Panch Phoran

I dream in color.

I have always dreamed in color.

I have always dreamed of India, and when I dream of that place I have never been, it always is filled with color, and light and motion and music. The brilliance of an azure sky, and the dappled shade beneath mango trees. The twining pepper vines creeping over pale garden walls, and the shimmering, jeweled tones of sari silks and peacocks. The sunlight blazes in a golden haze I have never seen with my own eyes, and the vast movement of humanity on the streets in these dreams sweeps me away. It is an ocean of life, of movement, and its music is that of the never-still surf, calling to me in a polyglot of tongues, as the people speak and shout and sing words I do not know, yet instinctively understand.

And there is always fragrance in these dreams. The scent of flowers fully bloomed and rain-swept pavement, petrol fumes and hot unfiltered cooking oil, and the meadow-kissed sweat of cattle swirls in a cloud-like miasma in my sleeping nose. Above all of it, though, drifts the sweet, the bitter, the pungent, the tingling, the musky, the green and earthy tangled perfume of spices.

I dream of spices.

I always have, and I do not know why.

They call to me. They seduce me with synaesthetic blandishments, and I am powerless before them. They beckon to me on the breeze like courtesans, their fragrance a cozening promise that tickles my senses and draws me deeper and deeper into their mysteries.

Each spice has a voice and a color in my dreams.

Fennel sounds sweet and green, as fresh as cooling spring rain. Her voice is the fluting trill of a little girl, dancing barefoot in a drizzle, her verdant dress dappling with raindrops, the curled tendrils of her hair plastering her forehead in graceful whorls.

Fenugreek sings in a golden voice, a rich contralto, full of life and promise. Her scent of newly-mown grass kisses my thoughts, and murmurs of sunlit afternoons spent heaving hay onto the back of a wagon, of sweat from a job well done, and the well-worn dance of family harvesting the land together.

Cumin carries the song, his voice smoky and deep–a baritone river of sound. His is the backbone, the root of the melody, and he carries me to nights spent by a cedar and pine-wood fire, under a black canopy dripping with stars. He tells stories winding and long, tales with no beginning and no end, that lull me into a sleep which explodes into the otherworld of dream.

Mustard is sharp at first, an angry voice, an aggrieved tone that should jangle and send the song awry. But, toasted and mellowed by fire, sweetness is coaxed from his heart and his laughter rolls mellow yet rambunctious, like a cousin who cannot stop teasing, even when there is work yet to be done, and the family is weary. His tenor holds the ruddy shade of twilight, and energizes everyone around him to keep singing, keep moving, keep on with the endless dance of life.

Nigella haunts me with a shivering voice. Eerie and silvery with a tingling whisper, she is like a cold draft slipping through a cracked window. But she is a shapeshifter, and when she dances with her kinfolk, she throws off her icy demeanor and reveals a deep forest green heart topped with a flutter of rose pink. She is a flower, or the potential for one, and her taste evokes my childhood, when I would pad barefoot after my mother, gumming a scallion stalk merrily, verdant drool staining my chin.

These five seeds together, blended in equal amounts, become family, and though I have only just started cooking with them, for whatever reason, they bring to my mind’s eye memories of days long past, of times which will never be again.

I find myself back at my grandparents’ farm, my naked toes sinking into red clay mud, my hair wild and loose, tangling in the sword-edged stalks of corn as I run through the field, chased by my cousins, all of us laughing and out of breath. My hands tingle as I remember the sensation of picking row after row of beans, the pods dangling like celadon pendants below the heart-shaped leaves, and my back aches as I recall hoeing seemingly endless weeds.

The scents of Bengal, which is the birthplace of the spice blend panch phoron, and the aromas of that now-fallow farm, have become entangled in my heart and mind, and I do not know why.

And it does not matter.

When I drop those seeds into a pan of hot oil with a sizzle and a clatter, I am called backward to a time long ago and forward to a time that never was, into memory and dream, into a familiar strangeness. When I smell the wafting song of their voices coming together, I find myself very much at home.

Here.

Now.

In.

The.

Moment.

Stirring a pan of seeds which sputter and pop, and sing to my senses a song that is then, now and when.

It is a new song. An old song. A song that never was, always is and ever shall be.

It sings me home to my heart–which is the only true home any of us have.

30 Comments

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  1. I was so inspired reading your poetic words that I went out to my local food market and bought this from the spice stall (I just photographed it a few minutes ago). I’ll cook something with it in the next few days. Thanks for the inspiration.
    Trig

    Comment by Trig — March 31, 2007 #

  2. Earlier this year my nephew, who’s a 20-something college student but quite a cook, brought me some incredible dal that had this spice mixture as an ingredient. I had fun learning a little bit about it and posting the dal recipe. I thought the flavor was quite amazing; not like anything I’d ever tasted. I do hope you’ll be showing us what you’re making with it.

