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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Frugal Pantry: Modern Spice

American food generally seems to be underspiced. We noticed this particularly when comparing the Indian food we make at home to the richer, more flavorful dishes we get at Indian restaurants. 

Of course, restaurants worry more about pleasing your palate than watching your weight, so the cooks pour on the butter and cream. But even allowing for that difference, the food at Indian restaurants tasted spicier—not just hotter but deeper. We decided to start adding more spice to our homemade Indian recipes. 

At about that time, we came across a new book, Modern Spice, by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster, 2009). The author's No. 1 recommendation for cooking Indian food: make it vibrant and bold by boosting the spices.  

She takes recipes learned from her mother and grandmothers and converts them so that they can be made in modern American kitchens with ingredients that are widely available. 

The spices of Modern Spice are not hard to get, but when we began to try the recipes, we used up our store of fennel seeds in two days. Replacing them reminded us of an earlier tip: even if you're not cooking Indian or other ethnic food, buying spices at ethnic markets can save you a lot of money.

Our old 1.5-ounce bottle of fennel seeds cost about $5. Our replacement bag from an Indian market was more than four times as big at seven ounces and cost only 99 cents. It was worth the small side trip to the Indian market, particularly because we always see other deals when we're there, such as the plump bunch of cilantro we picked up for 99 cents.

There are lots of valuable spice lessons in Ms. Bhide's book. As Mark Bittman says in his foreword, "There is not a cuisine that uses spices with more grace and craft than that of India."


  1. Hi Tim, Ruth,

    Great points. In fact, I was thinking of you guys today as I was eating frugally.

    I had bought my daughter soy nuggets from Trader Joes, but she hated them. Instead of tossing the things, I did as all fathers end up doing--eat leftovers.

    Let me tell you, prepared the right way, the little buggers aren't bad. Here's how I did it:

    -- Heat a splash of canola oil in a non-stick pan, and add a dash of sesame oil for flavoring. Brown the nuggets about 30 seconds each side (presuming they are not frozen). Take out, and let cool. There's not much oil to drain like chicken nuggets.

    Now, here's the related spicy dipping sauce:

    -- Take a teaspoon of Spicy Thai Mayo (available at any Asian market). This is the stuff that goes into Spicy Tuna rolls. Next, add that spicy mayo to about 2 teaspoons of regular mayo to cut the heat. Mix well, and dip.

    Five minutes work, cost had to be under $1 or $2 for everything, and I was surprisingly full after only six nuggets.


    ps -- Great choice on the Modern Spice book. The author is friends with my wife and just sent us a copy.

  2. Oh, one other thing; We splurged the other night and tried a new Thai place we happened upon. I had Massamum curry and it was totally bland, prepared undoubtably for the local clientele.

    I was going to order Drunken Noodles off the menu, and should have. If you ever want to try the spiciest Thai dish in existence, go with Drunken Noodles.

    The place did get points for displaying a totally restored 1930s Rickshaw.

  3. Ruth actually likes the soy nuggets; our freezer usually contains a box or two. We've never seen the Thai mayo, though, and will definitely make an effort to track it down. Thanks, JP!

  4. here's an indian smiling......for the love of spice.