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The (enforced) simplicity of spices

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-06-2014 Samar Halarnkar

Like a good Indian, I like spices. I like their textures and their flavours, their diverse associations with health and history. I find it hard to cook without spices, and much as I have sometimes appreciated a fine cut of Brazilian steak or a firm slice of Chilean sea bass without diversionary spices, I largely feel food to be incomplete—naked is a good word—without a dash of something. I especially like it when spices are dry-roasted, their fragrances filling a kitchen, wafting through a house and filling the senses. When roasted in bulk on the street, as spices still are in Mumbai’s Chiwda Gali, a little lane where combinations of whole spices—bay leaf, dried red chillies, cloves, cardamom, to name some—are turned over in table-size woks, the entire neighbourhood is suffused with the heady, piquant reminder of enduring tradition.

I get a bit carried away by spices. It’s true. I suppose they excite in my neural pathways the same feelings that convey sensuality and excitement in normal people. My kitchen in Bangalore is stocked with spices big and small, mild and pungent, subtle and strong. In keeping with my culinary philosophy, they are all—except the family condiment and souring agent, kokum— sourced from the neighbourhood where I live.

But I am presently at Harvard University, where I am doing a nine-week fellowship, and things are a bit different. My apartment kitchen is small; I mean really small. Two people are a crowd, three a mob. It would be no exaggeration to say the carpet in my parents’ living room is larger. Like every efficient American kitchen, it is a shining example of functionality, packing in a four-burner cooking range with full-size oven, a large microwave, coffee maker, dishwasher, sink with food pulverizer, a large fridge and a little, tabletop grill. But cabinet space is limited, and although the university has been generous in providing me with a fully furnished apartment and loaded kitchen—it has everything from wine-bottle opener to cutlery—there is no space for an Indian spice rack.

In keeping with my philosophy of eating local, I do not carry spices when I go abroad to live (except kokum, of course). As I have written before, this allows me to learn and imbibe local culture, which I believe is strongly expressed through food. Like so many North American cities, Boston is a great mélange of cultures from across the world, so it is hard to define cuisine that is “local”. Consequently, the definition I have evolved is anything available in my neighbourhood, regardless of origins.

When I regarded the single shelf available for spices in my handkerchief-sized kitchen, I realized the futility of trying to build an expansive array of them. In any case, did I really want to cook every meal when there was so much to sample outside? In the event, I sifted through the huge selection of spices at the local supermarket and settled on these: Jamaican jerk mix, blackening Creole spice, harissa spice rub, sesame seed, salt and garlic mix and dried thyme. Oh, I added a little turmeric power—more out of guilt and discomfort than need; I haven’t used it yet. These spices occupy less space than an iPad and could not be more adequate for the needs of my visiting family and occasional dinner guests.

Let’s see, the Jamaican jerk is my prime spice, used sometimes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I use it to flavour my morning egg and shiitake mushroom bhurji; the slow-cooked rajma (well, there’s no option; I do not have a pressure cooker) with mint leaves; and the poached cod curry. The blackening Creole spice is great for baking salmon; the harissa spice rub gives body and bounce to vegetable and chicken curry.

If you think about it, these mixes are nothing but garam masalas, combinations of spices. And if you simplify the number of spices you use, it really cuts steps and speeds up cooking times. I had already experimented with using a single garam masala to marinate fish back home; squeezed with lime and rubbed with salt, it was quite excellent baked or fried in a non-stick pan with no more than a teaspoon of olive oil—if healthy eating is a concern to you, as indeed it is to me.

Paring your spices down to the essentials isn’t necessary, but it is a good idea if you are short on time or prefer your cooking to be simple. All you need to do is determine what spices you really like, what garam masalas or spice mixes smell good to you, and conduct a few experiments before you settle on a small selection. Typically, I find that those who cook for their families do indeed suffer that time crunch and end up using pretty much the same combination of three-four spices every day. In my case, the simplicity is enforced by the realities of space and time at Harvard, but since quick cooking is the subject of this column, what could be better?

Shiitake Mushroom and Egg-white Bhurji

Serves 2

Ingredients

2 cups shiitake mushroom, clean, discard stalks and roughly chop (use any mushrooms if shiitake is unavailable)

1 tsp ginger-garlic, freshly chopped

Half onion, chopped

Half tomato, chopped

1 chilli, chopped

3-4 egg whites, beaten

1 tsp olive oil

1-2 tsp Jamaican jerk spice (or substitute with any garam masala, from East Indian bottle masala to a packaged alternative, such as MTR)

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

In a non-stick pan, gently heat the olive oil and add the ginger and garlic. Add onions and sauté until translucent. Add spice and mix well, adding tomatoes if it starts to stick. Add chillies and mushrooms, sauté until water has left the mushrooms and they are almost done. Add egg whites and toss well until cooked. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and serve hot with fresh, bakery bread.

Fish Baked in Foil (without oil)

Serves 2

Ingredients

350g fish fillet, one piece (use any firm fish, surmai, pomfret or betki; I used cod)

2 tsp Creole spice rub (or any other garam masala)

Juice of half lime or lemon

Salt to taste

Method

Place the fish on a large piece of foil. Rub spice and salt on both sides and squeeze lemon or lime. Wrap the fish in the foil and seal the ends. Let it marinate for at least an hour. Bake for 25 minutes in the oven at 180 degrees Celsius. There’s no need for oil because the sealed fish will release moisture.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar also writes the fortnightly science column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of the book The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

Also Read | Samar’s previous Lounge columns

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