Due to the usual and unusual flurry of spices that are increasingly being used in the modern world, especially from the West, some indigenous spices have lost a little flavour, as it were, with the natives. Among a few U- or underrated spices in India, let’s look at three rather ‘dark’ spices and rediscover their uses and flavours.
Black Cardamom or Hill Cardamom is related to green cardamom. Unbeknownst to most of us, both of them belong to the ginger family. However, that’s where the comparison stops. The flavour of black cardamom is quite different from that of its cousin. Also, black cardamom does not lend usually itself to use in sweet dishes. Its seed pods are larger and coarser and have more of a camphor-like flavour. It also has a sort of a smoky character since it is typically dried over fires. It is commonly used in savoury dal or rice mixtures, particularly biryani, and may be found in north Indian garam masalas. And do remember, the next time you enjoy paan, remember that the punch in it is likely to come from the wonder seed of this spice.
In the olden days, it was believed that the seeds of the black cumin plant could cure anything except death! Truly an unusual spice, black cumin is a part of the buttercup family and the seeds are dark, thin, and crescent-shaped when whole. The seeds have been used for many centuries in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and India.
Many places mistakenly sell Nigella seeds under the name of black cumin. Black cumin is Bunium persicum, and has a more nutty and earthy aroma than common cumin. It is far thinner and finer in size than regular cumin seed. As its name implies, the seeds are black and used commonly in northern Indian Mughlai cuisines. It has a sweeter, lemony character with caraway notes. Black cumin seeds impart a distinctive strong flavour, and a warm perception on the taste buds. It is commonly used in yogurts, chutneys, curries and biryanis, some garam masalas. Cumin is generally roasted a little before it is added in a recipe. In order to keep its fragrance and flavour intact, it is generally ground just before preparing dishes.
Sesame seeds may be the oldest condiment known to man. They are highly valued for their oil which is exceptionally resistant to rancidity. ‘Open sesame’—the famous phrase from the Arabian Nights—reflects the distinguishing feature of the sesame seed pod, which bursts open when it reaches maturity. The scientific name for sesame seeds is Sesamun indicum. The black and white sesame seeds come from the same plant, but are a different variety. Black sesame seeds have a slightly stronger flavour than white.
These seeds were thought to have first originated in India. In fact, one finds their mention in early Hindu legends. In these legends, tales are told wherein sesame seeds represent a symbol of immortality. From India, sesame seeds were introduced throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
Black sesame is available throughout the year. They are the main ingredients in tahini (sesame seed paste) and the wonderful Middle Eastern sweet call ‘halvah’. Black sesame seeds are very popular in Asian cuisine as well. The flavour of these seeds is quite mellow and nutty. The black adds colour and contrast to the appearance of a dish. Black sesame is nice for stir-fry or seasoning rice and veggies. Actually, just add them as a cooking ingredient to any dish, or place them next to the salt and pepper shakers, and sprinkle the seeds on top of a cooked meal for additional taste, texture, and look.
Simple and dynamic—we can sum up the dark spices in these words. Incorporate these treasures in your cooking and watch how they light up the simplest of your daily dishes.