The Spice is Right
Chefs in India say it is also an exciting time as many Michelin star chefs are travelling to India to experience real Indian cuisine.
Long before reality TV star Kourtney Kardashian glamorized turmeric on social media, or beatnik cafes from London to Queensland began serving sexed up drinks called turmeric lattes, every mortal household in India had had battled with the stubborn fiery yellow stains, on clothes or on nails courtesy — haldi — the ubiquitous staple on all Indian kitchen shelves.
Turmeric, (haldi in Hindi) the ubiquitous Indian spice with a striking, brilliant hue is having its moment in the sun, with the Google Food Trends Report 2016 listing it as the top trending food. The report detailed that interest in the condiment rose by 56 per cent between November 2015 to January 201, making it a “rising star” on Google.
It is also undergoing newer re-incarnation with Californian vegan chain Café Gratitude using almond milk with freshly squeezed turmeric juice for its version of turmeric latte and actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop.com suggesting adding ginger to the concoction for additional benefits.
Turmeric is not the only Indian ingredient arousing a renewed interest in culinary circles of the Western world.
The 2016, culinary forecast from the National Restaurants Association of America lists ethnic condiments and spices amongst its top 20 trends for the year. Another trend report by Technomic, a leading food research and consulting firm in the US says that after Sriracha, the chefs are scouting the world for other assertive flavorings. It lists ghost pepper from India as a likely bet, amongst others. On a visit to India last month, celebrity chef and Mashterchef Australia judge Gary Mehigan admitted that he’s been using Indian spices in his home cooking in Australia for years.
Krishnendu Ray, associate professor, chair, Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, New York University gives the trend a sociological insight, saying: “In a society, as wealth and education goes up, you consume products widely — be it music, cinema or any other field. The same is happening with food right now.”
The food spreads in America are becoming bigger and Americans are consuming a diverse range of products and experimenting with many more ingredients in their kitchens.
Food Technology magazine, published by Institute of Food Technology, Chicago, recently reported that more than 47 million American adults define themselves as foodies, with 29 million categorized as part of serious culinary groups. Based on various important food shows, food trend reports and surveys, it noted that there is considerable emphasis on discovering newer flavors. So as the food habits become more nuanced, there is an interest in assimilation of spices of various cuisines.
The new Instagram food generation, forever capturing and documenting even the wilted leaves on their salad plate, have also taken food imagery travels across the world via social media, further arousing the interest in unheard of ingredients.
Professor Ray says:. “Growing omnivorousness, along with an awareness on alternative nutrition and health concerns also has contributed towards Indian spices getting noticed.”
J Walter Thompson’s new report on Generation Z reported that 62% of the surveyed 12-19 year olds claim to be living a healthier lifestyle. They check food labels and know what to look out for, especially in the United States, where 45% said they tried to only consume food with natural ingredients. It’s fashionable, too: 67% agreed that healthy eating was trendy.
Spices of various cultures are also widely misunderstood outside their context. Mexico based author Ishita Banerjee-Dube, who recently released a new book, Cooking Cultures: Convergent Histories of Food and Feeling, says: “Curry, for people in Mexico is ‘picante’ (something hot) precisely because it is a standardized mix of several spices that tastes ‘hot.’ Garam masala, the other mix that is coming into increasing use, also translates as ‘hot’ masala, although this ‘hot’ has other implications: it is a mix that generates heat in the body.”
Mumbai based chef Michael Swamy, whose upcoming new book Masala Dabba explores the idea of mixing Indian spices in unconventional ways, says: “ It must be noted that, all spice blends are not the sole prerogative of Indian cuisine. Many countries have their own version of spice blends. With the understanding of how to use them becoming less challenging, people are getting more comfortable with their usages.”
According to US Department of Agriculture, in 1966, Americans used 1.2 pounds of spices annually. By 2012 the number had grown to 3.4 pounds. Besides turmeric, ginger availability has gone up nearly 525 per cent since 1990. Both in terms of volume and dollar value, the United States remains world’s largest importer and consumer of spices.
But that does not mean that Indian ingredients are overflowing on world gourmet tables. Prof Ray says, “A large part of Indian spices getting popular has got to do with a lot of professional middle class in America interacting with their Indian or South Asian counterparts. Indian food today is having a presence at upscale restaurants, but it’s still not substantial.”
Easy availability of not just Indian, but spices from other regions of the world, not only in big cities, such as New York, but in almost all pockets of America, also makes it easier to cop a neighbor’s native recipe for an average American. Spice manufacturers’ McCormick & Company’s range includes garam masala blend and curry powder, amongst other spices. For someone looking to delve into the world of spices, a trip to legendary spice store Kalustyan’s in Manhattan, NY, which is something of a tourist spot, affords a glimpse of spices from around the world. So you have black peppercorns from Tellicherry in India sharing racks with aphrodisiac tea from Lebanon.
New York based chef Suvir Saran’s book American Masala offers window to the new fusion spice kitchen. The book doesn’t talk about traditional Indian food, but ways to add newer flavors to American cooking using spices.
