Executive Chef at A Ta Maison, Private Members Club in New Delhi
To middle age Europe, the spicy East was exotic and alluring. The unique aromas and tastes of Indian spices fueled annexation contests between the French, the English and the Dutch to gain control of trade and politics in India. It will not be an exaggeration to say that spices were the reason that Europeans began colonizing parts of India and the Americas.
My experience and training in Western cuisine tells me that most of it relies on pairing ingredients that share similar flavour compounds. On the other hand, what makes Indian so flavorful is the practice of bringing together lots of different ingredients with completely different flavours.
The effects of the desire for aromatic materials that added extra flavour to otherwise bland European food (as well as helped cure and preserve the meats) are actually at the core of way trade is done even today!
In France, it is reported that taxes, ransoms, or customs dues were sometimes paid in spices. Guillaume Taillevent listed ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves (among others) as necessary in a respectable kitchen.
The French, with their delicately flavoured cuisine, have a lot to thank India for. Five spices that French cooking depends greatly on, top the list.
The Spice Box
Various professional and domestic kitchens in France are heady with the aromas of Indian spices and curries. A lot of my own dishes marry these global elements. I use a lot of nutmeg and cinnamon in my dishes.
These spices have been around for hundreds of years. With the start of colonisation and the advent of the spice trade, these spices found their way into the European market and eventually the French palate. Here are some spices that are adding flavour to modern European cuisine, and ones that I love experimenting with:
- Star Anise
The French make use of spices like mint, vanilla, and cinnamon in preparing fruit desserts and sauces to serve with them. In fact, even while serving fruits, these spices are used generously. Star anise is used in curry powder and in alcohols and liqueurs, such as Vermouth and Marie Brizard. I normally use star anise in quince pies and to delicately flavour pork, at times. I also use it in light stocks and Nage to impart its unique flavour to it.
While French dishes employ cinnamon in their interpretations of Indian dishes such as kebabs and some south-India-inspired stews, the spice is mostly used to add that sweeter flavour to baking and flavouring hot drinks such as coffee or hot chocolate. The warm sweet flavour makes it a popular ingredient in French food, especially desserts. From rich mousse to juicy tarte tatin, the delicacies of the French dessert cart are incomplete without this warm spice. Cinnamon blends very well in desserts with fruits especially apple and berries!
- Fresh green Peppercorns
Pepper was indubitably the most prized spice and it remains so, even now, gracing tables as a seasoning and as an ingredient for entrees. Pepper was so valuable that it was often used as collateral or even currency. Poivre Vert – or green peppercorns – picked before they ripen – are usually pickled in brine. This imparts a very light and mild – almost herbal – flavour to the pepper, which is far less pungent. Green Peppercorns are added to spice up strong sauces with steaks or in a meunière type preparation! I cannot imagine my Steak Au Poivre – without these fresh green peppercorns.
In France during the middle ages, it was sacrilege to make French Country Sausages without nutmeg. Nutmeg was initially used to cure and preserve red meat. But the warm upliftment it provided to the dishes made it a mandatory ingredient for several beef and pork dishes. Be it beef, lamb or pork, nutmeg takes the food to another level. In fact, nutmeg is not discriminatory towards vegetarian French cuisine. While the natural flavor of the vegetables remains intact, nutmeg adds a nutty and woody taste to aubergines, shallots and so on.
Béchamel sauce, one of the ‘mother sauces’ of French cuisine cannot be made without nutmeg. Nutmeg is also used extensively in desserts and light savoury food. I always add small dash in spinach sautéed in nutty butter which is an all time favourite side dish!
Cardamom has a strong flavour, but when used sparingly, it can add subtle undertones to food and enhance their appeal. I particularly enjoy making a cardamom Creme Brûlée , the cooked custard nicely compliments the cardamom flavour!