Know your spices!


Hey, you! Yeah, you. Why do you do it? You know what I’m on about. Why do you put turmeric in your chicken noodle soup? Or cumin on your pork chops? Wait, you don’t? Oh…well you should!

For thousands of years, humans have been using natural resources for many reasons. From lighting a fire to cooking food. When it comes to spices, the world is full of flavour. Our ancestors have given us an amazing palate; they have introduced so many bombsauce flavours into our lives. So, this is post is to them. If only they knew what this was…

Around 2000BC, spices were traded in the Middle East, Eastern and Southern Asia, predominantly trading cinnamon, pepper and herbs. This wasn’t bought nor used purely for cooking, however. Spices were used for a range of other procedures, including embalming. However, eventually someone decided it belongs in food and the rest is history. NOT. Ok, it is. NOT. I’ll stop now.

I’m going to give you the load-down on a few of my favourite spices/flavours and tell you why they are so special. I may update this in the near future with my other favourites, but for now – here we go.



I have a problem with turmeric. I can’t stop using it; there is nothing like it. It’s like a mound of pure gold, in my eyes. Turmeric has a warming, peppery, earthy essence to it. Due to its vibrant golden colour, not only is it used to flavour food, but it is also used to colour food, naturally. Raw turmeric comes from a plant called Curcuma longa and it’s related to the ginger family. Before it was used in food preparation, it was recognised for its medicinal purposes. Ayurveda, an Indian practice of traditional medicine, hailed the use of turmeric for a range of infections and diseases – including shingles, eczema, gastrointestinal disease and liver disorders. More recent studies have discovered that a substance in turmeric, called curcumin, has shown evidence of protecting colon cells from free radicals which can damage cellular DNA, particularly important as the colon has a rapid cell turnover.

Growing up, I have always watched my Mum and Grandmother wash fish and meat in turmeric. My Mother told me that turmeric was antimicrobial, but I never believed her. How wrong was I? There have been so many studies proving the antimicrobial activity of turmeric/Curcuma longa/curcumin. So, next time, try a little turmeric in your food. Not only will you benefit from a gorgeous ray of yellow colouring, but apparently it’s not that bad for you either.

Selecting and storing: The colour of turmeric is not a criterion for its quality. Different plants in different regions will produce different colours. Turmeric powder should be kept in an airtight container, however fresh turmeric rhizome should be kept in the refrigerator.

By the way, turmeric stains. If you end up with yellow hands and find a yellow stain on your clothes, don’t blame me. You should have worn an apron. Your hands will wash off, don’t worry.



My life. I have black pepper on everything. If I could put it on my cereal, I would. Black pepper is an amazing spice, it has such a strong, robust, definitive flavour. Native to the Western Ghats of Kerala (India), black pepper was distributed to Southeast Asia through Hindu colonists, migrating from India to Indonesia and other countries. Being one of the most traded commodities of the spice trade, it has the longest history of export – dating back at least 4000 years! Traditional medicine limited the medicinal properties of black pepper to only digestive disorders, however we’re in the cool era and modern medicine has shown its benefits to not only digestion, but also to help with cigarette withdrawal, sore throats, diabetes, blood circulation, vertigo and gastrointestinal diseases. Do you see why I love it so much? I can’t contain my excitement *throws whale at window*.

Selecting and storing: Freshly ground pepper is always a must. Grind it yourself, if you can. You’ll enjoy it much more. Whole peppercorns kept in an airtight container will keep forever. Powdered black pepper will keep for about 3 months. Organically grown black pepper is never irradiated, therefore it retains its natural levels of vitamin C.

(no animals were harmed during the writing of this post…)



I never really appreciated cinnamon until very recently. I now can’t have french toast without homemade cinnamon sugar. The Egyptians used cinnamon (and a related spice called cassia) to perfume embalming projects. It can’t have been too bad smelling of cinnamon rolls. Cinnamon is even mentioned in the Old Testament as an ingredient in anointing oil. Arab traders brought the spice to Europe and it was a hit amongst the wealthy. Also, according to legends, Roman emperor Nero burned as much cinnamon as he could find on the funeral pyre of his second wife to atone his role in her death. Tut tut, bad Nero. You can’t kill someone and then burn some cinnamon to make yourself feel better. Silly Nero.

