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Know your spices

Know your spices

Nepali cooking entails a heavy use of spices. These are what give aroma, flavor, and texture to your food. If you have an arsenal of spices in your pantry, you can turn the most basic of dishes into a gourmet one. The right spice can not only elevate the taste of your dishes it can also cure common ailments like cough, cold, etc. Though most spices are available in dried form, they won’t necessarily last forever. Their strong flavors and aroma will dissipate over time, especially if they are stored improperly or exposed to light and air. 

If you have the option to do so, always buy whole spices and grind them yourself. This ensures they retain their aroma for a longer time. Ground spices tend to oxidize more quickly than whole spices due to their large exposed surface area, and will lose their flavor within a few months, while whole spices can last up to a year. You can use ground spices if you want to disperse the flavor throughout the dish, else you can stick to whole spices allowing them to pop and sizzle in hot oil before adding in the other ingredients. 

Here we will run you through some basic spices and how to use them. Armed with this knowledge, you will be able to make subtle enhancements to dishes you regularly make at home. 


Known as besar in Nepali, turmeric has an earthy flavor. Of all the spices used in our food, this one packs in the most benefits. A small pinch of it is enough to color a dish for one, whereas you will need up to half a teaspoon to make a meal for a family of four. For added health benefits, you must put in a dash of black pepper as this enhances turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties. 


This is the spice that gives curry its distinct smell. Fenugreek (methi) seeds are quite bitter but they have a lot of health benefits. It’s known to slow sugar absorption in the body as well as promote hormone health. Fenugreek has been used in alternative medicine. It’s often taken as a supplement as well. It has a slightly sweet, and nutty flavor. Fenugreek leaves are often added to curries, sauces, and vegetables, while the seeds are used to flavor pickles and chutneys.


You basically can’t cook Nepali food without cumin or jeera. It has an intensely warm and earthy flavor. Cumin seeds are best used whole. It can be fried in oil at the beginning. But since they will turn brown quickly, don’t leave them unattended. They are done when they start to pop. Ground cumin powder is also an essential spice used in a variety of dishes, especially spice rubs, stews, and curries. But it will give a dark color to your food so don’t use too much of it. A teaspoon should be enough to cook a meal for four. 


Coriander is a fragrant spice made from the dried seeds of a Mediterranean herb. The seeds have an earthy flavor while the leaves have a sweet, tart, lemony flavor. It’s rich in antioxidants and thus has many health benefits. It can help lower your blood sugar, fight infections, and promote heart, brain, skin, and digestive health. Ground coriander is best for dishes where you want the spice to be flavor, but not texture like batters, doughs, smooth sauces, marinades, or drinks. Coriander seeds work great in chunky sauces, sizzled in soups, stews, or dals, or in pickles. 


Nutmeg is a spice that is made from the seed of the nutmeg tree. It has a warm, slightly sweet taste and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. It’s popularly used in baking, to bring out the flavor in pies, cakes, cookies, and other desserts. It can also be used to add flavor to savory foods like soups, stews, curries, and sauces. It’s said that those with heart conditions or high blood sugar levels can benefit from this spice. It has a lot of antioxidants that neutralize free radicals and prevent cellular damage. 


Asafoetida, or hing as we know it, is one of the most powerful aromatic spices in the world. Many don’t know this but hing must always be added to the frying pan when the oil or butter is hot. Let it sizzle for a few seconds before adding the onions, garlic, or ginger. You only have to use between a quarter or half teaspoon of hing to make a dish for a family of four. However, make sure you store it in an airtight container. 


Garlic has a pungent flavor yet it’s used in many cuisines throughout the world. Garlic powder is a form of garlic that has been dried and ground into a powder. It’s a versatile ingredient that can be used in many dishes, from pizza and pasta to meats and vegetables. For a milder flavor, add it at the beginning when you start frying the onions. For a sharper flavor, add it after the onions are soft, giving the garlic less time to cook.


‘Aduwa’ is an essential ingredient for most curries. It makes for one-half of the recipe for ginger garlic paste which is used in most of the food we cook at home. Ginger is a great additive for black teas, lending them a nice fragrance, and warming you up. You can use the spice in dried form too. Simply dry ginger in the sun and grind it up. If you don’t want to do that, you can cut an inch of raw garlic and grate or mince it to use in your food. Add it after you have let the onions turn brown in hot oil. 


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