The first thing we think of Indian cuisine is the Spice Route through India, the spicy flavors, the vegetables and the flavors. The origin of this route took place in the previous Silk Road that Marco Polo himself opened through Central Asia to reach China and the Mughal Empire, and which he details in his traveling stories. In the fifteenth century, the Spice Route had become a path shared by merchants from various countries.
The truth is that it is the most characteristic, always taking into account the enormity of this country and the number of different styles according to the regions. Some people think that the smell of spices was what attracted the British to India. Well, they are not to be blamed, because today this unique country attracts millions of tourists interested in their culture, traditions, customs and also lovers from the kitchen and chefs passionate about learning, creating and fusing flavors.
Filled with all the spectacularity and mystery of the ancient world, the spice route made its way through Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Ghana, Iraq, Egypt, and Italy, transporting spices from the East to the Arab, Roman, Egyptian, and Greek.
Formerly, the spice trade was highly lucrative. Among the spices were cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric. The first two arrived from the Middle East since 2000 BC. Arab merchants and merchants transmitted incredible legends about spices to increase their mystique and attractiveness, and therefore their commercial margin. Alexandria was also part of the gear. When the Romans began to travel from Egypt to India, they transformed Alexandria into one of the most powerful trading centers in the world. From here Indian spices were distributed to the markets of Greece and Rome.
The Dutch merchants sailed for the Spice Islands in 1595 and 1598. In both expeditions, they returned with lucrative loads, which led to the formation of the Dutch East India Company in 1602. In 1664 with the French East India Company, Portugal began to be displaced from the region that had dominated for a century. Then British subdued India and Ceylon, and the Dutch managed to control the East Indies.
The trip today
If you want to follow the path of the original spice route you have to go to the region of Banda. It is a tiny but fascinating bouquet of 10 islands and perhaps the most tempting destination of the Moluccas. In the Middle Ages, nutmeg was practically exclusive to Banda, and its price was very high. It was exchanged for food and clothing to the Arab, Chinese, Javanese and Bugis merchants.
In the Middle Ages, before the rise of Portugal and Holland, Venice was the most important power in the trade of spices. This had repercussions on Italian food. Once the Italians of the lower classes knew what was being cooked in the noble homes, they felt less enthusiasm for their suspect meats and loaves of bread without salt. The maritime trade and the abundant harvests covered their basic needs. It allowed the Italians to unleash their creativity with cured meats, aged cheeses, and specialized wines.
Visit the Spice Islands in Indonesia. Travel to Malaysia, one of the most important stops on the spice route in Asia and now a fabulous destination for its historical treasures and its rich essence. Visit a spice garden in Sri Lanka to discover alternative uses of the best-known spices. Approach the extraordinary coastal forts of Ghana, originally built as trading posts to store merchandise. Imagine yourself as a merchant in the old alleys of Al-Quseir, in Egypt.
The spice route through India
On a trip to India, spices will flood your palate, eyesight, and senses constantly in the exotic markets, and in the tasty and delicious cuisine. Without spices, there is no India. So it bears witness to the old markets that, for centuries, have been built in many Indian cities. There is the Khari Baoli market in old Delhi, whose existence dates back to the 17th century. There are also colorful markets in South India in cities like Mysore, or Kochi.
Gastronomically speaking, we know that apart from the Indian spice route, we can also learn to cook their rich and exotic foods full of unparalleled flavor. India has been very influenced by all those civilizations that throughout its history have colonized this country and that is the reason why its gastronomy is very varied.
The gastronomy of this beautiful country is influenced not only by the Indian and Islamic traditions. The Portuguese, Persians, and English have contributed, at a certain moment in history and in some aspects of the cuisine. The trends from outside have been mixed and merged with those of every corner of India. That is what has given rise to that gastronomy that we know today, with that conglomeration of flavors, textures, and forms as diverse as its people and culture.
The incorporation of aromatic herbs and condiments gives them a high medicinal value, calling them Ayurvedic. The spices of India are the star ingredient of all its gastronomy and give it a unique flavor and aroma that make its cuisine recognizable all over the world.
If there is something that everyone agrees when traveling to India it is the smell of spices and incense that permeates the environment. Indian spices are an essential ingredient in the kitchen thanks to its aroma, flavor, and even color. We all know that there are hundreds of different spices. But do you know which are the most common Indian spices?
Discover the most used spices of India
Indian cuisine is able to mix all kinds of spices in its dishes until it reaches the most demanding palates. Many of these spices from India are known and used worldwide, such as cayenne with its characteristic spiciness, cumin with a more bitter taste, aromatic and spicy clove or cilantro that adds bittersweet touches. All of them are used in the preparation of curries and can be added to soups and stews as well as meats and vegetables. World famous are also saffron and basil, which combine mainly with rice and, of course, cinnamon and cardamom, used in Indian cuisine in desserts and sweets.
