Ameer Kotecha

How to spruce up your spice rack

How to spruce up your spice rack
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They sparked the Crusades, built Venice, and spurred European colonialism. In many ways, spices and the spice routes along which they were traded, made the modern world. And how many other ingredients can make that claim? Not avocadoes, not goji berries, not truffle, no matter how fashionable. No, when it comes to historical importance, spices are in a league of their own.

In medieval times black pepper was so valuable it was used as a currency, and worth its weight in gold. As an excitable Rick Stein explained on his journey around India in 2013, unscrupulous merchants in days gone by would cunningly cut the valuable pepper with mustard husks and even chimney sweepings to increase their takings.

And so it is rather depressing, given the esteem in which they were held throughout much of history and the fabulous sums willingly paid for them, that today we show such scant regard for using good spices. The sketch from Michael McIntyre about long-forgotten spices in the back of the cupboard rings true. With the exception of saffron, which is still worth its weight in gold, spices today cost us only a few pounds to buy. And yet we’ll keep them for years on end, with obstinate opposition to tossing them out even long after they’ve lost all aroma and taste.

The simply secret – if you can call it that for it is in fact quite obvious – is to use spices as soon as possible after they are ground. Nothing can beat therefore grinding your own just before cooking. Most spices will benefit too from a few minutes being toasted to release their oils and aromas before you grind: put them whole in a dry pan or skillet, shaking occasionally, until they begin to smell aromatic, then leave to cool before grinding. Spice experts will choose whether or not to dry-roast depending on the dish. Some spices can undergo a marked change in flavour profile: coriander will go from citrusy to nutty and earthy when toasted.

I know plenty of hipsters and self-avowed foodies that will happily spend five minutes grinding their coffee beans each morning but don’t think to freshly grind their spices before hosting a grand dinner party with curry on the menu. They’re missing a trick. A coffee grinder will do just fine for spices too (but best to use a dedicated one, unless you enjoy masala coffee). Some aficionados claim that the powerful motor of an electric grinder will cause the spices to become hot, and risk unwelcome changes in flavour. So, if you consider yourself of sophisticated palate, a good old-fashioned pestle and mortar is the expert’s tool.

If toasting or grinding yourself is too much of a faff, just ensure you store your pre-ground spices in decent airtight jars. It is amazing how much more fresh and aromatic they will remain. You can even stick with your months-on-end-back-of-the-cupboard habit – they’ll taste excellent for a year when stored properly. And do consider venturing out to an Indian store to buy your spices rather than defaulting to the depressing Schwartz or Barts bottles. You’ll pay a fraction of the price and can stock up on mango chutney while you’re there.

And what to buy? Cumin, coriander and turmeric are essential to much South Asian cookery. Chef Will Bowlby from Kricket recommends also Kashmiri chilli powder, which almost all Indians esteem over other chilli powders for its colour and flavour. Chet Sharma from BiBi thinks ajwain seeds (also known as bishop’s weed) are underused and indeed they add a certain je ne sais quoi to potato curries and pakoras. And black mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds and asafoetida (used sparingly) are also worth popping in the shopping trolley. January might just be the time to invest in a new spice rack.

Garam Masala (iStock)

Home-made garam masala spice blend

My mother will make a big batch of this every six months or so, before bottling it up into those old black Kodak film canisters, for dissemination to the wider family. The list of spices is long so I have provided two versions: a basic blend with the most important spices, and a full-length one. You should find plenty of other uses from having these individual whole spices in your larder. Garam masala can be added along with other ground spices at the cooking stage of a curry, but a small amount is often also added at the end of cooking, just before serving, to retain all its fresh aroma just as you might do with fresh basil in an Italian pasta sauce.

2 tbsp coriander seeds

1.5 tbsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp black peppercorns

½ tsp whole cloves

1 tsp cardamom (just the black kernels inside the husks, taken from about 15 whole green cardamom)

1 cinnamon stick, broken up into a few pieces

4 dried Indian bay leaves (available in Indian stores – sometimes marked as tej patta)

Optional additions:

1 whole dried red chilli

½ a whole nutmeg

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 star anise, broken up into a few pieces

1 small piece of mace (roughly half the amount as the star anise)

2 black cardamom (these are different to green cardamom, with a more smoky flavour)

  1. Roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds and peppercorns in a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat for 2-3 minutes, shaking regularly, until it smells aromatic. Remove from the pan.
  2. Roast the remainder of the spices in the same way.
  3. Leave all to cool and then grind everything together in a pestle and mortar (preferably) or in a spice/coffee grinder, until a fine powder.
  4. Store in air-tight jars in the larder (or, as my mother does, in the fridge).