The common misconception I always face about spices is their heat - many of the budding chefs through my doors say they don't like food that is overly spicy, what they really mean is 'don't use too much chilli!'
As a chef who creates authentic Indian cuisine, I understand how critical spices are to my cooking and I want to empower more people to use them in the kitchen. So, here I dispel some of the common myths and concerns many cooks face when cooking with and blending spices and offer some tips to get you started.
My first piece of advice to anyone unsure of their way around the spice cabinet is to do a taste test. Place a selection of common spices on a tray, and go through them individually, crushing them in a pestle and mortar and tasting them in between taking sips of water to clear the palette. Make a note of what flavours and notes are released - you'll be pleasantly surprised. Crushed coriander seeds give off lovely citrus flavours while one of my favourite spices, cassia bark, has a warming sweetness.
The more you cook with spices the more accustomed you will become to their charms, so don't be afraid to experiment to see which combinations complement one another best.
Once you've taste tested the most obvious spices used in the kitchen, so cumin and coriander seeds, cassia bark or cinnamon, turmeric, chilli powder, bay leaves, garam masala and cardamom pods, your attention can now turn to blending spices to make the base of your dish, be it a curry, marinade or flavouring.
What the tasting will have made you realise is that the heat of a dish is determined by the amount and intensity of chilli used, rather than the spice combination. So consider this next. How intense should the meal be? Do you want something light or a dish that really raises the roof? Intensity of a dish is powered by the amount of chilli within it, whether in the form of chilli powder, fresh chillies or both. For novice cooks I would always suggest starting out conservatively, chilli can easily overpower a meal and while you're learning what spices work best together it is essential to be able to taste every component of it - you can add more as you get braver in the kitchen.
So you've decided how much chilli to use, so what's next? How should the dish look? What consistency would you like from the sauce and what's the base of the meal; chicken, lamb, prawns?
This will help you determine base ingredients and spices, alongside how they should be blended. Spices can be coarsely grinded, dissolved into liquids, toasted or added whole. They can make a meal pack a punch after initial taste with flavours releasing in the mouth or can have immediate impact. Are you using chicken or lamb? One spice blend will taste very different in a chicken dish than with lamb, so remember one base blend doesn't fit all!
Invest in quality spices. It may seem an expensive outlay from the start but like with most things, you really do get what you pay for. Examine the colours of the spices and taste for freshness, plus observe use by dates.
From the outset be stringent with your measurement too, just until you are fully comfortable with how the spices balance together. Generally, small quantities of spices are used, so being slapdash with measurement could completely transform the proposed outcome of a recipe.
I hope this gives you enough confidence to take that first step into spice blending and remember to enjoy. Blending spices is about trial and error and developing combinations that are fit for you, so have a play around - practice definitely makes perfect!