Spice Tour

Indian food is growing in popularity in Canada as more and more people seek to expand their culinary horizons. An amalgamation of the cuisines of the many diverse cultures and geographic regions within India, Indian cuisine is characterized by its inspired use of aromatic herbs and spices.

For the past few years, Meena Pathak, who is the creative force behind product development for Patak's, has been leading tours of India's spice regions for food writers and culinary professionals from around the world. Meena has given them an opportunity to experience firsthand the harvesting and preparation of the enormous variety of exotic spices that define Indian cuisine, and to learn more about the rich and complex heritage of Indian food.

To learn more about a specific Indian spice, its origin and what recipes it is used in, click on one of the following:

Although available in 'tears' and 'lumps', it is most commonly found in powdered form. When solid asafoetida is crushed, the sulphur compounds in the volatile oil are released, giving it a strong, unpleasant smell, reminiscent of pickled garlic.

Asafoetida has a very strong, pungent smell and the flavour mellows as it is fried in oil. When cooked, it has a truffle-like flavour and a roasted garlic aroma.

Originally found in Afghanistan and Iran, Asafoetida emerged in India during the Moghul Reign and has since been cultivated in Kashmir as well.

A word of warning however: asafoetida should only be used sparingly in any cooked dish where garlic would be appropriate even a tiny amount enhances the flavour of a dish or spice mix.

Patak's uses small quantities of asafoetida in all pickles, soups, frozen meals and pappadums.

Did you know?
According to the Ayurveda, a more than 2,000 year old comprehensive system of medicine based on a holistic approach rooted in Vedic culture, asafoetida is considered to be a highly useful digestive, disinfectant, antispasmodic, mild diuretic, a stimulant for glandular secretion, an aid to circulation and is particularly useful for strengthening the nerves.

Despite being used since antiquity by Asian herbalists and pharmacists for medicinal purposes, nigella seeds were first used for culinary purposes by the Romans. The seeds have little odour but develop a scent similar to that of oregano when ground or chewed. The taste is nutty, earthy and peppery. It helps to toast the seeds before using them in order to bring out their flavour.

Nigella seeds are widely used in Indian cuisine, particularly in mildly braised dishes such as korma. The seeds are used in the preparation of garam masalas and are one of the five spices in the Indian spice mixture, panch phoron. They are added to vegetable and dhal dishes as well as in chutneys. The seeds are traditionally sprinkled on naan breads before baking.

Nigella is native to Western Asia where it grows both wild and cultivated. The flower is also cultivated in India, Egypt and the Middle East.

Did you know?
Nigella seeds are known to repel certain insects and can be used like mothballs.

Today it also grows in Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Indo-China and Tanzania. The ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom seeds as a tooth cleaner; the Greeks and Romans used it as a perfume. Vikings came upon cardamom about one thousand years ago, in Constantinople, and introduced it into Scandinavia, where it remains popular to this day.

Cardamom is an expensive spice, third only to saffron followed by vanilla. It is often adulterated and there are many inferior substitutes from cardamom-related plants, such as Siam cardamom, Nepal cardamom and winged Java cardamom. However, it is only Elettaria cardamom which is the true cardamom. Indian cardamom is known in two main varieties: Malabar cardamom and Mysore cardamom. The Mysore variety contains higher levels of cineole and limonene and hence is more aromatic.

Cardamom seeds come in hard green pods, containing 15-20 tiny dark brown or black seeds - the stickier the better. Ideal seeds have a green to green-amber colour; the best at displaying this characteristic are those from Kerala which stand as the 'item' quality of others are compared to in order to determine their price, whereas Guatemalan cardamom, though not as good as the Kerala pods, is the most exported.

The aroma of cardamom is strong and penetrating yet fruity and mellow. The taste is lemony and flowery, with a note of camphor or eucalyptus due to cineole in the essential oil; it is pungent and smoky with a warm, bittersweet note, whilst also being clean and fresh.

As far as its uses go, cardamom is a very versatile spice with many uses in Indian cuisine: from tea flavouring to an essential ingredient in many curries, as the main constituent of garam masala, through to dhals, sweetmeats and kulfi (ice cream). Cardamom is also believed to aid digestion and act as a breath freshener, for example in paans.

Ground cardamom is present in Patak's Rogan Josh, Jalfrezi, Garam Masala, Biryani and Dopiaza pastes.