Chef Sanjeev Ranjan spent many years onboard Carnival Cruises in San Francisco experimenting spices with various meats. Given his affinity for spices, he shifted to Bengaluru where he gets the freshest condiments grown locally to use in his kitchen at the Marriott in Whitefield. He says, “Spices have the power to transport a dish into another stratosphere. Simple food like boiled rice with the addition of cinnamon sticks becomes fragrant pilaf for the Western world.”
Ranjan recently prepared a meal for visiting Masterchef Australia judges George Calombaris, Matt Preston and Gary Mehigan. He says, “When they tasted my vegetarian soya chaap, Chef Gary’s first response was – It’s a bagful of flavors. And that’s the effect spices should add to the food.”
For the longest time, Indian spices were almost ignored in Western world. Chef Swamy reasons: “The use of spices as we know it today began during the early times mainly to preserve meats and mask the odors of spoiling meats on long sea or caravan voyages, sometimes even acting as antidotes to ailments.”
Professor Ray says: “During the medieval times, spices such as cinnamon, ginger, clove were widely used in Western food. The shift of taste began happening in modern Europe when the idea of proteins and vegetables tasting of their own began taking root. So the food philosophy was that green beans should taste like green beans and not of added ingredients. What we are seeing now is a slow return of spices back into Western cuisine.”
According to culinary experts what made matters worse was that a surge of substandard Indian restaurants across Europe and America misrepresented the real intricacies of Indian cuisine. Chef Sunil Soni, author of Jashn –e-Oudh: Romance of the Cuisine says, “For a long period of time there were practically no authentic Indian chefs outside India. Indian restaurants were just mom and pop shows. Recently more trained chefs have moved outside the country and are bringing the refined taste to the world. Indian food has practically taken over the British market and is just entering into a new phase in US market.”
Chefs in India say it is also an exciting time as manyMichelin star chefs are travelling to India to experience real Indian cuisine. Chef Gary Mehigan after a visit to the spice market in Old Delhi, raved that he had never experienced anything similar before.
Chef Ranjan recalls: “In 2006, I met Chef Gordon Ramsey who was in Kolkata to learn more about Indian food. He went to Nagaland to get bamboo shoots and prepared a simple dish of bamboo curry and rice using local spices and set up a stall to sell it for Rs 10 per plate. The flavors were so mind-blowing that they are fresh in my mind even today.”
Apart from the more commonly known spices, Indian cuisine has many fascinating ingredients. Ranjan uses pathar ke phool in his biryani and dried wet red rose petals in desserts. He insists that red roses have an intense aroma that is not found in pink roses.
Chef Swamy says: “During my travels in India I have encountered various types of mint and holy basil and some wild herbs like jakhiya or souring agents like kachree. My favorite is a spice called jakhiya found in Uttarakhand. Traditionally it is only added in temperings, but I’ve used it in breads, crackers, soups and even spice rubs and the effect has been phenomenal.”
On the Indian spices that have the potential to make a mark on the global culinary map, Prof Ray counts garam masala as the primary contender, followed by fermented foods, such as dosa and idlis, as sour and tepid tastes come back into the palates. Author Ishita Banerjee-Dube thinks mustard, because of its piquant taste, should come into the forefront at some point.
Professor Ray also believes hing (asafetida), despite being termed the devil’s sweat, may gain popularity.” He reasons, “With the surge of a vegetable led cuisine, hing can indeed play a flavorful part. On the pungent smell, he says, “Even the West has smelly cheeses and wine.” After all it’s about understanding and appreciating the aromas and what they do to your food.
What The Doctor Ordered
CARDAMOM: May provide gastrointestinal protection, cholesterol control and aid blood circulation.
CARAWAY: Caraway seeds are known for antioxidant, digestive, carminative, and anti-flatulent properties. It is believed to relieve infantile colic. Also an excellent source of vitamins and minerals it can sooth bruises. It is used to cure cold and irritable bowel syndrome.
BLACK PEPPER: Used for respiratory disorders like cough sinusitis and cold. Also helps in constipation, indigestion, muscle strains and dental disease. It also has anti-bacterial properties to fight against infections and insect bites.
FENUGREEK: These are very common ingredients in Indian cooking. It has some cholesterol lowering properties. It is also reputed to be anti diabetic, as one of its fiber ingredients causes slow absorption of sugar into blood. It also aids digestion and increases milk production in lactating mothers.
SAFFRON: A great source of vitamins and minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Also used as a carminative, anti-spasmodic and has anti-depressive anti-oxidant properties. There is some evidence that it possesses cytotoxic effects for anti-cancer benefits.
GINGER: Ginger in tea is a common drink, which is said to improve appetite and treat nausea. It has traditionally been used in cold weather to provide warmth. A study at Georgia University found that ginger could reduce exercise induced muscle pains. It may also provide some relief during a painful menstrual cycle (dysmenorrhea). There is a speculation that ginger can reduce incidence of colon cancer.
BAY LEAVES: A rich source of vitamins, minerals and folic acid. It is an astringent, diuretic and can be an appetite stimulant. It has been claimed to keep blood sugar under control in diabetic patients. The components in the oil extract can be used for joints and muscle pain and bronchitis.
CINNAMON: It has cholesterol-lowering properties as well as helps lower blood pressure. It is also said to be beneficial in diabetes as it increases the sensitivity of insulin.