As is probably apparent from the recipes on my site, I’m a big fan of spices. I’m prone to dropping a pinch of freshly crushed cardamom or black pepper into my baking. I also enjoy cooking Indian food at home; my particular favourite is a Friday night prawn saag. If we have visitors, I’ll go a step further and add fresh puffy naans scattered with black dots of nigella seeds.

There’s something very comforting about wafts of spice floating through the kitchen. I also love the way the aroma of spices develop in food if it isn’t eaten straightaway. If you’ve ever eaten some leftover curry the day after you’ll know what I mean. I’ve also noticed the same effect with my cardamom Anzac cookies; they actually taste even better the day after baking.

I was therefore very excited about last night’s Cookbook Confidential evening with spice experts Cyrus Todiwala (chef proprietor of Café Spice Namasté and one of the stars of BBC TV series, The Incredible Spice Men) and Chetna Makan (Great British Bake Off). Both have have new cookery books that use spices in different ways. Cyrus Todiwala’s latest book, Mr Todiwala’s Spice Box, is a collection of recipes utilising Cyrus’s top 10 spices. Chetna’s book, The Cardamom Trail, is dedicated to incorporating spices in baking, as she displayed with such skill in Great British Bake Off.

Cookbook Confidential Spice Evening

It was a lively and educational evening at the second of this new series of events hosted by Julia Leonard. Set in a light and airy room above Charing Cross Road, it’s a great space for talks (there’s even a grand piano in the corner should a musical mood take you!). Both Cyrus and Chetna are clearly passionate about food, spices and cooking, with the roots of this love coming from cooking with their mothers. For Cyrus there was also a surprising paternal influence from his father, who used to study spices when in bed.

Fortunately the evening wasn’t just about listening, as there were many spices to smell and taste. Cyrus had brought along his actual spice box, which is actually a fragrant suitcase filled to the brim with all types of spices in plastic containers. It turns out that it was quite a challenge – even though it was one he’d set himself – to select just 10 for his book. To do this he considered versatility, accessibility and simplicity. However even with these considerations, he still wrangled over whether to include nutmeg or mace (if you’re wondering, mace won).

Cookbook Confidential Spice Evening

One clear message from the evening was to never throw anything away! Spices may not be quite as aromatic a few years after their sell by date as the volatile oils evaporate, but they rarely spoil or are dangerous to eat. Cyrus laughed as he explained that in India very little food is thrown away in households. I’d love to see this happen more often in the UK.

One of the areas that Cyrus emphasised is the medicinal, as well as culinary, purpose of spices. Ayurvedic principles apply to each of the spices, making them about much more than just flavour. There were so many useful tips from the evening and here are just some of my favourites in case you’d like to further your own spice exploration:

General Spice Tips

Storing Spices

Store spices in the fridge to extend their life if you’re not going to use them up quickly. You can pop them in a container in your chiller drawer. Remember – don’t throw them away even if they are not quite at their freshest. They will still have flavour and aroma, even if it’s not as strong as it was.

Baking vs Cooking With Spices

When baking with spices you need to be subtle. Overdoing things will leave baking with a medicinal taste. As baking is done at heat over a longer period the flavour will build, so you need to be careful. Certain spices really don’t work in baking, in particular black cardamom and mace.

Whether you use powdered or whole spices depends on both flavour and texture. Whole seeds can add an interesting crunch. Because of their strength of flavour, some, such as mace, will nearly always be used whole. It also depends on the look; sometimes powder will discolour vegetables in a savoury dish, which you may not want.

Toasting Spices for Garam Masala

Many of the spices included in garam masala (e.g. black pepper, cloves, nutmeg) are oily so need to be roasted before grinding. Pop them on a tray in the oven at 140°C for 5 minutes. After this turn the oven off and leave the spices in there for 30 minutes to dry out sufficiently. Grind the dried spices into a powder to add to cooking.

Specific spices

Fennel

Fennel is a very common spice in Indian cooking and aids digestion. It pairs well with citrus and is a good spice for baking. Cyrus shared the story of his nerves when making a Victoria sponge cake for the WI (no mean feat): it contained marmalade in place of the regular jam filling, as well as fennel seeds. Toasting fennel (as with most spices) gives it a stronger flavour.

Cookbook Confidential Spice Evening

Courtesy of John Holland

Black Cumin

The flavour of black cumin is a mix between regular cumin and caraway. It’s slightly more subtle than standard cumin. It can be used to infuse rice and helps balance heavy meals, particularly ones with rich meat.

Black Rock Salt

We tasted some black rock salt and it has a slightly sulphuric (eggy) taste which adds an interesting depth to dishes. It’s also an anti-flatulent. While it works well with chickpeas, salad and some seafood, it’s never added to meat dishes. More unusually it can be sprinkled over guava or watermelon.

Star Anise

Star Anise originally comes from China and is the dried flower of the plant. It can be used in syrups (it’s good with stone fruit), and beef and lamb. Another use is as a remedy for a sore throat: infuse star anise in hot water, add a little honey and drink.

Turmeric

The last word goes to turmeric. Cyrus laughed about the fact that the West seems to have suddenly discovered the magic of turmeric. It’s well known as an anti-inflammatory and can be mixed with milk for a soothing drink. A lesser known fact is that it can also be used for emergency repairs to cars, in particular plugging leaking radiators (and Cyrus can attest to its effectiveness after seeing his father use it in an emergency).

 

The evening had me heading back to my box of spices from my trip to India earlier in the year. One thing I’ve never done is make my own garam masala mix from scratch, so I’ve added this to my list. Fortunately I now know to store it in the fridge so my Friday night curries will have an extra spicy kick.

 

Check out the Cookbook Confidential site for the upcoming events at Foyles.

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