But there are many more Indian spices that we all know and that bring a unique and unique touch to their dishes. One of them is Fenugreek, a red seed, very crispy and with a slightly bitter touch, the main ingredient in most curries and also used in bread and cookies. We also find turmeric, a substitute for saffron, with a flavor similar to pepper and known as "the salt of the east" for enhancing the flavor of all kinds of dishes. On the other hand is the asafetida, also called hing, with a very spicy flavor and a scented smell, perfect for meats and rice. And finally the ginger, a root that is used both fresh and dried and that brings a refreshing flavor and a little spicy to meats, sauces, curries, and legumes.
Masala and curries: Indian spices are also mixed
But in Indian dishes it is very difficult to use a single spice, the most common is to find an elaboration with masala, literally "mixture of spices". Among the most used masala we find:
Garam masala: a mixture of spicy spices that can be found already prepared in the Indian spice markets. This recipe is a mixture of cardamom, garlic, pepper, and cinnamon and is used in all kinds of meats, vegetables, legumes and stews.
Tandoori masala: sure the tandoori chicken sounds common to you, but this mixture of cumin, coriander, garlic and fenugreek among other spices can be found in a myriad of Indian and Pakistani dishes, especially in vegetarian and meat dishes
And finally one of the best known and used mixtures in Indian cuisine: the curries. There are many forms and variants of curries, ranging from very spicy to milder. The most common are:
Vindaloo: the king of curries, a perfect blend of several ingredients including ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and pepper. It has a very spicy nuance and is used mainly to marinate meats, especially lamb and chicken.
Madras: this very spicy red curry is used in meats, but also perfectly combines with vegetables and rice. To make it mix paprika, cayenne, turmeric, tomato, ginger and other spices from India.
Spices have a large number of nutrients and preventive substances such as potassium, calcium, vitamin C, or oxalic acid. Thanks to them we do better digestion and stimulate the appetite, in addition to improving blood circulation.
Spices are given flavor, money and health, but are very difficult to collect in most cases. For example, to get a kilo of saffron we would need to collect 150,000 saffron roses, and we would separate the stamens by hand one by one. This amply justifies its price in the market.
We should not use artificial food dyes to flavor our dishes, as they are a mixture of tartrazine with corn flour and salt, with tartrazine being a synthetic powder derived from tar that can cause allergies. It is recommended to use natural dyes such as saffron or turmeric.
Cayenne or chili pepper: it is also called chilli or hot pepper, which dries and stings a lot. It can be found in a branch or ground and is widely used in curries, sauces, soups and stews with a lot of flavor. Cayenne helps improve blood circulation and often clears the nose. It provides vitamin C, stimulates gastric secretion, makes you sweat and activates slow digestion. It is believed that it reduces bad cholesterol.
Basil: you can use fresh or dried leaves, the latter having a more curry-like flavor. It is well combined with tomato, garlic and thyme, and it is advisable to add it at the end of the preparation of the dishes since cooked increases its flavor. Stimulates the appetite, facilitates digestion and calms the nerves. The basil plant scares away flies, so it's normal to see them in pots and use them as a repellent. In many places of India this spice is cultivated.
Cilantro: sometimes called coriander. Coriander seed is widely used for mixing spices and as a main ingredient in curry. It is very similar to white pepper. It has a slightly sweet and sour flavor very appropriate for lamb or pork dishes. It is good for the digestive system, reduces gas, stimulates appetite and promotes the secretion of gastric juices. Taken in infusion can combat children's diarrhea, and if chewed removes the bad taste in the mouth. Its oil is part of liqueurs like Benedictine or Cointreau.
Clove: can be used whole or ground, and is the flower bud of a tree that can reach up to 9 meters. It is strongly aromatic with a spicy flavor, widely used in stews, in baked dishes, in fillings and especially in curries. In addition to using it in wines and spicy liquors. Stimulates the digestive system, prevents bad breath, flatulence and is used against nausea. It has an antiseptic essence being a remedy against toothache. In fact it is used in stomatology as an analgesic and anesthetizing the dental pulp. It is said that they are aphrodisiacs.
Saffron: are the dry stigmas of the flower of the saffron that are separated by hand, which is why it is the most expensive spice that exists. You need to collect 150,000 flowers to get a kilo. It is used as a colorant in dishes such as rice, soups and cakes. Stimulates gastric secretions, is healthy for the stomach and has sedative and soothing properties. But you have to use it in small quantities because in high doses it is toxic, even becoming deadly. Formerly it was used as an abortifacient.
