The Daily Grind

One of my biggest challenges to cooking Indian food, surprisingly enough, has been to do with grinding spices. Wet or dry grinding is a staple with Indian spieces. This may not sound like much of a challenge but it's huge. To start with, the quantity problem; most appliances (such as coffee grinders) are suited for larger quantities (such as handful of coffee beans). That's enough ground spice to run a restaurant. You can't simply grind a large quantity and store it for later use - many spices will rapidly deteriorate into sawdust (and the ones that don't - duh - you can buy those pre-ground). The other problem is the blending of those strong spice smells; Coffee grinders are meant to grind the same thing over and over again, while an average Indian meal may require you to grind some ten different spices in one meal, and they should not all end up smelling of each other. To top it all off, coffee grinders cannot be washed. The best you can do is wipe them with a wet cloth, a feeble gesture that makes only a small dent in the wondorous odors of some of the stronger condiments. Individual spice mills are easily available options, but can quickly become very expensive. They can't accommodate more than one spice, so you're going to need a lot of them if that's your only option. I use them for really frequently ground spices, such as cardamom or roast cumin (they dont grind cinammon sticks very well). A much better option is decidedly low-tech - the humble but very versatile mortar and pestle. These things are easy to wash between grinds, and are outrageously good for small quantities. A good one should have bulk and be sufficiently rough inside for fine grinding. Not to forget entirely about the coffee grinder alternative, though. Many spices - cumin, poppyseed or mustard, for example - are tough to grind in a mortar but do wonderfully well in a coffee grinder. What to look for are blades that are really close to the bottom, so that there isn't much space below the blade for these small seeds to hide. Some of them have as much as 1/2 inch of space below the blade, and that's a lot for a spice. The one I've had the most success with is Krup's small, inexpensive model whose are blades nearly flush with the bottom. Wet grinding is a far bigger challenge. India sells that wondorous device called a wet grinder, but I never did find one in the United States. Coffee grinders will short out (dont try it). Blenders, unfortunately, won't do in many situations. They work well only if the contents are fluid enough to keep sliding to the bottom - like coconuts or onions. For spice pastes, however, that's far too much liquid. Just as troublesome are bigger wet things like mint leaves or green chillies, where no water should be added at all - I want a thick smooth paste, not a milkshake. Also, blend blenders with small quantities and all you get is a nice splatter pattern along the sides. I do use the coffee-grinder for ginger and garlic; they're wet but not so much as to cause trouble, and a nice smooth paste comes out. Some spices you can dry-grind and then mix in a bowl with a little with water to form a smooth paste. I use this for cumin, coriander, mustard, poppyseed or dry red chillies, but it doesn't work for every thing. Dont try it with nuts such as almonds or cashew; the results are patchy at best. So what's the answer? A bald wondercook friend of mine had the best one. He'd sautee the onions first (pretty much every Indian curry requires onions). Then, he'd put the onions along with whatever was to be pasted into the blender and blend the whole thing. The onions have enough volume and juice that everything comes out nice and paste. Sure, you're going to have to be smart about quantities (measurements in the recipe will usually be given for the paste, not the whole) but that will come with a few tries. And, of course, you can buy bottled pastes of much of the standard stuff - ginger, garlic, green chillies. They're distinctly inferior to fresh paste, but work in a pinch (just remember that they already have salt in them). Tamarind the bottled version is quite up to scratch, and almond (or cashew) butter is a good substitute for almond (or cashew) paste.

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