Did you know?
Cleopatra found the scent of crushed cardamom seeds so enticing that she is rumoured to have scented the rooms of her palace with cardamom smoke when Marc Anthony paid her a visit!

Originating from the Eastern Mediterranean and possibly Egypt, the ajwain flower is now cultivated in Persia and India.

Carom seeds are small, ribbed ovoids, greyish-green to purple-red in colour that are very small (about 1/16th of an inch), similar to celery seeds. The taste is largely determined by thymol in the essential oil and is hot and bitter. The hot bitter taste is often attributed to the thymol in the oil. The seeds can be chewed on their own to alleviate stomach pains, this also often has a numbing sensation on the tongue. When cooked, their flavour is mellowed to mirror that of thyme or oregano, yet stronger with a zesty touch.

In India, ajwain is popular for its use in breads (paratha), savoury pastries (pakora), fried snacks and an enhancement to spice mixes (in Bengali cuisine, it is often used to enhance the panch phoron - the Indian five-spice mixture). Its best known use in the West is in the flavouring of Bombay mix, rather similar to a pungent version of aniseed, however slightly stronger and less subtle. Ajwain is greatly used in vegetarian Gujarat cuisine foremost in batters, combined with chilli and fresh coriander for bhajias or pudlas (Indian pancakes), where it acts as a source of protein for vegetarians.

Did you know?
Ajwain's essential oil was the world's main source of thymol until the introduction of synthetic thymol.

Chillies are native to South America, particularly Mexico where they were consumed approximately 9000 years ago. They have been cultivated in these regions as well as Central America and the Caribbean Islands for thousands of years. When Columbus 'discovered' the Americas, he took plants back to Spain, where they were named pimiento due to their resemblance, in terms of pungency, to pepper. Despite not being related to the pepper vine, capsicums are still referred to as peppers.

Chillies exist in an assortment of shapes, colours and even sizes; they can be but a few millimetres or as long as a 30cm ruler! They can be bought as whole chillies (either fresh or dried) as well as in flakes, threads and a ground powder form.

The green and red chillies have no aroma until dried. Chillies' flavour is only released when the flesh is cut. They range in taste from mild and tingling to burning hot. The mildest come from the C. annum, whereas the C. Chinese bear fruit are the hottest ones. Chillies get their heat from a substance called capsaicin, which can be found in their seeds, flesh and skin. A general guideline is that large fleshy chillies are typically milder than small, thin ones. Remove the seeds and veins in a chilli to reduce its capsaicin content, thus lessening the heat.

Fresh chillies can be refrigerated or frozen - they will keep for at least a week in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator but will lose their flavour and piquance if frozen. Dried chillies can be stored almost indefinitely at an ambient temperature in an airtight container, away from the sunlight.

Today, chillies are the biggest spice crop in the world - hundreds of different varieties are grown in all the tropical regions and eaten daily by a quarter of the worlds population. Although used in cuisine ranging from all the corners of the Earth, India is the largest producer and consumer of chillies and each region uses its local varieties. Chilli powder is an essential ingredient in many curries, sauces and spice mixes. When red, dried chillies are fried in hot oil, they give a wonderful flavour to the dish. Crushed chillies make excellent garnishes and chilli powder or fresh, sliced green chillies will add a kick to any dish.

Green chillies are used in making Patak's Chilli Pickle and red chilli powder is used in varying degrees in Patak's pickles, pastes, sauces and ready meals.

Did you know?
There are over 200 identified varieties of chilli grown throughout the tropics. In addition there are many local varieties which have not yet been documented. Depending on the variety of the chilli, its heat measured in Scoville units, can range from 0-300,000.

Cinnamon can be found either in quills or as a ground powder. Either way, the paler the colour of the cinnamon, on the whole, the finer the quality. Quills come in three classes, the best of which is Continental followed by Mexican and Hamburg. Cinnamon can also be found in featherings, which are purely shavings of quills that have been broken in transit, although these are primarily used to make ground cinnamon.

Cinnamon has a warm, sweet and amiable aroma that is delicate yet intense. The taste is also aromatic, warm and sweet with hints of clove and citrus. Ground bark is immediately aromatic, whereas the quills have a tendency to hide their aromatic properties until broken or cooked in a liquid.

