Susmita Sharma is a Seattle cooking teacher who blogs at The Food We Eat. She is passionate about adapting the flavors of her native India using local ingredients.

Spice girl

One cook’s attempt to eat locally and traditionally

January 9, 2009

Spices and East Indian food are inseparable. East Indian cuisine has really caught on in the U.S. in the last decade, and even novice palates seem to have a natural affinity for the cuisine. It’s all in the spices.

Spice combinations are at the heart of Indian cuisine, but very often, as with many other things, less is more. Curry is a generic word, curry powder varies from home to home, and garam masala does not Indian food make.

I grew up in India, but moved to the United States in 1991 to pursue a graduate career, and now call the U.S. my home. I grew up with the smell of freshly roasted and ground spices, and I have a lot of respect for them.

You just cannot make food taste good if your spices are rancid, or if they are so old that they resemble sawdust. You do know that whole spices keep a lot longer than ground ones, correct? So please either grind your spices yourself, or source small quantities from a spice vendor. There are many vendors with online storefronts now. Try a small batch and see if you like them.

Spices are key to Indian cooking.

Also, your local grocery store is fine, but I am partial to the bulk section, especially in stores where you know the demand and turnover is good. Who knows when the prepackaged stuff on the spice rack was ground? If you must use these, just date the bottle when you open it and replace the contents within three months.

But really, grinding spices is super easy. You cannot beat the freshness. I have dedicated an old coffee grinder for this purpose and usually grind 1/2 cup to 1 cup at a time. Again, replace your ground spices every three to four months.

What about whole spices, you ask? Kept airtight in a cool, dark, dry spot, these can hang out for up to a year. Sure, fresher is better, but I’m not going to recommend something unreasonable.

I have also learned to adapt Indian food to local produce. My family is committed to eating locally, seasonally, and sustainably as much as possible, and yes, that means we cannot expect to use some of the vegetables that are traditionally used in India.

Susmita’s Yukon Golds.

I’ve found that, with the right combination of spices and local produce, I can produce food that maintains the heat, warmth, and flavors of traditional Indian food. Sure, you might not find these featured at your local Indian restaurant, but I promise, the food will taste great and will more than satisfy your cravings. And here’s a bonus: Eating locally and seasonally means eating healthier and cheaper.

See, you can have your cake, or your curry, and eat it too!

I hope you will play along and try some of the recipes I’m going to feature in upcoming months (today’s is Yukon Gold Potatoes with Cumin and Garlic; check it out!). Many of them are authentic, and many of them are Indian-inspired versions of familiar favorites.

Whoever said Indian food was limited to chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, and naan? There’s nothing wrong with these favorites, but variety is, ahem, the spice of life.

Related recipe: Yukon Gold Potatoes with Cumin and Garlic

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