Most of us hear the words “Thai curry” or “garam masala” and our mouths start to water at the sheer thought of soups, sauces and seasoned meat in all of their spicy, aromatic goodness. We can visualize the yellows and oranges of these spice blends and taste the abundant sweet and savoury notes that these spice concoctions pack into our favourite dishes, but can we really identify what makes them so delicious and distinct? While most of us find these spice blends in quaint little packages or jars at the grocery store, so few of us ever question what curry is, or at least consciously choose to see it as a delicious entity of its own. Sorry, curry and spice blend lovers alike—here’s what’s really in that kitchen cupboard of yours!
Garam Masala – Arguably the king of Indian spice blends, garam masala is at the heart of most Indian dishes. This tasty spice blend is said to have originated in Northern India where six ingredients are mainly used: cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, mace, cassia and nutmeg. In addition to these ingredients, cumin, coriander, peppercorns, ginger, bay leaves, and dried chilli pepper are also considered to be equally as important. As though the list isn’t long enough, it is also not uncommon to find blends containing various herbs, garlic, onion or even nuts like cashews. While the Hindi word “garam” refers to the overall intensity of the spices and not necessarily the heat of the blend, chilli peppers are still considered a key ingredient of garam masala (“masala,” meaning “mixture of spices”).
Asian Five Spice – There is still some uncertainty around the origin of Asian five spice, it is believed that the Chinese were hoping to encompass all five flavours: sour, bitter, sweet, salty and umami. Regardless of how this spice came to be, the blend of cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise and Szechwan peppercorns makes for a lovely addition to your favourite fish, rice or vegetable dish. Though the name of this blend prides itself on the number five, many store bought blends also contain nutmeg and ginger to add a bite. Never tried Asian 5 spice? The blend adds nice heat to dry rubs and goes especially well with pork.
Jamaican Jerk Spice – Jerk spice traditionally relies on allspice and the often-underestimated habanero pepper that gives jerk spice its heat. While allspice is considered a staple in jerk blends, cloves, thyme, cinnamon, scallions, garlic, nutmeg and black pepper are other common ingredients in this blend. Often confused as a spice of its own, “jerk” actually refers to the way that a meat (commonly chicken and pork) is seasoned and cooked. Though this blend is often perceived to be intolerably hot, Jamaican jerk spice blends existent in North America often contain cayenne in the place of habanero peppers for those who prefer “medium” on a heat scale.
Thai Curry Paste – Like many spice blends and pastes available to us, every brand differs in ingredients, but the majority of Thai curry pastes will consist of shrimp paste, chillies, onions/shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal and coriander. Depending on the paste, you can also find turmeric, pepper, coriander seeds, cardamom pods and cumin as part of this tangy blend. While there are dozens of curry pastes around, red, green and yellow are the three most popular Thai curry pastes available to us. The spiciness of Thai curries largely depends on the amount and type of chilli pepper used in the paste. Whether you add a couple of tablespoons into your favourite stir-fry or use it as use as a soup base (see Soup Kitchen this month), this flavourful blend is sure to please.
Cajun Spice – Often mistaken for being near incendiary on a heat scale, a properly balanced Cajun spice blend, containing cumin, coriander, paprika, salt, pepper and oregano will never steer you wrong. This combination can be spiced up in a number of ways with cayenne, garlic, onion powder and thyme. Like many other spice blends, Cajun spice is incredibly easy to make at home, but beware of adding too much salt to your blend, as many recipes call for a touch too much.
Mole Sauce – Also known as “chocolate sauce,” this richly spiced sauce begins with at least one type of chilli pepper (ancho and chipotle chillies are commonly used) and can contain upwards of twenty different ingredients. Twenty! While the addition of chocolate is optional in many mole recipes, mole sauce typically calls for cloves, cumin, tomatillos, garlic, and dried fruit to balance out the heat. Traditional mole sauces strive to balance more than just the heat, so it should come as no surprise that chillies, tomatillos, dried fruit/sugars and nuts are often ingredients of choice to achieve a sweet and tangy sauce. Because the roasting and stewing process is key to perfecting a thick mole sauce and bringing out flavours, the stewing process is a perfect time to add an additional ingredient or two—perhaps more chocolate?
Recruiter by day, writer and foodie by night, Andrea finds nothing more exciting than grocery shopping and baking with chocolate. If dessert could be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, she would be one happy camper.