Cinnamon: it is the inner bark that is extracted peeling the cinnamon branches. It is yellowish red, aromatic smell and very pleasant taste. It can be obtained in branches, powder or bark and is used mainly in confectionery, although other uses are given such as flavoring liquors or perfuming soaps and toothpastes. The oil it contains softens the breath. It is a spice that prevents infections, gas and cuts vomiting. It contributes to control the level of sugar in the blood. Formerly it was used against diarrhea, against internal bleeding and as a sedative for labor pains
Cumin: can be used whole or ground. It is important as an ingredient of curry. It has a bitter and somewhat spicy flavor used in meats, sauces, soups, vegetables. It is said that taken as an infusion is better than fennel to expel gases, and is very good for indigestion and headaches. It is said that formerly the Hebrews mixed it with honey and pepper and took it twice a day because it excited them sexually. Nowadays it is also used as food for poultry, mixing it with water and flour.
Ginger: is a root and can be used both fresh and dried and ground being one of the most important spices of oriental cuisine, with a refreshing taste and slightly spicy. The fresh root can be frozen and then grate without defrosting to cook. It is used in meats, legumes, sweets, sauces, soups and adds spiciness to curries. It has bactericidal properties, it makes you sweat, it is a natural remedy against nausea, it clears the airways, lifts the mood and clears the mind. In the fifth century, much was used to flavor the food of sailors, since it prevents dizziness and prevents scurvy. The word ginger in ancient Sanskrit means "in the form of a horn."
Curcuma: contains yellow coloring matters so it is used as a substitute for saffron and as a dye. Buddhist monks use it to dye their robes. It is normally used ground and has a taste similar to pepper, bitter and somewhat spicy. It facilitates digestion and it is advisable to use it when preparing high fat dishes. The turmeric helps metabolize glucose which helps control diabetes. It is extremely useful for urinary conditions, improves the action of the liver and is a traditional remedy for jaundice in herbal medicine. In India it is boiled with milk and sugar to relieve colds, as well as liver ailments and a remedy for gases. The turmeric is known as the salt of the east and is used for the preparation of curry powder.
Cardamom: used for both sweet and savory dishes. Pods and seeds are widely used as an ingredient in curry and as a condiment for rice. The most common cardamoms are green or white, there are other browns and blacks that are larger and more spicy. Its aroma is quite similar to that of the eucalyptus with its smell in the seeds. Acts on the digestive system avoiding cramps, heavy digestion and flatulence, as well as cutting nausea and headache. Certain civilizations considered it an aphrodisiac and the Egyptians chewed it to maintain white teeth.
Parsley: it is used as a dressing in many dishes. It is recommended not to cook it so it is added to the dish when it has finished cooking. It is rich in vitamins A, C, calcium and iron. It is diuretic and digestive, regulates blood circulation, has anticancer properties and prevents heart disease. The water of parsley can help eliminate freckles and skin spots. Eliminates odors and refreshes the breath. Be careful not to confuse the parsley with the lesser hemlock that looks a lot like it and is poisonous. The latter gives off an unpleasant odor when squeezed.
Thyme: This Mediterranean spice is well known and deserves mention. It has an intense flavor so it is recommended to use it in moderation. It is used in soups, roasted meats, stuffed poultry and stews. It enhances the flavor of tomatoes and salad dressings, since it is very good with onion, garlic, parsley, bay leaf and rosemary, although it is recommended not to mix it with oregano. It has disinfectant properties and facilitates the digestion of fatty foods. It can be taken as an infusion, calming problems with the digestive system and avoiding colds.
Nutmeg: can be purchased whole or ground and used to flavor baked foods, sweets, desserts such as rice with milk, as well as some vegetables such as spinach, cauliflower or mashed potatoes. It can also be used to make fish sauces and it goes very well with seafood. Keep in mind that in small amounts is beneficial for the stomach, but in high amounts can be toxic having hallucinogenic effects and even creating addiction. It is said that the infusion of nutmeg has come to be used in some prisons as a legal narcotic for these hallucinogenic effects.
The oldest market in india
In the heart of Old Delhi, Khari Baoli rises from the seventeenth century. It is perhaps the most important spice market in Asia. Its alleyways each day see sacks with about 30 tons of pepper, coriander, saffron or chili peppers. Some sacks have just landed from remote locations and others are stacked to address them. The rest remain in the market to be part of the aesthetic pyramids of colors that offer as a claim several thousands of stores.
Now you know the different spices that you can find in Indian cuisine, you just have to decide to try each of the dishes that carry them. Bon Appetite!