My mother knew how to create excitement around food and how to infuse a world of flavours into a single dish. She understood the plants, spices and herbs she used right down to their roots. Her upbringing in Sri Lanka offered her a lifetime of knowledge. Her father was an agricultural curator, her mother was a skilled home gardener and cook, and her grandparents practiced Ayurveda. A taste of her cooking was serendipity and revealed how food can at the same time satisfy and heal you, comfort and rejuvenate you, and make you feel like you were in another place while home. It inspired my interest in cooking, and my appreciation for simple ingredients, spices and plants with extraordinary health benefits.
I began to build my spice cupboard while I was away from home during university (across the country from my family). My mother bought me my first set of glass bottles to store ground and whole spices. When she visited me, we would go to the local markets and grocery stores to find spices and she provided the down-low on when and how I should use them. I eventually became intrigued with spices of all kinds, particularly during my trips to spice markets in Sri Lanka. I became curious about how to incorporate them in day-to-day cooking. And after picking up fresh vanilla pods at a market in Sri Lanka I was eager make cakes and custards. The beautiful sight of a dessert speckled with grains of vanilla was as gratifying as the depth of flavour.
Now with a family of my own, I also appreciate spices for their health and wellness benefits. Sri Lankan cooking has a history of incorporating Ayurveda, an ancient science of using curative plants for leading a long healthy life. Many of the spices and herbs we use today were used centuries ago as medicine, as well as a means to preserve and improve the taste of food. Spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom have healing and purifying benefits. Common ailments like cough and cold, digestive upset, tiredness, or anxiousness can be aided through the balanced use of herbs and spices.
I hope you experience serendipity when you taste a new dish or try a recipe that incorporates a blend of spices, and I hope you develop your own flare for using them in home cooking. Here are some ideas to begin to build your spice cupboard at home:
· Purchase air-tight glass containers with secure fitting lids or re-purpose existing glass bottles (such as ones that held jams, jellies, or preserves and would otherwise be recycled) by thoroughly cleaning and drying them before use
· Extend the life of dried spices by storing them in glass containers in a cool, dark space or cupboard, away from humidity. (Whole spices can be kept longer than ground spices. Ground spices can keep from 6 months to a year)
· Build your spice cabinet with the spices you know you will use and some you would like to experiment with. Try recipes that seem easy but also the ones that challenge you out of your comfort zone
· Try both ground and whole spices
· Invest in a small to medium sized mortar and pestle and a spice or coffee grinder
· Visit independent South Asian and Asian grocery markets as well as larger grocery chains for variety and to test out different brands of spices
What are your stories or tips on using spices?
(Photo: Green peppercorn plant, Sri Lanka)