    Comment by Kalyn — March 31, 2007 #

  3. You got the good stuff, Trig. I can’t wait to see what magic you make with it.

    Kalyn–of course. I just was in a poetical mood last night, and went on a word wander.

    Look for a veggie recipe next week featuring my new favorite spice mixture.

    Comment by Barbara — March 31, 2007 #

  4. What a beautiful post! Thank you for sahring it with us…

    I too dream of spices (not literally, but I day dream about them the day long). I think of them as old friends at a party, wondering what will happen when I introduce cumin to corriander, and what the best proportion is to make that dish sing. How fennel with cinnamon is so different than fennel with fenugreek. I get excited about them. I can never get enough of touching them, smelling them, or even reading about them. Spices make me happy.

    And I love India. Your description is right on. Bengal is a rich alluvial plain, so no doubt somewhere in West Bengal there is a Bengali child somewhere running through bean fields dreaming of the supper her mother will make and the scent of panch poran.

    Comment by Diane — March 31, 2007 #

  5. Hi Barbara – your words are like a magical calling – and remind me of the novel ‘Cuckold’ by Kiran nagarkar – he speaks of the colours worn by the women in Rajasthan – you will love the novel. Your posts are always so well worded and capture the images so well. Thanks so much.

    Comment by Pritya — March 31, 2007 #

  6. hi Barbara
    Being a Bengali, I really loved your post on Panch Phoran one of my favorites spice mixes. I love it how you have given a character to each of the spices.
    I intend to do a Panch Phoran post soon and I will let you know

    Comment by sandeepa — April 1, 2007 #

  7. what a wonderfully evocative post.

    Comment by bee — April 1, 2007 #

  8. Love the entry. I do not dream in color but I love spices. Just interviewed a spice shop owner on my own site, Cooking with Ideas — the url is http://www.cookingwithideas.typepad.com

    I love the recipe in the entry following too.

    Comment by bibliochef — April 2, 2007 #

  9. Barbara, you’ve done such a great job detailing the paanch phoron. I love how each spice comes on its own and at the same time blends with the other to give a completley new flavor. I use paanch phoron regularly in chutney, dal, veggies of different kind. Great post!
    Also, I love the updates on Kat. She’s adorable!

    Comment by mandira — April 2, 2007 #

  10. Diane–I should very much like to see Bengal. Rich earth anywhere calls to me, and I always feel kinship with farmers, no matter where they are. They always remind me of home.

    And daydreaming about spices–that definitely counts!

    Pritya–I will look for that novel. Thank you for suggesting it–you are the second person to do so in this past week.

    Sandeepa–I often personify the foods I am working with. It works–I feel like I am working with friends, coaxing them to work together, and my food is always good. That comes from cooking with love and respect.

    I would really like to read your post on panch phoron–let me know when it is up.

    Thank you Bee!

    Biblio–great interview!

    Mandira–It is such a deceptively simple mixture, capable of such depth of flavor! I love it–I predict many vegetable and dal dishes this summer cooked with panch phoron will be appearing on my table this summer!

    I am glad you are enjoying the posts about Kat. I found that if I didn’t update on her regularly, I would get emails asking about her. Besides, I cannot help but be fascinated at watching a new human being discover the world of flavor, texture, and secent in food. It is too much fun!

    And Indira–thank you for linking to this post–I am glad that lots of folks have read and liked it. It was just something that was lingering in my head after dinner one night so I just wrote it down on a whim and a chance. It was a combination of a commentary on my dreams and my analysis of the flavors of panch phoron after dinner, while I was half asleep and the tastes still lingered on my tongue. The images started to play in my head, and before I knew it, my fingers were on the keyboard capturing them as they happened.

    I do think I will have to go to India one day, though. I think it is necessary.

    Comment by Barbara — April 2, 2007 #

  11. That’s a spicy poetry. I enjoyed it a lot.

    Comment by vidhya — April 4, 2007 #

  12. Dear Barbara,

    I loved reading your article and wanted to share it with Mahanandi visitors. The pleasure is all mine. Thank you!

    On the side note, I mailed you a surprise gift last week. I hope it reached you safely.

    - Indira

    Comment by Indira — April 5, 2007 #

  13. hi, barbara, how are you? haven’t been here in a while. I am in awe of your post, but that isn’t unusual:D — beautiful. I cannot claim to dream of spices, though I dream in color too. You have captured panch phoran so well in this piece!

