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Really basic question - the 'Indian flavor'


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I am NOT good at cooking Indian, although my wife and I eat plenty of it in restaurants and I have tried to learn how to make it at home several times over the years. We have decided to give it a go again, and I had a good run with saag paneer and chicken tikka masala last week.

 

There is a flavor we both think of as "the Indian flavor," and I'm trying to figure out what it is. Before you tell me "garam masala," I'm pretty sure that's not it. I have approximately eleventy billion recipes for garam masala in my collection, plus about a dozen commercial variants, and the range of flavors from them is astonishing. It's hard to comprehend how you could make two things taste so different and yet call them by the same name.

 

Anyway, I'm guessing the flavor is a single spice, because it is so distinct and recognizable. It's a very warm and earthy flavor.

 

Can anyone tell me what this stuff is?

 

Thanks!

Dave

 

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My guess would be that you're thinking of turmeric.  It's not actually a dominant spice in Indian cooking, but it does have a characteristic flavor not much used in Western cooking, so it stands out for some folks.

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If not turmeric, perhaps cardamom?

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I have approximately eleventy billion recipes for garam masala in my collection, plus about a dozen commercial variants, and the range of flavors from them is astonishing. It's hard to comprehend how you could make two things taste so different and yet call them by the same name.

 

 

That's because "garam masala" is a GENERIC TERM for "spice mixture".  (Masala = spice/seasoning/condiment) Just looking up the wiki article will reveal this.  It's similar to talking about "salsa" and wondering how come there are a gazillion recipes varying wildly all over the place and across cuisines.

 

It is NOT a single spice mix as McCormick or Penzeys or any number of other Western spice houses with their own blend might lead one to believe.

 

 

 

Anyway, I'm guessing the flavor is a single spice, because it is so distinct and recognizable. It's a very warm and earthy flavor.

 

Can anyone tell me what this stuff is?

 

Turmeric may well be it as pbear suggests.  Can you distinguish cinnamon/cassia or cumin or coriander, which are often used in GM mixes and in a heck of a lot of other dishes from the South Asia subcontinent and which might also be possibilities for what you are seeking to place?

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Garam masala means "hot/spicy mix" so it's no wonder there are so many variants. Each region or even each household has their own favorites.  It would not even be a useful answer if it did turn out to be the garam masala then - you would need to know which component spice it was.

 

I don't think you have enough info - warm and earthy is not very descriptive - but then again how do you describe a unique flavor or aroma?   Hmm...

 

It could be the treatment of the spices - some of which are roasted or fried - or even both before being added to a dish.  Some may be added early, others to finish (or temper) a dish.  This can really change the character of the spices and can add that certain something. If you are not doing this in your cooking try these techniques and see if this adds that certain something.

 

Turmeric is a possibility.  Buy some from a place where it's as fresh (not raw roots, but freshly ground) as possible and smell it - taste it - make a tea out of it.  It's in nearly every Indian dish to some extent, and it the spice that gives things that yellow color (besides saffron which is in some dishes  - usually rice-based).  Non-fresh turmeric has little flavor - but the deep golden, freshly ground has more - though it's still not a strong taste or aroma.  I would describe it as earthy - maybe a bit like an old wooden box (in a good way), perhaps a little mustard-like (maybe I'm stretching here as it's an ingredient in yellow mustard). Otherwise I lack vocabulary to describe it.

 

Another one may be black cardamom - one that I discovered much later than the other spices.  It's not just regular cardamom - in another guise, but is a different species (well a couple or few depending on your botanical interpretation) in the same genus as the more familiar green cardamom (which can be green, white, or without the pod - brownish to black seeds).  It's smoky (it's usually dried over a fire), earthy, menthol and camphor flavored, along with some of the same flavors as green cardamom (again not really 'like' anything else).  It's not used in that many dishes - but it might be it?

 

Another one may be fenugreek -  this is another spice commonly used in Indian cuisines.  It has an earthy flavor, a bit bitter,  like maple syrup, earthy (maybe like mown hay - perhaps alfalfa which it's related to), and a bit of a beany flavor too.  Try making a tea with this - both raw and roasted.

