Although the spice techniques used by Indian cooks may seem intimidating at first glance, they provide tantalizing layers of flavors in a matter of seconds. Arm yourself with some of the following pointers, and you will be well prepared to cook the Indian way.
Whenever possible, purchase spices in small quantities in their seed or whole form. Because multiple flavors can be extracted from any given spice (up to six, depending on whether they are left whole, ground, toasted, toasted and ground, stir-fried, or stir-fried and ground), whole spices play a prominent role in Indian cooking.
Once you have purchased the spices, keep them stored in an airtight jar at room temperature in a cool, dry spot. That convenient shelf above the stovetop is not a good place as the moisture and heat will ruin spices quickly. Refrigeration is also not recommended because dampness will alter the spices’ qualities and flavors.
In Southern Indian home kitchens, whole spices are often toasted or stir-fried in a little oil to unveil complex flavors. To toast spices, we cook them in a preheated skillet (not nonstick or Teflon) over medium heat, 10 to 20 seconds, until golden brown and nutty-smelling, shaking the pan occasionally to prevent burning. When stir-frying the whole spices in oil, we preheat the oil over medium-high heat, then add the spices and stir for 10 to 20 seconds until they sizzle and acquire nutlike aromas.
When recipes call for ground spices, grind them yourself in either a clean coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle just before adding to the recipe. The inherent oils in the spice are released with optimum aroma and flavor.