The art of spicing is valued above any other virtue in an Indian cook. It may be surprising to the “plain food” brigade that Indian food is very healthy. The spices and herbs used are credited with preventative and curative properties and the latest findings in medicine confirm that garlic and onions, almost universally used in Indian food, are useful in lowering cholesterol in the blood and controlling blood pressure. They are rich in vitamins and trace elements.
Cinnamon and cloves are known to be germicidal. Coriander, cumin, nutmeg, mace, fennel and cardamom have calming properties and are used to aid digestion. Chillies are very rich in Vitamin C and there are varieties, such as Kashmir Chillies, which are not pungent. Even hot chillies have a useful purpose. They are used mainly in parts of India where the temperature stays very high for most of the year. They stimulate the appetite, which tends to wilt in hot climates, but more importantly, they cause perspiration which cools the body by evaporation and also rids it of waste through the skin.
The spicing of Indian foods does not stem simply from the creativity of cooks. Rather, it is based on teachings laid down hundreds of years ago by medicine men and sages who believed that man is what he eats and therefore it was of supreme importance that food should be beneficial to physical and spiritual well being. What is most noteworthy about Indian food is that every dish is spiced, yet no two dishes taste exactly alike.
Contributing to this diversity is the fact that Indian, commercial curry powders are not used. They are looked on with disdain and no cook worth his or her salt would be caught using them. While commercial curry powder is made up of a number of different spices, it is made to a formula that remains inflexible.
On the other hand, working with individual spices, herbs and aromatic seeds, it is possible to produce a wonderful variety of dishes, each with it’s own distinct character, never boring to the cook or to the people who sit down to enjoy an “original”.
It is this blending of spices that is the magic of Indian cooking. Even the humble potato can take on many different forms, depending on how simple or complex the masala used.