Punjabi Spices at The Dhaba

When thinking about seriously spiced food, Indian cuisine immediately comes to mind. Many other regions and cultures have local spice blends, like berbere in Ethiopia and five-spice powder in China, but in no other country do the spices rule the kitchen. Try to imagine an Indian dish that doesn't have spices. Not coming up with anything? There's good reason for that.

Spices are deeply embedded in Indian culture. They even played an instrumental role in India's economy. Since ancient times, people have made the long trek to India, lured by exotic spices. Remember Christopher Columbus? He accidentally discovered America while trying to find a quicker way to get to India's expensive, highly sought after spices. It's no stretch to say that Indians are proud of their spices, and that's pretty clear by their regular use of 10+ spices in a single recipe.

Trying to follow spices in an Indian kitchen can get complicated real fast, and it gets even more difficult when breaking apart the vast regional differences. We're lucky to have a few places in the Valley that specialize in regional Indian foods, helping diners delineate the many varieties of Indian food. Local favorite The Dhaba brings us Punjabi flavors from North India, including a lot of onion, garlic, and ginger. Punjabi is the most commonly served - and therefore most recognizable - type of Indian cuisine in the U.S. and U.K., so it's a great place to begin familiarizing yourself with Indian spices.

"Tandoori" is one of the words that sticks in everyone's mind after their first taste of Indian food. It's actually the name for the clay oven (tandoor) from which delicious baked chickens and other succulent meats emerge. The oven is also the reason why naan gets so crispy on the outside; the flatbread is stuck on the tandoor's clay sides to bake. However, Tandoori chicken and other tasty meats, like seekh kebab and prawns, cannot be made by simply tossing them in the magical oven. The Dhaba's Tandoori spice blend, for example, contains cumin, coriander, chili, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and more. Believe it or not, those seven spices are just the main flavors. For all of the spices it has, the flavor's not overpowering at all, making the Tandoori Khazana platter a great introduction to Indian spices for apprehensive taste buds.

Having so many spices in one dish makes it impossible to pinpoint how one spice's flavor affects the others. The point is not for the spices to stand out as individuals, but to instead work together like voices in a choir. The true wonder when a spice blend works is that, well, the flavors just seamlessly blend.

It's a lot tougher to achieve those results at home, especially since Indian cooks tend to eyeball rather than measure, but pre-made spice blends are readily available. Most grocery stores carry basic curry blends, and Indian specialty grocers, like the one conveniently located next to The Dhaba, will have a much larger selection to choose from. Keep in mind that there are no rules for a blend like garam masala, which just means "hot mixture," so all garam masalas won't necessarily have mace, cloves, and star anise, but using these blends is a good guarantee that the overall flavors will end up properly balanced.

Indian desserts tend to be fairly simple in comparison to curries and other savory dishes, sticking to one or two spices rather than a complex blend. Lots of Indian places will serve only three simple desserts: Gulab Jamun (small donut-like spheres doused in warm syrup), Kheer (rice pudding), and Kulfi (frozen treat similar to ice cream), but there are lesser known varieties that really highlight the spices. Rasmalai, a kind of cheese dumpling, is made by cooking fresh paneer with syrup in a pressure cooker. The dumplings are covered with a clotted cream that's flavored primarily with cardamom and sometimes saffron, and the dessert is finished with a garnish of pistachio. The final result is not very sweet and has rich yet delicate flavors.

Other spices to enjoy in authentic Punjabi style include coriander and a hint of black cardamom in Punjabi Chole (AKA Chana Masala) as well as ginger, cumin, and turmeric in Palak Paneer (a mild vegetarian dish starring cheese and spinach).

If you're dying to get some hands-on experience with Indian spices and Punjabi flavors but don't know where to start, contact the restaurant to ask about The Dhaba Cooking School's upcoming classes.

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Dominique Chatterjee