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grinding Indian spices

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  • Stan May 21, 2002 11:51 PM
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I have a question about Indian spices that I'm embarrassed to ask. But that's what the Internet is for.

Years ago I lived in England, and in the city where I lived there was an Indian restaurant. Actually it wasn't even a restaurant, just a husband and wife who occasionally set themselves up temporarily in a storefront somewhere, or at dinnertime in someone else's restaurant that only served lunch. They didn't advertise. People just heard they were open again and they showed up. Having eaten at one incarnation of their business, I could see why. It wasn't just better than other Indian restaurants -- it was totally different food, just amazing. I asked them what their secret was and they shrugged and said, "we grind our own spices". Ever since then, I have suspected that all normal Indian restaurants use the same Patak's or pre-ground curry powder that I can buy in the India "sweets and spices" grocery.

At one point I worked up the courage to address this theory to the owner of such a grocery. He laughed and said that there was nothing wrong with buying preground, premixed spices. He didn't even sell a spice grinder. Now, I don't believe this. When you grind anything you expose it to air and it oxidizes. Surely there is a reason to grind your spices at the last minute. Grinding your own curry powder is presumably a nuisance because it has so many ingredients. But I imagine their shelf life is quite long, so if you cook as much curry as I do then how big a deal can it be?

So here are my questions: Does it make a difference to grind your own Indian spices? How big a hassle is it? What kind of grinder do you use? And does your average Indian restaurant really not grind its own spices?

You can tell that I'm not from India. But okay, you have to start somewhere. Any clues much appreciated.

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  1. It's a bit intimidating giving advice amidst some rather expert company, but here's my 2 bob's worth:

    I've eaten a lot of curry, and cooked somewhat less, however, being a cookbook addict, I've done a fair bit of reading! I've found some of the commercial pastes and powders to be quite acceptable for a whip up curry, but my palate and my reading both tell me you can't beat the home roasted and ground variety. Store bought powders are frequently exposed to air and sunlight, and rapidly lose their aromatic oil.

    Mostly, I just follow the recipe (for the first try, at least!), toast the seeds and other ingredients as directed and throw the dry ingredients in an electric coffee grinder. Fluid ingredients can be added in by throwing them into a food processor or blender together with the dry ingredients afterwards, if making a paste.

    A book I'm working my way through at the moment is "50 Great Curries of India". Not sure of the author at the moment. Hope this helps.

    Cheers.

    1. 1) Yes, grinding your own spices makes a big difference in taste quality. Especially things like garam masala (clove, cinnamon & cardamom). Don't be intimidated. Just buy a coffee grinder.

      2) To make really good Indian food, you don't need pre-mixed "curry" spices, nor do you need to create elaborate mixes yourself. What you need is a basic pantry of spices, much of which you would buy ground: ground turmeric, cumin (ground and whole), corriander (ground and whole), ground cayenne, dried chilis, calon ji (also known as Kalojeera or "onion seed"), whole mustard seed, whole cardamom, cinnamon stick, and cloves. There are others, but these are the basics.

      With these spices, it's then a matter of learning the combos with various meats, fish, and vegetables. I've posted some fairly straightforward and delicious recipes here previously, all of which I am learning from my Bengali mother-in-law. Here's the most recent one that I've finally mastered, involving a mustard-based sauce. Take whole mustard seed and grind it very fine in your coffee grinder. Put it into a bowl with oil (vegetable), a finely minced fresh serrano chili, turmeric (just about 1/2 tsp), and salt (don't skimp - enough salt is a big secret to good Indian cooking.) Mix this together in the bowl with about 2 lbs peeled raw shrimp and marinate. Then just cook in in a wok, or steam it, until it's cooked. I add a little bit of water while cooking to help the sauce along. Delicious. This basic mustard recipe can also be used quite effectively with various types of fish. I haven't mastered the ins and outs of Bengali fish dishes yet, though.

