Young trainee chef, Sandeep Ail, had just gotten a break in a commercial kitchen. The head chef was toasting a fresh batch of Kapok Buds or Marathi Moggu for a spice mix. The restaurant’s kitchen quickly filled with a pungent yet floral aroma. The spice, which is made up of dried unopened flower buds of the silk cotton plant, was used to make Chettinad mutton curry. Ail was instantly mesmerised. The strange looking spice was completely new to him. Since then, Ail, who has now been cooking for 18 years in top restaurants, has made it a point to incorporate new spices and ingredients into his cooking.
Just like chef Ail’s encounter with the new spice, there are a number of other unique spices across India that pack ample flavour in curries, hearty kebabs, meaty biryanis, and tangy chaats, but are not popularly known.
Turmeric, coriander, black cardamom, cumin, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon are some of India's most widely grown and used spices and herbs, which were even introduced to the world through exports from the country. But those are not what we are talking about. We at Food by Gulf News set out on a journey to explore unique spices that make all that is Indian food.
We began with speaking to food historian and researcher, Tanushree Bhowmik, who dug into her childhood to talk about a spice that has been a staple in her family’s kitchen for generations.
Bhowmik hails from the Indian state of West Bengal and her family traces their lineage to Sylhet, a city in Bangladesh.
She grew up with the aroma of tempered radhuni or wild celery seeds, in her mother’s kitchen. The spice is found in most Bengali households and it is most notably used in Shukto - a summer vegetable stew that is considered a delicacy in Bengal. Radhuni paste is used to make fish curries as well, as it especially goes well with sweet fresh water fish. These curries are considered light on the stomach, and good for digestion.
“Radhuni has been a forever memory. I have grown up eating it. My grandmother used to make an amazing light curry (jhol) of foli machh (bronze featherback fish) with Radhuni paste,” she said.
Other dishes that the spice is used in are Bengali-style dal (lentil curry), and Panch Phoron - a Bengali five spice mix.
Now, Bhowmik uses the spice in her own kitchen. “Interestingly, it is not an easy spice to find outside of Bengal. So, my mother or my aunts send it to me in Delhi or carry it with them when they come visiting,” she said.
[Radhuni] is not an easy spice to find outside of Bengal. So, my mother or my aunts send it to me in Delhi or carry it with them when they come visiting
So where does radhuni come from and what does it taste like?
This spice comes from a flowering plant, which is grown extensively in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. Its aromatic dried fruits, like those of its close relative ajwain or carom seeds, are often used in Bengali cuisine. The pungent ingredient is also used in Burmese, Thai, and Sri Lankan food.
Let’s look at its flavour profile, and the taste and aroma that it adds to these dishes.
In appearance, radhuni is similar to fennel seeds. However, it differs in taste. A little of this pungent spice can add brightness to a dish. The taste has a hint of lemony flavour.
To maximise on its flavour and aroma, Indian food website tarladalal.com stated that buying fresh radhuni is key as the spice loses its pungent smell and dulls in taste over time. It is also recommended to buy it prepackaged and not from open spice containers for the same reason. In terms of storage, keep it in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark, and dry place.
Ratanjot is another spice that is not commonly known but is used in Indian delicacies such as the brightly coloured chicken tikka and red-hued Rogan Josh from the Kashmir region.
The spice resembles a piece of deep purple tree bark, in its whole form. Traditionally, ratanjot, which is also called Alkanet root, is used in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir to add flavour and, more importantly, colour to dishes.
Dubai-based Chef Yugal Kishore, who has been in the food industry for nearly two decades, said: “In Himachal Pradesh we use it in dishes made for Kangri Dham, which is a traditional food festival in the region.”
Due to its distinct and deep colour, the spice is mainly used as a natural dye in food and in cosmetic products.
In Himachal Pradesh we use it in dishes made for Kangri Dham, which is a traditional food festival in the region.
Ratanjot has been used as a natural dye since the Stone Age. Fresh alkanet root has a mild smell and a bitter, astringent taste, but when the roots are dried, they almost don't smell or taste at all, which makes them a great dye. However, after the introduction of commercial food colours, the spice is not used as much, as it’s more expensive and harder to purchase.
The dye is soluble in alcohol and oil, but not in water. Therefore, it is recommended to dye oil using the spice and then add it to a dish.
To dye oil, fry about a teaspoon of Ratanjot in two to three tablespoons of hot oil or ghee. When the liquid turns a deep red colour, pour it through a metal sieve to get rid of the solids and set the coloured oil aside. You can use the oil or ghee to add a deep red colour to your dishes without the heat of chilies.
Unlike Ratanjot used for its vibrant colour and many Indian spices, used for the zesty kick they add to food, Maroi Nakuppi is a fragrant and mild herb used in the lush green hills of the Indian state of Manipur.
Herbs are used to add ‘freshness’ to uplift the flavour of a dish. While mint, coriander, and parsley are usually what come to mind, Maroi Nakuppi is their lesser known cousin.
Similar to green onions, Maroi Nakuppi, also known as Dunduko Saag, are garlic chives commonly grown and used in dishes in the northeastern state of Manipur. The leafy vegetable is also used in Nepal and China.
