You can buy masala in the store, but there is absolutely no comparison between store-bought and the freshness of a masala you make yourself. The term “masala” just means “mixture”, and so a masala is one of any number of spice blends. Garam masala is the most well-known blend, but there are chai masalas, chaat masalas, egg roast masalas, and garam (or warm) masala–so called because it is made with “warm” spices. There is regional variation in garam masala–the more traditional Persian (or mughal) influenced garam masala has no cumin or coriander seed, which is prominent in the better known Punjabi, or northern, garam masala. The process is very similar among all the blends, and is simply dry roasting, and grinding. The spices stay reasonably fresh in a sealed container, for a couple of months.
Everyone should have ajwain in their kitchen, and they should be using it all the time. It has a pleasant thyme aroma: clean, herbal, and with a bite like the best zaatar or spicy oregano. It’s absolutely ideal for any kind of spice rub on meat, north Indian curry, French soup, Mexican sauces, Ethiopian spiced butter, or Mediterranean stew. It’s not a familiar spice, but it’s common in Persian, Afghan, and northern Indian cooking.
This is a member of the carrot family, Apiaceae, along with a number of other common kitchen spices. It looks like cumin or caraway, but the seeds are smaller and fatter.
If you don’t have it and need a substitute, the closest taste is dried oregano. It’s available at a lot of Persian and Indian markets, though — or cheaply on Amazon. It’s meant to be antiflatulant … make of that what you will.
Chiles, or chilis (or chilli peppers, paprika, peppers) are fruit from plants in the genus Capsicum. Like other solanaceae (including tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants) they come in a bewildering variety of colours, shapes, and flavours. There are hundreds of distinct, named varieties of chile, used in countries all around the world — most often for the sensation of heat provided by the capsaicins in them; but also for their variety of sweet, fruity flavours. They’re eaten fresh, or dried; infused, powdered, smoked, pureed, or fried in oil.
Sesame is one of the oldest cultivated plants, and is probably the oldest oil seed crop. It features prominently in cuisines from Greek to Arabic to Chinese to Japanese. It’s a versatile ingredient. The toasted seed is used in cooking, and baking; for sweet and savoury dishes. The oil is used as a seasoning. The paste is used as a thickening agent, or a sauce. Continue Reading
Soy sauce is one of the most indispensable seasonings in Chinese, Korean and Japanese food; it’s popular across much the rest of Asia, and even the Americas. It is typically made with a combination of soy and wheat, and is either fermented or chemically processed. It’s typically distinctly salty, umami, with a fermented flavour. It is used in cooking, or as a table condiment. There are a large number of varieties and styles of soy sauce, some of them quite different.Continue Reading
Rice vinegar comes in a variety of colours and flavours. The most important are probably white rice vinegar, and black vinegar. As the name suggests, rice vinegar is made from rice wine (or sorghum), and it often has a slightly sweet, malty flavour that’s important for Japanese and Chinese cooking.Continue Reading
Sichuan pepper (or Szechuan pepper, or Chinese prickly ash), is neither pepper nor exclusively from Sichuan province. There are a number of species in the genus Zanthoxylem that produce fruit that are commonly used for cooking; and it’s an important seasoning in food from Nepal to Japan (where it’s called sansho). The taste of sichuan pepper is characteristically numbing (in Chinese, it’s the ma in classic ma-la 麻辣, or numbing-spicy food). The flavour is often lemony, and even salty. There are a few things to consider when cooking with Sichuan pepper.
The pomegranate originated in the region around Persia and northern India, and has been cultivated for thousands of years. It spread into China, and the Mediterranean as early as the Bronze age; and from the Persians to the Arabs in the flowering of Islam in the Medieval period. It features prominently in the cuisines of Iran and around the Caspian Sea — especially in the use of the concentrated juice to add sourness to food. The dried seeds are used in Indian cooking as well. The brilliant, jewel-like fresh seeds are also perfect garnishes for meat and fruit dishes. Continue Reading
Chinese salted, fermented black beans are a common seasoning — important for dishes such as Sichuan hot-pot, ma-po tofu, and beef with black bean; or in sauces like hoisin, or chili sauce. They have a strong, complex taste, packed with umami. They’re meant to be combined in recipes with other strong flavours, like garlic or chili. But, it’s impossible to resist nibbling on one or two.
The dry packed beans are infintely better than any of the poxy premade sauces you can find. Most of these sauces are mostly water, anyway. If you want to get the full, rich taste of black beans in your cooking, buy the packs, or the cans. It’s quick, and easy, to make a paste with black bean, garlic and soy sauce to use with meat or vegetables.
These beans are nearly indestructible, and literally last for years (sealed) in the cupboard. Because we usually only use a few tablespoons at a time, a bag lasts forever. In fact, they even turn up in archaeological digs from over 2000 years ago! You can find them easily in Asian markets, or on Amazon.
Chinese five spice is one of the most common spice blends used across China, and can be a powder, or a combination of whole spices added while cooking (as in poached chicken, or red braising). There’s variation in the spices used, and a given five spice might have more, or fewer, than five spices. Typically, five spice will have some combination of fennel, cinnamon, star anise, Sichuan pepper. It might also have white pepper, dried ginger, licorice root, and cloves.