Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Using Panch Phoran and Other Indian Spices

Yesterday I blogged about fenugreek, or Methi, as it is often called, particularly in India. The use of the word Methi for fenugreek seems to have spilled out to many cultures and places these days. Fenugreek is not generally called for in standard US fare; neither the seed, leaf or dried leaf. It is one of those exotic spices that seemed to be inaccessible and unnecessary. I am curious to see if maybe next Spring I can plant some and see what the herb, or micro-greens are like.
Potatoes Panch Phoran, with fenugreek

These days however, most every spice is becoming available, including many that most have never heard of. I am sort of a spice-fanatic. I hear of a new (to me) spice and I just have to find it and see what it's like. So, I realize I do have more spices in my kitchen than the average person. In the upper middle of the US, where meat and potatoes still reign, salt and pepper are the most exotic spices some people use. I realize everyone has the right to their own personal taste, but I must say I feel sorry for what they miss. 

The Spice of Life

Panch Phoran Spices: cumin, nigella, mustard, fennel, fenugreek
Okay, so I take this phrase to a whole new level. I know. There are so many exciting flavors out there. Life is short. I am all about experiencing the new and different when it comes to food and flavor. Writing about Panch Phoran an Indian 5-Spice mixture, I wanted to try it with some roasted potatoes. I had toasted the spices when I mixed them, in the hopes that not only would the flavors be enhanced, but that the toasting would remove some of the bitterness of the fenugreek seeds. Toasting the seeds makes them easier to grind also, so I took 2 tablespoons of the Panch Phoran and used my mortar and pestle to lightly grind the mixture - not to a fine powder, but just so all the seeds were crushed.

Potatoes Panch Phoran
Potatoes Panch Phoran

makes about 4 servings

4 -5 pounds potatoes, peeled, cubed
2 tablespoons Panch Phoran lightly ground
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced

Preheat oven to 400 degrees (375 on Convection). The potatoes may be left unpeeled if desired. The size of the potato cubes will determine roasting time. Mix all the ingredients together in a zip-top bag and shake or otherwise move the potatoes around so all are coated with the spices. Pour the mixture out onto a rimmed baking sheet so the potatoes are all in one layer. Bake the potatoes for about 20 minutes. Using a spatula, toss the potatoes  to get them in different positions and roast more evenly. Return to oven and roast for about 20 minutes more, or until they are tender all the way through and golden brown.

So Many Spices - So Little Time

When I talk of the spices I have amassed just because I love the Indian flavors, it boggles most peoples' minds. In some kitchens I have been forced to set some spices in bins and keep them in another room, as there is no place in the kitchen proper. I had one such bin just for Indian spices. In the house where I currently live, I have all my Indian spices in a drawer. Aside from the commonly know spices such as cinnamon (though many people do not realize that the standard "cinnamon" sold in the US is actually Cassia), cloves, ginger, cumin, coriander, mace, fennel, caraway, allspice, nutmeg, paprika, black, green white and pink peppercorns, cayenne, mustard seeds, sesame seeds, bay leaves and saffron, there are others less well known, and some that are rarely heard of unless, like me, you are somewhat fanatical about spices and Indian cooking.

Some spices that are becoming more available generally (even in such out of the way places as Aberdeen, SD) are things like star anise, cardamom, turmeric and fenugreek. But then there are quite a few spices that are not generally known or even heard of, unless you find a recipe calling for it. In this way I learned of spices shown at right such as asafoetida, carom seed, black cumin, black cardamom, dried fenugreek herb and nigella seed. 


Known as "hing" in hindi, this spice (which comes from the dried and ground resin of a root) smells abominably - until it is heated. Once it is added to a dish, the smell is gone and the flavor is elusive but definitely adds a slightly onion/garlic flavor and aroma. It is often paired with turmeric in Indian cuisine. Its supposed aid in anti-flatulence makes it welcome in lentil and vegetable curries.


Known as Ajwain/Ajowain/Ajwan in Hindi, these miniscule fruit pods (often mistakenly called seeds) pack a real punch in the flavor department. They taste similar to thyme as they have thymol, but are highly pungent and more bitter. Used sparingly these little pods/"seeds" are often used to sprinkle on breads such as naan or mix into dough for samosas or Indian breads. It is often added to vegetable and lentil dishes.


Called Kala Jeera or Shah Jeera in Hindi, these very fine, black seeds are longer than regular cumin. These seeds are rarely seen outside India, so finding them is sometimes tricky. They are confused with and sold as nigella, but nigella is a completely different plant. To make matters even more confusing, it seems to be translated into English as "caraway." When I hunted for a translation, it was given as shah jeera or kala jeera. (Shah means "royal" and "jeera" means cumin. Kala means Black. So it is Royal or Black Cumin.

Black cumin is somewhat similar in shape to regular cumin, but that is where the resemblance ends. It is most often left whole, sometimes used to top Indian breads. Its lemon/anise flavor adds dimension to most any Indian dish from soup to meat, lentil dishes and vegetable.


Black cardamon, know as Badi Elaichi in Hindi, is completely unlike green cardamom in flavor. The plant is related, but black cardamom pods are far larger than green cardamom and the flavor is heavy; camphorous and smoky. It would never be used in bakery sweets as is green cardamom. It is more suited to heavier meat dishes, as it could overwhelm a delicate sauce. After smelling black cardamom, a friend thought it would pair well with the earthiness of mushrooms - which it does.


Fenugreek is known as Methi, applying to the whole plant. When used as the dried leaves, it is often called Kasoori Methi. While the fenugreek seeds themselves smell rather like maple syrup, the dried leaves of the plant retain a small amount of these same flavors and are best added toward the end of cooking to give a little flavor boost. The flavors of this herb combine well with root vegetables like carrots, yams or potatoes. It is also good in small amounts added to curries and dishes with tomatoes.


Nigella, often mistakenly called onion seed, is also most often confused with black cumin, to which there is no resemblance. Known as Kalonji in Hindi, these seeds have a pungently bitter black pepper-oregano taste and smell. It is often used to top Naan breads before baking. It is one of the spices in the Indian Five-Spice mixture called Panch Phoron. They have a nut-like somewhat peppery flavor, best brought out by toasting or cooking in oil.

I hope this list may induce some to seek out these new and interesting flavors. Anyone at all interested in Indian cuisines should certainly look them up. 

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.