THREE SPICE MAGIC
I know people can get intimidated and overwhelmed by the amount of spices there are in South Asian cuisine, but I want to take it back to the basics so you can begin your cooking journey merrily and with a clear mind. Now what I’m about to say may be controversial and may be specific to Pakistani cuisine, I actually don’t know. But in my opinion and from my experience, I’m going to say you only need these three spices to start: chili powder, paprika and turmeric.
And that is it. I want to keep this really simple for beginners. You can start to add other spices into your cooking as you practice and if they're needed for a specific reason/ flavor. But for now, these three are your core spices and going to be your best friends. Go forth and add them to your cart.
Now a brief explanation of The Magic Three (a name I totally made up).
South Asian food is most known for its HEAT. The first thing that comes to mind is the spiciness when you think of Indian and Pakistani food. And so the chili powder is there for the heat. You can use as little or as much as you want depending on your tolerance, or skip it completely if it's for kids or someone who can’t have chili. I have found that the heat level varies between brands so be careful when using a new packet/brand i.e. a teaspoon of one particular chili powder brand may be so much more spicier than another. I buy mine from Indian/Pakistani stores as I found the chili powder is hotter than the ones I was getting from mainstream supermarkets.
The main purpose of paprika in Pakistani food is for the red color it brings (source: my mum). I think it has a level of heat and sweetness, I literally just tasted some while writing this just to understand why we use it. It’s tricky to describe its flavor and purpose in depth and if someone else knows, do let me know in the comments. But I know for sure that South Asian food would not taste the same without it, it brings such a specific flavor and such a gorgeous color. And just a heads up, sweet or smoked paprika don’t really work in Pakistani cooking, I’ve accidentally used it and it did not taste right.
Turmeric powder is used in South Asian cooking for its distinct flavor and its lovely yellow/orange color. It’s traditionally used for pain and inflammation and I think its meant to counteract the effects of the chili? Its flavor a little bitter, and tastes a bit like black pepper, again I just tried some while writing this. Like the paprika, South Asian food would not taste and look the same without the turmeric powder.
As well as the chili powder, I also buy my turmeric and paprika from South Asian stores as I find they’ll have a slightly different flavor and deeper colors than what you’d find in mainstream stores.
And that’s it, those are the three spices I’ll advise to invest in if you want to start making South Asian food, and it might be that you have these in your pantry already so you’re good to go! Happy Cooking!