Spices are central to Nepalese cooking. The three most prevalent at our dinner were Fennel (Mauti), Coriander (Dhania) and Cumin (Geera). All of them, at some point or another were toasted or heated in oil. They were involved in nearly every recipe we collected. Lets look a little closer. . .
Fennel: Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is a plant species in the genus Foeniculum (treated as the sole species in the genus by most botanists). It is a member of the family Apiaceae. It is a highly aromatic and flavorful herb with culinary and medicinal uses, and is one of the primary ingredients of absinthe.
Fennel is widely cultivated, both in its native range and elsewhere, for its edible, strongly-flavoured leaves and seeds. Its aniseed flavour comes from anethole, an aromatic compound also found in anise and star anise, and its taste and aroma are similar to theirs, though usually not as strong.Also, it was from the giant fennel, Ferula communis, that the Bacchanalian wands of the god Dionysus and his followers were said to have come.
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is an annual herb in the family Apiaceae. It is also known as cilantro, particularly in the USA. Coriander is native to southwestern Asia west to north Africa. It is a soft, hairless plant. All parts of the plant are edible, but the fresh leaves and the dried seeds are the most commonly used in cooking.
Coriander is commonly used in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Indian, South Asian, Latin American, Chinese, African and Southeast Asian cuisine. The leaves have a very different taste from the seeds, with citrus-like overtones.
Coriander has been used as a folk medicine for the relief of anxiety and insomnia.
Cumin: Cumin is a flowering plant in the family Apiaceae, native from the east Mediterranean to East India. The flavour of cumin plays a major role in the Latin American, especially in the Northern Mexican, Cuban but also in Thai, Vietnamese, Turkish, Moroccan, Afghan, Indian cuisines.
Cumin is a critical ingredient of chili powder, and is found in achiote blends, adobos, sofrito, garam masala, curry powder, and bahaarat. Cumin seeds are often ground up before being added to dishes.
Cumin seeds are also often toasted by being heated in an ungreased frying pan to help release their essential oils.
Superstition during the Middle Ages cited that cumin kept chickens and lovers from wandering.
Ghal Bheda Jo Achar (Tomato Relish)
In a frying pan, heat several tablespoons of vegetable or mustard oil. Add a pinch of fennel seed and cumin seed to the pan.
After heating, add half a diced yellow or white onion, several cloves diced garlic, several pinches of fresh grated ginger and let them all saute to a warm brown color. Add 3/4 cup of green peas and continue to lightly fry.
Finally add two large diced tomatoes and add a pinch of chili powder, cumin powder, turmeric powder and salt. Allow the tomato to cook down to a thick chutney consistency (4-6 minutes).
Set aside and let cool.
This is the standard Nepali condiment for many dishes including Daal, Masu, Saag and Dira.