    Comment by stef — April 5, 2007 #

  14. OMG, Indira! It just came in the mail this afternoon while I was out at the Asian market, where Morganna and I met this wonderful Indian woman who was shopping there. She was going to walk a long way to get to another store, but it was freezing cold out (and snowing, can you believe it!) and so we gave her a ride.

    Then we came home and found your surprise!

    You know, I was just going to buy a copy of that book from your site!

    Do you mind if I thank you publicly in a post, or will you get all shy?

    Anyway, I am working an an even better thank you for you–now that I have your address. I have to make it, though. And with Kat being so demanding, it may take a while, but I think you will like it.

    Comment by Barbara — April 5, 2007 #

  15. Thank you, vidhya. I had fun writing it.

    Steph–I am well, and how are you!?

    Glad to see you again!

    Comment by Barbara — April 5, 2007 #

  16. Glad to hear it reached you safely. Just emailed you, Barbara.

    Comment by Indira — April 6, 2007 #

  17. This is a beautiful post. Have you ever read “Mistress of Spices” by Chitra Divakaruni? You should, if you have any spare moments.

    Comment by Yuliya — April 10, 2007 #

  18. That was lovely. Tell me you’ve read some of the books by Rumer Godden, who grew up in India? Not all of her books are set there, but many of them are.

    Rachel

    Comment by Rachel Neumeier — May 24, 2007 #

  19. I linked this post in my latest post on Panch Phoran, Barbara
    Check out my blog if you want, thanks

    Comment by sandeepa — June 7, 2007 #

  20. Hi Barbara, Came here through Sandeepa’s latest post on panch phoran and was quite amazed to see your evocative post….the way you tried to characterize each spice…and the India you dreams about !!! WoW …beautiful !

    Shn

    Comment by Mishmash! — June 8, 2007 #

  21. I could read a book in this style…. :)

    Comment by Maninas — July 27, 2007 #

  22. Hi could anyone tell me were I can purchase the beautiful spice panch phoran. I live in Basingstoke

    many many thanks

    Comment by jan jupp — October 4, 2007 #

  23. [...] The recipe for this interesting spice mix comes from Sandeepa, who calls it The Sorceress of Spices. Read Barbara’s lyrical post about it! [...]

    Pingback by The Sorceress of Spices - Panch Phoron « Maninas: Food Matters — October 9, 2007 #

  24. I wasn’t able to purchase Nigella from my local Indian grocery store, but I have all the other spices and am dying to try this mixture. Is there something that could be used as a substitute for the nigella? Cardamon, Black Pepper, Grains of Paradise?

    I’ll order online if necessary, but wanted to try it out this weekend.

    Comment by De in D.C. — October 18, 2007 #

  25. De–did you try looking for it under the name kalonji–that is what it is called in Hindi.

    Cardamom, black pepper and Grains of Paradise are all wrong to sub for it, unfortunately.

    It has a distinctive onion flavor–you could try to leave it out and then add a tiny bit of dehydrated onion or shallot bits at the end of the cooking process for the panch phoron–before adding the main ingredients– so that it will not burn.

    But after you try this this weekend, do order some–it really adds a distinctive flavor that truly is necessary to the overall flavor of the spice mixture.

    Comment by Barbara — October 18, 2007 #

  26. Thank you for sharing this beautifull expression of your dreams with us. You went right to my heart. I also carried India in my dreams for many many years and no apparent reason. I finally got there, not so long ago, and found home again. A realm of memories hidden by the fantasy of time. I also don’t know why. But you are right that it doesn’t matter. Keep up the wonderfull writing!

    Comment by Gaelle — October 26, 2007 #

  27. [...] Read Barbara’s beautiful ode to panch phoron @ Tigers and Strawberries. [...]

    Pingback by jugalbandi » Anarosher Chaatni — March 14, 2008 #

  28. Dear Barbara.Very nice article about panch poran.
    I belong to the state of Orissa, a neighbouring state of WB.Panch phoran is the back bone of Oriya cooking.It is widely used in many recipes.
    I am happy really to see detailed article.Thanks for sharing with u.

    Shibani

    Comment by shibani — March 16, 2008 #

  29. Err ….. dunno if someone else pointed this out ….. there’s no mustard in pNach phoRon ….. or is it the Bengali variety of pNach phoRon that doesn’t have mustard?? the 5th component is “rNadhuni” which is usually not available in Indian stores in the US.

    Comment by Prateep — February 20, 2010 #

  30. [...] to the challenge of describing their flavors, but Barbara at Tigers and Strawberries devoted an entire post to panch phoran that’s sheer poetry. She writes: When I drop those seeds into a pan of hot [...]

    Pingback by Cauliflower Dal with Panch Phoran | recipe from FatFree Vegan Kitchen — January 22, 2011 #

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