One of the common questions and connundrums with the spiceverse (yes, I made up that word!) is how much is enough or differently worded what are the basic essential spices needed for spice based cooking. At the risk of sounding evasive, I will tell you the answer really depends on the user and their every day cooking style. I will tell you that after a few early years of overflowing spice closets, I am finally at a point where I have consciously begun eliminating spices from my closet. I have begun trading the obscure in favor of substitution or a fresh alternative. For example, rather than keeping loads of carom seeds (ajowain) that I use on rare occasion, I often keep fresh and fragrant thyme on hand. The scent is close and thyme takes less shelf space and I am guaranteed that it will not sit on my shelves forever.
Now, back to my initial question, what are must haves?
I will tell you my starter kit, but I will tell you really how you can find what works for you. The starter kit is really like your your favorite basic color, for some it is black, for others it is white and then there is anything in between. It is the go to color that you reach out for when you are confused or not in a mood for making decisions. It is personal and often takes some trial and error time to really nail it down. I call these a starter kit, because I use plenty of other spices but it these five that tend to form the cornerstone of my cooking.
I start with cumin (which not surprisingly was the first spice that I feature here on this column), then I move onto coriander. These can be used in separation or in combination with each other. So, here I have offered you my favorite spice blend, the cumin and coriander powder. This is usually what takes the place of what some people refer to as curry powder. I usually shy away from a more complex blend, since I like to add flavors to the individual dishes that I make with a degree of uniqueness. I think a few simple balanced flavors tend to be more nuanced than a whole assortment of complex flavors. It could possibly be my Bengali (eastern Indian) roots. We tend to use spices with more simplicity and nuance as I have described in my book. Take this simple apricot glazed chicken, there are a just a few basic spices mostly about coriander and ginger and then I rely on citrus and fruit.
This is what I meant when I mentioned earlier that I often turn to fresh flavors. Here to I turn to what I find readily available. Yes, I have used fresh oranges but your everyday carton of orange juice would work. As for the glaze, we can just as easily work with peaches or nectarines or even strawberries, depending on what you have in your pantry.
So, now we move onto basic aromatics, for me this is about ginger and garlic. Not surprisingly, they followed in my series of posts. I had really not planned them in this order but these have become instictive for me. Here I cannot usually decide which one I like better. I tend to find ginger more versatile because I use it with both sweet, savory and sweet and sour flavors. This being said, I use garlic with a whole range of cuisines and also tend to use garlic in isolation, something that I would not do with ginger. These spices to are very compatible and I use them together in a ginger-garlic paste.
In a very simple, homey essential dish that is actually very seasonal for winter, I use most of the spices I have just told you about. In this recipe for spinach with potatoes, I also use two more essential spices that I will tell you about as the days progress.
The two remaining spices or maybe spice and herb are red cayenne pepper and cilantro. I use the red cayenne both in its powdered form and in the form of flakes depending on the recipe and the stage of the game that I add it in and then there is cilantro. I just cannot do without it. It is an absolutely essential herb and fixture in my refridgerator.
So, I think as a starter kit, you will agree that they are fairly easy to procure and readily recognizable spices. Go ahead and play with them, I look forward to hearing how this works.
Rinku Bhattacharya is a daytime financial professional, who spends the rest of her time immersed in food. Rinku is the author of the blog, Cooking in Westchester, where she shares her life experiences, original recipes that combine Indian spices with produce from her backyard and local farmers markets. Rinku is blessed with a gardener husband, who always surprises her with a prolific and fresh supply of produce to keep her creative instincts flowing. Rinku has been teaching recreational cooking classes for the past six years, and her newly released cookbook the Bengali Five Spice Chronicles, highlights and offers many simple recipes from Eastern India. Rinku can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.