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Atta

This Indian-style whole-wheat flour milled to a fine, soft powder is used in chaptis, pooris and other traditional flatbreads. You can purchase atta from Indian markets, or mix equal amounts of whole-wheat flour and white flour together and use that mixture in its place. Western-style whole-wheat flour is a poor substitute for atta, since it is usually higher in gluten and always a much coarser grind. This makes for a very heavy bread in Indian-style recipes. A blend of whole-wheat and white flour works well in place of soft atta flour.


Cinnamon

Queen of the sweet spices, ,cinnamon has been treasured since biblical times for its inviting aroma and intense flavor. The petite, rust-colored scrolls of delicate bark come from a tropical evergreen tree in the laurel family that is cultivated in India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and the Seychelles. Cinnamon is used whole in Indian-style curries and pilafs to infuse a delicate level of seasoning and to provide visual pleasure. Cinnamon sticks are ground up into garam masala and other spice mixtures for savory South Asian dishes. To turn whole sticks, which are 3 or more inches long, into powder, wrap them in a tea towel and crush them with a kitchen mallet or unopened can. Then transfer the shards to a heavy mortar or a coffee grinder dedicated to spice grinding and grind to a fine powder.


Cloves

One of four essential ingredients in the traditional Indian spice mixture garam masala, cloves are tiny chocolate-brown spikes, known in Spanish as clavos, meaning “nails”. Extraordinarily aromatic and flavorful, they are tiny flower buds of a tropical evergreen tree, flourishing near the sea in Indonesia, Madagascar, Zanzibar and the West Indies. Cloves were valued in ancient China as well as in India. In Western kitchens, they perfume sweets and add flavor and beauty to baked ham. Harvested by hand just before they bloom, these tiny scepters infuse pilafs and curries with their robust flavor.


Fenugreek

This flat, squarish little spice is both a seed and a bean. In India, fenugreek is not only roasted and ground as a spice but also planted to produce edible greens that are eaten both raw and cooked. Sprouted fenugreek is good in salads. Fenugreek is a basic ingredient in curry powder, contributing its aroma and flavor. Known in Hindi as “methi”, whole fenugreek seeds are used extensively in traditional Indian kitchens, both for their flavor and as a source of protein and vitamins in vegetarian cuisine. The seeds are often dry-roasted or fried in oil briefly. This step tempers their flavor and enhances their nutty aroma.


Lemongrass

Shaped like sturdy, fibrous green onions, lemongrass grows in long, slender stalks endowed with a lemony flavor and scent. But whereas lemon is sharp-edged and brassy, lemongrass has a cool, soft, delicate citrus taste. Its grassy,pale-to-medium green tops grow out of a whitish, bulbous base with an interior purple tinge. A basic ingredient in Thai curry pastes, fresh lemongrass is increasingly available in supermarkets and farmer’s markets in the west, as well as in Asian markets. Even the freshest stalk is hard and fibrous by nature, so Asian cooks either grind it up into a paste or leave it in large chunks which infuse a soup but are not eaten. They sometimes slice it paper thin and mix it into a hearty salad.


Mace

Mace and nutmeg come from the peach-like fruit of a tropical evergreen. Mace is the bright red, lacy covering that encircles the nutmeg seed. Sometimes available dried whole, it is widely found in ground form. Its flavor is similar to nutmeg, though not the same. It has savory uses in India, France and Britain, though its most common use in the West is in sweets.


Palm Sugar

Boiled down from the sap of either the palmyra/toddy palm or the coconut palm, palm sugar and coconut sugar come to market in Thailand in huge tins called beep, earning both these sugars the name “nahm tahn beep“.

Interchangeable in recipes, they are used to sweeten or simply for balance and complexity in the seasoning of many savory Thai dishes. Brown sugar is typical in the North, where sugar-cane thrives and palm trees and scarce. White granulated sugar is a staple in every kitchen and on noodle shop tables. Either makes a decent substitute for palm sugar. Palm sugar’s texture and color vary from a lusciously thick pale and shiny paste resembling solidified honey, to hard, plump little cakes that can be broken up and chopped or crushed down to a powdery, measurable state. If palm sugar hardens in the jar, microwave gently to soften it.


Tamarind

Crescent-shaped pods of tamarind fruit dangle from huge hardwood trees throughout Southeast Asia. Tamarind liquid is made by soaking ripe tamarind pulp and pressing it through a strainer to create a thick, luscious puree which is earthy brown, smoky, sour and sweet. Taste it right away, noting its flavor–then you can stir in sugar to balance a batch after a few days, since it sharpens with time. I keep a batch covered and refrigerated for up to a week. Its color enhances paht thai, among other dishes. Indian-style tamarind chutney is an excellent substitute; or stir together equal parts of soy sauce, sugar, and lime juice or white vinegar.