Thursday, September 2, 2010

Buying Spices

Around Christmastime, I bought an Indian cookbook. I love Indian food so I was curious about cooking it at home. When I gave the cookbook a good look, I realized there were a lot of spices that I would have to acquire before I could make any of it, and spices sometimes take awhile to find. It is now September and I have just gotten around to buying all the requisite spices.
I am not a coupon-person, although I do my best to shop sales and be as thrifty as I can with as little effort as I can muster. My best tip for saving money at the grocery store is to buy spices in bulk. Not all grocery stores carry them, but usually the fancier ones do, or those that have organic food sections. Buying spices in bulk saves an unbelievable amount of money. For example, a packaged bottle of cumin might cost $5 or more, but buying the same amount in bulk and reusing an old bottle costs approximately $.30. I'm not joking. Try it out and see. Never buy spices pre-packaged...with the exception of one, which I will get to in a minute.
I have used a lot of cumin and cinnamon and even the occasional coriander, but I had never used cardamom. The common seasoning in many Indian dishes is called Garam Masala. It is a blend of the spices to the left. It is made by roasting all of the ingredients in a pan and then grinding them all together. So, before I could even make dinner, I had to make this. I acquired a spice (well, coffee really) grinder. By the time I got to dinner, it probably would have been cheaper to just go to India Bistro and have someone else make it. There is the final result.
My three-year-old thought it was quite aromatic. He kept telling me his boogers smelled spicy (gotta love that age).
Back to the spices. I was curious about cardamom because I noticed it was unbelievably expensive. I did some research and learned that cardamom is the second most expensive spice in the world. The only spice more expensive is saffron - also used in Indian cuisine. I'm not sure what makes cardamom so expensive, but saffron comes from crocuses that must be hand-picked. It takes about 500 crocuses to make 1 oz. (!!!) of saffron. Saffron cannot be bought bulk (for obvious reasons), but instead comes in tiny vials - the one to the right contains one gram and it cost $13. I am hoping it lasts forever. I wanted to be authentic.
If you are wondering what the third most expensive spice in the world is, it is vanilla, which is harvested from the only edible orchid, although it is much, MUCH cheaper by comparison. Saffron is used in Indian rice dishes, mostly. It is soaked in milk and then added to the rice and cooked, as shown to the left.
In the end, I found cooking Indian food to be a little more of an intense effort than I usually make for dinner. I think in future, I will save it for times when my husband is home to occupy the boys. It was a nice change, though.
OH! And my other spice-related tip is this (quite simple): When baking or cooking (but not necessarily on the table - that is up to taste), use kosher salt. An actual chef told me that - you should never use table salt in cooking and baking. There is actually a marked taste difference, I think, and for whatever reason, kosher salt has far less sodium in it than plain table salt. I also only use fresh ground pepper. Since most of the time I am cooking fairly simple meals, I only season with salt and pepper so using good quality salt and pepper makes a huge difference.


  1. The one thing I thought of lately is that all the specialty salts we are now using do not contain Iodine, one of our essential nutrients for proper thyroid function. Since we live in an iodine poor area we need to make sure we get the iodine either through the food we eat, or iodized table salt. Most people do not eat enough iodine rich foods which is why it was put into salt as a supplement. Iodine rich food are predominately seafood. Something to keep in mind! Following is a list of iodine rich foods. Lisa
    * Arame
    * Cheddar cheese
    * Cheese cake
    * Cod
    * Condensed milk
    * Dulse
    * Eggs
    * Fish oils
    * Fresh fish
    * Haddock
    * Hijike
    * Iodized salt
    * Jaffa cakes
    * Kelp
    * Kombu
    * Malt bread
    * Mayonnaise
    * Naan Bread
    * Nori
    * Sea foods
    * Sea kelp
    * Sea salt
    * Seaweed
    * Trifle
    * Wakame
    * Yorkshire pudding

  2. Good to know - that's actually a really interesting list of foods that I wouldn't have thought were iodine-rich. I do buy iodine-table salt, although we're not big table-salt eaters. We eat LOTS of eggs and cheddar cheese in our house as well as quite a bit of fish.

  3. I'll eat cheesecake more often then, I'll just say it's for my iodine deficiency!
    I always cheat with Indian food, I buy the sauces that come in jars and the garam masala already made, which I won't do any more if I can make it myself for way less! Thanks for sharing! Indian food is so amazing!

  4. I went through this exact process last spring when, for some reason, I became more obsessed with Indian food than usual. And I came to the same conclusion (about five curries later): it's a ton of work. I enjoy making it, but I don't have a ton of time, and don't like my house smelling spicy for days. So all my bulk-purchased spices will just have to wait until my motivation returns, and in the meantime, I'll stick with take-out.

  5. So, here's a tidbit for you...cardamom changed the vernacular architecture of Sri Lanka. People there started growing it, and it was way more lucrative than what they had been doing previously, and suddenly people could afford nicer houses with indoor plumbing and solid construction and features they'd never had before.