 

Lastly, and this is where my money is, I'm guessing asafoetida.  It's unique.  Inititially, it gives out a garlicky - oniony aroma, some say leeks (like the odor of a leek soup the next day when you take off the cover).  But when cooked, other components come out - earthy and sort of like boiled cabbage and something else which to me is like carrots or parsnips - long cooked ones.  Sounds pretty awful - but I use it in a few dishes. The other clue you gave is that it's a certain something "Indian" and it fits that bill for me.  Some dishes are just not the same without it. I think it mixes into a dish well - especially lentil and bean dishes like dal.  It's common in achars too - Indian pickles - though perhaps not most of them.  You can usually only get this at an Indian grocery store - and I think you will have to make a dish with it, and without it to see if it's THE flavor.  I would make a simple dal without onions or garlic - and only a smattering of other spices.  Keep it in a tightly sealed container - like a mason jar - or all your other spices will take on it's odor. I put the whole plastic container it comes in, inside a mason jar.

 

I'm leaving out cumin, coriander, black or brown mustard seed (these are earthy and roasted or fried give an Indian flavor!), ginger, and some others that I assume you know well - but perhaps I should not assume?

Edited by loki (log)
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I'm guessing fenugreek. It's what's behind the typical "Indian restaurant smell"

 

Alternatively...it might be the really long-cooked onions that compose the sauce, that often pass unnoticed but in reality play a huge role

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Yes, "Garam masala" means "hot mix", specifically spices that warm the body rather than spices that are hot in the mouth, though there's a crossover, with black pepper in particular being "hot" in both ways.

 

I think cumin is the most characteristic spice of Indian cuisine of the kind you describe, but the flavour we think of as "curry" is about 1/3 cumin, 2/3 coriander, and some spice from pepper or chillis.  Heat level to taste.

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QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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My guess is also cumin.

Is there a bulk spice shop near you where you can investigate numerous spices first-hand?

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It could also be chopped fresh coriander leaves (aka: cilantro or dhania), which I find has an "earthy" taste and which I find not to my liking.

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I can't really answer your main question about identifying that "Indian flavor". There are too many possibilities.

 

However, if you are trying to capture the Indian Restaurant flavor, I'd recommend this book and this.  

Edited by liuzhou (log)

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I think cumin is too common as are cilantro (which is not warming, or to me anyway, earthy; and the Indian restaurants I've been to only use it in a few dishes), or toasted onion  (it's too familiar, used in many other cuisines, and browned onions are not used ubiquitously in Indian dishes).  I think my proposal of black cardamom is not likely either as it's used too infrequently.  The original poster said they already make Indian food so the cumin, coriander, and even turmeric should be already very familiar?

 

My best guess is still asafoetida.  It's somewhat hard to find, is left out of recipes because of that, and does produce a very unique flavor/aroma. In some sets of recipes it's called for in nearly everything except cold or sweet dishes.

 

A last thought about restaurant Indian.  Here, and in most locations I've been to around the country, nearly all the restaurants serve nearly the same northern Indian food. It's a repertoire of about 20 dishes - some of which are restaurant creations and not really from India (some of these are pretty good though). But I'm sort of sick of it - and rarely suggest Indian when dining out anymore, unless I have a real craving for naan, which is not that easy for me to make well. But at home, I peruse books and websites for other regional Indian cuisine - and always ask friends from India about their favorite dishes, especially from childhood. I will grow amaranth, luffa, fenugreek greens, bottle gourds, tinda, Indian varieties of eggplants and peppers, etc. for them (for me as well).  There are SO MANY other dishes out there; so why not.  I like to grow unusual vegetables too - and I can find all sort of ways to use them this way as well.  

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  • 3 weeks later...

There are as many opinions as there are kitchens ---

 

That being said, this from Food52  arrived yesterday in my email.   Featuring info from Aarti Paarti: An American Kitchen with an Indian Soul

it should help with the information requested.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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