      Another very basic "curry" combo includes turmeric, corriander, and cumin. You can make wonderful dishes based on pork, cauliflower, chicken, shrimp, and other vegetables from a basic recipe that starts with some oil in a hot wok with some whole cumin seed. Then add the cauliflower, for example, along with a cut-up white potato or so per head of cauliflower. Then 1/2 tsp turmeric, 1 tsp ground corriander, and 1 tsp ground cumin. Plus plenty of salt to taste and cayenne to your tolerance level. Coax the liquid from the vegetable and potato, and add a bit more water to build up the sauce. Just cook until the veg is soft. If you do this with meat, then mix the turmeric/corriander/cumin/salt into the raw chicken/pork/shrimp, along with a finely chopped onion, and let marinate. Then cook in a wok, with the potato, until done.

      My favorite vegetable preparation is based on calon ji. Throw about a tsp of it into the wok with some oil and a fresh serrano. If you like heat, cut up the serrano. Add french-cut green beans, a tiny bit of turmeric, and salt and cook. Or julienne a Daikon and do it with the same ingredients.

      Ok, so this got a little long. But the point is, no need to be held hostage by pre-mixed sauces. It's not as hard as you might think to make good home-style Indian food.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Tom M.

        You don't have to buy pre-ground cumin or coriander either. With our coffee grinder, we grind our own in small batches, so that we don't have ground spices sitting around for long periods on the shelf.

        1. re: C. Fox

          ANd a great way to clean out the grinder:

          Put a tablespoon or two of white rice into the grinder when you are done and grind it up. The oils of whatever you were grinding before soak into the rice powder. Then you can just wipe it out and it is ready for next time.

          Way back when, I couldn't afford 2 grinders, so I had to use my coffee grinder for spices too. This trick helped an awful lot.

      2. Grinding your own makes a huge difference. The store bought stuff does lose potency after not so long. That is why when you want to buy indian spices your best bet is to go to the biggest busiest indian grocery in town for turnover reasons. Also one of the reasons they do such a large business in whole spices.

        For what it's worth, i don't know any indian cook (and i grew up with a few and have met many more who use pre-made "curry powder" it just doesn't exist in indian cooking. The spices mixes that do such as garam masala and panch poran you can by pre-ground and pre-mixed but most of your better cooks will have their own special recipes for these mixes and grind up their own in small batches at home.

        the other thing you can do is that many recipes call for roasting certain spices (such as cumin to bring out a different aspect of their flavor) in almost all recipes, spices go directly into the oil before most of the other ingredients also bring out their flavor (you have to be careful when you do this with chili powder as it burns)

        1. If you don't have a spice grinder or coffee grinder just for spices, you can use a rolling pin to grind your spices, at least in the case of roasted cumin. After roasting the seeds, stick them in a plastic baggy and between sheets of waxed paper and roll them out. Make sure you let the seeds cool first--the first time I did this I, without thinking, dumped them from the pan into the bag, which promptly melted and sent seeds flying all over the floor. The bag and waxed paper keep the seed oil from permanently odorizing your counter or rolling pin.

          1. Yes -- using freshly ground spices is essential for certain spices (the seeds) eg:

            1) cumin seeds, coriander seeds, whole pepper -- these are the "classic" north indian spices. Just before using them, toast the amount you need and grind them up. Sometimes, the recipes will also use whole seeds, or a mixture of whole seeds and powdered ones.

            2) cinnamon, cardamom, cloves -- No need to toast them. just grind up the amount you need. Some recipes also call for whole, not ground.

            3) Mustard seeds, onion seeds ("kalanji"), fenugreek ("methi") -- most recipes will call for whole seeds, not ground.

            4) In south india, they also use some lentils as spices. They are usually used whole.

            5) Turmeric and cayenne pepper -- for some reason, ground turmeric and ground cayenne pepper keeps well. You can buy these in powder form

            These are only the very basic spices which you will need almost always for most indian cooking -- there are, of course, dozens of other ones.

            For grinding spices, I find it very convenient to use a small coffee grinder (less than $20).

            I think there is absolutely no need to use the store bought "curry powder" thing. Ugh!

            1. I have a premix that isn't bad and then I jazz it up with freshly toasted cumin (always) and a handful of other things. If making a big curry, I use a small coffee grinder earmarked for spices but if just for a two serving dish, I just use my mortar and pestle made of marble I've had for years and years.