The best cinnamon can be found in Sri Lanka where it originated, though it is also cultivated in Java, Sumatra, the West Indies, Brazil, Vietnam, Madagascar and Egypt. When the Dutch established a trading post in Sri Lanka in 1638, a Dutch captain reported, 'The shores of the island are full of it and it is the best in all the Orient: when one is downwind of the island, one can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea'.

Mexico is the main importer of cinnamon, where the spice is used to flavour coffee and chocolate drinks. Here's a tip from the Mexicans: the next time you drink hot chocolate, be sure to stir it with a stick of cinnamon to enhance its taste. Cinnamon is also widely used in Indian cuisine - its bark is an essential ingredient in masala dishes, giving them a sweet, warm and fragrant taste. Cinnamon is also used to flavour rice and desserts.

Did you know?
Cinnamon is believed to have been found by a Greek historian by the name of Herodotus on Egyptian mummies! Before the spice was bought to Europe, Arabs maintained their monopoly on spice trade by stating it had to be collected while under attack ferocious birds.

After picking they are dried in the traditional way, sun-drying them on woven mats. They lose their moisture, become hard and reddish-brown in colour. The best cloves have deep reddish-brown stems though in comparison a lighter crown; they tend to be rough to touch, exude a small quantity of oil if compressed with a fingernail and snap cleanly between the two.

Cloves have an extremely strong and pungent aroma, with notes of pepper and camphor. The taste is rich and warm, aromatic and fruity but also sharp, hot and bitter, creating a numbing sensation on the tongue. This characteristic taste is dominated by the eugenol in the essential oil and is the reason why cloves must be used sparingly as they can easily overpower other spices used in dishes.

The Molucca Islands of Indonesia are believed to be the origin of cloves, and remain their largest producer. It is Zanzibar and Madagascar, however, who export the most cloves as Indonesia's produce rarely gets a chance to leave the country due to their popularity there. Historically, cloves coming from Madagascar are believed to be superior to other produces.

As with chillies, cloves have found uses in all parts of the world, from an ingredient in stews, cheese and apple pies to a flavouring for ham in America; from a five spice powder in China to the extremely popular kretek cigarettes in Indonesia due to their unique aroma. In Indian cuisine, cloves are particularly used in masalas, pilau rice and various cooking sauces.

Cloves are used to make Patak's Garam Masala, Jalfrezi and Rogan Josh pastes. Korma also has hints of ground cloves in it.

Did you know?
The name clove is derived from the French word clou meaning nail, which is the shape that the bud and stem resemble. Cloves are known to have antiseptic properties and their smell is often associated with the dentist. At the time of the early Chinese civilization commoners chewed cloves to sweeten their breath before talking to the emperor. The Chinese also used cloves as a mild anaesthetic for toothache.

It is one of the few plants that can be used as a herb or a spice and is undoubtedly the most widely used plant in both forms. It is of no surprise then that coriander is the most important spice in Indian cuisine.

Coriander is a herb that most people either love or hate. The leaves are always bought fresh as dried coriander is not worthwhile - it is certainly never used in Asian cuisines. The broad base leaves are reputed as having a better flavour than the less fresh flavour of the pinnate shaped leaves that are attached to the stem.

Just as some people are addicted to coriander's refreshing, lemony-ginger aroma, others hate it and find it soapy. The flavour is strong, yet delicate and complex, with notes of lemon and ginger. Although they smell and taste quite different, coriander seeds and leaves complement each other very well in dishes.

The plants are native to the Mediterranean and Western Asia but are now grown worldwide. The coriander grown in Russia and Central Europe has smaller seeds and contains more essential oil than the oriental variety, which tends to be cultivated for the leaves just as much as for the seeds.

Coriander is one of the most common herbs used in Indian cuisine and has uses ranging from flavouring curries and pastes, to its use in making chutneys, pastes and raitas when combined with other herbs and spices such as green chillies and mint.

Did you know?
Coriander actually keeps its flavour fairly well when frozen. Chop the leaves and freeze them in an ice tray, covered with a little water. That way, when you want to perk up some of your recipes, simply throw in a cube or two of frozen coriander!

