My cooking at Tabla restaurant in New York City is all about infusing familiar American ingredients with the aromatic flavors of India, where I grew up. There’s nothing exotic about the main ingredients I use—most of them come from the farmers’ market near the restaurant. What makes my food unique is the way I use spices.
It’s easy to add new seasonings to your repertoire, but with so many interesting spices from which to choose, it can be hard to know where to begin. Well, I’ll tell you a secret: You don’t have to overhaul your pantry to get started. You only need a handful of spices and a few simple techniques for extracting their flavors to surprise and delight your palate.
No country uses a wider range of spices than India, so it makes sense to look to India when you want to learn to use spices subtly and skillfully. I’ll introduce you to the spices you need to try out Indian flavors, show you how to work with them, and teach you how to incorporate new spices into your cooking (see the sidebar). The spices and techniques you’ll learn about here don’t just apply to Indian food. Cooks the world over rely on spices like ginger, cinnamon, fennel, pepper, bay leaf, and chiles; they just use the spices in different amounts and combinations.
A flat metal or silicone spatula is best for cooking with spices; wooden spoons absorb spices' flavors.
Helping spices release their flavor
Spices are naturally fragrant, but to reach their full flavor potential, they need our help. Cracking and grinding spices is part of the equation. But it’s heat that really wakes up those aromatic oils. Toasting (dry heat) and blooming in oil (moist heat) are classic techniques.
Blooming whole spices Blooming a spice in oil is a bit like sautéing a vegeetable: It’s quick, and the resulting flavor is bright. The combination of heat and oil quickly extracts aromatic compounds from a spice.
How to bloom whole spices: Heat the oil over medium heat until it’s hot but not smoking. Add the whole spices and cook until very fragrant and little bubbles form around the spices. Don’t let them brown. You can then add other ingredients to the hot pan and proceed with your recipe. (If you bloom large spices like cardamom pods, cloves, or cinnamon sticks, be sure to remove them from the finished dish before serving because you don’t want people to bite into them.) Try this technique in the recipe for Creamy Mashed Potatoes with Warm Spices.
Frying a paste of ground raw spices
I don’t toast ground spices in a dry pan because they’re very quick to burn. Instead, I bloom them in oil—but even then, I modify the technique because hot oil can also scorch ground spices.
How to bloom ground spices: First, you need to mix them with a little of the liquid from your recipe—vinegar, water, stock, wine, whatever—to make a thick paste. The moisture in the spice paste helps keep the ground spices from burning when you put the paste in the hot oil. Then you cook the paste until all the liquid evaporates. You can tell it’s time to stop cooking when the oil starts to separate from the spices (as in the photo above). This is a classic Indian technique, and you can try it in my recipe for Six-Spice Braised Short Ribs.