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By Mehul Vora

Indian food is popular for its delightful aroma, unique taste, and texture. The secret behind the finger-licking flavor is a perfect blend of spices and ingredients used in Indian cuisine. India has a treasure of exotic spices and ingredients that are used for thousands of years and spread all over the world. Indian cuisine reflects an 8,000-year history of the confluence of various groups and cultures leading to diversity of flavors and regional cuisines found in modern-day India. Across the region, many indigenous ingredients and spices are used to cook many delicacies. The vast landscape of India and diverse climate in the region, ranging from deep tropical to alpine, has contributed to many ingredients exclusive to the regions. Many ingredients have gained popularity such as Anardana, cloves, star anise, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, and some exotic exclusive ingredients that remain lost and unearthed.

Let us start with Kashmir, India's paradise. Kashmir is not the only scenic in landscapes but also scenic in cuisine. Kashmir uses spices that cannot be found in any other place. Kashmir's most popular dish is Rogan Josh, which is succulent meat chunks cooked in spiced gravy be it red or brown gravy. Rogan josh is the most loved preparation at parties. The Rogan Josh gravy has a lot of aromatic spices like cloves, bay leaves, cardamom, and cinnamon, garlic and Kashmiri chilies. But the secret ingredient that gives it a bright red color is Ratan jot. Kashmiri Pandits use a dried herb called Ratan Jot to add a pleasing red color to their dishes. Otherwise known as Alkanet root. It is the original natural food coloring that gives the famous Kashmiri dish Rogan Josh it's signature red color.It is an herb that one rarely comes across now, after the advent of synthetic food colors. Ratan Jot provides many Kashmiri and Punjabi dishes their finger-licking good looks! 

The next is a rare beverage from Kashmir, the noon chai or Sheer chai, this very popular and exotic chai has a distinctly pink hue to it. Along with its unique appearance it has a rich and creamy texture. This tea is called noon chai because it has salt in it, noon means salt in the local dialect. This tea is warm, comforting with a nutty taste and salty punch. The secret ingredient added to the tea is a special tea leaf known as ‘phul’ which along with bicarbonate of soda is simmered on a low flame to create a very strong concentrate of tea. The Soda bi-carbonate is what turns the tea dark red and the addition of milk makes it pink in color. The trick is to get the right color and that comes from the reaction of tea with baking soda. Once the tea is ready, it is topped with heavy cream and garnished with crushed pistachios and almonds. 

Kashmir also boasts to have one of the most exotic and expensive ingredients apart from saffron. This rare ingredient may cost up to 30,000 for a kilogram. This is the most prized mushroom known as Guchchi or morel mushrooms. They are of huge demand despite being a costly affair. They have a distinct spongy, honeycomb texture, and unique flavor. These mushrooms grow naturally in the wild forests of Kangra valley and cannot be cultivated commercially. They can also be found in Jammu and Kashmir, Manali, and other parts of Himachal Pradesh after the snowfall period.

Guchchi mushrooms grow in clusters on logs of decaying wood or leaves and even in humus soil. They are notoriously unpredictable as they may not grow in the same spot in the next season. They just show up anywhere. These mushrooms are very fragile and a lot of effort is required to retain their pleated honeycomb texture. It can take months before enough is collected, dried, and available for sale in the market. There are some popular beliefs like thunder and lightning are known to multiply the morels and they also grow best in areas that have suffered a forest fire. The origin stories of this exotic ingredient remains still a mystery. 

Garlic is one of the most essential Indian culinary ingredients. Garlic is used in most of the curries, kebabs, starters, etc. This popular ingredient is found differently in Kashmir. Kashmiri garlic is a rare single-clove variety known as Jammu garlic, snow mountain garlic, or Kashmiri lehsun. This garlic has a hard, golden-brown husk with a single clove. It has a rounded, bulbous shape with a stiff, flattened portion on one side coming to a point at the tail end of the clove. The clove is a bright white to creamy-white in color and offers a strong, pungent garlic flavor without the acidity present in other varieties. Kashmiri garlic is said to be seven times more potent than commercial garlic, in terms of beneficial compounds and properties. Kashmiri garlic is consumed both raw and cooked. To maximize the beneficial properties in the garlic, crush, or mince before using. The garlic ‘pearls’ are crushed and then swallowed, followed by drinking two glasses of cool water. 