The plants are native to the Mediterranean and Western Asia but are now grown worldwide. The coriander grown in Russia and Central Europe has smaller seeds and contains more essential oil than the oriental variety, which tends to be cultivated for the leaves just as much as for the seeds. The plants are harvested early in the morning with the dew on, since the pods can split very easily in the hot climatic conditions while still on the plant. The seeds are then sun dried and stored in racks.

Ripe seeds have a sweet, woody, spicy aroma with a subtle undertone of pine and pepper. The taste is sweet, mellow and warm with an orange peel flavour. Due to its mild flavour, coriander is often used in larger amounts than other spices. The flavour of the seeds is enhanced if they are dry roasted before being ground. Although spherical Moroccan seeds are more commonly available than the oval Indian variety, it is the latter which has a sweeter flavour.

Ground coriander is often mixed with ground cumin to create a mixture that forms the basis of many curry powders and masalas. Coriander is used just as much in sweet dishes as in savoury ones. Certain sweet pickles from the West of India will have split coriander seeds. Besides flavouring the curries, ground coriander also helps to thicken them.

Coriander constitutes a major part of Patak's spice blends and is used in pastes, Mango Pickle, sauces and ready meals.

Did you know?
Although they smell and taste quite different, coriander seeds and leaves complement each other very well in dishes.

It was used in medicines here and in Minoan Crete over 4,000 years ago. The Romans used it as we use pepper and Spanish explorers took it to Latin America, where it has since become a very popular spice.

It comes in two varieties: plain and black. Plain cumin seeds are oval, brownish-green in colour and about 5mm long. Although they look like and are commonly mistaken for caraway, cumin seeds are longitudinally ridged and tend to be straighter. Black cumin seeds are darker and smaller than their plain counterparts.

Cumin has a very distinctive, strong and spicy aroma and a rich, earthy and warm taste with slightly bitter and pungent notes. Black cumin has a sweeter smell and a complex, mellow flavour that lies somewhere between cumin and caraway.

In Indian cuisine, cumin is an important ingredient in most curries, pilau rice and certain breads. When mixed with ground coriander, it forms the basis of most curry powders and masalas. Cumin is a spice that can be used whole just as it can be used ground and often a mixture of both forms is required in several recipes. The seeds are also used in snacks and appetizers and when dry roasted, cumin is an essential flavouring in the Gujarati drink lassi.

Cumin is used in large quantities in all Patak's pastes, sauces and ready meals as well as in some pickles.

Did you know?
Cumin is said to keep lovers faithful and was often used in love potions. It has been used as a condiment in England since the 13th century and was a taxable import into London from 1419. It has also been used be Ayurvedic practitioners to make a tea, which helps manage type II diabetes mellitus.

Each slender stalk of this tree can give up to 25 leaves. Although it has been cultivated on a small scale in private gardens in India for centuries, it only started to be commercially produced recently. Although available as dried leaves, it is much better to buy them fresh from Indian stores, where they may be labelled 'Meetha Neem' or 'Kari (sometime Kadhi) Patta'. They can be frozen although they will keep in a refrigerator in an airtight bag for at least a week.

Although dried curry leaves have almost no flavour to them, fresh leaves, when bruised, are extremely aromatic. The leaves give off an intense spicy aroma with a citrus note and have a warm, pleasant and lemony taste that is faintly bitter.

Prior to use, curry leaves are detached from their stalk. They are the equivalent of coriander leaves to North Indian cuisine, to South Indian cuisine. They feature in dishes from saags in Gujarat to the fish curries of Kerala. Curry leaves are vital in Chennai (Madras), the sole region in which they form the basis of most masalas. In the majority of India they are simply used as a tempering in the last few minutes of cooking.

Did you know?
The use of the curry leaf tree to treat diabetes has attracted a great deal of interest. Special compounds have been found in the leaf which might make it an effective new medicine for diabetes sufferers. Diabetes sufferers, watch this space!

The tree is native to countries such as Malaysia, India and Burma, where it can grow to reach 90 to 100 feet!

Amchoor is made by pulverising sun-dried, unripe fruit into a fine pale beige to brownish powder and is solely produced in India. Slices of it will keep for three to four months, whereas the powder will keep in an airtight jar for up to a year. It has a pleasant, sweet-sour and slightly tropical aroma, with a slight bitterness and a refreshing flavour, similar to tamarind.

