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Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Art of Balancing Spices


Have you ever wondered what to do when you put too much of a certain spice into a dish or how to flavour a dish such that you can distinguish between the different spices you have used?

Just as one would pair wine with cheese or food with wine to optimize our eating experience, the same is true of spices. Knowing which spices go well with each other can be crucial to getting an overall balance in flavour in any dish. You wouldn't eat a dish that is too salty or too bitter and nor should you eat a dish where one spice overpowers everything.

The lawyer in me likes to compartmentalize things and so with spices, this is exactly what I do. The taste buds can easily identify the sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and savouriness in a dish. In similar fashion, I like to split my spices into five easily identifiable tastes:  Hot, Pungent, Tangy, Sweet and Mild. They are also in top-down order of the proportions (little-more) in which, in most but not all cases, they should be used when combined with other spices.

Hot - Often but Little



As the name suggests, these spices are the ones with the most piquancy and heat. They are also most prone to overpowering a dish. Hot spices such as chilis and black pepper are known for their health benefits and antioxidant properties so wherever possible, these should be used often but in small doses. The Mild spices and a natural sweetener would be good ways to counter a dish with too much heat.

Pungent - Always and in Equal parts



Pungency is most associated with aroma and the sense of smell but it is also an apt description for the next level of spices in our chart. Spices such as cardamom, cloves, saffron, cumin would fall under this category. There really should be sub-categories as each spice in this category has a different flavour and level of pungency. Cloves would be more at the stronger and more menthol end while saffron and cardamom at a more sweeter and lighter end. However, none of these spices have any heat but they are still strong in flavour and so it is really important to keep proportions equal or as close to equal when using more than a few of the pungent spices in a dish. The key is to get a beautiful balance of flavours and if a dish has twice as much cloves or cumin as cardamom, the dish would be menthol and earthy but lack the aromatic sweetness of cardamom.

Tangy -Occasional and Enough



If you have already used hot and pungent spices, a dish may call for some sourness to take the edge off the spices a little. The spice equivalent to lemon or lime would be curry leaves, tamarind, sumac or amchur powder. Again, as with the pungent spices, the tangy spices are individual in the strength of sourness they would bring to a dish. Sumac and amchur powder are at the lighter citrusy end of the spectrum with tamarind being at the opposite end. Use these when the occasion calls for it in a dish or spice blend and just enough to add tanginess into the flavour pot.

Sweet - Alone and More



Spices such as cinnamon, rose, nutmeg and vanilla are typically associated with baking or desserts and so no wonder these are appropriately allocated to the 'Sweet' category. That said, these spices are also just as effective and flavourful in savoury dishes when used in the right proportions and context. The other beauty of these spices is that they can easily be used on their own in so many ways without needing any other spice to accompany it. The Sweet spices also marry very well with the 'lighter' Pungent ones too such as cardamom and saffron.


Mild - Necessary and Most



The likes of turmeric, coriander and fennel  form part of this group of spices. These spices maintain their individual taste and tones but when combined with other spices, they tend to take a back seat in a dish - either not seen, not tasted or not overpowering. This, of course, means one can use more of these in proportion to other spices and coriander, especially, is a great countering spice with too much cumin or hot spices.

Not every dish requires a spice from each category but a good balance can be just as effectively achieved by some of the following combinations:

Hot + Pungent + Mild  
E.g. Chili + Cumin + Coriander
Pungent + Sweet + Mild 
E.g. Cardamom + Cinnamon + Fennel
Pungent + Sweet
E.g. Saffron + Rose
Hot + Sweet + Tangy + Mild 
E.g. Chili + Cinnamon + Amchur + Turmeric
Pungent + Tangy + Mild
E.g. Nigella + Curry Leaves + Turmeric

What pairing combinations do you use?

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