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Bina Mehta grew up in Mumbai, India, practicing Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medical system based on natural and holistic approaches to physical and mental health. But she didn’t think much of the traditions, which encompassed eating seasonally and using certain herbs and spices in cooking to achieve a mind-body balance, until she moved to the United States in 1973 with her husband. They settled in Fort Collins, where Indian cuisine was just beginning to gain popularity. That’s when Mehta began preparing dishes she ate growing up, which she made with as many traditional ingredients as she could find in Colorado, for houseguests.
“All the friends and family who used to come to my house when I used to cook with all these spices… They would say, “Oh my god, I feel so good about the food I eat when you cook it,” Mehta says. “That’s because spices can be packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients and have health-promoting properties. They can actually help your digestive tract and boost up your metabolism and digestion.”
The rave reviews led Mehta to deepen her studies of Ayurveda and Indian cooking. Now she is a certified Ayurvedic lifestyle consultant, cooking teacher, and author. In 2018, she released a book called Turmeric & Spice, which features some of her favorite tried-and-true recipes and guidance on using Indian ingredients. Soon after, she also released a line of custom spice blends sourced via Fort Collins’ Old Town Spice Shop. Customer favorites include her detoxification-promoting Maharani Masala; her cardamom- and saffron-tinged chai seasoning; and earthy and smoky cumin which Mehta hand-roasts.
Here, she shares some tips for working with Indian seasonings and a recipe for her Bombay Masala Fish. Order her book, which covers many of the topics featured below in more detail, and her spices online here.
Stock your pantry.
To build a library of versatile Indian spices, Mehta recommends acquiring these 10 essentials.
- Whole cumin seeds
- Whole mustard seeds
- Whole cloves
- Whole cinnamon sticks
- Whole cardamom pods
- Whole fennel seeds
- Coriander powder
- Red chile powder
- Turmeric powder
You don’t have to buy them all, but investing in a wide variety of spices—especially whole ones—enables you to craft your own blends and make a wide range of recipes, whether you’re craving creamy, tomato-based chicken tikka masala (a northern Indian dish) or herbaceous hariyali chicken kebabs (a roadside staple in Bombay).
Roast your spices.
If you’re working with whole spices such as coriander, cardamom, mustard seeds, and cloves, be sure to roast them on the stovetop or in the oven before grinding them. The heat extracts additional flavor, releases phytonutrients (antioxidants) and can help the spices keep for longer if stored properly. But be careful: They will turn bitter if you overcook them, so take them off the heat once they start to darken and become fragrant. If you want to skip this step, look for spices that are pre-roasted and ground. “Then you don’t have to worry about releasing the phytonutrients for health benefits,” Mehta says.
Look for the right blends.
If you’re seeking a shortcut, spice blends like Mehta’s (which come pre-roasted and ground) are also a convenient option. When buying products, Mehta says to keep in mind that the term “masala” broadly refers to a combination of spices used in a dish, and different blends have different flavors and uses. Indian curries can contain any number of spices and herbs, depending on the maker, and are not just made with the all-purpose powder sold at the grocery store, which was popularized by Westerners.
Also, adding spices to dishes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re increasing the heat level, and not all Indian food is meant to be fiery. “I was never raised [to eat something] that would hurt my tongue or my stomach. I was raised with flavorful, aromatic food that gets your juices going when you smell it,” Mehta says. “[The word] ‘spice’ doesn’t align with the spicy.”
Indian spices aren’t just for making Indian food. They can jazz up everything from pastas and vegetable dishes to casseroles and drinks. For example, Mehta likes to sprinkle her Maharani Masala, a blend of fennel, ginger, mango powder, and coriander, into pasta with alfredo sauce. Cumin—which is used in a variety of cuisines from Mexico to the Mediterranean—is a great addition to chilis and yogurt-based dips. She’s even used her chai spice blend, which is formulated for brewing tea, to season Brussels sprouts, French toast, and ice cream. “These spices are so versatile,” she says.
Buy (or make) some ghee.
Ghee—a staple of Indian cuisine and medicine—is produced by slowly heating unsalted cow’s milk to remove the water, a method that yields a subtly nutty cooking fat and condiment. The clarified butter has many potential health benefits beyond enhancing the flavor of food, according to Mehta, including dissolving toxins in the body, lubricating organs and joints, and aiding digestion. Mehta makes her own ghee (and you can, too, with her recipe) which she uses for sautéing, spreading on toast, and many other purposes. But the product is also available for sale at many local grocery stores. “It also has a very high smoke point and shelf life,” she says. “It can be stored at room temperature for years.”
Recipe: Bina’s Bombay Masala Fish
India is blessed with the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east, as well as many rivers, making fish a popular protein in many areas. Ayurvedic principles also promote fish as a lighter animal protein compared to poultry and red meat. This quick, easy, and delicious crowd-pleaser is the perfect dish for beginning cooks.
Serves 4 (3 to 4 ounces of fish per person)
½ cup onions, finely diced
¼ cup celery, finely diced
¼ cup bell peppers, finely diced
1 Tbs. salt (or to taste)
½ tsp. red chile powder
½ tsp. ground black pepper
1 Tbs. Bina Mehta’s Bombay Masala spice blend or tandoori masala powder
1 1/3 lbs. cod or other white fish
6 Tbs. ghee
4 Tbs. rice flour or arrowroot flour
4 cups fish or vegetable stock
½ chopped green onion, to garnish
- Dice the onions, celery, and bell peppers into small pieces, and set aside. In a small bowl, combine the salt, red chile powder, ground black pepper, and Bina Mehta’s Bombay Masala spice blend or tandoori masala powder.
- Cut the fish into even pieces about 6 inches wide. Sprinkle the spice mixture on both sides of the fish, and set aside.
- Heat the ghee on high in a flat, deep 16-inch skillet with a lid. Once the ghee is hot enough, it will turn clear. Add the onions, celery, and peppers to the hot ghee. Sauté for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent.
- Add the rice flour and stir to coat the vegetables. Add the fish or vegetable stock, and simmer for five minutes, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to medium-low.
- Immediately place fish pieces in the skillet with the vegetables and stock. Cover the skillet and simmer for about six to eight minutes without turning; the cook time depends on the thickness of the fish. Be careful to not overcook the fish.
- Garnish with the green onions and serve.
Read More: the Best Indian Food in Denver
18 of the Best Indian Restaurants on the Front Range
Love This, Eat That: What to Order at Indian Restaurants (Besides Tikka Masala)
Battle of the Indian Buffets: Himchuli vs. Little India
6 Denver-Area Eateries Slinging Divine Indian-Inspired Drinks
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Why You Shouldn’t Skip Dessert at Spice Room in Highlands