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I Spice: Paanch phoron

Paanch phoron: You don't need much. (Suresh Hinduja)

If there is one spice mix that I constantly run out of, it is paanch phoron. Native to Bengal in eastern India, this five-spice mix is amazingly fragrant, flavorful and super-simple to use.

First, that incredible aroma that arises when the spice mix is sizzled in hot oil: It's as if someone took maple syrup and spiced it up with dashes of toasty cumin. Why? Because one of the most aromatic parts of this mix is fenugreek, and guess what fenugreek smells like? Maple syrup, I swear. Fenugreek is the star of this mix, but the other spices play wonderfully complementary roles: The cumin's smokiness sets off the fennel seed's sweetness, while both are countered by the nigella and mustard seeds' gentle bitterness. Sounds magical, doesn't it?

"It isn't about the individual spices," says Suresh Hinduja, a restaurant consultant who operates, which is dedicated to discussing the nuances of Indian food. "The sum is better than the parts."

Traditionally, paanch phoron is made up of equal portions of the aforementioned spices, with one exception: Because one of the components, radhuni, is so rare, brown mustard seeds are usually substituted.

The mix finds a home in eastern Indian fish curries, vegetable sautes and lentils. When used whole, it is generally heated in oil first, which allows the spices to release their wonderful flavors and aromas, and then the rest of the ingredients are added. When it is used ground, it is generally dry roasted first and then used as a rub.

Recipe Included

You can prepare your own paanch phoron by mixing equal quantities of the spices and storing it in an airtight jar, or you can purchase a premixed spice packet at your local Indian grocer. I buy mine from Aditi Spice Depot in Vienna (next door to Aditi Bistro), and I can honestly say that I have probably single-handedly made it into their best-selling spice mix. Of course, I'm not the only cook who's in love with it; when cooking teacher Pritha Mehra took part in a Food section farmers-market challenge a couple of years ago, she praised it as one of her go-to shortcuts for quick Indian dishes.

Hinduja suggests these uses for the spice mix:

  • Sauté the mix for a minute or so in a little oil, butter or ghee at a low temperature to avoid making the fenugreek bitter. Then add vegetables, lentils, fish, chicken or whatever it is you are preparing and continue with the recipe.
  • For additional flavor, sauté a bit of the spice mix in fat as above, set some aside, use it in the beginning as indicated, then spoon the reserved spices over the final dish.
  • Roast the mix and coarsely grind it. Use it as a dry rub for lamb chops, pork or other meats.
  • Add the whole spice mix to batter for onion rings.
  • Add to bread batter or dough.

The charm of this pungent spice mix is in its ease of use. Use it sparingly in a dish but with abandon in your cooking.

-- Monica Bhide

Paanch Phoron-Crusted Fish Fillets. (Suresh Hinduja)

Paanch Phoron-Encrusted Fish Fillets
2 to 3 servings

1 pound firm white-fleshed skinless fish fillets
2 tablespoons paanch phoron spice blend (see headnote)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 to 8 cherry tomatoes, cut in half, or sliced if large
Coarsely ground black pepper
Finely grated zest from 1/2 lemon (1/2 teaspoon)
1 or 2 medium peeled and cooked potatoes, mashed and kept warm (1 cup)
Minced flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
Lemon wedges, for garnish

Season the fish with salt to taste. Use your hands to press the paanch phoron into both sides of the fillets. Line a plate with paper towels.

Heat the oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat in a nonstick skillet large enough to hold the fish in a single layer. Add the fillets and cook for a few minutes per side, turning them once, until just cooked through. Remove from the skillet and drain on the paper-towel-lined plate; discard the remaining fat in the skillet. Keep warm.

Add the tomatoes to the skillet and cook briefly, until warmed through. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the lemon zest to the potato; mash together to the desired consistency.

Place 1 or 2 pieces of fish on each plate. Spoon the tomatoes on top and mound the mashed potatoes next to the fish. Sprinkle with the fish with parsley and serve hot, with lemon wedges.

Per serving (based on 3): 470 calories, 34 g protein, 28 g carbohydrates, 26 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 121 mg cholesterol, 187 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  February 19, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  I Spice , Recipes  | Tags: I Spice, Monica Bhide  
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