Spices are the life and soul of every Indian dish. They're what gives the food life and makes the flavours dance. My dad, and his dad before him, always instinctively understood this. That's why they always insisted on only buying the very best spices that they could find. And it's how we still work now. It's the only way that makes sense to us. It's also why my granddad worked so hard developing his spice pastes. It was a way of preserving in oil the flavours of just ground spices when they were still at their freshest.
Below you can find out more about the spices we use that are so crucial to giving everything we produce that authentically delicious taste of India.
Belonging to the same family as cumin, the seeds look like a smaller, rounder version of cumin; greyish green to reddish brown. The flavour is more spicy and pungent than cumin, ajwain seeds are often used whole not crushed.
Cardamom is the fruit of a large, perennial bush that grows wild in the rainforests of a mountain range called the Western Ghats. Cardamom is commonly referred to as the Queen of Spices. Cardamom pods are green in colour and are oval with around 12 tiny dark brown or black sticky seeds. They taste lemony and flowery, with a note of camphor or eucalyptus. Black cardamom looks very different to green cardamom and has a deeper, smokier flavour.
Asafoetida is a dried, resinous gum collected from three species of the Ferula (Giant Fennel) plant which is then ground to a fine powder. It has a very strong, pungent smell and the flavour mellows as it is fried in oil. When cooked it has a truffle-like flavour and a roasted garlic aroma.
Chillies come in many colours, shapes and sizes; they can be as tiny as a young pea or as long as 30cm. Immature chillies are green - when they ripen they become yellow, orange, red, brown or purple. Chillies range in heat from mild to very hot. The heat from chillies comes from capsaicin in their seeds, fleshy parts and skin.
The clove tree is a small, tropical, evergreen tree with fragrant leaves. Cloves are the unopened red flower buds of the clove tree. Dried cloves can be used whole or ground. Cloves have an extremely strong, pungent and aromatic flavour with warm notes of pepper and camphor. The taste is fruity, but can be sharp, hot and bitter.
Cinnamon is the bark of the cassia tree. It has a warm, sweet, citrus taste and is very aromatic. It is used to flavour rice, curries and desserts. It is either sold as sticks or as a ground powder. Ground Cinnamon is an integral part of the standard blend of Garam Masala.
Coriander seeds are greenish-grey in colour. Ripe seeds have a sweet woody, spicy aroma with a subtle undertone of pine and pepper. This is the spice that creates the base flavour for many Indian dishes and so very popular in all regions of India.
Cumin seeds are oval, brownish-green in colour and about 5mm long. Cumin has a very distinctive strong and spicy aroma. The flavour is rich, slightly bitter, earthy and warm. The seeds are used in snacks, appetisers, rice and vegetable dishes and is an indispensable item. Cumin powder is an important ingredient of Garam Masala and Panchphoran.
Curry leaves come from a small, deciduous tree and are synomous with Southern Indian and Sri Lankan dishes. Fresh curry leaves give off an intensely aromatic, spicy aroma with a citrus note. The taste is warm, lemony and slightly bitter.
Kalonji is the dried, seed-like fruit of a small herb. It is usually dry roasted or fried to develop the flavour. The taste can be described as nutty, earthy and peppery. The seeds are used in bread doughs, such as naan & kulchas and are also used in salads and pickles.
Fennel has a distinctive, sweet anise flavour. The spice is also used in Garam Masala and in spiced sauces for vegetables or lamb. Known for its beneficial effects in aiding digestion, fennel seeds are often fried and toasted and eaten after a meal.
Fresh coriander looks very much like flat-leaf parsley. The flavour has both lemon and ginger notes. The stalks have more flavour than the leaves so these should be used also. Coriander is one of the most commonly used herbs in India.
Fenugreek leaves are medium sized square leaves. They have a unique, bitter taste. The dried leaves add fragrance to vegetable and onion based curries. Fenugreek seeds have a pungent and slightly bitter flavour.
Mace is the red skin that envelopes the hard kernel of a nutmeg. When it is dried, the colour changes from a bright red to a warm orange. Mace has a cleaner more savoury flavour than nutmeg.
The seeds of the mustard plant are small and round and come in different varieties - yellow and brown or black. Whole mustard seeds have no aroma but when ground they are pungent and strong and their earthy aromas are released. The yellow seeds are used in pickles and the brown or black seeds are the most commonly used variety in all other Indian dishes. Whole seeds are usually dry roasted or heated in hot oil/ghee until they pop or burst.
The aroma of paprika tends to be subtle and delicate with caramel notes and a slight smokiness. The flavours can vary from sweet and smoky to rounded and full-bodied. Paprika has a dominant deep red colour when used in cooking.
Saffron is the dried stigma of the Crocus flower. Its the most expensive spice in the world. Saffron has a mesmerising aroma; it is unmistakably rich, musky, floral and honeyed. The taste is very delicate and Saffron adds a brilliant golden yellow colour to dishes. It is sold as both strands and in powder form. Saffron is a precious spice and is often called Spice of the Gods. Its worth more than its weight in gold.
Star anise is the fruit of the Chinese evergreen magnolia tree. It can be up to 3cm in size and is an 8-pointed star. Its flavour is close to that of anise or liquorice and is warm and pungent.
Turmeric is a member of the ginger family. Fresh turmeric is boiled in water for about 45 minutes, drained and then dried in the sun and ground into a powder. Turmeric is the soul of most Indian dishes. It is used as the basis of many masalas, curry powders and pastes in India. It has a distinct and special warm flavour and the powder adds a vibrant yellow colour to dhals (lentils) and curries.
Black pepper used to be the main source of heat in all Indian dishes before chillies were introduced in the 15th Century. It is known as King of the Spices and it is used as a spice at the beginning of cooking. White pepper is just the husk of the black pepper removed.