… and I am not talking variety in general…
I am talking about the myriad spices (literally) that make the repertoire of an Indian kitchen cupboard and/ or drawer- sometimes spanning across several depending upon how many chefs (believing themselves to be so) exist across how many cuisines.
Well you see, Indian cuisine is not the only one that uses them. In fact, what is India could also be depending upon – northern, southern, eastern, north western, north eastern.. don’t worry – I am not going to be recounting all coordinates. But we get it! Everytime you googled a dish from an Indian cuisine, there was a trip to the supermarket- and there was this brand new container stocked nicely in a cupboard awaiting the next time you would deign to revisit the cuisine it was thus identified with. Applies as well to international cuisine- Spanish, Mexican, Italian, Chinese.. you name it.
Now the point to note is – irrespective of which part of the globe you belong to- there are several of us who like our spices fresh, in fact almost to the extent on looking down upon those who demand the existence of pre-prepared combos, and (God save them) if they asked for store bought ones! This especially if they profess cooking to be their profession, a skill that they are wont to learn in their visits to several houses to practice.
Well, the not-so-ancient chefs (in common parlance- the in-laws and the out-laws) would tell you how one needs to prepare the spices fresh- procured, roasted and ground- exactly when they are to be added to the dish- which of course is exactly to be prepared just before it has to be served. (Thankfully, they have not expected the cultivation as part of this process!)
There is almost a sense of pride that I experience as I see the expansion of my spice collection, it illustrates my indulgence in culinary adventures. Now accompanied with the experiments are several google translation searches. Because, one needs to be able to convey to the kirana on what nutmeg is or especially when husband decides to honour us with his cooking, there are translations one needs to have learnet by rote so that the much-deserved someone-else-is-cooking experience is not marred by the regular rebuttals of “What is” fennel, poppy seeds, etc. Of course, having learnt a lesson, one has neatly labelled with very legible handwriting all that exists anywhere in the kitchen, including the powdered sugar next to the salt.
Of course, there are the stalwarts, with amazing olfactory nerves who can open boxes and smell the powders to pronounce what it is- their skills going to the extent of combinations of upto 5, and including the age (in the container) of the spice! I mean, from the time my olfactory nerves behaved like the sensory version of Eastman color- appearing and disappearing with an unpredictable lag- my best bet has been to use the visuals!
Well, stale or fresh, single or in combinations, the subtelty along with variety, of Indian spices is not beaten by many others. In fact, after spending close to a week in the western part of the world, one starts missing a variety of the flavour, the strength. It’s the time, even I, otherwise out to exploring novelties, goes wandering around looking for that elusive Indian restaurant which serves “spicy’ food.
But that does not happen without eliciting responses from those who cannot stand the “Spiciness”. The point is, neither can I! Coz spiciness is not the hotness as the laymen understand it to be! It is the most common fallacy of the non-Indian when it comes to explaining why they love/ don’t love Indian food. Its the subtelness of the flavours imparted by that one, two or many spices – which by the way are not hot. Alas, the ignoramus do not understand.
In fact, every time I have visited or dined and wined with colleagues from the other side of the world, and the conversation has veered towards cooking, its been a long monologue of explaining what and how Indian spices are! AND with an open invitation to my home so that I can tell them to know what spices are- coz they are not hot chillies or any other articles (well, most of them) put in the food so that water is your only recourse to swallowing thereafter!
But what was I to do, when my 11-year old who has not lived for extended periods of time in the western part of the world and is hence assumed to not be maligned by the misuse of the word, has tears in the eyes while the Chettinad chicken is savoured and declares how “spicy” it is! Now that definitely was not the best time to coach and educate her on the spiciness of life!
Meanwhile, heartening was the time when a decade ago I accompanied one of my British friends to- well guess what- the local Spice market! No, it was not my idea but hers. She was visiting India, and couldn’t digest the thought of leaving without purchase of adequate quantities of the spices she regularly used. Fascinated as I was (apologies about the stereotyping), I discovered Mumbai’s oldest wholesale spice market with her. Mounds and bundles was what I found there… awed as I was with smells (yes, the olfactory nerves seemed to have been jolted out of slumber). What was hitherto seen in tiny packs of 20g or 50 g… were being sold by kilos! Of course, there was still stuff to humor small-time-buyers like me, but my British friend was in her element. She picked up the Cinnamon sticks and smelt, questioned on origin, age and all that would generally not cross my mind. The pinnacle of surprise for me was – her purchase of (hold your breath!) 2 kgs of cinnamon sticks looking right like they have been plucked off the tree! And if that wasn’t enough- she told me, this would not last her more than 6 months!!
Years later, I still don’t forget my stress levels when gifted by a colleague, a carton of the most exotic spices from our very own Kerala! I had shared it with all my friends, in more digestible packs, of course being excited by the unique gifting idea! Some of them still awaiting a dish coz I have yet to discover their names. I guess the suspense would remain until Google can help with the smell of the powders!