Down the ages the three functions of spices in Indian cooking - medicinal, preservative, and seasoning - got separated. Until recently, taste was the criteria for using a specific spice or herb. As more and more master chefs and gourmets research the origin of Indian cuisine to seasons, festivals and regions of India, there is a better understanding of the role spices play in our well-being. Granny was right: You are what you eat. We Indians have always known that, which is why herbs and spices, found in every home, are incorporated into our foods and beverages for better health. Not only does the food look, smell and taste delicious, it heals, soothes and rejuvenates. Ayurveda, the indigenous system of Indian medicine, uses a large number of spices in its combination of preventive and curative medicines. The proponents of Ayurveda, understood the importance of preventing diseases and used key spices to achieve this objective.
Ancient Ayurvedic treatise lists numerous spices for their medicinal properties. Pepper was used to cure digestive ailments. A turmeric paste was applied to burns, itchy skin etc. Ginger was the tried and tested remedy for liver complaints, anaemia and rheumatism. If you suffered from nausea, fever, headaches, or eye diseases, you'd be sure to get a dose of cardamom. Coriander was meted out for insomnia, cloves for spleen, kidney, and intestinal disorders.
No two people in the country will agree on the exact recipe of a favourite dish. Recipes are handed down from generation to generation, verbally in the kitchen and are closely guarded secrets in most cases. But all agree, a dish is well cooked when the spices blend into the gravy and the meat. The spices should not be have disparate flavours, or taste raw. No one spice should over-power the other and be so intrusive as to completely hide the true taste of the vegetable or meat being cooked. It should help maintain and enhance the character of the dish, give it colour and fragrance and leave you wanting more!.
Masalas are spices and other seasoning ground together to form the basis for Indian sauces. Wet masala is ground in a stone mortar; liquids like water or vinegar are added during the grinding process to create a harmonious blend. Sometimes nuts, coconut, onion or garlic can also be added. In the South freshly ground masalas are preferred to make the gravies that go with the staple, rice. In the north, which has a longer winter when fresh spices are not easy to get hold of, dried, powdered spices are commonly used to flavour the gravy-less dishes preferred with rotis that are the staple. There are no hard and fast rules for the use of spices in particular recipes, but there are basic guidelines based on commonsense. Turmeric, coriander, cumin, pepper have too strong and bitter a taste to be good additions to desserts. However saffron, cardamoms, cinnamon that are used to make garam masala are freely used in sweets. That's because most of the halwas etc that call for their use are winter favourites and a little heat is welcome in the cold northern winter.
There is another type of masala westerners might be unfamiliar with and that that is the chaunk or tadka. Whole dried spices like kashmiri chillies, cumin and coriander seeds, karipatta etc are added one by one to hot oil until they begin to sputter or pop. This tempering is then poured over dals and raitas. That's the extra zing that makes Indian food so popular the world over!