Known as The Irish Spiceman, Arun Kapil is an expert on all things spice-related.
The chef, food entrepreneur and founder of Green Saffron spice company has even written a book on the subject. Here, Arun gives us his top tips to keep in mind when you're cooking with spices, from what to look for to how to store them.
READ MORE: Fish curry
What to look for
Spices should be fresh, vibrant, zinging with natural flavour. Capturing their essence in mixes and the food we eat is the start. Choosing the best and knowing what to look for is important. We’re bombarded with campaigns around organic, local, ethical, sustainable, and fresh produce. All wonderful, exacting terms but why aren’t the same applied to spices? They should be, just as with wines, cheeses, cocoa, coffee, teas, meat, chicken, and tomatoes.
Personally, I like to know the provenance of the spices I use. How they’re cultivated and stored - these things all matter to the end product. This isn’t too easy a task as we trawl the shops, big and small, which is something I hope to be part of changing. A good place to start is demanding the freshest, best looking spices from the shops you go to. Asian shops are likely to have a good choice of fresher spice as they have a higher turnover. When faced with shelves of brightly coloured burrs, pods, fruits and seeds, simply use your natural senses to check for pungent smell and vibrant colour.
To toast or not to toast?
A bone of contention in the spice world, and one that seems to get to me every time I hear the glib phrase banded around, is ‘You should toast your spices’. For me, the quest for the perfect blend (of spice characters) is all about getting the right mix of notes whilst still maintaining individual flavour integrity. It really is a personal bug-bear of mine, the willy-nilly toasting, roasting and frying of spice. The usual rationale is that this process of heat, ‘brings out the flavour of the spice’. In fact, by heating the spice you’re changing its chemical composition and therefore changing its flavour; compressing all into the toasty, mid-range. Now that’s brilliant for many dishes, but just be aware of how such processes affect the ingredients we use. Challenge everything! Don’t just follow an idea because you’ve been told it’s the right thing. Create balance, but create your own (preferred) balance, as your senses tell you. Your own body knows what it wants, which flavours you prefer.
How to store your spices
Only make up small amounts of spice blends at a time as they’ll be past their best in three months. Keep them in an air-tight jar and in a dark, cool store cupboard.
This serves as a good, all-purpose curry powder and will yield about 40 to 50g of blend.
2 heaped teaspoons turmeric powder
2 teaspoons coriander seeds, whole
1½ teaspoons cumin seeds, whole
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, whole
1 teaspoon green cardamom pods, whole
½ teaspoon golden sugar
1 teaspoon cloves, whole
1 teaspoon cassia, freshly ground
¼ teaspoon mace, freshly ground
Grind in a pestle and mortar or blitz in a spice or coffee grinder.
Fresh Spice: Vibrant Recipes for Bringing Flavour, Depth and Colour to Home Cooking by Arun Kapil is published by Pavilion Books