Growing up, I always had trouble in understanding ingredients forget cooking with one. I knew nothing about cooking and would hardly enter the kitchen. All the spices in the rack looked similar to me except the one, which Mom used more often than others. It somehow used to stand out in the rack and looked different from the others. Eventually, I became familiar with the spice mix and learnt that it is a must-have spice mix in almost every Bengali kitchen.
Panch Phoron – it’s a mix of five aromatic spices – fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds, cumin seeds, radhuni and fenel seeds. It works wonderfully to flavor the dish. It’s used for tampering and goes very well with lentils, vegetable stir-fries, pickles and at times, even with meat.
Panch is five and Phoron is tampering and that’s how the name came up. I guess!
Mom uses this spice a lot and for certain dishes like a traditional Bengali shukto, without panch phoron, the dish would feel incomplete. I never knew why until I started using it and realized how beautifully all these five spices blend together adding a warm flavor to the dish.
Fenugreek Seeds (Methi)
These looks like tiny stones, hard with a nutty flavor. It has a pungent smell, incredibly aromatic and tastes slight bitter. Always use in less quantity as it can overpower any other flavor you use in a dish. It helps the digestive system and fights infection. I adore Fenugreek leaves, both fresh and dried, but seeds are not in my favorite spice list for sure.
Nigella Seeds (Kalo Jira or Kalonji)
These black rough textured seeds have a lovely peppery taste. To bring out the flavor, it’s always advised to toast it slightly before adding it to any dish. They sure do look a lot like black onion seeds and can be easily confused with it. However, they’re not the same. This article by Monica would help you clear any doubts about these seeds.
Cumin Seeds (Jeera)
This is probably one of the most commonly used spices. I always prefer to dry roast it in a pan which evaporates the moisture and gives it a more powerful flavor. It is very widely used in Indian dishes and goes excellent with lentils, beans and curries of any kind. It’s also a great digestive aid.
I have no clue what’s this called in English or in Hindi! It’s one of those very rare spices, which are commonly used in most Bengali cuisines. It has a very strong flavor, a pungent spicy taste and can be easily confused with celery seeds or carom seeds (ajwain). Texture wise it’s softer than ajwain and celery seeds. I find it very difficult to find Radhuni outside Kolkata! Hence, I sometime replace them with mustard seeds or celery seeds.
Update: As per wiki, it’s called wild celery seeds in English and ajmod in hindi. Wonder why I never checked that!! Now, I need to find some wild celery.
Fennel Seeds (Saunf or Mouri)
Mom would always dry roast these in pan and serve it as a mouth freshener after a heavy meal. It helps in booting digestion! Just chew the seed and enjoy its sweet taste. It’s pale green in color and looks somewhat similar to cumin seeds. This is yet another spice that we use a lot in Bengali cuisine.
Finely or coarsely crushed Panch Phoron is also used in certain dishes however, I always prefer to use the whole spice mix.