Maturing Spice Flavors: The Indian System

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
The use of spices is especially ancient and sophisticated in India and Southeast Asia. Indian cooks have several different ways of maturing spice flavors before their incorporation into a dish.
  • The toasting on a hot pan of whole dry spices, typically mustard, cumin, or fenugreek, for a minute or two until the seeds begin to pop, the point at which their inner moisture has vaporized and they are just beginning to brown. Spices cooked in this way are mellowed, but individually; they retain their own identities.
  • The frying in oil or ghee of mixed powdered spices, often including turmeric, cumin, and coriander. This step allows the different aroma chemicals to react with each other so that the flavors become more integrated, and is usually followed by the sequential addition of garlic, ginger, onions, and other fresh components of what will become the sauce-like phase of the dish.
  • The slow frying of a paste of powdered and fresh spices, with constant stirring until much of the moisture evaporates, the oil separates from the paste, and the spice mixture begins to darken. Mexican cooks treat their pureed chilli mixtures in much the same way. This technique yields its own unique flavors, since dried and fresh ingredients (including active enzymes from the latter) can interact from the beginning, and moisture from the fresh spices prevents the dried spices from being as affected by the heat as they are when fried on their own.
  • The brief frying in ghee of whole spices, which are then sprinkled on top of a just-cooked dish as a final garnish.