During a recent demonstration with Lynne Rossetto Kasper, author and Indian cooking teacher Raghavan Iyer preached the versatility of buying whole spices rather than their ground equivalents.
Iyer was in the process of flavoring his dal (a legume curry) with toasted whole cumin, coriander and chilies.
"If you give whole spices to a good Indian cook," he said, "he or she should be able to extract eight different flavors from a given spice."
He was challenged to name all eight. He had no problem.
If you didn't catch what Iyer rattled off, here's the list as it appears in his new book, Indian Cooking Unfolded. It uses cumin as an example.
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.
Iyer takes pride in creating recipes from common ingredients, and he uses nothing in his book that requires a trip to a specialty grocery store. It's the combinations and the flavor-extraction techniques that give his dishes unique flavors.
Whole spices can be kept in an airtight jar in a cool, dry area of a pantry. Once they're ground, they should be stored in a moisture-free container and used within 3 months.