Mountaineers climbing in the Himalayan mountains of northern India during ancient times consumed Kashmiri garlic to help maintain blood circulation, increase oxygen capacity, and raise energy levels. The single-clove variety is renowned in Ayurvedic practices and is prescribed for people suffering from diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and the common cold.

In the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, we find a cousin of cumin called Jakhiya, a tiny, dark brown and granular seed with a beautiful earthy aroma and a unique flavor. This is a rare and lesser-known wild edible plant exclusive of Garhwal region. The seeds which are dried in the sun before they are sold are used for tempering almost all types of vegetables and curries. Because of their sharp pungent smell and crunchy taste most Garhwalis prefer Jakhiya over cumin and mustard seeds for tempering.

Moving towards the east we have the largest lemon, the Gondhoraj lebu. This lemon has the flavor to transform even the dullest of dishes. This is called Gondhraj because it truly is the king of aroma and flavors. This is one ingredient without an English name or a dedicated Wikipedia profile, this bright green large-sized lime is also known as the Rangpur lime and is grown exclusively in the Bengal region. This lime is popularly used to add flavor to Bhetki, chicken preparations, dals, and vegetables. This eastern India’s best kept culinary secret can be used to resurrect any dish to its full potential. 

In the Bengal region of India, Winters brings with it a gift from Mother Nature that is synonymous to heaven, nolen gur, or otherwise known as palm jaggery. And when it is added to make payesh it tastes like nectar from the heavens. Nolen gur’er payesh (rice pudding with date palm Jaggery) is cooked making a creamy reduction of rice and milk by boiling them together. It is a Bengali winter specialty since nolen gur is seasonal and available during the winter. Nolen Gur brings a depth of flavor and smell, in addition to mellow sweetness, to whatever dish it is added. 

In Bengal, we have another exotic ingredient that is often confused with ajwain (caraway seeds) and smells similar to parsley carrying a taste similar to celery. This secrete spice is Radhuni, it is the small dried fruit of wild celery. It is a very strong spice, with a distinct ability to over

power any curry, in just a couple of pinches. In Bengali cuisine, the whole radhuni is quickly fried in very hot oil until it crackles. It is also a part of the Bengali spice mix, paanch phoran. Although this like a staple spice of the Bengali cuisine, it is rarely used in the rest of India. It is also used as an herb for diarrhea, gastritis, loss of appetite, vomiting, abdominal distention, stomach ache related to indigestion, and also for worm diseases. The fresh leaves are used as an herb in Thailand and it is used medicinally in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Moving further east towards Assam we have the world's hottest chili, the Bhut Jolokia, or ghost pepper. The Guinness record holder for the hottest chili is native of Assam and north-east India. This deep red, blazing hot chili is a star ingredient in some of the most sensational preparations of North East India. The smallest amount of bhut jolokia can flavor a dish so intensely that even a nibble will make tears run down your face. This is largely cultivated on the southern bank of the river Brahmaputra, also named after the Naga warriors inhabiting the plains and hills of Nagaland, and referring to the chili's large pod size. 

Bhut jolokia is used both as a food and spice. Popularly to "heat up" curries, pickles and chutneys. It is largely used in combination with pork or dried or fermented fish. In northeastern India, the peppers are smeared on fences or incorporated in smoke bombs as a safety precaution to keep wild elephants away.

