Floyd Cardoz, chef of New York's Tabla and author of the new 'One Spice, Two Spice' cookbook, reflects on growing up in India, the best ways to buy and store spices, and how to add flair to everyday dishes.
Q: Could you share some memories of cooking with your family and how you became interested in cooking?
A: Cooking and food have always been a major part of my family and upbringing, and also play a major role in Indian culture. My mom cooked a lot and we also had a cook at home. Hanging out in the kitchen to help the cook would ensure that I always got a tasty morsel before or in between meals. My mom would plan the meals daily with the cook, and would also get more involved with the meals when we were entertaining. I became familiar with cooking at a young age--I'd watch and help, and smell and taste all the flavors.
My earliest memories were making my Sunday souffle omelets with roasted tomatoes when I was about 11. I also have fond memories of helping the cook clean shrimp, cut green mango, and saute the onions for the Goan stew sorpatel. I used to be the kid in the neighborhood who organized and cooked the monthly barbecues. When I was around 11 or 12 years old, during summers, all the kids in the neighborhood would each bring a potato and roast it over a wood fire and eat it with sea salt from the Arabian Sea.
My love for food and cooking subconsciously were guiding me to my current destination.
Q: What role do spices play in Indian culture?
A: Besides being flavor enhancers, spices have many health benefits. Certain spices are used in different seasons because of their effect on our bodies--some increase body temperature, other keep us cool. Spices also play an important role in digestion. Growing up, I remember spice infusions that were given for various ailments such as a cold, stomach virus, or flu.
Additionally, due to the various seasons and how difficult it used to be to transport fresh ingredients across the country (India), spices played an important role in preserving ingredients in pickles and chutneys for use in leaner times, i.e., in growing seasons when ingredients could not be transported across the country or were not available.
Q: What are some easy ways to give Western dishes Indian flair?
A: Adding one or two spices in a stew is an easy way to give a western dish an Indian flair. Adding coriander to meat dishes, cumin to vegetable dishes, and a combination of cumin and coriander to fish dishes are easy ways to do this as well. In One Spice, Two Spice, I offer many recipes. It can be really simple and is a great way to add tons of flavor.
Q: Which basic Indian spices should be in every kitchen?
A: In my new cookbook, One Spice, Two Spice, I outline levels of spices for home cooks. First, I suggest that people have some basics--bay leaf, black pepper, cinnamon, and cloves. For those who want to add great flavor to their home cooking, Level One includes a selection of versatile spices that work well with most ingredients: Coriander seed, cumin, turmeric and mustard. I have three more levels as one gets more experienced with these spices. But really, it can be easy and is great fun to experiment with spices.
Q: Which spices go into making a classic Indian curry?
A: There are no standard spices in a curry. Depending on the region and season, the combinations change. A classic curry, though, is any sauce with spice, be it one, two, or more spices.
Q: What is the best way to store spices?
A: Buy them whole, keep them away from heat and light, and store them in an air tight container. In order to maintain freshness, buy spices in one- to two-ounce portions.
Q: How should you buy spices?
A: Always whole, never ground (except turmeric, cayenne, chat masala, and paprika). Ground spices tend to loose the essential oils which give the spices their flavor and health benefits. It's ideal to buy spices from ethnic markets, as you never know how long they have been on the shelf in big grocery stores. High turnover is a sure sign of freshness.
Q: Are there any online resources for buying or learning about spices that you recommend?
A: Sinha Trading ships everywhere, but you have to visit or call: 121 Lexington Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016, 212/683-4419. There's also Penzeys, 19300 W. Janacek Ct., Brookfield, Wis., 800/243-7227, penzeys.com; and Kalustyans, 123 Lexington Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016, 212/685-3451, kalustyans.com.