This South Asian staple is versatile enough for any cook's spice cabinet.
If you’re a fan of South Asian food, you’ve probably encountered panch phoron, a gorgeous whole-spice blend that’s a Bangladeshi spice rack staple—but you can also find it in Nepali, Bhutanese, and Northeast Indian cuisine. Mildly bittersweet, warm, and nutty, it has none of the heat commonly associated with the food and spices of the region.
Panch phoron literally means “five spices” in Bengali and other North Indian languages—but don’t confuse it with Chinese five-spice powder, another common spice blend in Asian cuisine. It’s typically made of equal parts fenugreek seed, nigella seed, cumin, black mustard seed, and fennel seeds, but (like most spice blends) there are some regional variations depending on who’s making the mix. Instead of mustard seeds, Bengali spice blenders may use radhuni instead (a spice similar to ajowan) while other regions may sub in celery seed in its place. Some blends may cut down on the fenugreek or mustard in the ratio to avoid becoming too bitter.
It’s hard to nail down the history and origin of panch phoron, but like Chinese five-spice powder, some speculate it has deep roots in Eastern medicine such as Ayurveda, or that it may have some correlation to the significance of the number five in ancient Indian rituals and mythology, such as the five elements or senses.
So how do you use it? With mild anise notes, a slight sweetness, and a little warmth and pungency from the mustard, it’s incredibly versatile. In Bengali cuisine, it’s commonly added to vegetable stews, gravies, potatoes, lentils, and fish. It’s even sometimes kept in a small bowl at the dinner table to eat at the end of the meal as a palate cleanser. If you’re looking to mix it up, you can also use it as an addition to pickling liquid instead of the typical coriander or dill, as a crust on pork or other meat of your choice, as a seasoning for hardy, roasted vegetables, or as a way to make plain rice a little more interesting.
While many spice blends, like garam masala, are made from roasted, ground spices, panch phoron is unique in that the spices in the blend are whole and raw, meaning you usually start cooking by giving the mixture a quick dry toast in a hot pan, or by blooming it in hot oil or ghee to release its aroma. Be careful though—you’ll want to keep an arm’s distance away from the stove as you do this—mustard seeds can pop when you add them to hot oil. You’ll be able to tell they’re ready by the mildly bitter, sweet, slightly nutty fragrance.
Ready to give panch phoron a try in your kitchen? If you can find each spice separately, it’s easy enough to make—there’s no roasting or grinding involved. Just measure out equal parts in a small, airtight container and give it a shake. If you’re looking for it it at your local Asian or South Asian grocer, or ordering it online, you can also find it under the name “Bengali Five Spice,” “Padkaune Masala,” or “Panch Phutana.” Once you get a hang of toasting the blend, you’ll find yourself adding it to just about everything.