lets talk about spices
As a Canadian – Pakistani who was born and raised half her life in the middle east with a Filipino nanny, and the other half in Canada married to an Indian man, it is safe to say I have been exposed to a wide range of tastes and spices throughout my life.
I also went through that phase that I’m sure every brown kid growing up outside of the motherland goes through… that “do I smell of curry?” fear when going to school or out with your friends. For years I kept the bedroom and closet doors closed so that the pungent smell of cooking spices didn’t seep into my clothes and jacket. Constantly doing quick smell-double check of my hair and clothes before going out in public to make sure I didn’t smell of mom’s biryani…(which I still love btw).
Now that I cook for myself, I love to cook with and eat all the flavours! For me, spice means flavour (and I don’t just mean the hot ‘spicy’ kinda spice. I can never eat a plain roasted chicken breast or veggies. There always needs to be a sprinkle of a few spices, or maybe a spice blend to add flavour. It makes such a difference for me. And, most of the time, it does not stink up my whole condo!
But do you know the difference between cumin and coriander? Or how much you should use of each? You’ve heard turmeric is good for you – but did you know you need to mix it with some black pepper in order to activate the anti-inflammatory properties in turmeric? Have you ever tried amchoor (dried mango) powder? And what the heck is in those store bought masala packs anyways?
Here’s a run down of all these amazing spices that I grew up eating and my mother taught me to cook with. In the coming weeks, I’ll also share some great spice blends that I love and are super clean (no fillers or additives), like my garam masala blend, and how I like to use them.
Also put them all together in my spiced turmeric latte recipe below.Jump to Recipe
My top 11 Pakistani/Indian Spice Cupboard Staples
Lets start with the 10 basic spices that you will find in every Pakistani household:
If your food tastes like it is missing something, just add a bit more salt – 99% of the time that will do it.
Whether you use table salt, kosher, sea salt or pink salt. Nutritionally there is little difference. I like to use Himalayan pink salt because it has some additional minerals in it (that’s why it is pink) that are good for you. Also it is less processed than white table salt that could have additional chemicals added to it (like anti-caking agents). Kosher salt is also another good one that tends to be less processed.
Pink salt has a slightly different flavour to table salt, but I don’t notice it when I’m cooking. It also comes from the Himalayan mountains in Pakistan, so I feel good about supporting my parent’s homeland in a small way. Pink salt is my salt of choice most of the time.
2. Black Pepper
Essentially almost everything I cook (other than dessert, perhaps) will have salt and pepper. I like to keep three types of black pepper on hand: whole, ground and fresh ground (in a pepper mill). Which one I use will depend on the flavour I am going for.
The difference really is in the intensity of the flavour. Fresh ground has the most ‘spice’ and strongest flavour to me. While the pre-ground or whole peppercorns are a bit on the milder side. Although watch out if you bite into a whole peppercorn. That can pack a punch if you are not ready for it!
Black pepper should also be used whenever you use turmeric. It actually increases the absorption of the curcumin (the anti-inflammatory stuff that is good for you) in turmeric by 2,000%! So always add a pinch of black pepper to anything that also has turmeric.
3. Red Chillies
When I think of a hot, tongue burning heat – red chillies is what comes to mind. As with black pepper, I have all three kinds: ground red chillies, crushed red chillies and whole red chillies.
Whole chillies go better in something more soup or stew like, while ground is best for mixing into sauces, marinades or seasoning mixes. Generally I like to use the crushed red pepper flakes in everyday cooking, and I don’t find them as spicy as when I use the ground red chillies.
Another one where I have both ground and whole versions of this spice. My mom always likes to dry roast the whole seeds before grinding them down. And the flavour is so much better and more intense. But I tend to be a bit lazy and just use the regular stuff that I buy at the store (or just steal some of the dry roasted stuff from mom’s spice cupboard). If you can though, I would highly recommend dry roasting them first. I really need to start doing this more. It makes such a difference!
