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021: Spice Olympics: Mustard seeds win high jump gold medal (Herbs & Spices #6)

Updated: Apr 3, 2022

Mustard seeds start flying out with joy to reach monumental heights from the tadka pan

If there was ever to be a “Spice Olympics”, I am sure that the tiny, black mustard seeds would be the most popular and multifaceted athletes at the meet. Almost all of them would eagerly look forward to the tempering: the tadka, the vaghrane, the baghar, the chowk, the blooming. When that oil or ghee would become really hot in the kadai, they would be ready to dive in like expert swimmers. Then the seeds would transform into fantastic high-jumpers, embarrassing the most talented Olympic gold medalists. They would start flying out with joy to reach monumental heights. Often, I have been stung by their unbridled enthusiasm for jumping, and have been left with a little burn-tattoo on my hand.

Mustard seeds also possess phenomenal tumbling skills. They put the greatest Russian Olympic gymnasts to shame, with the speed at which they scurry into the corners of my kitchen counter. I sometimes suspect that these spice athletes are doubling up as secret agents, as they like to congregate behind the mixie or under the gas stove. In these dark corners, they discuss their espionage strategies before the conscientious sponge police come to wipe them away.

Not only are they athletic and speedy, but they are musically talented too. Their sharp crackling sounds during tempering mimic the exuberant afro-Brazillian drums during a samba celebration. My mother-in-law has patiently taught me to add the rest of the spices and vegetables into the oil, only after the mustard seeds complete their musical performance. I used to interrupt their percussion playing midway, leaving them to taste raw in the finished dish. If I appreciate their talented beats, then they reward me with a nice crunch when I eat the salads or raitas which have been tempered with mustard seeds.

They are healers as well, and could join a physio-therapy support team at the Olympics. When you crush mustard seeds into a paste, and apply this paste on aching knees, ankles or backs, they magically suck out the pain. They spread their inherent heat through the throbbing muscles and provide relief.


Mustard seeds produce a sharp, tangy, pungent oil when crushed. It's spicy taste reminds me of Japanese wasabi paste or horseradish sauce. Both wasabi and horseradish are cousins of the mustard seed plant and belong to the same family.

The first time I encountered the taste of raw mustard oil was in Imphal, Manipur in 2008. The mother in my host family - Inema, would cut onions and soak them in water for fifteen minutes. Then for dinner, these onions along with cut cucumbers would be decorated on a plate, and mustard oil generously dabbled over them, along with a sprinkle of salt.

The sharp, tangy, pungent taste of mustard oil still lingers

The memory of that first taste of mustard oil still lingers. Twelve years later, I still clearly picture us sitting and eating on the floor with that salad plate, boiled rice, and kangsoi - the manipuri vegetable stew. Perhaps due to the state’s proximity to Bangladesh and West Bengal- which are also big patrons of mustard oil, this oil found favour in Manipur. After the stay in Manipur, mustard oil has become a standard in my kitchen pantry.

Here in the picture is my host family Daobi, Inema and baby Lennon (2008).

When in the U.S., I was introduced to mustard sauce. Not that artificial, yellowish goop that is squeezed out of bottles across numerous American diners, which stands innocuous next to it's fraternal twin - the generic tomato ketchup sauce. No, this mustard sauce was grainy, brownish-black, with a lot of texture and tang. I would love to spread it across freshly toasted, slightly sour, rye bread with some cheese, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. Everytime I took a bite of that home-made sandwich with mustard sauce, I was reminded of the strong flavours of home.

Back home in India, a field of bright yellow delicate mustard flowers in full bloom have inspired many a Bollywood scene including films such as Rang de Basanti, Veer Zaara, Karan Arjun and Mausuam. My favourite and most memorable of course has to be the reunion of Raj and Simran in the iconic 1995 Bollywood superhit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ). In Punjab, sarson ke kheth (the fields of mustard flowers) are an emotion. I cannot wait to taste sarson ka saag and makki ki roti in a punjabi dhaba once we can travel again.

Bollywood romance in mustard fields

Do you prefer a smooth or grainy mustard sauce?

Whats your favourite Bollywood movie featuring sarson ke kheth (mustard fields)?

Image Credits:

Mustard Seeds: Avinash Kumar (Unsplash)

Mustard Sauce: Elevate (Unsplash)

DDLJ: Screenshot from

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