These traditions are comprised of many regional cuisines. In the cooler north, dishes tend to be richer and meatier and bread is the staple starch. Southern India is famous for its tropical fruits, seafood, vegetarian fare and rice. But every state boasts a distinctive ingredient or preparation, ranging from the tandoori cooking of Punjab to the street food of Maharashtra and the vindaloos of Goa. What unites these varied cooking styles is the abundant use of aromatic spices and herbs, many of which grow on Indian soil.
Q&A: The spice trail
Name: Al Goetze
Title: Chief Global Spice Buyer Company: McCormick & Company, Inc.
How much does India contribute to the global spice market?
India is the largest spice producer in the world. The climate, especially in southern India, is very conducive to growing a variety of spices. Not only does the country export more spices than any other, its population consumes more. Red pepper is a good example, India grows about 800,000 tons a year and exports about 35,000 tons. The remainder is consumed within India's borders.
What are the major spice crops?
The highest quality black peppercorns are called "tellicherry" and grow along the Malabar Coast. Cardamom, turmeric and ginger are grown and harvested in the Ghat Mountains. Seed spices, such as cumin, fenugreek, mustard and fennel are planted in the Gujarat and Rajasthan states and sold at the renowned Unjha Seed Market.
How do you go about buying spices in India?
We seldom buy directly from the farmers because the farms are too small and numerous. Instead, we utilize a network of strategic partners working with collectors who purchase the spices directly from the farmers.
What factors determine price?
Weather, supply and demand and politics all impact pricing. However, weather is by far the biggest factor.
What spice trends coming out of Indian cuisine are impacting menus in the United States?
Curries have gone mainstream, with restaurants using the blends to perk up simple preps, like roast chicken and sauteed shrimp.
Chai, most recognized as an aromatic spiced tea, is being discovered as a flavor all its own. The blend of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and pepper is being used to infuse foods with a warm, comforting flavor and aroma.
A Custom Blend
The heart of numerous indian recipes is a mix of toasted, ground spices known as garam masala. Translated into English, garam means "warm" or "hot" and masala is the Hindi word for spices; together they refer to a blend of up to 12 different seasonings. These may include black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, cardamom, chilies, fennel, mace and nutmeg.
There are probably as many variations of garam masala as there are accomplished Indian chefs and cooks, many of whom create their own personalized blends. The trick is to dry roast the spices and grind them in small batches to retain their freshness. Or you can purchase commercial garam masala blends from companies like McCormick.
Ideation: Curries by the dozen
At the Curry Club in East Setauket, New York, owner Kulwant Wadhwa treats guests to a wide range of regional Indian curries. "I'm from northern India and our 'Special Club Curries' reflect that style. They are adaptations of recipes made by the royal chefs for the Mughal Dynasty," says Wadhwa. Also served are Vindalu Curries from Goa, with vinegar and chilies; Korma Curries, cooked in cream sauce; Jhalfrezi Curries flavored with chili masala; and Saag Curries, made by grinding spinach with spices. The Curried Turkey Kofta, pictured here, has a base of onion and tomato spiked with ginger, cumin and garam masala, the latter made in-house with chiles, black pepper, cardamom, coriander and mint.