Amchoor is used in North Indian cuisine to give a fruity tang to many vegetarian dishes. It is good with stir-fried vegetables and in stuffing for breads and pastries and is an essential ingredient in chat masala, a spice blend that originates from the Punjab.

Did you know?
One teaspoon of amchoor has the equivalent acidity of three tablespoons of lemon juice.

Indigenous to the Mediterranean, fennel is now also cultivated in India, the Middle East and in Russia.

The plant produces a distinctive warm, liquorice-like aroma similar to anise but less intense and the seeds are sweet and fragrant. It has a slight menthol undertone with musty flavour notes.

Fennel seeds form an important ingredient in the Bengali panch phoron five-spice mixture. In other regions of India, fennel is used in garam masala, spiced gravies and sweet dishes. The seeds are widely used in India after a meal as a breath freshener and a digestive aid.

Whole and ground fennel are used in varying degrees in Patak's pastes and Jalfrezi and Balti flavours.

Did you know?
Ancient Chinese and Hindus used Fennel as a remedy for scorpion stings; in the Middle Ages, it was also hung over doorways to ward off evil spirits. It is currently suggested to relieve wheezing and aid catarrh and asthma patients.

It is now grown in Argentina, India, Morocco, the Mediterranean, and in Pakistan. Both the leaves and seeds are used in Indian cuisine - the leaves resemble shaped clover leaves and the seeds grow in pods, which contain 15 to 20 seeds each.

Fresh leaves are grassy and mildly pungent and as translated by the Slovaks, 'green hay', fennel leaves contain an aromatic note of hay. The seeds are hard, are brownish-yellow in colour and are of rhombic shape (about 3 mm). The seeds tend to taste uniquely bitter and astringent. They have an overwhelming smell of curry powder.

Fenugreek seeds are tempered in hot oil or are dry roasted. The powdered version is ground finely and split seeds are used with a combination of split mustard seeds in pickles. Fenugreek is essential to sambhar powders and the Bengali panch phoron masala. Indian cooks also tend to make great use of fresh fenugreek leaves as a vegetable, which is often combined with potatoes, spinach or rice. The leaves are also chopped and added to the dough for naan breads and chappatis. Their dried counterparts are used to flavour sauces and gravies with a bitter taste.

Did you know?
Fenugreek has been believed to cure baldness in men as well as reducing a fever when made into a paste and applied over the body.

The seed of this tree is known as a nutmeg and comes encased in two layers. The outermost of these is a small, golden fruit with reddish spots. The other is a red, web-like seed membrane called an aril and is sold as the spice mace. Although some suppliers will sell blades of mace, it is more commonly found as a ground powder.

Legend has it that birds are intoxicated on the islands where nutmeg trees grow, due to the strength of the aroma. The intense aroma of mace is developed during its curing process, where it is left to dry in the sun for 10-14 days and is similar to a combination of pepper and cinnamon. It is during this time that its colour fades from a bright red to a rusty orange. The flavour of mace is warm and spicy, similar to but cleaner and more savoury than that of nutmeg.

Mace tends to have a role in Indian cuisine that is somewhat reserved to sweet dishes and a food colouring used for its saffron-like colour. It can be used in some masala mixes and is an ingredient that is added to garam masala to produce another variation of it.

Did you know?
One productive acre will yield 500 pounds of nutmeg but only 75 pounds of mace, which explains its steep price. Records show that in 14th century England, one pound of mace was worth more than three sheep!

Whole mustard has no aroma, but grinding releases strong, spicy and earthy aromas. White mustard is primarily sweet and does not have much flavour, even when ground, until it is added to a liquid. Black mustard is strong and pungent, brown mustard is slightly bitter and white mustard is initially sweet until the heat kicks in.

Black mustard is sometimes used to temper spices in Indian cuisine, but has been mostly replaced by brown mustard seeds, which are used predominantly in South India; where they are dry roasted or heated in hot oil to bring out an alluring nutty flavour. It is used in a ground powder form in Bengal, predominantly in curries; mustard oil tends to be widely used as a cooking oil here for its appetizing flavour.

Black mustard and brown mustard powder is used in varying quantities in Patak's pickles, pastes and sauces.

Did you know?
A chemical reaction is responsible for creating the hot taste of mustard. When ground and mixed with water, two substances, sinigrine and myrosine combine to produce a molecule called isothyocyanate of allyle which produces a hot sensation in the mouth.

