spices are made up of different flavour compounds, and that’s the key here, different compounds with different effects.  Some of which are quickly lost as soon as you heat them like that of terpene compounds, which is what my post on Don’t Dry Roast Spices is about, and other like the phenolics compounds are more water soluable.

The longer cooking of these whole spices will transform their flavour from its original state and mingle as it reacts with other food molecules creating new ones, sometimes too subtle to single out.

Curry Leaves

I like adding fresh curry leaves too, they’re really worth seeking out, I buy mine in my local Turkish grocer, my Indian grocer on the other hand, a few doors away, doesn’t sell them.  I haven’t worked that one out either.

Curry leaves keep beautifully in the freezer just like kaffir limes leaves do.  You can also add dried chillies at this point.

Onion, Ginger & Garlic

After adding my whole spices my onion goes in, often I see the onion grated in the processor, but I can never be bothered.  I’ve seen recipes ask for grated ginger and garlic to be added after the whole spices or with the onion mixture.  I usually add it later, but depends on mood.

Sometimes I add grated ginger right towards the very end of cooking, this adds a lovely fresh zingy pungent flavour, a warming spice to the curry, especially good, if for whatever reason not adding chillies.

I’m particular about wanting to let my onions soften because of my own tradition, to let the sweetness of the onion come out.

Ground Spices

The next layering of spices is the ground spices, usually I include some ground cumin (even if I’ve added it whole at the beginning) as well as ground coriander and turmeric.

Turmeric is used for its golden colour but even more importantly for its health properties, it is not a substitute for saffron, it’s a spice in its own right.  Turmeric’s pigment comes from a compound called curcumin that happens to be a good antioxidant.

When you add the ground spices is purely up to you.  I tend to add the above as soon as I’ve added all the ingredients.

Towards the very end I will add a ground ready mixed masala (below) either homemade or bought, this is to add some of the fresher elements of the spices’ aromas, another layer of flavourings.

A very aromatic way of finishing off a dish is tempering, called tarka and this method goes by many other names, there will be a post on it soon.