I just wanted to get that song stuck in your head. Mine is an evil laugh.
When I was growing up the only time I was ever really aware of the existence of spices was during the holidays. Cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger were brought out for cookies, pies, cider, and candle scents; the rest of the year our meals were mostly flavored by herbs, all dried, mostly parsley and oregano.
This is not to malign my mom's cooking--she's a great cook--but American food, focused as it is primarily on meat and dairy and processed vegetables from the post-WWII era of "canned goods will set you free!", simply doesn't have a whole lot of flavoring except salt (tons of salt) and fat (mostly bits of pig). The only "ethnic" cuisine we consumed was Tex-Mex, which is how I developed my deep and abiding love of cumin.
I imagine that part of the reason for the lack of spices in typical American fare is that, at least in the South, a lot of our ancestors were from Europe, and spices simply do not grow there (or here). Chili peppers, allspice berries, and vanilla are the only widely used spices I can think of offhand of that are indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, and this was before the European Powers that Be thought of heading west. (Even if they had, white people once tended to be scared of chili peppers, you can't really put vanilla in a sausage, and nobody really knows what to do with allspice.) Hence, the conversation:
European Powers-that-Be: Man, our food sucks. Anyone know how to find India?
Explorers: What's in it for us?
PTB: You'll get to bore the shit out of fifth-grade history students...and there's pepper!
Explorers: Throw in a free boat and you've got a deal.
The PTB weren't only after flavor, of course; spices also were (and still are) reputed to possess myriad health and spiritual benefits. Nutmeg, for example, was thought to cure the plague, and just about every spice has been known as an aphrodisiac at some point or another and human beings, regardless of culture or creed, are serious about getting it on.
For culinary purposes, if you use the leafy part of the plant to flavor food, that plant is called an herb; if any other part (seeds, pods, rhizomes, bark) is used, it's called a spice. Coriander seed, for example, grows into the plant whose leaves we call cilantro; then there are plants like nutmeg, which are two spices in one, as the outer membrane of the nutmeg has a different flavor and is known as mace.
Even nowadays, when culinary eclecticism has reached a fever pitch (I myself make hummus quesadillas and curried potato burritos on a regular basis), there are a great many spices that Westerners are, unfortunately, strangers to. Spices are expensive precisely because they only grow in limited areas and, unlike herbs, usually cannot be used straight from the plant. Ginger is a notable exception, but most spices, like cardamom, and anise, all have to be dried and in some cases, like "green" peppercorns, brined. Vanilla in particular goes through a lengthy harvesting and curing process that accounts for its price tag. Luckily with most spices less is more. Using too much of any one spice will overwhelm a dish.
It's no surprise, then, that the people of India and other areas where spices originated are alchemists in the art of flavor. The term "curry," for example, refers to a particular type of dish, while "masala" (as in garam masala) is a blanket term for a mixture of spices that varies from region to region and even house to house in the Subcontinent. Each family passes down its recipe, and the idea of premade curry powder is virtually unknown, as cooks add pinches and dashes of individual spices to create layers of tastes that blend together seamlessly.
I've only been studying Indian cuisine for about a year, but it absolutely fascinates me, particularly the use of spices and herbs. I can definitely taste a difference in my cooking when I use the knowledge I've gained from reading up on Indian food and trying out the techniques. If nothing else, paying more attention to your spicing means that you devote more energy and care to your food, and that's a good thing in our convenience-crazed world. Not to mention that when you don't eat meat or dairy, it becomes even more important to learn to season well, as you can't rely on animal flavors to drown out all the subtleties of the veggies in a dish.
Here are a few pointers I've gathered, along with a couple of recommended reads on the subject.
- Buy whole spices when you can and grind them yourself. Whole spices will last (in airtight containers away from direct heat or light) for a good two years, but once they're ground they release their volatile oils, and the flavor goes flat in six months or less. Don't believe me? Take one of those crappy jars of ground cinnamon and compare the scent to a stick you smash with a hammer.
- When it comes to grinding, I prefer to have an electric coffee mill dedicated to spices rather than using a mortar and pestle, because I get a finer and more uniform grind without giving straining my wrists. Hint: unless you get a mill with a metal bowl, do not use the same mill for grinding coffee. Plastic absorbs oils from the spices and will never stop smelling like them, so unless you like turmeric spiked coffee, keep the grinders separate.
- One of the most important techniques in Indian cooking is frying spices; there are two basic methods, dry frying and oil frying. They're what they sound like. In the first you toast the spices in a pan without oil, moving them pretty constantly until they just barely start to change color. In the second you do the same, but in the oil you plan to cook with, infusing the oil with the spices as well as toasting them. Either way, a good rule of thumb is to stop frying when the mustard seeds are popping. (Also, get a splatter screen.)
- I prefer to avoid cheesecloth bags and spice balls because they don't allow the whole pods/seeds to circulate throughout a dish, but they do eliminate the need to pluck whole cardamom pods from your food before serving.
- I don't care how authentic it is--never, ever cook with asafetida. Just take my word on it. Few things in this world stink like that. Dear god.
The Flavor Bible by Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg - I admit I haven't read this one yet, but it's high up on my wish list. The book allows you to look for complimentary spices for various ingredients and dishes.
Laxmi's Vegetarian Kitchen - an older book with a lot of great recipes and, more importantly, techniques for using spices. Also includes handy information about Indian dining etiquette.
Herbs and Spices: the Cook's Reference, edited by Jill Norman - absolutely gorgeous interior photography and a comprehensive reference guide.Websites Slashfood's articles on Spices