Once desiccated, the stalks are removed from the pepper, along with the seeds and veins, and later the wall of the fruit. The seeds and veins are ground independently and subsequently blended, dependant on the type of paprika required.

The capsicums that paprika is made from are native to south America. They were brought to Spain via the journey made by Christopher Columbus in 1492, where the Spaniards became the first to dry and grind the peppers to make paprika.

Although related to the hot chilli pepper, the cultivation of this plant in the Northern Hemisphere has eliminated the capsaicin content which provides chillies with their heat. Paprika tends to have a subtle and delicate aroma with a slight fruitful yet smoky trace. Flavours differ from sweet and smoky to full bodied and pungent.

Paprika has a dominant deep red colour when used in cooking, which is its principal use in Indian cuisine. It can also be used to form spice blends, but care must be taken not to overheat paprika, as it becomes bitter.

Did you know?
A century after being first recorded in Hungary in 1604, it was decided that paprika was a spice used by peasants and it was not until the 19th century that it was considered suitable for 'sophisticated stomachs'.

Heavily used in the West as the principal accompaniment to salt, it is a spice that finds uses in all corners of the globe - despite their love of chillies, even Latin Americans and South Asians will reach for peppercorns to flavour sauces, spice mixtures, marinades and much more.

Pepper has a history marred by fierce warfare, empire-building and protected trade routes. It is the principal reason for the development of the spice trade and yet pepper can be found to be peacefully growing in the very areas where it was the cause of much bloodshed.

There are two types of peppercorns: black peppercorns come from green fruits and white peppercorns from red fruits. The unripe green fruits are fermented for a short time, then sun-dried during which time, they desiccate, become hard, and adopt a dark brown to black colour. The red fruits are picked when almost ripe, then soaked to soften and loosen the outer skin. Once this outer skin is removed, they are rinsed and sun-dried, forming white peppercorns.

The flavour is down to the peppers essential oil content. Black pepper both emits a woody, fresh aroma and has pungency, whereas the oils of white pepper tend to be removed during the cleaning process, giving it little aroma but sufficient pungency.

The essential oil and piperine content of peppers vary with their origin so this difference between black and white pepper can be broken down further. Pepper of the best quality can be found from the Indian Malabar coast, from where pepper first came into Europe over 3,000 years ago. Pepper here has a sharp fruity aroma.

Tellicherry peppers are those with the largest berries and Indonesian lampong pepper has more piperine and less essential oil giving it little aroma but more pungency. Sarawak pepper from Malaysia has a milder aroma than Indonesian pepper but is hot and biting; Brazilian pepper has low piperine content and is somewhat bland; and the Vietnamese variety is light in colour and is mild. Bear in mind though, that wherever the pepper comes from, when ground it will quickly lose its flavour and aroma, so it is best to store it in a pepper mill so that it can be grounded only when being used.

Pepper is a spice that will go well with any spice mix or dish. It is, however, essential to the garam masala spice blend and is often used in other masalas as it enhances the flavour of other spices whilst never losing its own flavour or dominating others. As such, it is a spice that is truly invaluable in Indian or any other cuisine from around the world.

Did you know?
Pepper was the reason America was discovered as Columbus actually set out to find India, because the valuable spice, pepper was said to grow there.

It is the dried stigma of the saffron crocus. It takes over 75,000 crocuses to produce five pounds of stigmas, which after being toasted, yield merely one pound of saffron. It is no wonder then why saffron is such an expensive spice!

Saffron crocuses are native to the Mediterranean and to Western Asia, but production has now shifted such that Spain is now the main producer of saffron. It is said that at harvest time on the plain of La Mancha, a heady, sensual aroma explodes around you as the stigmas are toasted.

The finest quality of Saffron is recognized by its deep red colour. It is called 'coupe' the Spanish for red or Kashmiri saffron. The next grade down contains a handful of yellow threads, matching the shade of the flower. This type is often referred to as Mancha for the Spanish variety or Kayam for the Iranian variety. Good quality saffron can also be found from Greece and Italy. Lesser grades tend to be brownish in colour, and have rather tousled threads.

Saffron has a mesmerizing aroma: it is distinctly rich and musky with amiable honeyed trails. The taste of this spice is very delicate, warm, penetrating and slightly bitter. It adds a brilliant golden yellow colour to dishes and is sold in strands as well as in powdered form.

