Toasted Cumin & the Secret to World Cuisine

Indian DinnerLast night for a British food themed party, I made curry from a Splendid Table recipe. Curry (in case it needs justifying) is currently the most popular food in Britain.

I wanted to make the Splendid Table curry, which is in a Dal style, to see if it tasted different from what I invent as I go along when left to my own devices. It didn’t – I don’t want to create any false suspense here – but there were greater lessons to be learned along the way.

This curry recipe (linked at the end of the post) came as part of the Key 3 series where chefs and home cooks share the three recipes they think everyone should know. It had particular appeal because the guest chef, Raghavan Iyer, prefaced it by listing the eight unique flavors a good cook can extract from any one spice. Technically he said a good Indian cook but I think spices have the same chemistry if you’re not Indian.

Eight unique flavors! Who wouldn’t want to experiment with spices after that?

The eight (quoted from the Splendid Table website which in turn is quoting from the book Indian Cooking Unfolded):

1. When you use cumin seeds as is, you get their distinctive spice flavor.

2. When you grind the seeds and sprinkle them in a dish, the flavor is more pronounced and quite different: musky and earthy.

3. Take the whole seeds and toast them in a dry pan, with no oil, and you will experience a nutty aroma.

4. Take those toasted seeds and grind them, and they smell nothing like any of their previous incarnations.

5. Heat a little oil and roast the seeds, and you will discover yet another flavor — almost sweet smelling and smoky.

6. Grind the cumin seeds after you roast them, and they will seem to lose their smoky bouquet.

7. Soak the whole seeds in a liquid, and their presence will be surprisingly subtle.

8. And when you grind cumin seeds after you soak them, they not only take on the liquid’s taste but also impart the spice’s eighth flavor: The strong nutlike aroma reappears, masked by the infused flavor of the liquid.

The curry recipe turned out not to taste all that different from what I normally make. I think that’s because I’ve already learned what may be the most important element – the scent of cumin seeds cooking in a dry skillet. That aroma cues me immediately to think of every great Indian meal I’ve ever had (and since there aren’t many it doesn’t take long for the trip down memory lane – no danger of the cumin burning while I daydream). Even better is if you toast the cumin seeds plus a cinnamon stick then dump those both into the broth.

So, if toasting the right spice shouts “Indian curry!”, then surely there are equivalent tricks for other dishes.

Going from the curry experience, I propose that we narrow the Key Three series down even further by winnowing out the one signature element that puts cooks in mind of a particular cuisine. Not what makes it authentic, because that’s way more complicated, just one thing that triggers us to think ‘ah, this tastes different from the mutt food I usually concoct.’ Toasted cumin seeds for India, using pasta water to make the pasta sauce in Italian cooking, using the right flour (low protein!) for Southern baking.

I could combine a cheat sheet of those Key One signature techniques with a book like the Flavor Bible that guides home cooks through matching compatible ingredients when they improvise. . . then my plain old ‘throw something together’ dinners would get some serious flair.

I’ll have to start experimenting.

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