Tell me how often have you eaten a dish of a regional cuisine (say Konkani) or at an international cuisine restaurant (Peruvian maybe), totally loved it and then wrecked your brain for hours trying to pin point exactly what made the dish exceptional. Chances are it’s a special herb or a spice. These potent potions with nuanced sweet-sharp flavors help ground the food they are added to, make it extraordinary – and boost its health-o-meter too. Yes, they are that special. Time to get to know them better, and learn to use them liberally and smartly.
First up, it is important to understand the difference (yes they are different) between herbs and spices. Herbs (basil, oregano, mint, thyme, rosemary, parsley etc) come from the leafy and green part of the plant, and spices (mustard, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper etc) from root, stem, bulb, bark or seeds. So, their usage and what they add to food tends to be different too.
Plus, I seriously believe that it’s about time we all moved beyond just garam masala, cumin and mint. There are two ways I feel we can do this. Firstly we must open up to unusual, exotic and unfamiliar herbs or spices. Every country, every region has their own secret pinches we can borrow: chimichurri (from Argentina), romesco (from Spain), mole verde (from Mexico), dukka (from Egypt), quatre épices (from France), berbere (from Ethiopia), sambal oelek (from Indonesia), kalonji from West Bengal, halim which is called garden cress in english and aliv in marathi and many-many more. One tip is to pick up an interesting spice/herb when traveling to a different country or even a different state. Come back, read a bit about it, maybe talk to people in-the-know and then try to incorporate in your cooking. Slowly the spices and herbs counter in your pantry will swell, your masala dabba will expand, and your food will also become – Swell! I am practicing what I am preaching here: am warming up to kalpasi these days, the mystery spice from Tamil Nadu (called dagad phool in Maharashtra and pathar ka pool in Uttar Pradesh) and trying to merge it with chicken.
Need some ideas? Allspice, the famous import https://www.holachef.com/files/blog_subdomain/from west indies, which is a major ingredient in their jerk seasoning, is actually perfect to perk up grilled chicken or fish. so why stick to familiar rosemary only? like wise caraway, a bittersweet spice from north africa (particularly tunisia where it is part of harissa, a spice mix) and north and central europe, can add an interesting flavour to tomato sauce for your pasta, or even the egg sandwich. and cinnamon we are all familiar with, but how about cassia from assam and burma, which is similar but more piquant; try adding it to desserts for a stronger kick.
Secondly, we can begin using the same old spices and herbs differently. Basically get experimental. Have you ever had turmeric-spiked mashed potatoes? Try it, they pair up brilliantly. Similarly curry leaves work well in dishes outside the South Indian and Maharashtrian cuisine too. Add to bottle guard, taste it and you’ll know what I mean. Just imagine… and then give it a try. Some of the pairings might just surprise you.
Finally why should we bother about spices and herbs? What do they bring to the table? Lots actually!
Well, for starters they stimulate all the senses and open up tastes that are unusual and utterly fabulous.They have been used for their medicinal properties since ancient times; Ayurveda swears by them, as so does ancient Chinese medicine. They are rich in antioxidants, and are a perfect route to add taste, flavor and zest to low-fat or low-sodium diets. Even to regular diets.