If you are looking to use the herb in your kitchen, Dubai-based chef Gaurav Bathla, who has been cooking for over 12 years, shared his way of incorporating it into various dishes.
Bathla, who specialises in Indian cuisine, prefers to use Maroi Nakuppi in salads and soups, especially noodle-based soup dishes.
Young Maroi Nakuppi has a sweet taste so it’s best to showcase that [in your dish].
He said: “Young Maroi Nakuppi has a sweet taste so it’s best to showcase that [in your dish]. I have used it in Nepali-style Thukpa, a Tibetan noodle soup. It was great.”
“It’s best to use it with light, broth-based soups, and not heavy or creamy soups. After your dish is almost ready, just sprinkle in a few leaves on top, cover the dish and it will enhance the flavour and aroma of your soup.”
Another way to use the ingredient is in fritters, which are widely made in Manipur. Popular food content creator Sangeeta Sagolsem, who goes by the username ‘Bluebell Recipes’ on YouTube and shares recipes from Manipuri cuisine, recommends adding the chives to a batter made out of gram flour, similar to a pakora batter, and shallow frying. The result is crunchy, aromatic fritters best served as snacks or appetisers.
Moving onto a spice that is quite different from Maroi Nakuppi, due to it’s strong, peppery taste, we came across cubeb pepper or kabab chini.
While pepper is one of the most widely used spices to season food and a staple in everyone’s kitchen, kabab chini is a lesser-known variety of pepper, which is the secret to the distinct flavour of many meat-based dishes in India.
Also called tailed pepper, the spice has a small tail or stem as a distinguishing feature.
If you take a handful of the spice and smell it, you will get hints of clove, black pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg, making it great for adding a slightly spicy kick and eliminating any gaminess in meat-based dishes.
Chef Bathla also uses it in non-vegetarian delicacies to add an added layer of peppery taste to his dishes. “I often use it in my Chettinad pepper fry, roasted leg of lamb (mutton raan), and lamb stews,” he said.
Neeraj Rana, head chef at Bombay Bungalow restaurant in Dubai, credits kabab chini’s spicy, pungent taste for its ability to mask any meaty smell or gaminess in meaty dishes.
“Kabab chini is usually used in meat curries and biryanis in India. I personally like to use it in masalas for seekh kababs, chicken kababs and galouti kebab. It is slightly spicy, pungent and sweet in flavour and it cannot be compared to black pepper. It also has a distinct aroma,” Rana said, who specialises in north Indian cooking.
It is slightly spicy, pungent and sweet in flavour and it cannot be compared to black pepper. [Kabab chini] also has a distinct aroma
But how did the spice make its way to India?
Well, during the Tang Dynasty, cubeb was brought to China from the Srivijaya Empire, modern-day Indonesia and from there to India.
In India, the spice came to be called kabab chini, that is, ‘Chinese cubeb’, possibly because the Chinese had a hand in its trade, but more likely, because it was an important item in the trade with China, according to the book The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T'Ang Exotics.
The spice eventually started being used in Awadhi or Mughal Empire kitchens and made it’s way around India. Indian celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor wrote on his website, sanjeevkapoor.com: “[Cubeb pepper is] essentially used to flavour kababs and meat dishes in Awadhi cuisine, they also have a ton of healing properties.”
The final unique spice from India we are looking at is not an herb or dried fruit. The strange looking ingredient resembles ashes and has the biological characteristics of a fungus, yes, it’s an edible fungus.
The spice is known by many names around India, such as dagad phool or pathar ka phool, which is Hindi for ‘stone flower’, or kalpasi.
According to dnaindia.com, the name translates to 'kal', which means stone and 'paasi' meaning light green plant that grows on rocks in running streams or rivers in hilly areas. More accurately, it is a lichen, which is a composite organism comprising a fungi and algae in a symbiotic relationship.
So how is the fungus-cum-algae used a spice?
Grown in the Himalayan region, it is cultivated, picked and then dried to be used in food. When it comes to its flavour, in its raw state, black stone flower does not have a strong taste or fragrance. However, when put in contact with heat, especially cooking oil or ghee, it releases a distinctive flavour and woody aroma, similar to star anise.
Due to its strong taste, it is often used in meat dishes from northern India like Nihari, Bombay biryani, and lamb stews, along with some vegetarian dishes.
Chef Kishore, who is trained in Mughlai cooking, has been using black stone flower in meat-based recipes, especially in his version of Lucknow-style mutton boti.
“In India, we use the spice for kebabs and meat curries. It has a strong earthy aroma and a very dry and fluffy texture. It is widely used in Chettinad cuisine and to some extent, in Hyderabadi and Mughlai cooking as well,” he said.
Like Kishore said, it’s not just in north Indian cooking that the spice is used, it also plays an integral part in Tamil kitchens, especially in non-vegetarian gravy recipes and in some vegetarian gravies too, like mushroom curry, pakora kuzhambu, thatta payaru kuzhambu.
Which one of these unique spices will you be using next time you cook? Share with us on firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are looking to explore more unique Indian dishes, visit our Food by Gulf News section with recipes from across the country.