|Unnecessary. Tedious. Superfluous. Yet another dirty pan in Bibi's tiny kitchen.|
When I first started cooking Desi dishes years ago I noticed some recipes would dry roast the spices before cooking and some would just add the raw spices to the pan and fry them with the dish. I wondered what the point of dry roasting spices was if you were just going to fry them in oil and then cook them even further until dish is finished. That's a lot of cooking for rather delicate spices whose flavors primarily come from heat sensitive volatile oils. I have several cookbooks featuring both recipes that dry roast the spices and use raw spices. They'll often say dry roasting enhances the flavor of spices in one recipe but give no reason why the masala is left raw in another recipe.
The only reasoning I could find behind dry roasting spices in Desi dishes was in Anjum Anand's brilliantly written Indian Every Day cookbook.
In her book Ms. Anjum states,
monsoons in India, the damp gets into everything and the seeds would need a light roasting to crisp them up enough to grind them but not to change the flavour."
So dry roasting spices makes grinding them to powder easier in the humid weather of the Indian Subcontinent. That makes sense especially if you are grinding spices the old fashioned way with a mortar and pestle or sil-batta. It would seem Ms Anjum is waffling a bit on whether it's to change the flavor or not though.
For a more scientific explanation of what goes on when spices are dry roasted or heated in any way let's take a look at page in the famed food science writer Harold McGee's famed tome On Food and Cooking.
Mr. McGee writes,
So heating spices mellows and subdues them but can also lend complexity to a mixture. Desi dishes are definitely known for their complexity of flavor, that's true. This still left me wondering if spices really need to be dry roasted if they're also going to be fried, and pressure cooked or simmered in order to bring out their layers of complexity. Seems like that's overdoing it a bit to to me.
Most of the modern Indian cookbooks I've tried have been rather disappointing due to the lack of flavor in the resulting dishes. Most of the modern recipes utilized dry roasting spices first then frying and further cooking them after. After watching my Kashmiri family cook and noticing how different what they did was from what the modern cookbooks advised I started perusing informal "homely" Desi recipe exchange forums online.
If the masala was dry roasted it was added towards the end of the cooking of the dish.
If the masala was used raw it was fried early on in the cooking of the dish.
I can only conclude that dry roasting all spices regardless of cooking technique was as Azelia puts it "a modern mantra" with not a lot of thought behind it.
So does dry roasting spices prior to cooking really enhance their flavor?
I'd say it makes them different, and not necessarily in a good way. When you're cooking you just have to make the choice as to whether you prefer a more mellow and subdued flavor in your dish. Also keep in mind all the cooking those spices will endure after the initial dry roasting, and whether there's yogurt or coconut in your dish whose fat will dilute the spices' flavor too.
My reasons for not dry roasting spices:
All those gorgeous aromas filling your kitchen as you dry roast the spices is actually flavor lost. You're filling the air with fragrant volatile molecules that could be flavoring your food.
When you degrade those volatile aroma chemicals by heating them you are shortening the spices' shelf life. Spices are far more prone to going rancid or losing flavor after being heated.
Why bother going through the hassle of dry roasting spices if you're going to fry, simmer, or pressure cook them anyway? All that heat in cooking is enough to mellow, subdue, and bring out all the spices' complexities.
*There are only 2 exceptions I'd make in dry roasting:
Coconut meat, there's only one way to get toasted coconut flavor and that's by dry roasting. If toasted coconut's the flavor you're after then dry roasting's the only way to go.
If you're going to add spices to a dish after cooking or to a dish that won't be cooked. There is a practice in some regions and households of stirring a small amount of garam masala into a dish to season it just before serving. Because the garam masala used in this technique doesn't undergo any cooking you must dry roast it previously. I've also seen a lot of South Indian recipes that dry roast the spices and add them to a dish at a late stage in cooking. I don't really think either of these techniques result in enhanced flavor so I don't use them. I do dry roast cumin to add to raw chutneys also.