As you walk down the street, you can always tell when there is an Indian restaurant somewhere nearby. How do you know? The aroma of sizzling spices, a delightful perfume that instantly takes you to another world.
Spice. It’s what makes Indian food distinctive from every other ethnic cuisine. Sure, you have oregano in Italian cuisine, chili powder in Mexican, but nothing quite makes your nose quiver and your stomach rumble like cardamom and turmeric, coriander and fenugreek, mustard and hing, cumin and cinnamon—all used in Indian cooking. The rich aroma is a combination of so many different flavors that it’s difficult to clearly separate individual spices just by smell. Yet somehow, each Indian dish combines and recombines these substances to create an endless variety of individual taste sensations, each subtly different from the next.
Why Does Indian Food Use So Many Spices?
Western cuisine uses spices in basic ways—usually, one spice stands out, possibly combined with herbs or a second spice. Clove and nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice, salt and pepper: these are the simple and common combinations you find in many Western recipes. Indian cooking, on the other hand, uses numerous spices, sometimes using up to forty ingredients in just one dish. Why is this? A look at world history yields clues.
In Europe, Spices Were Expensive and Rare
In ancient times before Europe had refrigeration, spices were a rare and important commodity, filled with the allure of adventure and romance. Spices were used to flavor dishes, extend the useful life of meat, and even used medicinally. But while herbs could be grown locally in any backyard, spices were expensive items that came from distant and faraway lands. Any attempts to grow foreign spices in Europe usually failed due to climate and soil composition. Often, the actual source of the spices was kept secret by spice traders, who shrouded the origin of their fragrant (and lucrative) powders, roots, and seeds in myth and mystery. Pepper and cinnamon were the greatest of treasures. Adventurers risked their lives in search of these substances, and those brave and clever enough to bring spices back to Europe made fortunes.
Geography Sets the Stage for India’s Love of Spice
As luck would have it, India and Sri Lanka’s geography situated them at the nexus of the spice trade. The monsoon winds made it easy for Arab traders to get across the Indian Ocean at the right time of year, and the famed Spice Islands of Java sent cloves and pepper east to India. So while Western cooks were lucky to possess a small bag of a rare spice, Indian cooks had easy access to a bevy of spices from all over the known world. What’s more, India’s climate lent itself to growing both native and foreign spices. Black pepper and cardamom grew in vast forests in India, and, over time, more and more spices migrated from both East and West and took up cultivation on the Malabar Coast. Spices like hot chilis were not native to India but eventually became a signature part of the culture and cuisine.
This is the simple reason why Indian cuisine came to rely so heavily on spices: the easy access to a huge variety of spice. Spice was plentiful and relatively inexpensive, sure—but that doesn’t explain why Indian cuisine combines so many spices in each individual dish. While there is no clear and definitive answer for this, there is a clue in the culture of India. This is the land of more and more—and then some more! Some say there are 33 gods in the Hindu pantheon; others say 33 million. India also has a history of constantly being invaded and absorbing the invaders into their culture. Perhaps the same goes for the creation of flavors and the imaginative experimentation of spice combinations.
How Indian Food Combines Spices In Unique Ways
Western food lovers may be familiar with the modern concept of food pairing. This theory, put forth in 2009 by chefs and food scientists, suggest that foods with similar molecular “flavor compounds” should go well together, despite what you might think. This is not something you will find in your average meal, but cutting-edge foodies will mix strange bedfellows like white chocolate and caviar or strawberries and peas in search of new magic.
Recent research into Indian cooking, however, indicates a surprisingly different result. New Delhi researcher Anupam Jain reviewed 2500 regional Indian recipes and discovered that, at a molecular level, Indian food does something very unusual. Instead of following food-pairing theory, traditional Indian dishes take the opposite approach by using spices that avoid overlapping flavor sharing. Indian cuisine brilliantly puts together spices that contrast, and the more two different spices share a flavor, the less likely they will appear together in one dish. This practice creates the unique taste that is Indian, in which unusual mixes of flavors join at the same time in your mouth to create surprise and excitement.
Indian Dishes Use an Immense Variety of Cooking Ingredients
An exhaustive study determined there are 381 cooking ingredients used worldwide. Jain noted that Indian food uses close to 200 of these, and the average Indian dish uses a minimum of seven different ingredients. Even a simple looking dish like a sambar could have nearly 20 ingredients, and dishes like Navratan Korma can top 40 ingredients. Combining unlike spices allows each one to bring its own voice to the chorus of flavors in the dish. Like a master oil-painter who adds unexpected greens and purples to the shadows in a portrait, these contrasting spices bring to life the unique signature of each dish.
Why Combine Certain Spices?
By combining distinctive spices with very different flavor profiles, Indian chefs build a rich and complicated story told in each and every bite of food. With a mild pastoral beginning of sweetness (cumin), a contrasting middle (cardamom), and a surprise ending provided by black pepper, the variety of spices entices your senses and invites your mind to marvel at the unexpected tale unfolding on your tongue as you eat your Indian meal.
So next time you’re out walking in Japantown or the Mission and the air fills with heavenly spices, follow your nose to DOSA to try out some delicious and flavorful delights.