Today, we are showcased two types of cinnamon – Ceylon and cassia cinnamon (also known as Chinese cinnamon). Cassia cinnamon is predominantly found in Indonesia and it has a stronger flavour than Ceylon cinnamon, however it is the cheaper cinnamon out of the two. This is typically what you will find at your local supermarket. Ceylon cinnamon, which is mostly produced in Sri Lanka, has a sweeter flavour and is used in baking and hot drinks. But why is cinnamon so fantastic? It has unique healing properties which are found in its essential oils, when in bark form. The active components of these oils are cinnamaldehyde, cinnamyl acetate and cinnamyl alcohol. These substances are very beneficial in its anti-clotting and anti-microbial properties, as well as helping control diabetes and improving brain function. Bet you want some soft French toast now. With cinnamon sugar. Yes you do, don’t lie. I’m psychic, I know. It’s all that cinnamon I’ve been eating.

Selecting and storing: The more “red” in colour the cinnamon stick is, the stronger the flavour will be. When I say red, I don’t mean McDonalds red, nor do I mean blood red. If it looks more like a darker brown, than a light dusty brown, then it’s probably worth a buy. If you store both the sticks and powder in airtight containers, they will last you years! Cinnamon powder will last up to 3 years and cinnamon sticks can last up to 4 years. If either fades in colour, dispose of them. They’ve lost its flavour and, well, it’s just a waste of money.



Cumin is nice. The end. JUST KIDDING! Cumin is a deliciously nutty spice. Though it was originally cultivated in Iran and other Mediterranean countries, archaeological sites have shown its presence in ancient Egyptian sites. Today, it is grown in China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Mexico, Chile and India. It, as many spices do, has a mass of benefits; immune system regularity, cancer prevention (it’s an anti-carcinogenic) and good digestion – to name a few.

Selecting and storing: It’s best to buy whole cumin seeds and grind them yourself, rather than buy the powder. Cumin powder loses its flavour quickly so you’re just sprinkling mildy-flavoured dust really. Does dust taste nice? Does it?

If you have any concerns over spices, talk to it. It listens and sometimes it’ll behave. Just kidding! If you do have any concerns, speak to your doctor or pharmacist. Please do not eat something and say ninjaeatsfood told you to do so. Though natural foods shouldn’t disturb your body, allergies do exist. So that’s my precaution to you. Get tested, speak to your doctor or pharmacist if you want to, and get in the kitchen! Not because you’re a woman…I’m a woman and I wouldn’t say…*sigh* I’ll stop.

Have fun cooking!


Hyderabadi Chicken Biryani – simplified!

Fancy it up with some lemon and mint leaves!

So simple, yet full of flavour!

In the past, making biryani was a big no-no. Why? Because there is so much that usually goes in to it. The Mughal Emperor’s cooks created this dish for their men, as it had the meat, rice and spices that would be expected in a meal, but in one dish. Back then, it probably consisted more of mutton, but chicken was primarily adopted when the dish arrived in India. It is so versatile – you can have anything in it; fish, lamb, prawns, vegetables etc. It is such an underrated, beautiful dish that embodies such aromatic flavour. But nowadays, you can get it for as little as £2.00 a portion. I never had the time to make it properly; mainly because I didn’t have  the appropriate cooking equipment needed.  However, I do not need to! Why? Oh, you ask so many questions! I’ll tell you anyway – the recipe I’m about to tell you is so much more simplified without withdrawing from the flavour of a true biryani! Yes, you can find packet biryani mix out in Asian shops, but that’s not the real deal. This is.

Now, I would usually list the ingredients down first before explaining the method, but I’m not going to this time. I’m going to explain how to cook this deliciousness, together with what is need and how much of it. If I list the ingredients first, you’ll be overwhelmed. But once you see how simple it is, you’ll understand. Trust me on this one!

