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Turmeric, Coriander, Cumin, Oh My!

Turmeric, Coriander, Cumin, Oh My!

After I read about the horrible lead issue in Indian spices, I decided to take a little walk down to a local store that specializes in organic bulk spices called Lhasa Karnak. But before I tell you about that, let me tell you how my spice drawer at home came to be and how I’m bent on changing it. After my husband and I moved back to the SF Bay Area from New York, we moved into our new house, with a three-week old baby. Thankfully, my mom and mother-in-law were available to help get things set up. My mother picked a large vertical drawer next to my fridge and stocked it with spices, lentils, and some items that I had never seen before. In order to get me started on the path to Indian cooking, she filled mini Ziploc plastic bags with mustard seeds, whole coriander, and stuff that I still don’t recognize (actually, she did it so she could cook when she visited). I would often open that drawer, get overwhelmed, and opt for boiling pasta.

When I started to take my commitment to Indian cooking more seriously, I found myself increasingly frustrated. I would follow a recipe I got over the internet only for it to taste, let’s say, not very good. While well-intentioned, my mom had set up my spice drawer for her own use, the equivalent of a master chef. Over time, the spices that were used less frequently started to get old. I also realized that not everything was what I thought it was. I had been using some coriander/cumin mix that I thought was coriander. I made sambar with the wrong kind of lentils. Most of the stuff was not labeled and in my mid-guided hope that you can cook Indian food by putting a dash of this and that, I was preparing inedible food.

I could only imagine how overwhelming Indian cooking might be for non-Indian people when this Indian was having such a hard time figuring things out. I have to qualify and say that while cooking, until recently, has never been a real passion, I have had the luck to cook some really good food, all of it non-Indian. So I know I’m not inherently a bad cook, but seriously, how hard can Indian cooking be when billions of people the world over are doing it?

So back to my walk, I walked over to the bulk spice store and purchased organic whole cumin, whole coriander, powdered turmeric (I am planning on getting whole in the future), and garam masala (I also plan to grind my own down the road). The stuff I bought was NOT the same stuff I had sitting in my drawer. I will post a picture soon (I’ve been avoiding posting pics but I’ll start). The whole coriander from the spice store are tiny rich golden brown balls, they look and smell incredible. Not pungent and kind of icky like the faded greenish brown ones sitting in my closet.

I’ve decided (and I hope my mom doesn’t get offended) to clear out the drawer she set up for me and set it up myself, with items I have taken the time to meet.

I don’t want to discourage anyone who doesn’t have access to a local spice store. Get going with what you are able to get your hands on. But if you do have access and want to embark on a fun little journey, seek out a little store, make friends with the vendor, and you might be pleasantly surprised.


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