Chili and turmeric often go hand in hand in Indian cuisine. Since we looked at the intense Ghost pepper, let me also tell you about exotic turmeric. This turmeric is also known as the world's best turmeric found in high altitude region of the Meghalaya. This turmeric is known as Lakadong Turmeric or Dried Curcuma Longa Root. It has high curcumin, pure, natural, and has strong aromatic fragrance and is exclusive to Meghalaya. The root and underground stem of this turmeric plant are crushed and powdered before being sold in the local markets of Jaintia hills. This superior quality turmeric can help revive and regenerate health.

Meghalaya also has another unique treasure of flavors known as Jaiur or Winged Prickly Ash Seeds. This is not very hot or pungent in taste but has a slight lemony overtone and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth that sets the stage for hot spices. 

The tiny seed pods of jaiur are toasted before being crushed and used in chutneys. Only the husks are used and the gritty black seeds are discarded. In Meghalaya, it is added to a traditional side dish of fermented fish called tungtap.

Prickly Ash is used in many chronic problems such as rheumatism and skin diseases; chilblains, cramp in the leg, varicose veins, and varicose ulcers. It is also used for low blood pressure, fever, and inflammation. Externally it may be used as a stimulation liniment for rheumatism and fibrositis. It has a stimulating effect on the lymphatic system, circulation, and mucous membranes.

In the western region of India is also the region of berries. The states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra have some exotic berries that are not only lesser-known but exclusive as well. Gujarat consumes a very popular berry called karonda, this is India's answer to cranberries, this berry has sour and astringent taste with a hint of sweetness, in its raw state. Sweetness increases with the ripening of berry. If intended for use as a vegetable, the fruits should be plucked while still under-ripe. This is apparent by the fruit’s greenish-white color. Some of the fruits grow dark red when fully ripe, while others grow dark purple. The berry is popularly used to make chunnda or jam, pickles, chutney, etc. 

Talking of pickle and another berry that is popular in Rajasthan is ker sangri, the ker berries are used exclusively in Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat. Ker is a green berry-like fruit of a thorny bush, that is sour in taste and seasonally available during the months of April and May. Although they belong to the same family as beans and lentils, they are still distinguished because of how they are prepared. Fresh Ker has to be put in an earthen utensil or preferably a matka in saltwater for 15 days so that it loses its sourness. After two weeks the saltwater is thrown away and the vegetable is dried in shade to be stored for the rest of the year or to be cooked right then. 

Moving towards the south, we have a unique spice called the Black Stone Flower. This is known as Kalpasi/Dagad Phool and remains the most unusual spices in India's spice repository. 

This rare dried flower is a dominant spice widely consumed in Maharashtrian and Chettinad cuisines. Black Stone Flower or Dagad Phool is a soft brown and black colored lichen with a mild woody fragrance. This spice has no taste of its own but adds a mysterious flavor to any food it is added. The blackish-purple flower gives the signature black color to various masalas like Goda Masala/Kala Masala. It has a strong earthy aroma with a very dry, light fluffy texture and feels to it. It is widely used in Chettinad, Hyderabadi, and Marathi cuisine. This edible lichen flora grows on trees, rocks, and stones. When used in small quantities, it imparts a strong woody aroma and flavor to the dish. For better results, it should be roasted in little oil to release its full aroma. Typically used in meat dishes like nahari (Paaya), Bombay biryani, Goat meat stews, it is also used in vegetarian dishes. 

Maharashtrian cuisine and especially the Konkan cuisine has kokam as a staple ingredient that is only found in the Western Ghats. Small fruit like cherry tomato which is red in color and deepens to purple on ripening, is then sun-dried to which is called kokum. This sweet-sour ingredient imparts a pink to purple hue to the food that it is added and a refreshing sweet-sour taste. Kokum is mainly added to curries, dal, etc as an alternative to tamarind. In Goa, Maharashtra, and other nearby states, large glasses of kokum sherbet are served in the summer months to beat the heat. Kokam is also blended with curd, and tempered to make the famous Sol Kadhi. Kokum enhances coconut-based curries, dals, and vegetable dishes involving potatoes, okra, etc. It is also included in chutneys and pickles. 