Cumin and coriander are easily confused since they both look the same. When I was learning to cook, I learnt to identify them by smell so I could tell them apart. Coriander has more of a lighter, almost greener, fresher smell to me. While cumin has a heavier earthier smell. Also labeling your spice bottles will help too. 😉
Another one where I keep three versions on hand – whole, crushed and ground. And it also tastes better if dry roasted first.
Coriander and cumin are like sister spices in most Pakistani recipes. We tend to use both together a lot. A good rule of thumb my mom taught me is to use half the amount of cumin as you do coriander. I find that tends to be a good ratio to get a balanced flavour when using both in most my recipes.
Turmeric is part medicine part spice. But oh my gosh does it stain everything it touches! I have to be so careful whenever I cook with it, and even then I find turmeric stains in places I didn’t know it even got into.
Turmeric contains curcumin which has great anti-inflammatory properties. When I was younger, my mom or aunt would always tell me to drink ‘haldi dood’ – aka turmeric milk – whenever I was sick. J tells me he hates it for that reason. He was always forced to drink it when he was sick. So now he associates it with being sick. Although, he seems to have come around after trying my version of a spiced turmeric latte. Personally I love the taste of this drink and will have it just as a treat. I’ve included the recipe for my spiced turmeric latte below.Jump to Recipe
Think of it like a grown up version of mom’s home remedy. And also a great caffeine free hot drink alternative.
Another great anti-inflammatory and antioxidant filled spice. It has also been shown to help lower blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity. I love using it to trick my body into thinking I am eating or drinking something sweet. I love cinnamon sprinkled on my morning coffee.
Cinnamon is a great addition to savoury things too. Especially in beef or chicken. I am also a fan of adding a stick of cinnamon bark to when making basmati rice. I’ll just add it to the water as the rice boils and it infuses the rice with a nice flavour. Sprinkle some cumin seeds over top before serving and you’ve got some fancy rice with little effort.
I honestly hate the smell of cloves. These are probably the most pungent spices in my cupboard. I use them very sparingly and mostly for my spice blends like the garam masala, or as part of a marinade for meats.
Cloves also have anti-inflammatory properties like turmeric. I’ve heard people will place a whole clove on a toothache to help calm the pain. I’ve never tried it. But that makes sense given the anti-inflammatory properties.
Cardamom is another one of those pungent spices. I only enjoy this in small doses. Lots of people in my family love throwing a whole cardamom pod or two into their tea when brewing it. It is also used quite frequently in sweet dishes. Personally I am not a fan of it and use it sparingly.
Another strong smelling spice. This works really well when mixed with cinnamon. And like cinnamon, it too works well in both sweet and savoury dishes. I quite like adding it to chicken. Or adding some to a chai latte.
11. Bay Leaves
I feel like bay leaves are so mysterious. They have almost no smell or taste per say. Yet when added to a soup or stew they add something subtle that makes it feel like the flavour is complete. You can try adding a bay leaf to plain rice when cooking rice for a different flavour take.
In my next post I will dive into some more exotic flavoured spices that I love to cook with. In the meantime, let’s put some of these basic spices to good use and make a turmeric milk latte!
Spiced Turmeric Latte (Haldi Dood)
- 1 cup milk (dairy or non-dairy of choice – I like almond milk or oat milk)
- 1 cup water
- 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
- 1/8 tsp ground cardamom (optional)
- 1/8 tsp cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp ginger powder
- pinch black pepper
- pinch salt
- pinch nutmeg
- pinch saffron (optional)
- 1 tsp maple syrup or honey (optional)
- Mix all the ingredients, except the maple syrup or honey in a small saucepan and heat over low heat till it just comes to a boil, stirring occasionally. Totally optional, but if you want to get a nice foam on top, use a high powered blender, or milk frother to get a nice foam before serving.
- Serve warm, with a drizzle of maple syrup or honey and a light sprinkle of cinnamon over top.