GN Focus | Eat

Master of spices

In her quest to serve up the perfect Valentine’s Day meal, a willing cook meets celebrated Indian chef Sanjeev Kapoor to learn about the virtues of spices

  • By Nikki Meyler | Special to GN Focus
  • Published: 00:00 February 10, 2013
  • GN Focus

  • Image Credit: Gulf News
  • Sanjeev Kapoor contemplates the power of the chilli at the launch of his restaurant Options by Sanjeev Kapoor at Mövenpick Hotel Deira

For years, there has been mass speculation on the types of food thought to lure us into love; from oysters to chocolate, experts have carried out thousands of studies into what makes the best aphrodisiac.

Chilli peppers generate physiological responses in our bodies like increased heart rate and circulation, and the most famous book on the subject, the Kama Sutra, extols the virtues of spices such as nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and ginger. In addition to this, it is widely reported that spicy food is good for the heart, substantially reducing triglycerides, a type of bad fat in the blood.

To understand the basic principles of Indian spices, I met with celebrity Indian chef Sanjeev Kapoor at the launch of his second Options by Sanjeev Kapoor restaurant at the Mövenpick Hotel Deira. Kapoor captains a multifaceted business empire, which includes numerous restaurant chains, books, his own TV channel in India and product lines. He is also partnering with Google to take his food and YouTube channel, Sanjeev Kapoor’s Khazana, to the global market.

Constantly on a tight schedule and surrounded by chefs, assistants, marketing people and well-wishers, Kapoor managed to slip away to an empty table in the corner of his new restaurant to talk about his basic food philosophy and ultimately his true passion — authentic Indian cuisine. “If you say that you are an Indian restaurant, then be Indian. There shouldn’t only be a sprinkling of Indianness in your product; you have to stay true to what you offer,” he says.

Kapoor explains that as a chef it is fairly easy to create new recipes by modernising them. Today he uses less salt, butter and sugar than he used to at the beginning of his career. “Essentially we are trained to do this. I want to make food relevant to today, but not change the soul of the food,” he says.

There could be no better person to describe the intricacies of Indian spices and how understanding their combinations can lead a willing cook on an endless food adventure. “Understanding the flavours of spice and how they work together is the underlying principle of how I used to cook when I was a chef in a restaurant. I had guests who would come in regularly and once I knew the basics of what they liked I could invent new dishes for them every time they came and not have to use the menu. This kept the experience exciting both for them and for me as a chef,” he says.

The first step in this journey is to gain a basic understanding of the core spices and Kapoor recommends experimentation. “The subtle use of spice plays a very important role in Indian cooking, but trial and error is the only way a novice can learn about these tastes and combinations. Some spices are required for aroma, some for flavour and some for complementing other spices. Be careful with chilli. Taste a little amount of each spice raw first and then toast it to see how the flavour changes”.

What are the basic spices for any aspiring Indian chef to begin with? Kapoor says turmeric, coriander, cumin, green cardamom, cloves and of course chilli. “Once you have an understanding of these, the most basic and mid-level cooking can be done. After these flavours are mastered, the finessing of dishes can be done by adding fenugreek, fennel or black cardamom. Experiment with what you like to find new combinations,” he says.

Developing a sense about the spices and understanding what you like mean you can expand within that range. There are a number of whole spices that should be lightly toasted before being ground. This is to release the essential oils in the spices and bring out their full depth of flavour and fragrance. Ground spices do not need to be toasted if they are reasonably new, but toasting slightly older spices for about 10 seconds will rejuvenate them a little. Kapoor is adamant about keeping his store cupboard fresh and replenished. “Spices over six months old are as good as sawdust. Throw them away!” he insists.

The simplest way to toast spices is to slowly heat a dry frying pan to a medium flame and toss in the spices. The heavier the pan the better it is as the heat will be distributed more evenly. “How long they should be toasted for varies quite considerably. I don’t think of it in terms of time, it will vary from pan to pan and depending on the heat. You should toast them until they go just a shade darker and once the faintest wisp of smoke starts to appear they are done.

“If you toast them too much they develop a slightly burnt taste, which will be passed on to the dish they are used in. Once they are done they should be tipped out of the pan to prevent them from burning. Shake them about a bit in the pan as they are roasting and let them cool before grinding,” he says.

Different spices need slightly different times and if you are being a perfectionist, you should toast each spice separately. However, this is not really necessary. The more comfortable I have become with Indian cooking the more bravado I use when tumbling the aromatic seeds onto my pan. I’m now, however, silently sifting through the imagined contents of my spice cupboard desperately hoping I don’t have any sawdust.

After surrendering his personal garam masala recipe, Kapoor grins cheekily and admits it is his mother’s and the only one to be used with regularity in his own home. “We make it Punjabi style. It is very aromatic, not like anything you can buy as a generic premix in the supermarkets. My mother was a very powerful influence on how I started to understand food, but I am still discovering new flavours. When I travel around India, I love how the diversity keeps everything fresh and exciting. There are always new combinations to be invented,” he says.

