A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Spicing up your life the Bengali way

Talk about good timing!

No, no — shut up, everyone! — I did not mean to literally talk about it.  "Talk about" as used here is not so much an imperative as an idiomatic expression indicating the writer or speaker's desire to. . .oh, never mind.  I'll just wait until I have your attention again.

OK.  That's better.  The good timing I was referring to was the coincidence between Monday's arrival of Debbie's fennel-containing package and my intention (stated on Monday's blog) to write up a recipe involving a fennel-containing Bengali spice mixture known as panchphoran:

I created my fennel-inspired dish about a week ago when I was craving fennel.  (I swear, Debbie, that this is true.  We always seem to be on a similar wavelength!)  Anyway, as much as I love the taste of fennel seed, I often find that, by itself, it is a bit unsubtle.  (Now there's a pot calling the kettle black.)  So I prefer to use it in combination with other spices.  The culinary tradition in Bengal seems to have anticipated my preferences with the 5-spice mixture panchphoran.  The various seeds going into this mixture complement and balance out each other's flavors perfectly.

You can make your own (slightly inauthentic) version of panchphoran by combining seeds according to the following proportions:

  • 2 parts cumin
  • 2 parts black mustard*
  • 2 parts FENNEL (!)
  • 1 part nigella
  • 3/4 part fenugreek
*The inauthenticity stems from the mustard seeds, which (according to Madhur Jaffrey) even many non-Bengali Indians use in place of radhuni, because these are not widely available outside of Bengal.  It occurs to me that in the time since Ms. Jaffrey wrote about this in A Taste of India (about 25 years ago), the situation might have changed, and I shall look for radhuni when I next visit my favorite Indian market in the East Village.  God knows I'm sick and tired of producing phony panchphoran.  25 years is a long time to feel like a fakir.  I mean a fake.

All these 5 spices are available from Indian markets and probably Whole Foods at this point, although at a vast mark-up.  (And apparently even at pet stores, at least in Debbie's neighborhood.)  If you use a large quantity of spices in your cooking — like me — you might want to schedule an excursion to your nearest Indian market.   The differences between the Western and Indian traditions of using spices — where we use a pinch, they might use tablespoons, for example — have resulted in a different way of packaging and pricing these commodities.

In Western markets, spices are usually presented as rare luxury items, often in lovely little glass jars containing at most a few tablespoons of product.  For the same price, you can often get a big bag of the same spice — which is, of course, more of a staple than a luxury in Indian cuisine — at an Indian market.  

How many cinnamon sticks can you get for 2 bucks at WF?
This picture shows the larger size of bag that many spices used in copious amounts come in.
You can take the rather work-a-day bags home and transfer the spices to your own lovely glass jars.  (I actually use mostly little plastic containers, which aren't so lovely, but which travel well.  Yes, I take spices with me on vacation.)  But if you're only going to use a pinch at a time, your spices are likely to go stale before you put much of a dent in them.  Since I don't use up spices as fast as someone who makes only Indian food would be likely to, I extend their shelf life by storing extra amounts in the freezer.

My little containers of turmeric and black mustard seed.  There is more of each in my freezer, stored in the original packaging inside of a lidded tupperware box to keep them fresh and prevent their strong aromas from permeating other frozen foods.  My spice cabinet contains dozens of these little containers as well as some herbs and spices in their original Western-style packages...
...and a few big mason jars with my most heavily used spices.   Like all "Indian" cooks, I use TONS of cumin and coriander seed!
As you can probably tell by now, spices, with their beautiful shapes and colors, their intriguing aromas and tastes, and their association with foreign cultures, hold me in their thrall.  I certainly got side-tracked today, and will post the promised panchphoran-containing recipe tomorrow.  Just hope that I don't get so worked up about cardamom pods or mace or black salt that I forget my promise again....


  1. Ahhhh cardamom! My fave spice...sometimes I add fresh ground cardamom to plain yogurt along with some vanilla extract.

  2. I'm new to panch phoron, but was introduced to it via "Sunset" magazine. I recently made this chicken dish and it turned out AMAZING.

    Very impressive and totally easy once you have the spices onhand. Thank god for Penzey's!

  3. That chicken dish does look scrumptious. I just adore crusty coatings of roasted seeds. What is Penzey's?

  4. Penzeys.com, a spice seller online and mail order. They sell all sorts of stuff for reasonable prices in amounts from ounces to pounds. It's truely amazing how many bay leaves are in an ounce. They also sell cocoa powder, salt, and vanilla. The catalog comes with recipes too. Love Penzey's, love 'em. Only things I don't buy from them are the herbs I grow myself; and herbs are ridiculously easy to grow if you have outdoor space. Except for coriander, slugs love coriander more than I love sprinkling slug poison :( . So mine always gets eaten to the ground within a week. Expensive slug food. But rosemary and thyme and sage and oregano, all easy peasy and nothing eats them; plus they come in interesting colors and shapes.

  5. I am totally addicted to the NY library website, but I think Penzey's is gonna be my new favorite virtual destination!

    I also have had no luck with coriander-growing, even though I manage to produce gobs and gobs of mint, basil, dill, parsley, etc. (On my balcony.) I've always assumed that it's because we get insufficient sun.

    How about it, readers? In your experience, is coriander (cilantro) hard to grow?

  6. We've had good luck with it but its not a long lived annual, once the hot days arrive it bolts almost instantly and it doesn't last a whole summer like basil or parseley. I've been able to hold bolting off by about two weeks if I pinch it back every day as soon as it sends up a flower stalk. I think the trick is to succession plant so we have some all summer.

  7. Alas, I cannot even get mine to germinate. I'd be happy with bolting.

  8. Sadly, I can't grow ANY herbs at my house. There isn't even enough sun to do containers and I don't trust the soil around the property. :( Sad.

    Glad I could introduce you to Penzey's, tho! The Clackamas shop is only 10 minutes from my house. LOVE them.