The discovery of pepper in Calicut of Kerala, India, in addition to other spices, by European adventurers led to bitter rivalry between the powerful states of Portugal and Spain during the 15th and 16th centuries to gain control of the world’s spice trade. It also led to the formation of the world’s first business cartel, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) in 1602, which by 1670 was the world’s richest corporation with 50,000 employees, 30,000 soldiers and 200 ships. Such is the fascinating history of spices.
In Nepal, specifically in Kathmandu, Bhai Ratna Bajracharya is believed to be the country’s first trader of spices. He began the business about half a century ago, and his shop, ‘Shankha Pasal’ in Kothunani, Ason, is still up and running, though of course, being run by succeeding generations. Shankha means conch and pasal means shop, so “Conch Shop’. Now here’s why it’s called that: initially, it sold conches brought in from the shores of the southern India coastline. And, since South India is rich in spice cultivation, the spice trade must surely have been an obvious addition to the business. Today, too, if you want to buy good quality spices, make a beeline for the very same Ason Bazaar in the heart of Kathmandu. It has many, many, shops selling a veritable plethora of exotic spices.
Now, what are the spices most commonly used in Nepal? Here’s an excerpt from ‘The Study of Spices in Nepal’, a 1984 Japanese study, 1. The Chhetri people usually use methi, beshar, jeera, jwano, tejpat, lahsun, aduwa, khursani, and rayo. 2. The Newars use methi, beshar, jeera, dhaniya, jwano, lahsun, aduwa, khursani, Nepali sunp, and tejpat. 3. The Tamangs use methi, beshar, jeera, dhaniya, jwano, lahsun, aduwa, and khursani. 4. The Sherpas use lahsun, aduwa, khrusani, dhaniya, jeera, and methi, and also the wild spices ermarg, koma, and zimbu.
It is clear that spices of Nepal, all over the country, are similar, though in different ways. Among the many seasoning varieties at hand, one of the most popular is ‘garam masala’, a mixture of a dozen spices. It is used to flavor many dishes, especially meat. Garam means hot and masala means spice, so, it is easy to deduce that it imparts heat and is particularly beneficial in the cold months. What does this popular mixture contain? Equal quantities of dhania (coriander), jeera (cumin seeds), methi (fenugreek), besar (turmeric), sukmel (cardamom), elaichi (black cardamom), dal chini (cinnamon), marich (black pepper), tez pata (bay leaf), luang (clove), jaifal (nutmeg), and saipatri (mace).
Of course, all the above mentioned spices are also used independently or in different combinations for different types of cuisine. One can also buy whole spices and have them ground; in which case, you get fresher spices and are assured of quality, since it is likely that less of the more expensive spices may be included in mixtures. Whichever way you use them, know that spices should be used sparingly so that they do not dominate with their flavor, but rather, enhance other flavors. If you use whole spices when cooking, tie them up in cheesecloth for easy removal. Add such spices during cooking so that their flavors permeate the food. If you are using ground spices or herbs, add them midway or at the end so that their flavors do not dissipate. If you want to spice up salads, fruits, or juices, add spices and herbs a few hours before serving so that their flavors get time to blend in.
Speaking of whole spices only, they can be ground in a food processor, pepper grinder, mortar and pestle, or coffee grinder. You might be worried about the mess afterwards, but don’t worry, there’s a simple way to clean up later. All you need is to add some sugar or uncooked rice and process. There’ another way of using spices: dry roast them by toasting for about five minutes on a heated heavy skillet, Stir constantly to prevent burning. This is a good way to accentuate the aroma of cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, poppy seeds, mustard seeds, and sesame seeds.
Spices will lose their taste, color, and aroma after some time, so make sure you store them in airtight containers and away from exposure to light and heat. Another thing to be careful about is dampness which will cause spices to cake and crumble. Refrigerate red colored spices like chilli powder, cayenne pepper, and paprika to save their color and flavor. Remember that whole spices retain aroma and flavor longer than grounded ones. Remember also that the shelf lives of different spices vary. Generally, seeds and barks’ shelf lives, like that of roots, are over two years, while leaves and flowers’ shelf life is one year. This is in the case of whole spices. As for ground ones, seeds and barks’ shelf lives is six months, that of and roots is one year, and leaves and flowers last for six months,