Chef Anita Jaisinghani Wants You to Use More Spices in Your Cooking—Here's How to Season Meals With Confidence

The cookbook author explains when and how to add spices while you cook—and why "popping" spices in oil imparts the most flavor.

Anita Jaisinghani sitting on stone entry
Photo: Lou Vest

Spices can add so much to a dish, but as anyone who has ever over-salted something knows, seasoning can also derail it when used incorrectly. And with so many different kinds of spices available, it can be hard to know which ones to use and when, how best to incorporate them, how much to add, and where to find (and store!) them. All in all, spices can be intimidating.

Thankfully, owner of and head chef at beloved Houston restaurant Pondicheri, Anita Jaisinghani—who recently released her debut cookbook, Masala—knows a thing or two about spices. In fact, the subtitle of the tome is "Recipes from India, the Land of Spices"—and the book has more than 50 pages devoted to seasoning in its chapter, "The Story of Spices," which lists and explains the major Indian cooking spices and their history in India and around the world. This section is followed by dozens of spice-filled recipes.

Naturally, we knew we had to ask Jaisinghani for her best tips on cooking confidently with spices—here's what we learned.

Spices 101

Spice Doesn't Mean Spicy

While some spices or blends have chile, pepper, or other hot ingredients, not every option brings the burn—and adding spices to a dish doesn't mean it has to be spicy. "Chiles didn't arrive to India until the 1600s," says Jaisinghani. "We really were cooking with just spices. We only had black pepper for thousands of years." Plenty of spices will just add flavor—not heat, she adds.

Spices Provide Healthful Flavor

Often, people lean on ingredients like butter or cream to bring flavor to a meal. Spices can add dynamic flavor—without unwanted fat. "The best place spices can help is [when you don't want to] add a lot of fat or dairy," says Jaisinghani. "You can supplement those with spices and that's where they are most valuable."

Spices Should Be Main Characters

"Rather than thinking of spices and herbs as an enhancing additive, Indian tradition views flavor as an essential defining quality," Jaisinghani writes in her book. Ultimately, this differs from the way many Americans think about food. "You'll often find people saying in the U.S., 'I really want to taste how that cauliflower tastes, I don't really want to mask it,'" she says. "Indians don't think like that. We don't coax flavors, we come with flavors—the spices are part of the fabric of the dish. Spices are a very essential part of adding flavor."

How to Start Adding More Spices to Your Meals

Start Small

If you don't frequently venture beyond salt and pepper, start small. "Pick three or four spices to start with," says Jaisinghani. Taste as you go and figure out which ones you like. Even just one spice can be enough on its own, she says: "When I get up in the morning, I'll boil water and I'll just throw in a piece of mace or cardamom—just one cardamom pod or the black part of a pod—and I'll pour boiling water over that."

Her cookbook, Masala, includes simple recipes like Spice-Infused Rice, Masala Popcorn, and Masala Chai, which are great dishes for those who are new to the world of spices.

Add Spice at Various Points

You might not realize that you can add spices at the beginning, middle, or end of the cooking process to create layers of flavor. "You can start from the beginning or you can finish a dish with spices," says Jaisinghani, noting that you can infuse rice or pasta water with a cinnamon stick, for example.

Try "Popping" Your Spices

Also called "tadka" in India, popping is briefly cooking or toasting a whole spice in oil until it (literally) makes a popping sound. "Popping is life changing," says Jaisinghani. "People that I've taught this to say that they use it every day. It's a very simple tempering or blooming of spices."

How to Pop Spices

To pop spices, heat oil until it's hot, but not smoking, and then add a small amount of whole spices like mustard, cumin, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, or kolanji (nigella) seeds. After a few minutes, the popping will begin—the seeds will make a popping sound and jump up in the pan. Turn off the heat as soon as you see smoke or they stop jumping; these spices can burn easily. You then add them to anything from rice to stew and soup (this is often the start of a curry).

How to Use Popped Spices

Jaisinghani once added popped cumin seeds to a friend's Thanksgiving butternut squash soup, a step that friend has followed ever since. "Popping takes almost anything to the next level," she says. She also recommends adding popped mustard seeds to a simple fettuccine alfredo, which "would just change the flavor completely."

Popping Whole Spices

Larger whole spices can also be popped. "When I'm making something like a meat stew, I'll take whole cardamom and cinnamon and cloves and quickly mash them with a mortar and pestle into smaller pieces," says Jaisinghani. "Then, I'll pop them and put that in some oil or ghee. I'll add onions (or whatever I'm adding after), and then my liquid. It will all cook together, and it's just the most wonderful way to import flavor into food."

masala spices laid out
Johnny Autry / Reprinted with permission from Masala: Recipes from India, the Land of Spices by Anita Jaisinghani.

Buy Whole Spices

Jaisinghani advises buying whole spices, simply because they last much longer than ground options. "Don't buy ground cumin or cinnamon or cardamom," she says. "And always buy whole cinnamon sticks. You can grind a little bit [at a time]." Another reason to buy whole spices? You know exactly what you're getting. Ground iterations, on the other hand, provide room for unwanted fillers, she says.

When stored properly—in a cool, dark, and dry place—non-aromatic whole spices can keep for several years, says Jaisinghani; freshly ground spices will last for about a month.

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