Control of a family kitchen brings some serious responsibilities. Not a month goes by when I don’t pay a visit to the local Indian grocery. While chutneys, lentils, and snacks are usually on my list, the real reason I go is to tour the overly scented aisles packed full of Indian spices. These are not spices that I can find in the supermarket I frequent every weekend. These are not spices that were included in any of the lovely spice racks I received as wedding presents. Rather, these are items that I’ve decided are the “must-haves” to keep my kitchen going.
My mother and her friends could afford to have entire cupboards dedicated to the storage of unique Indian spices, but I, on the other hand, don’t have the storage space in my one-bedroom apartment, nor do I have the money to purchase spices that I will only use once in a blue moon. As I became more settled into my cooking regime, I was able to decide what I had to have and what I could get by without. Here are a few tips to help you do the same.
Get the most of out your spices.
This approach has allowed me to determine which spices belong in my kitchen on a day-to-day basis, and which ones are special items that I can buy in small packs or on an as-needed basis. After thinking about my staple recipes, it was easy to extract exactly what spices must be in my kitchen every day: asafetida, whole cumin, mustard seeds, a few spice mixes, and turmeric. For you, it may be different, so make sure you consider all options carefully.
Can you imagine a kitchen in which you regularly have to concoct and grind your own spice mixes every day? Thankfully, there are some great mixes out there, if only you know how to use them! While garam masala has always been a solid, pre-mixed standby, there are a few others worth exploring. Tamarind rice is a huge favorite in my household, and the powdered mix yields great results every time! (Just be sure to use sesame oil; it gives the rice and mixture so much more flavor.) Another little known secret of South Indian cooking is to use sambar mix (not the powder) as a spicing agent for shallow vegetable fry. It yields all the spicy deliciousness of South India from one packet and with little extended effort. Next time you are at the store, see if any of the pre-made mixes will work for you.
Storage is everything.
Keep your spices tightly sealed, in airtight containers, and out of heat, sun, or humidity. Ground spices retain flavor for up to one year, and whole spices can last as long as three years. While spices don’t exactly go bad, they do start to lose some of their flavor after these time periods, and adding new spices to old will not fix the problem. Dried herbs are usually good for up to one and a half years.
Hold your nose.
It may have been acceptable in India to have the rich smell of spices pervade your home, but most landlords in the United States are just not so merciful. Reducing the number of spices you have in your cabinet is a great start to clearing the air. Often, the import process leaves the outer packaging of spices slightly dirty or exposed to spice particles that can become apparent when you store them at home. Removing spices from their original packages and re-storing them in labeled, airtight containers (that means no spice tins with loose lids) will help reduce the stench of stale spices inhabiting your cupboard.
Light a scented candle when you begin cooking, close all doors to rooms that you do not want scented by your food preparations, and keep doors and windows open for ventilation.
Embrace world cuisine.
My husband and I are of Indian descent, but we were both born and brought up in the United States. While each of us craves Indian food two to three nights a week, there are a good number of nights where our dinner fare spills into Thai, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, or American. Rather than trying to hold onto the ideal of the perfect Indian kitchen, I regularly see myself as an Indian-inspired chef, focusing on world cuisine that is heavily influenced by my intimate connection with Indian cuisine.
That means some days we may have a citrus chickpea salad, a side of ginger-scented yogurt rice, and a “curried” lentil soup. And some days, that may be traditional poori with masala. By embracing new ideas from other cuisines and bringing them into my kitchen, I can still have variety in my dishes, all while using a small collection of spices.
Vidhya Ravi is a graduate of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. For more cooking tips, recipes, and advice for starter chefs, visit her blog atwww.starterchef.blogspot.com