The Daily Grind: promise me you’ll never, ever use pre-ground spice


If there is ONE THING that will lift your curry to the next level, it’s this:


I have used capitals, exclamation marks – the whole grammatical nine yards – to shout this truth from the rooftops.


For me, the ritual of grinding fresh spices is where curry starts – literally and metaphorically:

  • first, there’s the happy stock-take – checking off each spice you’ll need from the recipe book, and measuring the precise amount into separate dishes.
  • then there’s the heady moment of warming the seeds. Curry bloggers debate how many seconds you should warm the spice, and over what heat. My personal preference is to put a small, thick bottomed pan over a low flame – until the base is warm to the touch. I then wait a few seconds, and add the spice (strictly one at a time). This is the good bit… within seconds, the seeds release their volatile oils. Every single time I cook, I lean over the pan to inhale the aroma… for cumin seeds, a deep smell of freshly-sawn wood.
  • finally, a few seconds later… 10 or 12… transfer the warmed spices to your grinder. If you MUST, use an electric or coffee grinder. But why not continue the sensory journey, and grind the spices in a traditional pestle and mortar? For almost all spices (except the tough customers that are fenugreek seeds) the spices crumble under the pestle – releasing a brand new aroma. For cumin, the notes jump an octave  – releasing a sharp, incense-like flavour that will be the backbone of your curry.

With the spices lined up in separate dishes (ground and whole, as needed), you’re now primed to cook like a restaurant pro’.

Of course, as with every golden rule, there are exceptions. I’ve tried working with whole asafoetida (hing) and not only is it tricky to handle but also packs less of a punch than the pre-ground spice. The same is true, for me, of fresh and dried turmeric. And yes, for compound spices, I do use commercial garam masala.

But otherwise, there is no substitute for the daily grind. Even for the big, complex mixes (sambhar) where’re you’re combining seven or eight spices – the only way to get there is to use fresh spice.

Warm and grind your first quantity of cumin seeds, inhale the savour, and discover the key to curry heaven.

If I’m wrong – tweet me.

This entry was posted in Indian kitchen. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Daily Grind: promise me you’ll never, ever use pre-ground spice

  1. Tom Baines says:

    Greetings Ad,
    I’m loving the blog, and agree on the place of freshly roasted, ground spices at the heart of every home-made curry dish. We’ve recently gone off-piste in our masala preparations; dry roasted cloves, star anise, cardamon seeds, black pepper seeds and dessicated coconut have all found their way into our pestle and mortar. All very tasty, but I’ll never be far from my old trusted friends cumin and coriander.
    Tom (brother and fellow curry aficionado)

    • Hi Tom – thrilled you like the blog. It would be lovely to have a blog post from you – any milestone from your curry journey that you want to share. In our household, you remain ‘king of the flame-grilled chapati’ Good Korma (curry pilgrim, and brother to Tom)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s