I'm one of those cooks that combines whatever I find in the fridge or pantry without a plan. I'll throw spices and foods together like a mad scientist, kind of how I did in Organic Chemistry in 1987 (hoping I wouldn't blow up the lab). Recently, I went to my first cooking class, "Secrets of Indian Cuisine" at Sur La Table.
Focusing was difficult since I was distracted by the incredible aroma of the garlic, onion and seasonings which were simmering in the pot. Our chef taught us how to create the most amazing Chicken Tikka Masala I've ever tasted! In between bites and moans, I asked why his tasted so much better than the restaurant version. He said, "The secret is the spice you use." He did not use the powdered spices you get from a regular grocery store. His were fresh and he turned both the cumin and coriander seeds into powder using a little electric coffee grinder.
Our eyes widened as he passed around his freshly ground spice with the same store-bought version. The color was completely different. One whiff and his point was made! I decided it's worth the extra 5 minutes to use spices his way. Indian spices are some of the healthiest on the planet and can act as an aphrodisiac, antibacterial, immune booster, respiratory aid and digestive tonic. I recommend these:
Garam masala- This is not one spice, it's a blend which differs regionally. It usually contains cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, peppercorns, turmeric and mace (not the kind of mace you spray in a mugger's face, this "mace" is a waxy red coating off a nutmeg seed.) Garam masala can help you with digestion and respiratory conditions.
Curry- This contains a blend of spices, including turmeric known for it's anti-cancer benefits and ability to reduce inflammation. Curry blends may cause diarrhea in sensitive people. In case you have ever experienced an Indian food reaction, curry is the 'laxative.'
Coriander- It's from the seeds of the cilantro plant but it tastes nothing like cilantro. Lightly toast them to extract more flavor. This spice reduces insulin and blood sugar and one study suggests it binds heavy metals such as lead.
Green cardamom seed- During cooking class, I gently popped open the seeds in a mortar and pestle by tapping them, and then simmered both the seeds and outer shells in oil. Cardamom is rich in minerals, especially potassium so it's medicinal action on the body is to reduce blood pressure and control blood clot formation. Chewing the seeds helps with bad breath.
Cumin seed- This is rich in iron in case you have anemia. Cumin is the seed of a small parsley plant. It helps you secrete bile acids and pancreatic enzymes and that helps you break down your food. It also has anti-diabetic actions like the sulfonylurea medicines.
At my website suzycohen.com, there's a longer version of this article, as well as the mouth-watering recipe.