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beyond curry powder 
an invitation & intro to Indian spices
by Courtney Knettel
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I admit I felt a little like Obi Wan Kenobi. I dutifully sent her a splendid cornucopia of specially selected Indian spices -- the vivid orange-gold of turmeric, the butterscotch beige of fenugreek seeds, the not-quite-black mustard seeds, the earthy-hued powders of cumin and coriander. I lovingly packed them in lovely little jars and scored a cool bamboo spice rack off ebay to serve as a showcase for these little beauties. As I awaited her grateful email, I reveled in the glory that was this gift. After all, I was giving her the keys to the kingdom, or rather, to Wonderland, Oz, Narnia… whatever. I entertained visions of Laura delightedly discovering the powers of spice-sorcery that I, her friend, had bequeathed her. How cool was I?

Here's what really went down: Laura had received the package whilst nuking a frozen burrito. Ah! Perfect timing. She eagerly extracted the pretty jars and lined them up around her plate. Which spices to try first? She lifted the pale flap of tortilla and generously spritzed in three of the powders. Next, she showered the top of the burrito with some brilliant-orangey turmeric for added drama. ("It looked good," she later told me.) It was not good. In fact, it was something quite the opposite.

See, I gave Laura spices when I should have taught her how to spice. My bad. And so -- I'd like to take this opportunity to redeem myself, if you will let me. Here is what I should have told Laura…

How to get going with DIY Indian-style spicing: A Primer
1 Start simple and go slow. The art of spicing is not something you need to rush into. When it comes to spice-learning, it is best to let the newness seep into your psyche slowly. Start with simple recipes, using few ingredients. Be patient and the rewards will come.

2 Skim Indian recipes. Read Indian recipes that involve ingredients that you're interested in and take note of the spicing techniques used. Pay attention to which spices are used for a particular ingredient, and in what amounts. And remember: timing is crucial to the outcome.

3 Tap into the Internet. When it comes to acquiring Indian cooking information, the Internet is an ocean full of oysters. Plug in a few Google search terms, and a global galaxy of authentic and adapted recipes can instantly be summoned. Even generic recipe sites usually offer an 'Indian' section. Good places to begin: cuisinecuisine.com and indianchild.com.

4 Shop at an Indian grocer if you can. If an Indian grocer doesn't exist near you, don't fret. Order from an online Indian grocer. I do. Not only is the spice quality much better than a supermarket or specialty store, but so is the availability and value for your buck. If you're feeling shy, or if you're simply intensely curious as I am, you may want to pick up a copy of The Indian Grocer Demystified, by Linda Blumenthal. It holds your hand through the experience, aisle by aisle, and explains some of the interesting items you're sure to come across.

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