Indian Cooking Spice Secrets
Creating and sharing healthy, delicious vegetarian dishes is very important to me because it’s not uncommon to hear people say that a vegetarian diet is not good for you. I have been known to get into spirited debates over this topic. The bottom line is no diet is good for you if it’s not nutritionally balanced!
I have to tell you a story about a FB friend who got into quite a heated online debate with me.
He claimed that friends of his switched to a vegetarian diet and within months all the kids started getting sick and losing their teeth! He was quite confrontational. We went back and forth a number of times substantiating our respective side of the debate. I finally had to end it by saying that educating yourself prior to making a drastic change in diet is fundamental. He didn’t provide any context about the situation. For all we know about this family is that maybe they got rid of meat and didn’t replace it with any healthy protein alternatives! Maybe they fed their kids sugar 24/7! Sugar is vegetarian after all!!
This reminds me of one of my motivational mentors, Brendon Burchard, who often says, “Common sense is not common practice!”
The point is, as I said before, eating vegetarian or vegan requires a bit of education.
- You need to have plant sources of protein – like beans, lentils, grains, nuts, soy;
- You need to have enough fibre – most plant protein sources also provide lots of fibre; not so with meat;
- You should eat healthy starches – yams, sweet potato, squash, parsnip, pumpkin, whole grains;
- You should eat a variety of fresh fruits & vegetables – dark leafy greens, red, purple, orange, yellow… the richer the colour, the more antioxidant rich and nutrient dense it’s going to be!
My philosophy is to make food delicious and healthy, without compromise.
Just recently I saw on the news that the majority of North Americans don’t eat their required daily servings (5) of vegetables. They’re not getting the much needed health benefits from plant foods. Why? Because according to the report, people don’t like the taste of vegetables. I don’t get that…but hey, who am I to judge!
So do you know what they are planning to do about it? How they are going to try to make vegetables taste better? Apparently, they have unraveled a genetic code that could lead to better tasting vegetables! To make kale or broccoli less bitter; brussels sprouts more appealing. I believe there could be huge consequences to tampering with nature! By altering their genetic profile and getting people to eat more vegetables, we may actually be eliminating some of their health benefits. So what’s the point?! We may not even realize the damage until 50 years from now!!
There are ways to make vegetables taste better without genetically altering them. Of course your kids may not like boiled broccoli or kale salad. I get that. My kids never liked eating kale or spinach either. But now they willingly have it almost every day! And these are teenagers!! Do you want to know how? My green goddess smoothies! My older son said, “Mom how the heck do you make this green stuff taste so good”!
Well… to a couple of generous handfuls of spinach and kale, I add a frozen banana, an orange, maybe a mango or some pineapple. I add almond milk, throw in a handful of walnuts or pumpkin seed, a scoop of protein powder…even a pinch of saffron! Next time, I change it up and use frozen berries with the leafy greens. This is just one example of how you can make food that’s “good for you” taste even better!
So how do I do that with purely vegetarian meals, you might ask?
Well… my secret is herbs and spices. And which cuisine comes to mind when you think of spices?? Is it Indian by any chance?!
In a few of my recent blog posts, I talked about the incredible, scientifically proven health benefits of some Indian spices. I want to emphasize again that not only do they add flavour without adding extra calories, but they are so crazy good for your health and well being!
If you want to learn more about the uses and health benefits of Indian spices as well as some delicious recipes to get you started, you can download my free ebook by clicking on the banner above.
Sometimes when I talk to people about Indian cooking they’ll say they love Indian food but just don’t know enough about using spices. They say it sounds too complicated…or there are too many spices…or they don’t know how to combine the spices…etc.
If you have similar concerns, let me tell you, don’t worry…I’ve got you covered! You don’t need a spice cabinet full of different spices… You don’t have to worry about which ones to combine together… You don’t have to labour away at grinding them yourself. I am going to show you how to make it real simple. It’s flavourful and fail-proof every time!
There are only 4 essential spices you need to create tasty Indian dishes every time. Does that surprise you? Of course you can get more creative and experimental with practice. Do you want to know what they are?? And no, curry powder isn’t one of them, I have never used curry powder. I’ll tell you why in a bit.
- Whole cumin
- Cayenne or chilli powder (check it for hotness, you can always add more later)
- And last but not least…! My favourite go to spice – garam masala!!
Have you heard of or used garam masala? Do you know what it is or what’s in it?
I have to admit it can be a bit confusing because the word masala can have two meanings, which Indians tend to use interchangeably.
There’s garam masala which is a spice blend. But there’s also “the masala” which is the sautéed/caramelized base for most Indian dishes. I have my partner, Andre, well trained in cooking the masala for me. I just tell him what I am planning to make…whether it’s a dry veggie dish or a saucy, gravy type dish, lentils/daal… whatever.
He will often cook the masala, which requires sautéing/caramelizing the garlic, ginger, onion and in some cases tomatoes; He is also quite comfortable adding the spices. Then I come along and make the meal! And you won’t believe that he’s actually the one who usually wants it more spicy!! Go figure! Who is the Indian here anyway!!
Garam masala, is a pre-ground spice blend. You can buy it at any Indian supermarket. Even major grocery stores are beginning to carry it now.
It’s a “warming” blend of ground spices like coriander, cumin, green & black cardamom, black pepper, cloves, cinnamon. Some higher quality brands may even have star anise or nutmeg.
Actually, reaching for garam masala always reminds me of my beautiful mom. She used to grind her own garam masala. She would always say the store bought stuff has more of the cheaper spices in it.
She would buy all the different spices, lay them out on trays to soak up some sun for a couple of days. I think she even roasted the cumin to bring out more of its warming flavour. Then she would grind them all up and fill up a big jar to last a whole year.
Of course, she always made it during summer because of the sunshine, and also to be able to open the windows for fresh air to dispel the spicy aromas from the house. The only problem was…the whole neighbourhood got a lingering effect of my mother’s garam masala production!! God bless her! You can imagine how even my childhood memories are full of spice aromas!
But you don’t have to make your own masala blend. All Indian supermarkets usually carry a number of ground masala brands. Just read the list of ingredients to make sure it has a variety of spices. The more expensive ones will likely have a better mix of whole spices.
The blend of spices in garam masala is based on the ancient tradition and principles of Ayurveda, which is all about creating balance in the body. Each spice has its individual and collective health benefits. So there is holistic science behind the combination of spices and how they interact with one another to benefit your health and add a balance of flavour to your food. In a previous post I talked about how black pepper enhances the absorption of turmeric in your body. That’s just one more example of the ancient science behind the use of spices.
I told you earlier that I never use curry powder. It’s not because I’m a spice snob or anything! The problem is that curry powder, along with other spices, also contains turmeric and chilli powder. Sometimes even ground ginger. It’s absolutely fine if you want to sprinkle it on foods as a seasoning…like potato wedges, for example. But if you want to make authentic Indian food, you want to have control over the amount of turmeric you use and the amount of cayenne or chilli powder you use. Curry powder is too generic. It’s kind of like taco seasoning.
Now let me give you a quick explanation of how to make your masala base for cooking many different Indian dishes:
- Toast whole cumin in extra virgin oil for 1-2 minutes
- Add garlic, then ginger, then onion; sauté or caramelize depending on the dish
- Add chopped tomato, if using
- Add turmeric, salt, cayenne/chilli
- Add garam masala last to retain its flavour
This should take you anywhere from 10 – 20 minutes, depending on the dish you’re making.