Although I do eat meat sometimes, I’m an avid lover of Indian vegetarian food, so I decide to push my luck a little and ask Kapoor for his advice on perfect pairings to help me plan my Valentine’s menu. Are there any spices that are superlative with specific vegetables? And I did get an answer for that:

■ Anise — apples, beets, carrots, citrus, cinnamon, root vegetables and stone fruits

■ Caraway — beets, cabbage, cheese, dill, fennel, garlic, nuts, mushrooms, onions, potatoes and root vegetables

■ Cardamom — apples, bananas, beans, citrus, coconut, coriander, pepper and pumpkin

■ Cinnamon — raw bananas, 
beans, ginger, grains, nutmeg, pumpkin and beet

■ Clove — beets, citrus, pumpkin, root vegetables and tomatoes

■ Coriander — raw bananas, beans, root vegetables, mushroom, carrot, cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes and spinach

■ Cumin — avocados, beans, citrus, cucumber, raw mango, onion, potatoes, tomatoes and cauliflower

■ Fenugreek — beans, potatoes, any vegetable curry and spinach

What will Kapoor be cooking this Valentine’s Day? There will definitely be something spicy on the menu. He recommends an innovative take on classic chaat — strawberries stuffed with lightly spiced chicken — to get the evening started.

Kapoor is also a fan of experimentation whether it is at home or out at a restaurant. “Everyone asks me what my favourite food is or a favourite restaurant where I would take my wife and I have no answer. I don’t like to go to the same place twice. I like discovering new tastes and flavour combinations. If I have to give an answer it won’t be a favourite dish, but I love homestyle food. The dishes that have been passed down in a family to new inventions. That’s what really makes my mouth water,” he concludes.

Fact Box

Spice up your dish!

1. Tej patta (bay leaves): Often mistaken as the Bay Leaf (leaf of the Laurel tree ) used in Western cooking, these are actually three veined leaves of a tree belonging to the cinnamon family.

2. Ajwain (carom seeds): These are pungent, tiny seeds greyish in colour and often mistaken to be the Bishop’s weed. Ajwain has very strong flavours and the smell and taste bear close similarity to thyme. They have a sharp and slightly bitter taste. In Indian cooking, the ajwain is rarely used raw. They are usually dry-roasted lightly or tempered in hot oil or ghee and used for seasoning a dish.

3. Darchini (cinnamon sticks): The cinnamon sticks are the dried bark of a tree. There are two popular varieties of cinnamon — from China and from Sri Lanka. They both have similar flavours, but the cinnamon from Sri Lanka has a sweeter aroma and is found more as sticks than a rolled up quill. Sri Lankan cinnamon is also not so easily available in local markets.

4. Laung/lavang (cloves): Cloves are dried-up flower buds. The fully grown, unopened buds, are picked green and dried in the sun until they become dark brown and are ready to be used for culinary and medicinal purposes. Clove is extensively used in Indian cooking. The flavour it imparts to food is strong and warm. Clove is mostly used to flavour spicy food where the whole clove is cooked in oil or ghee.

5. Dhania (coriander seeds): These seeds are the dry seeds of the regularly used fresh cilantro or coriander. Light brown or golden in colour, the seeds are kind of hollow and crunchy and have a nice earthy and nutty flavour. More often ground into a powder to flavour food, the seeds are also used whole for tempering.

6. Jeera (cumin seeds): Cumin is a commonly used spice all over India. Known for its warm earthy aroma, it is used in the raw form, or cooked in hot oil or ghee to release its aroma. At times the raw seeds are briefly toasted before being ground into a powder. The toasted and fried cumin seeds impart a unique, smoky flavour to food.

7. Methi (fenugreek seeds): These angular buff-coloured seeds have a slightly bitter taste. It’s used in one of the mixtures of panch phoron (a whole spice blend used in Indian cuisine). Not bitter to taste, the raw seeds are cooked as a side dish in certain parts of India.

8. Saunf (fennel seeds): These might look like cumin seeds, but they are actually greener and wider. Fennel is another ingredient of the panch phoron. these are also dry-roasted and used with tiny sugar candies 
to make mouth fresheners after meals.

9. Choti elaichi (green cardamom): Cardamom pods hold tiny little black seeds inside. The seeds are taken out and used whole in cooking or in the form of powder. It’s used in Indian cooking to impart flavour to a variety of ingredients and foods including vegetables, meat, rice or even desserts.

10. Badi elaichi (black cardamom): The seed pods are about 2.5-3cm in length and have a bold flavour. The pods are dried over open fire and the process leaves it with a smoky aroma. These are bigger and different from the small green cardamoms and are not as delicately flavoured as their green counterpart.

— N.M.

GN Focus