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Saffron

saffron250px IMG 1742Saffron is the dried stigma of Crocus sativus, an autumn-flowering plant. More than 75,000 crocus blossoms are needed to produce a pound of saffron. It is very expensive but, fortunately, a little goes a long way. It adds a rich golden colour to rice dishes. Saffron is sold as the whole stigmas, wiry strands or threads in a deep vibrant, orange or red colour. It should have a strong, penetrating, clinging aroma, and an aromatic, warm rich flavour.

Saffron supplies the characteristic flavour and colour in Indian dessert sauces and milk puddings. Steep the stigmas in water for a few minutes before using them to extract as much as possible of their flavour.

Store wrapped in Cellophane in an airtight container away from sunlight for 2 months. Buy small quantities as it loses its flavour quickly

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Curry Leaves

curryleaves250px IMG 1831Curry leaves lend a lingering aroma to the dish, and are discarded before serving. They come from the curry plant, a shrub native to India and Sri Lanka. They are slender, dark green and similar to a small, narrow bay leaf.

The leaves smell fresh and pleasant, remotely reminiscent of tangerines, and add an aromatic curry flavour to any dish. They are the trademark of southern Indian cooking, used to flavour meat, fish, vegetables, lentils, rice and bread. They are also used in preparing Madras curry powders.

If you cannot get hold of fresh curry leaves, try the dried variety. You can buy either from Asian shops.

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Peppercorns

peppercorns250px IMG 1731Native to India, the peppercorn is the king of spices. Black peppercorns are the fermented green berries of a perennial vine plant, piper nigrum, sun-dried to turn them black and hard. Green, white and pink peppercorns are from the same plant as the black variety, picked at varying stages of ripeness. Black peppercorns should be large, even in size and a deep rich brown. They smell earthy, warm and pungent. Their flavour is released on grinding and enhanced by heat. However, once ground, the volatile oils soon evaporate so add pepper towards the end of cooking.

Good-quality black peppercorns will keep for many years in a cool dark place in an airtight container.

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Coriander Leaves

A herb in the parsley family, similar to anise. The leaves come from the young plant, Coriandrum sativum, and look similar to flat-leaf parsley, but are thinner and lighter green. They are sold in bunches in Asian shops, and smell fruity and vibrant. They have a distinct, strong flavour, of ginger and citrus. You can use the stems as well as the leaves in Indian dishes, but make sure you wash them thoroughly first to get rid of any grit. They feature in curries chutneys, soups, sandwich spreads and relishes.

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Cinnamon

cinnamon250px IMG 1775The peeled and curled inner bark from the slim young stems of a tropical evergreen tree of the laurel family. Cinnamon has a sweet, woody fragrance, either ground or whole. When it is broken or ground, the volatile oils are released giving off their warm, sweet, aromatic and pungent flavours.

Cinnamon is used in cakes and desserts throughout the world. Its sweet-spicy flavour enhances vegetables and fruit and is an important ingredient in garam masala.

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