Saffron is immersed in liquid for the majority of its uses in cooking. Saffron is added at different stages of the cooking process, depending on what is required for the dish being prepared. If after the colour, saffron is added in the beginning stages however, if aroma is sought, the saffron is added in the latter stages. If overused, there is a danger of it giving an amaroidal taste to foods. If liquid is not required in the cooking process of the dish, then saffron can always be ground and stirred in with the same effects. In this case, it is essential that if the threads are not dry, then they are dried, possibly by roasting, before the grinding process commences.

The use of saffron is very much a part of Indian Moghlai cuisine and is often used in biryanis. The spice is heavily used for its colouring properties, especially in rice and in many Indian desserts including kheer (Indian rice pudding) and kulfi (ice cream) in order to give the dish a grander look when entertaining.

Did you know?
Saffron has always been expensive and, therefore, open to adulteration. In the Middle Ages, punishment for this crime was extreme - in 1444, a German named Findeker was ordered to be burned at the stake for adulterating the spice.

Complete pods are tough and red-brown or rust coloured. The eight carpels which form the eight points of the star contain within them a seed each. The carpels are more interesting as far as cooking is concerned, as they are more aromatic than the seeds. The spice is best bought as complete pods or pieces. This is due to these remaining fresh for up to a year in an airtight jar, when kept away from sunlight, in contrast to the ground powder form which only tends to keep for 2-3 months in similar conditions.

Originating from the region around Canton in Southern China, star anise has been used in Chinese medicine for over 1300 years. It was introduced to Europe in the 17th century and was used as flavourings as well as a key ingredient in beer! Star anise was also prescribed in cases of vertigo and epilepsy during this era.

When roasted, star anise has an aroma similar to anise, yet more powerful with hints of liquorice. Its flavour is reminiscent of a bitter aniseed albeit however, much more pungent and harsher, leaving a refreshing aftertaste.

Star anise has an aroma similar to that of fennel and anise, with liquorice notes and an assertive warmth. Its flavour is close to that of anise or liquorice and is warm and pungent, leaving a fresh and agreeable aftertaste.

It is used in Keralan cuisine and sometimes as a cheaper substitute for anise in North Indian cuisine. When combined with fennel, anise and areca nuts, star anise is often used as a digestive aid and breath freshener in paan. Care needs to be taken when adding star anise to a spice mix or a dish, as it is potent and so should only be used sparingly.

Did you know?
Japanese star anise comes from a similar tree but is not edible, as it is highly toxic. Instead, it is burnt as incense in Japan. It is believed that there have been cases of illness reported after drinking star anise tea as a result of using this species as opposed to the Chinese variety. Our recommendation, therefore, is to make sure you use the right one!

It grows underground in hot, moist climates; the root is called a rhizome and spreads out into fingers. The plant above the ground is green and grows to a height of three feet. The plant is uprooted, the top discarded and the root broken from its main bulb. The fingers are then boiled and sun-dried. The outer skin is removed and the finger ground to a powder.

Turmeric is native to Southern Asia and grows in India, Indonesia, South America, China and the Caribbean. India is currently the largest producer of this inexpensive spice, which is the 'soul' of most Indian dishes. 90% of India's produce does not get a chance to leave the country and is consumed domestically.

Dried turmeric has a rich and woody aroma, it tends to be somewhat musky and is pungent. When eaten on its own, turmeric leaves a slightly bitter flavour on the tip of the tongue.

It is one of the essential spices in Indian cuisine and forms the basis of most masalas and curry pastes. This is what gives the golden colour associated with many Indian dishes. Indeed, in Indian cuisine, turmeric is used as a natural colour just as much as it is used as flavouring. Turmeric binds and harmonizes the spices that it is used in conjunction with, but needs to be used sparingly. Its flavour is enhanced when combined with spices that are low in terms of pungency.

Turmeric is an important ingredient in Patak's pickles and most pastes, sauces and ready meals.

Did you know?
If hands become stained when preparing fresh turmeric, rubbing them with potato peelings can clean them. Stains on work surfaces for example on the other hand can be cleaned by covering then with bicarbonate of soda and washing-up liquid for 20 minutes then rinsing off.