Buying Indian Spices

Kitchen Coach Part 2: Spice Hunting with Preeti Mistry

By John Birdsall | Photos by Chris Rochelle

You can’t cook good Indian with stale spices. Spices are the soul of a dish, the things that give it resonance, so sourcing good ones is essential. Get fresh, fragrant spices in your kitchen, and you’re a third of the way home. Trouble is, buying good spices isn’t always as easy as pushing your cart into the spices aisle of your supermarket and buying new ones. The quality of spices varies a lot, even with whole spices you grind yourself.

The solution is the same one you probably learned at the farmers’ market: Build a relationship with a vendor you can trust. Finding a great spice shop, either physical or online (scroll down for Chowhounds’ favorite sources), is the key to making great chicken tikka masala, or any Indian dish.

Our February Kitchen Coach, Chef Preeti Mistry of Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, California, took us shopping at one of her favorite spots, the market annex at Vik’s Chaat Corner in Berkeley. There, Preeti taught us the first and most basic lesson of spice shopping: high turnover.

“If a spice has been sitting around, either in the store or in some warehouse before it even gets to the store, it becomes this homogenous thing,” Preeti says. “You just can’t taste it.”

Preeti helped us fill our shopping basket with nine spices essential to garam masala, Indian cooking’s essential spice blend (keep in mind that there are many variations). In Preeti’s recipe for chicken tikka masala, she includes an option to use a commercial garam masala blend. The spices here are essential for making your own from scratch (get the garam masala recipe here).

THE RECIPE: Click here for Preeti’s chicken tikka masala recipe

Behold the nine essential spices to buy for Preeti’s garam masala:

    Look for large, gold-colored seeds; fresh ones have a citruslike aroma.

    Nutty and pungent, with a richness that seems almost oily.

    The best fennel seeds (licorice-sweet and green as fresh hay) are from India’s Lucknow region.

    The bark is thicker, harder, and less flaky than true cinnamon, and the taste is less sweet. “There’s a certain amount of bitterness and aggressiveness,” Preeti says.

    The best green cardamom—sweet, with a refreshing aroma—comes from South India.

    Dried over charcoal, these have an earthy, smoky flavor reminiscent of smoked paprika, or dried chipotle chiles (minus the heat).

    Good whole cloves—like ones from the state of Kerala in southwestern India—have a sweet, numbing pungency.

    Use clean-tasting dried chiles here. Preeti uses chiles de arbol, though Indian Kashmiri chiles (less spicy than arbols—they’re pictured here) also work well.

    Any good ones will do, though large, black Tellicherry peppercorns have a rich flavor and a clean-hitting pungency.

Check out these Chowhound picks for buying spices online:
Penzeys Spices (also with more than 70 retail shops nationwide)
The Spice House
The Spicy Gourmet (organic and fair trade)
For more information, check out the Chowhound discussion Where to buy Indian spices online?

Coming up in this month’s Kitchen Coach series:

Preeti shares tips for not falling on your face!

Preeti’s extra-credit recipe for making garam masala from scratch!

Find out where Preeti gets Indian food inspiration, then tell us where you like to go!

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