In Kerela, a rare variety of tiny chilies are found that are native to the region. It is called Kanthari Mulagu or White Bird’s Eye Chili. It is known as bird’s eye chili because birds love to pick the ripe chili, Black drongo is one of the main contenders for eating bird’s eye chili in Kerala.

Grown in Kerala and some parts of Tamil Nadu, the super hot, ivory-colored kanthari mulagu chili is mainly cultivated as a homestead crop. In Kerala, this chili is used in relishes, pickles, and curries. White Flowers of Kanthari Mulaku grows upward-facing sky. Bird’s Eye Chili is one of the ten hottest peppers in the world. Chilies are very small in size (not more than 2-3 cm) yet pungent and hot, this chili will make your eyes water if you eat one. Green or ripe chilies can be used for cooking or can be eaten raw with other dishes. It has a very distinct smell and imparts great flavor to the food, especially buttermilk.

Another secret ingredient native to Kerala and popular today as weight loss alternative is Garcinia Cambogia locally called as Kodampuli or Malabar Tamarind. 

Just like kokum, Kodampuli is a sun-dried fruit used to flavor curries in Kerala. After the Garcinia Cambogia fruit ripens, it is removed from the vine, deseeded, and left to dry in the sun till it turns leathery. The skins are then smoked, infusing them with a complex aroma. After a brief rinse and soak, the skins are added to curries where they contribute a pleasant sourness to the sauce with hints of sweetness, astringency, and the faint smoky flavor. 

In Andhra Pradesh one of the most ancient leaves, gongura, or matha in Telugu. The use of Gongura is said to be centuries old due to its affordability and easy accessibility it is consumed by the rich, poor, and the tribal’s. Gongura is of two types red and green. Both the green-stemmed and red-stemmed varieties are used in cooking. The red ones are sourer than the green and are widely planted as a summer crop—higher temperatures are believed to intensify the sourness. Gongura, has its characteristic taste and texture that are unaffected by the addition of other ingredients to the dish. This is widely consumed as in the form of Chutney or Pachadi as known in the south. The Gongura leaves are grounded with dried red chilies, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, garlic, and onion, along with salt. This mixture is then tempered with chana dal, urad dal, mustard and cumin seeds, red chilies, and curry leaves. This is eaten with rice, curd rice, and also with chappati, the homes of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. 

Apart from eating it as Pachadi it is also used to flavor shrimps (gongura royyalu) and also Chicken, it is used with whole spices, powdered spices along with garlic, onion and tomato to flavor the chicken as well as prawns. It is also used along with Lentils (gongura pappu). This tangy green leafy vegetable can be had both as a main and as a condiment. Gongura leaves help cool the body and reduce inflammation. They also contain moderate levels of potassium, calcium, and magnesium which help strengthen the bones and are very useful in relieving symptoms of fever. 

In regions of Tamil Nadu a magic ingredient nanari syrup is widely consumed during summer. It is a key ingredient of jigarthanda, the southern cousin of falooda. The herb 'Sarasaparilla', better known as 'Nannari' is a wonder herb that is handy during summer because of its cooling medicinal property of protecting one from common summer ailments. The syrup made from this herb root is called nannari syrup. Since Sangam era people are said to drink a mixture of extracts from 'Nannari' roots, adding a tint of lime juice and palm sugar (panamkalkandam) to keep them cool during summer. The root has an sharp taste and a pleasant odour. The herb is found in foothills and only the roots are used for extraction. The 'Nannari' extract is prepared from its roots through steam distillation, after which, it is mixed with citric acid, water, and sugar, in certain proportions, to constitute the 'Nannari' concentrate or syrup.

India is certainly a land of culinary treasures the more we explore the more exotic ingredients we would unearth. Each ingredient is special in its way and has a distinct way to cook them. 

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