Spice Knowledge: What Is Panch Phoron?

If you've ever delved into the massive world of South Asian cuisine, you may have noticed a couple of spice mixtures that come up again and again. You're probably familiar with garam masala, a staple ingredient of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi cuisine. But what is panch phoron? And how do you cook with it?

Panch phoron, which translates to "five spices," is an essential blend used widely in Bengal, an extremely densely populated region between Bangladesh and the Indian territory of West Bengal. The five spices it contains are cumin seeds (jeera), black or brown mustard seeds (rai), fenugreek (methi), nigella seeds (kalonji) and fennel seeds (saumph). In addition to the earthy, pungent, sharp and astringent notes panch phoran imparts, resulting in a flavor you may simply recognize as "Indian food," the blend boasts a number of health benefits. You'll get extra-delicious food packed with dietary fiber, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids as well as iron, calcium, zinc, manganese, protein, niacin and other antioxidants, plus boosts to the digestive and immune systems.

Panch phoron is typically incorporated into a dish in its whole spice state, fried in oil or clarified butter to release the essential oils. You'll know it's time to start adding the other ingredients when the mustard seeds start "popping." It can also be finely or coarsely ground, depending on the recipe. Once the mustard seeds pop, you fry a base of finely chopped or pureed garlic, ginger and onions in the mixture...and voilà! All of a sudden, it smells like curry! Any combination of protein and/or vegetables can be added for a huge variety of South Asian dishes.