So, here we go:

First, you need to get a pan of water to the boil. Into this water, you need to add an Indian bouquet garni. What’s this? It’s simple, that’s what it is. All you need is a small cheese cloth/muslin cloth and place 3 black cardamoms, 6 green cardamoms, 10 cloves, pinch of around 7-10 peppercorns, 3 bay leaves and a stick of cinnamon. Tie it up and that is your Indian bouquet garni. Throw this into the water that you’re trying to bring up to a boil and also add 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds and 1 teaspoon of salt  into the water. Not into the bouquet garni.

Next, you need to soak some rice. Now, it is so important to use good quality rice. The rice is going to embody the full flavour of the marinated chicken, spices and herbs so it needs to be top-notch. I tend use some good basmati rice. Soak about 1 and a half cups of basmati rice in anything but hot water, for 20 minutes. Think of this as preparing the rice to capture those flavours!

Now we can marinate the chicken to make it succulent and yum! I normally use a whole chicken and cut it myself, but you might not want to do that yourself. You can find pre-cut chicken virtually anywhere – but make sure it’s with the bone, and not boneless. There is so much flavour to chicken on the bone and it almost has a stock-like effect on the biryani. If you can’t stomach chicken on the bone, you can opt for boneless chicken, but really try to buy it on the bone.

You want to place this chicken, along with the following ingredients, into a pan that can go on the stove. The pan needs to be large enough to contain all of the biryani in it; you’re going to cook the whole shabang in this pan. Now with this chicken in the pan, you need to add the following. It may seem like a lot, but it’s so worth it! Add in 2 tablespoons of ginger and garlic paste, 1 tablespoon of red chilli powder, salt according to your taste, 1 cup of thick yoghurt, 1 teaspoon of garam masala, 1 teaspoon of green cardamom powder, brown (fried and cooled) onions, 4 teaspoons of ghee, 2 tablespoons of freshly chopped coriander, 10-12 mint leaves and finally (!) 2 broken green chillies. A few things about the ingredients just listed – it is vital that the yoghurt is thick. It makes such a difference to the tenderness of the chicken. The onions – that’s optional, but it makes it yummy. Just fry some onions in any oil (except olive oil) until they are very brown. Drain away any excess oil and let it sit to cool down. All the spice powders can be found in most Asian shops. It also adds to the authenticity! Mix the chicken with the listed ingredients until it is well incorporated. Then add 1 teaspoon of turmeric and the juice of one lemon and mix again. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes.

The rest is easy now.

When the water starts boiling (not rapidly, but starting to), add the rice. Keep stirring the rice once you have added it in so it cooks evenly. We only want the rice to be cooked 3/4 of the way, not fully. If we cook it fully, then the biryani will be mushy and soggy. You can tell when the rice is 3/4 cooked by the way it feels. It almost crumbles in your hand when you try to squeeze it. Just take a few grains and see how it feels. Cooking is all about intuition 😉

Once the rice is 3/4 cooked, layer half of it onto the marinated chicken. Don’t worry too much about the water that sneaks in with the rice, it’ll only add moisture. Just try to get rid of as much as you can. On top of the rice, sprinkle coriander, mint, brown onions, garam masala powder, saffron soaked in milk, a little more ghee and green cardamom powder. Then add the rest of the rice on top. Straining the second batch of rice will probably help. You can throw away the bouquet garni; we’ve stolen all its flavour XD

Now put the pan on a medium flame. The lid needs to create an air-tight effect. If the lid of your chosen pan is a little loose, make a simple flour dough (flour and water) and stretch it around the top of your pan and close the lid tight. This should help build up steam and heat within, to add to the moisture of the biryani.

After about 15 minutes, you should see steam escape from the top. This means it’s ready! Once you see this steam, lower the flame and keep it on for another 5-8 minutes.

Ta da! All done. I know, it seems like a lot. But when you actually get to trying it out for yourself, you’ll see how easy it really is!

Until next time, have an awesomesauce day!