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Food & Dining: Myths and Tips About Spices

By Sucheta Rawal Email By Sucheta Rawal
June 2022
Food & Dining: Myths and Tips About Spices

How to source, store, and cook the most important ingredients in your Indian pantry. 

Spices are an integral part of the Indian kitchen, and most of our knowledge about them has come naturally through tasting and observing. Most of us never went to a formal cooking class or read the encyclopedia of spices and, yet, seem to have somehow discovered our way around cooking with—and enjoying—a variety of spices.

Still, we may not know all there is to know about spices after all! So, here is a refresher about common facts and tips about spices.

Spices are good for you

Doctors and nutritionists are already touting the health benefits of spices, which has led to the availability of spices and spice supplements at mainstream grocery stores. If you happen to be one of those people who get acid reflux, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or ulcers after eating “spicy food,” spices may not be entirely to be blamed.

Red chili and its active compound capsaicin (responsible for the heat) actually help prevent and alleviate stomach ulcers. Some believe it also helps lower blood pressure and weight loss.

Turmeric and cumin aid digestion. In fact, turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties that help relieve an upset stomach. It also contains antioxidants that counteract free radicals and prevent cancer. Similarly, piperine and curcumin found in pepper prevent cancer. Cloves are also extremely high in antioxidants and hinder bacterial activity. Ginger and cinnamon aid in digestion; and have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.

Spicy is not always hot

A spice is defined as a root, bark, seed, or plant substance used for coloring or flavoring food. The term “spicy,” often misconstrued as “hot”—as in chili or peppery—in the western world, simply means incorporating the quality and aroma of spices. Not all spices are hot. Some spices are mild, others sweet, and most tend to play a distinctive role in flavoring and elevating a dish.

However, if you do need to soothe a burn after eating something “hot and spicy,” water is not the answer. Instead, reach for milk, yogurt, bread, or even chocolate.

You only need a little

Like most foods, spices have a limited shelf life. They may not spoil and rot like your milk does, but they do lose much of their flavor and potency over time. The general rule of thumb is to purchase each spice in small quantities (100-500 grams) and replace them every six months. If a spice has been sitting on your shelf for a year, it is time to replace it with new stock.

Also, keep into account that certain spices have longer shelf life than others. Spices that have a powerful smell, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom, age faster because they release their essence, while others with a less pungent aroma, like cumin and coriander, remain on the shelf longer. The best way to determine if the spice is still good to use is by simply smelling it.

Ever wonder why Indian kitchens have round, stainless steel spice boxes filled with colorful seeds and powders? Spices should always be stored in airtight bags or boxes located in a dark pantry or drawer. Spices contain volatile oils which, when exposed to light and air, start to deteriorate. Tin jars are best because they are airtight and block out the light.

Whole is better

Spices that come in seed form, such as black pepper, cumin, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom, have a more robust flavor when purchased whole rather than ground. “Think about purchasing coffee beans whole vs. ground. Some people prefer roasting and grinding their own coffee because it is more flavorful,” says chef, restauranter, and founder of Spicewalla brand, Meherwan Irani. However, spices that come in a pod or root form, such as chili, ginger, and turmeric, are ok to purchase in powdered form.

And when it comes to the best place to purchase the spices, Indian stores and Asian markets that have high volume and quick turnover will likely have better quality products. They are also more likely to sell spices whole.

Irani advises that you roast whole spices in a warm pan and grind them fresh just before cooking. Doing so activates the ingredients and releases the oils, imparting better flavor and aroma to the dish. But Indian cuisine requires you to use both whole and ground spices at different stages of cooking. When making his butter chicken recipe, Irani may use whole cumin seeds in the beginning, a coriander and cumin powder mix half way through, and finish off with freshly roasted cumin powder at the end. They all have different roles to play in the final taste of the dish.Food & Dining_02_06_22.jpg

Grind before cooking

While growing up in India, Irani’s entire family spent an entire week making blends and masalas at his grandmother's home. After roasting and cooling the spices, they would blend and grind them in an old, large hand grinder. Today, you can use a spice mill, mortar and pestle, or a coffee grinder for finer consistency.

Blends have their place

“Blended masalas like garam masala, tandoori masala, chaat masala exist for a reason. They are combinations that work together to help you get to the flavor profile you want,” adds Irani, though he strongly encourages home chefs to create their own recipes for blended spices. Just buy whole spices in small portions and make enough mix for one batch of the dish.

Without good quality spices, any chef will lack the proper tool to lay a foundation for a dish.

And if you feel all this is a lot of time and effort, think of how expensive spices were when we first discovered them, how far sailors and merchants went to buy them, and how they transformed food across cultures. So, brighten your palate and inspire your own culinary adventures.


Meet our new columnist

SUCHETA RAWAL is an award-winning food and travel writer, who has traveled to over 100 countries across seven continents, experiencing the world through her palate. She has been named one of the most influential cultural bloggers in the world for her blog Go Eat Give. Born in Mumbai and raised in Chandigarh, Rawal moved to Atlanta at the age of 17 when she started working at an Italian restaurant and ate her way across the city. When at home, Rawal writes recipes, teaches cooking classes, and hosts Airbnb dinner experiences.​

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