Panch Phoron, sometimes spelled ‘panchpuran’ along with a host of other variations, is a blend of whole spices (as opposed to ground) that is native to north-eastern India in general, and the state of Bengal in particular. Because it is typically composed of 5 different spices, it is often called ‘Bengali five-spice’ although, as we shall see, there are variations not only in the types of spice, but also the number…
The basic Panch Phoron (that is, the blend most commonly cited) essentially consists of equal amounts of:
- Fennel Seed;
- Mustard Seed;
- Fenugreek Seed;
- Nigella (Kalonji).
Naturally, there are no absolute rules as to the proportions and they can be changed to suit personal tastes, or the requirements of a specific dish. Other spices are also used, with Chili, Ajowan, and Aniseed making appearances, sometimes replacing one of the more common spices, or else being added in addition to them.
In Bengal, mustard is often replaced by a spice called ‘Radhuni’. This is not widely used outside the region, however, and is not easy to find. A couple of years ago, when my wife was in Delhi, I asked her to try and find it for me but, although she scoured the spice bazaars, she was met with blank stares wherever she asked for it.
Quite a few sources assert that celery seed makes a good substitute (as does Ajowan to a lesser degree), and it is curious, then, why mustard seed seems to have become its replacement outside Bengal.
The blend you see in the first picture above is actually composed of six spices rather than five, but it is still a ‘panch phoron’ in spirit. You can easily by pre-mixed panch phoron in many Asian grocery stores but, if you wish to try your hand at this blend at home, mix together the following:
- 2 tbsp. Cumin;
- 2 tbsp. Fenugreek Seed;
- 2 tbsp. Nigella;
- 1 ½ tbsp. Mustard Seed (black, brown, white, or a combination thereof);
- 1 ½ tbsp.. Fennel Seed;
- 1 tbsp. Celery Seed.
By the way, in many preparations, the whole seeds can be quite crunchy, even gritty, in the finished dish, which may take a little getting used to for some, but this can be minimized a little…
Here you can see two varieties of Fenugreek seed. The larger ones can be very hard and, in dishes that don’t involve any braising or stewing, they will remain so in the final result. Accordingly, it is best to choose the smaller type, if possible, and this is also true when it comes to Fennel. I have two varieties in my kitchen and the seeds of one, from Lucknow, in India, are half the size of the other. Since there is little difference in taste between the two, I naturally chose the smaller ones for this blend.
Although one can certainly grind the spices for use, in Indian cuisine, whole spice blends like this are used in two ways. First, they are fried in oil (or ghee) at the beginning of the cooking process, with other ingredients (including other spices) being added later. In the second method, the spices are again fried in oil but then, in a process known as ‘tempering’, poured over a finished dish (sometimes being stirred in) just before service.
Panch Phoron is commonly used for cooking greens and other vegetables (it is very nice with potato) and, as a tempering agent, is frequently used in dals. In Bengal, it is employed to season fish but only rarely for meat. Tradition and ‘authenticity’ aside, though, it is actually a very useful seasoning for chicken and beef.
After blending my panch phoron for this post, I used a little with some ‘shell-on’ freshwater shrimp as a private snack for myself. I simply fried the spices briefly in a butter until they were toasty (but not overly browned) and then threw in the shrimp along with some chopped parsley. The result especially delicious with un-shelled shrimp as the process of removing the shells using ones teeth and tongue along with fingers really allows you to savor the aromatic pungency of the spice blend.
Shortly, I will be using some more of the mixture to cook some greens as a side to a chicken dish I have in mind. Both recipes will be posted in due course…