The culinary traditions of India bring to mind seductive aromas and mysterious flavors. What, for instance, is that elusive taste in the...

Share story

The culinary traditions of India bring to mind seductive aromas and mysterious flavors. What, for instance, is that elusive taste in the chicken masala you order at your favorite Indian restaurant? It’s not anything like the bottled curry powder that’s been sitting on the kitchen shelf for years.

“It surprises most people to learn that curry powders as we know them in the West are almost nonexistent in India,” writes Tony Hill in “The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs & Spices: Seasonings for the Global Kitchen” (Wiley, 2004).

Instead, unique combinations of whole spices are ground just before adding to a dish, contributing building blocks of flavor that are never predictable.

“All Indian food is not hot,” writes Malvi Doshi in “Cooking Along the Ganges: The Vegetarian Heritage of India” (Writer’s Showcase, 2002). “Rather it is the variety of spices, and how and when they are added that makes Indian food distinctive.”

Regional differences play a major role in the immense range of curry and other spice preparations. The milder, creamy meat kormas of Northern India’s Mughlai cuisine contrast with the spicy vindaloos of the south. In Southwest India, peppercorns are harvested from bushes grown on Mount Tellicherry, what Hill refers to as “the pepper center of the universe.” So it follows that the savory berry plays an important role in that area’s dishes.

Every cook and family has their own special recipe for curries and masalas, the currylike combinations that often include sweeter spices such as cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.

Some of these mixtures go directly into sautéed base ingredients such as onion and garlic, while the seeds in other spice blends — coriander, fennel, cumin and fenugreek among them — benefit from toasting to deepen and enhance their flavors. (To toast spices, put them into a dry skillet set over medium-low to medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally. They should become fragrant and turn brown.)

What makes the collective cuisine of the region so interesting is that there are always unexpected pleasures to be discovered. The spices in a Sri Lankan curry, for instance, are toasted to a deep, almost charred brown. When added to meat dishes, the resulting flavor is like no other.

Store the whole-spice mixtures in small glass containers with tightfitting lids in a cool, dark place. (The cork stoppers that are often sold with glass bottles are too porous to keep spices fresh.)

Grinding the spices can be done by hand with a heavy stone mortar and pestle. But Hill prefers the small electric coffee grinder. The trick is to grind enough of the mix at one time so it comes in even contact with the blades. Often, a few of the seeds will become caught under the blades, but Hill has a nifty bit of advice for that, too.

“You can easily prevent this from happening simply by holding the entire mill, lid on, spices inside, upside down before turning it on,” he writes. “This allows the blades to get up to speed and have a running start at the grind.”

Of course, it won’t matter if your techniques for toasting and grinding spices are flawless, or if you’re cooking the most delicious recipe you’ve ever sampled, if the ingredients you begin with taste of sawdust. Whenever possible, buy small quantities of spices that can be used within about four months.

Many large supermarkets carry bulk spices, but make sure there’s a quick turnover to ensure freshness.

India Tree, a local company that packages many of its spices in small quantities, can be found at well-stocked markets. Its Web site (indiatree.com) has a list of stores where its products can be purchased.

World Spice Merchants, 1509 Western Ave. (worldspice.com), offers a cultural brew of herbs, teas and spices, including their own blends of exceptional curries and masalas.

CeCe Sullivan: csullivan@seattletimes.com