The spice trick
Spices pack a flavourful punch and give an inviting aroma to food. Just a pinch is enough to uplift a dish. No wonder they are always in a chefâs arsenal
Spices are all about flavours. Unlike seasoning, they not only compliment the food but also add a unique zest to it. Spices are added to dishes by chefs to layer and blend the disparate flavours that different spices offer. A multitude of spicesâfrom the fragrant cardamom to pungent mustard seedsâmay be used in one dish, but the key trick remains to maintain the perfect balance.
Chefs use spices abundantly across various cuisines, thereby adding complexity and depth to their food. Anupam Banerjee, executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Bangalore, agrees, âSpices are important not just for flavour they impart, but for the aroma, texture, and to also elevate a particular dish to give it that extra pizzazz.â
âThe use of spices differs from cuisine to cuisine, depending upon the natural flora and fauna available, to get the best results,â adds Sunil Gadihoke, who is the executive chef at ITC Grand Central, Mumbai.
Spices have always been an intrinsic part of a chefâs kitchen shelf. The growing interest in food and cooking has given a fillip to the demand for spices. Rekha Nahar, general manager (marketing) at MTR Foods, says, âFood has changed from being a uni-dimensional experience to a multi-dimensional and sensorial one. The expectations from food have increased exponentially over that last few years with the advent of television food shows and an increased need to experiment by the consumer. Over the past three years, the sales of branded spices have increased at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15 per cent while the sales of branded blended spices are increasing at a CAGR of 8.8 per cent.â
People are showing an increasing inclination to rediscover Indian spices, whether in their home kitchens or whilst dining out. It is common to see diners walk up to chefs and enquire about the making of a particular dish, or the ingredients that have gone into it, especially when it comes to indigenous cooking. This is encouraging chefs to unearth the genesis of specific spices and their use in various dishes.
Banerjee points out that certain spices are integral to Indian cuisine â for instance, cinnamon, clove, and cardamom. Citing an example, he adds, âKakori kebabs are melt-in-the-mouth lamb skewers made with khus root from Lucknow and betel tree root. Mace, when combined with these herbs, brings out a distinct flavour. In itself, mace is not a unique spice but this combination has a heady aroma that gives a whole new dimension to this dish.â
Similarly, apart from whole spices, garam masala, a blend of spices such as coriander, cumin, cardamom, bay leaves, black peppercorn, cloves, mace, and cinnamon, is at the core of Indian dishes. The blend differs from region to region. Chefs use garam masala, which has a scent of toasted spices, to enhance the flavour of dishes like pulaos, curries, and biryanis.
âWe believe that aromatic spices like cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaves can elevate any dish and make it more appealing to the senses. Apart from these, each regional cuisine has its own blend of spices like Panch Phoron in West Bengal and Chettinad masala in Tamil Nadu, which are marvellous in their own right,â says Nahar.
FUSION IS FUN
Chefs are now using Indian spices to perk up international cuisines to appeal to the palates of local guests and international travellers. Cumin, which is not a spice, also lends itself nicely to Latin American, Mexican, and even Spanish cuisine. Peppercorn, too, is a versatile spice and offers vibrant flavour. Green, black, white, and Tellicherry peppercorn is used in different cuisines. White peppercorn, for instance, is perfect for soups, grilled meats, fish, and poultry dishes. Star anise is a sweet and aromatic seed that is usually compared to licorice in flavour.
Most spices are common to many cuisines but the manner in which they are added or at what stage in the recipe they are used is what sets one cuisine apart from another. And thatâs where the chefâs expertise comes to the fore.
To add a twist to their food, several chefs delightedly use Indian spices in global cuisines to wow guests. Star anise, in particular, is a favourite and is often used in global desserts because of its distinct aroma and strong flavour. âThe amount and form of spices one uses,â Gadihoke says, âhas a direct relationship with the quantity of food cooked in the pot and what kind of cooking method is used.â
ALL THINGS NICE
Although chefs make liberal use of most spices, at some point or another, every chef has his favourite spice. Clement Dâcruze, executive chef at Hyatt Regency (Kolkata), uses star anise to mask the strong flavour of fish. âSaffron is my favourite spice as it is mild as well as elegant. It really is a spice that symbolises true luxury. Another favourite is the stone flower, which Altamash, one of my chefs, brings back each time from his trips to Lucknow, his hometown. It gives a distinctive lift to kebabs,â adds Banerjee.
Another reason that contributes to the popularity of spices is the health benefits they endow a dish with. Star anise is a good source of fiber and calcium while turmeric and cumin are known for their anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and healing properties. Apart from imparting a strong flavour to a curry or a cup of tea, cardamom is known for removing toxins from the body. Several spices aid in digestion and nutrient absorption when paired with beans, dairy, and meat.
Given the integral role spices play in a dish, hotels procure only the best. âSpices are expensive. However, the end results that a touch of spice can add to a dish is so spectacular that it is a good return on the spend,â declares Banerjee nonchalantly.
Hotels do not hesitate to invest in spices as they also form the basis of a cuisine and lend authenticity to the food. Therefore, buying spices in bulk is what hotels prefer as this proves to be more viable. When purchased in bulk, it becomes imperative to store the spices correctly.
âWhole spices retain their aroma and potency much longer than ground spices. It is advisable to store whole spices no more than one year from their crop season. If stored longer, the spice aroma gets faint and musty and it is better to discard them,â says Gadihoke. âThe spices must be kept in glass bottles with labels. For long storage, however, spices should not be kept in glass.â
Most hotels rely on reputed local brands such as VKL Seasoning and MTR for their regular supply of whole, powdered, and blended spices. Realising this, VKL Seasoning has specially created the Spicefield range of blended, ground and whole spices exclusively for HoReCa chefs, where every product passes through over 40 quality checks using quality that retains high volatile oil and aroma of spice and is sealed in packs convenient for chefs.
Talking about this, SK Maratha, president, Food Service India, for VKL Seasoning says, âSpicefield brandâs tagline âThe art of cooking. The craft of masalaâ proclaims that the brand is meant to interweave the creativity of chefs with the spices using a heritage of more than 75 years.â
Some hotels even import certain spices from the place of origin to impart authenticity to the cuisine. For this, purchase managers work closely with chefs to procure the spices. Dâcruze concurs. âExecutive chefs approve of spices by sampling and then, with the assistance of the purchase manager, the procurement is done.â
Says Banerjee, âWhile we send our request to the purchase department, it is the chefs who always identify the vendors. We need to import spices, once in three months.â
There arenât many dishes that a dash of spice canât cure. The versatility of spices, therefore, serves to make them the perfect ally of chefs in the kitchen.