Alternate names: asafetida, devil’s dung, stinking gum, hing (India)
The first thing you need to know about asafoetida is that foetida is Latin for “stinking” or “ill-smelling” (the word “fetid” comes from the Latin). Asafoetida stinks. Like sulphur. It’s not pleasant.
Alternate Names: Screwpine Leaves, Kewra/Kewdaa, Rampe, Ban Lan, Toey/Taey/Tey Ban
I’m going to refer to these as “pandan leaves” since that was the name first introduced to me. They are the leaves of a herbaceous plant native to Southeast Asia, where it’s cultivated for use in cooking as a flavouring element. And when it comes to certain dishes in Indo-Malay cooking, I’ve been told on good authority that pandan leaves are absolutely essential to achieving an authentic taste.
The problem is they’re almost impossible to find, unless you know what you’re looking for. I was originally searching for these leaves over 5 years ago and basically gave up hope until I was in the back area of a basement-level grocery store in Chinatown about a month ago, and I found a package of frozen pandan leaves by complete coincidence. Now that I’ve been researching their use in more detail, I’ve discovered that Indian food-sellers would probably refer to Pandan as “Kewra”, and I am 99% positive I’ve seen Kewra Water and Kewra Extracts at several Indian markets. This excites me. Once again, understanding the multiple translations of the ingredient’s name would’ve saved me a lot of time (years, in this case). The search, however, is half the fun.
Paneer is South Asian cow- or buffalo-milk cheese. It’s used mainly in Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and as a protein source in Hindu lacto-vegetarian cuisine. It’s a simple white cheese – unsalted, unaged, and acid-set. Its texture and consistency is similar to firm tofu (which is a good substitute for vegans) and its flavour is extremely mild due to the lack of salting and aging.
Sounds boring, right? Wrong; there’s more. Paneer doesn’t melt – which means you can do a lot of things with it that you can’t with most cheeses. Deep-frying, pan-frying, roasting, even grilling. Chop up paneer into 1″ cubes and add a splash of oil to a non-stick pan over medium heat, then fry the cubes for a few minutes each side and you’ll get nice browning, crispy edges, and a nice, soft, moist interior. Also similar to tofu, paneer can be marinated and it will absorb the flavours that it is cooked with. All of this makes it an ideal ingredient in South Asian cuisine; it’s an all-purpose, protein-rich flavour sponge that holds up to just about any cooking technique you need it to.
Kashmiri Chili Powder
For one thing, it’s the subject of some heated internet debate. However, that does little to distinguish it from stain removal tips, the best restaurants in the East End, and LOLcats. Much of the debate, though, centers around the crucial question: what is a Kashmiri chili pepper? The problem is Kashmir grows many kinds of peppers, so the naming convention can be misleading since the powder labelled “Kashmiri” is typically one specific type of pepper. The other thing is that the pepper typically used for Kashmiri chili powder isn’t even from Kashmir.
While this may send some cooks into fits of shock and horror, what does this mean for you, the young, intrepid amateur in Toronto? Not a whole lot.
Green Cardamom is a whole spice, a pod to be precise, harvested from a shrub in the ginger family. The plant originates in Southern India, and many South Indian dishes feature the spice prominently. The flavour it imparts is sweet and peppery, and the aroma is a methol-infused floral scent. In India, it’s known as the “Queen of Spices”. One of the best things about green cardamom is it’s versatility. It can feature in creamy kormas and kheema/ground meat dishes as well as Indian desserts, scenting Indian rice, Nordic breads and cardamom-infused Middle Eastern coffee.
It’s sold as a package of pods (and in powder form), but occasionally you may come across recipes asking for “cardamom seeds”. These are the seeds inside the pod itself. If you crack open the green shell, there are maybe 20-25 tiny black circular seeds inside. If the pods are fresh, the seeds will be slightly stuck together with resin and a thin membrane. The seeds themselves have a slightly different flavour on their own, something like cloves and pepper and a few other things. The point here is – green cardamom is green cardamom; there’s nothing else like it. Let your nose show you – go smell some at the store before you buy it.
This stuff is literally bark from a Cassia tree, native to Southeast Asia. The tree’s latim name is cinnamomum aromaticum so you can maybe guess it’s got something to do with cinnamon. The tree is in the same family as the actual cinnamon tree (cinnamomum verum) so there’s some similarities, but keep in mind the differences as well.
Like cinnamon, it’s sold in whole or powdered form. Sometimes cassia powder is labelled “cinnamon” even, but in Toronto I’ve actually never seen it sold as a powder, but only bags of bark pieces 1-3 inches in length. Whole cassia bark is sold in Little India markets, but I bought mine from Loblaws, so it’s not unusually rare. I used to live by the Loblaws at St. Clair and Bathurst and they did have a surprisingly well-stocked Indian section of spices, legumes, flours and specialty products. I have to assume then, that cassia bark can be found other places.
Ghee is a type of clarified butter. What is clarified butter? It’s regular unsalted butter that’s had all the milk solids and water removed. The butter you buy at the store is around 15% water, and you need to store it in the fridge because it will go rancid (it’s fridge-life is several months). Ghee is almost pure butterfat (no water, no milk proteins). The thing in butter that actually goes rancid are the milk solids and since they have been removed from the ghee, ghee can be stored safely for over half a year outside of the fridge (storing it in the fridge makes little or no difference depending who you ask). At room temperature it will be yellow and very soft. When heated, it’s clear. In the fridge it will be a lighter yellow and very solid (like cold butter but a bit more brittle).
Ghee is used for a lot of things, but all you need to know is that it functions like most other cooking fats and oils. You can put some in a frying pan and fry onions. You can brush it on oven breads. You can add it to rice, and so on.
Turmeric is a powdered spice. The taste and smell is slightly bitter, and earthy. In Western cooking, it’s usually used for it’s colour only, which is mustard yellow (your basic yellow hot dog mustard has turmeric in it, for example). The plant itself, however, is native to South Asia (southern Indian states being the largest producers in the world). In non-Western cooking, turmeric often features as a main ingredient in curry powders and curry recipes. The spice, used in quantity, adds a mild but characteristic spiciness, and is often used to colour rice dishes a golden yellow.