Spicy cooking kitchen know-how

Now it's time to start your spicy cooking adventure!

Here we will look at the various techniques used in spicy cooking - how the ingredients are prepared, some 'must-haves' for the larder of any spicy food enthusiast as well as how herbs and spices can be combined, matching them with each other and with food.

The real beauty of cooking with herbs and spices is that there are no set rules. It is true that there are certain (and numerous!) classic dishes to try your hand at making, but the techniques and recipes for cooking spicy food varies around the world. So the opportunity to experiment and the possibility of discovering the next world-wide flavour sensation is endless!! The only limit may be your imagination, or perhaps if you're unwilling to accept a few disasters along the way :-)

But first, here are some bits of kit for the spicy cooking kitchen which you will find indispensable, if not essential. You are not obliged to rush out and purchase all of the items below - over time and with experience, you will obviously work out what suits you best.

Equipment:

Mortar and pestle

these are used extensively around the world for grinding individual ingredients or making pastes and come in various shapes, sizes and materials. My mum's version was handed down from her mother and consists of a large slab of stone (not sure what kind), slightly pitted and sunken in the middle (the mortar), with a largish oval smooth stone (the pestle). In some countries, the slab of stone is set flush into the work surface, so it becomes an integral part of the kitchen.Some mortars have a rough, pitted surface which makes it more abrasive and hence produce a better effect for grinding. These are especially useful when making pastes or other 'wet' mixtures.Mortars which have a smooth surface are generally used for grinding dry ingredients.

Spice grinder

this takes the effort out of grinding spices in a mortar and pestle. An ordinary coffee grinder can be used for this, although specialist spice grinders do exist. It is worth investing in a separate grinder just for your spices, or you may end up with odd-tasting, extra-zingy coffee!! Spice grinders are used for dry ingredients. Some food processors often have a milling attachment which can also be used for your spices.

Food processor/blender

this is certainly quicker and less labour-intensive than a mortar and pestle, although some may argue it is less satisfying and can reduce the 'authenticity' of a dish by changing the texture and quality of pastes and other mixes. Personally we find it very useful for spicy cooking, especially when dealing in larger quantities. Be patient when washing the components to ensure all traces of chillies and spices are removed, although a short cycle wash in our dishwasher usually takes care of this.

Garlic press

useful for crushing small amounts of garlic and easier perhaps than squashing the cloves on your chopping board and then trying to mince them up with your knife! Although there are different schools of thought on the results produced, in terms of texture and taste and perhaps you method of choice may depend on the dish in which the garlic will be used - see this Guardian article for more information.Some suggest also using the garlic press for squishing small amounts of other soft ingredients such as anchovies, capers, pickled peppers, etc. as needed.

Grater

this has a variety of uses in spicy cooking, not least for grating whole nutmeg, small amounts of ginger and garlic and for getting the zest off citrus fruits. I find it very handy if my ginger is a bit old and has gone a little fibrous! There are many to chose from, some specialist nutmeg graters and citrus zesters too but I tend to use standard graters which do the job just as well.

Chopping board and knife or mezzaluna

especially useful for chopping herbs but can also be used to chop garlic, chillies, nuts, olives, etc. Unless you have brilliant knife skills however (and practice does make perfect) the texture is generally coarser than if using any of the above method, which can be the desired effect, depending on the recipe.

Gloves

these are useful when handling chillies because if the capsaicin contained in their inner membranes comes into contact with your skin or eyes, you will experience a very painful burning sensation. Ordinary kitchen gloves can be used or if you prefer, the thinner disposable ones are fine for most chillies and reduce the risk of transferring the capsaicin by reusing them (as you may do with kitchen ones). Gloves are also good for dealing with ingredients such as fresh turmeric, which can stain your hands.

Storage jars, containers and freezer bags

handy for keeping individual ingredients as well as your spicy cooking concoctions.

Labels and permanent pen

for dating and identifying your little treasures. This is especially useful if you're freezing any ingredients, as it makes it easier to work out what's what - believe me there is a big difference between a tub of pesto and green chilli paste!!

Spatulas

we thought this should get a special mention as we use rubber spatulas (of varying sizes) constantly in our spicy cooking, for getting every last drop of an ingredient, sauce or paste out of jars, bowls and other containers. Because after all our hard work preparing them, we certainly don't want to lose or waste any spicy yumminess :-)