Spices bring life to Indian cooking! Spices are not just used to add heat to a dish, they bring flavour, aroma, and makes each dish unique. Read on to know about the most essential Indian spices and herbs you need to stock up on.
Spices can be used in their whole form (think whole cardamom, a cinnamon stick or bay leaves) or in their powdered form (turmeric powder, coriander powder, red chili powder) or in a spice blend such as garam masala or sambar powder. Some spices can be added while the dish is cooking, others are added to the dish at the end - as a tempering. Think of each spice as having its own unique personality that it adds to a dish!
This post contains affiliate links, please read my full disclaimer here.[cmtoc_table_of_contents]
What are the 7 essential spices?
In Indian homes, it is common practice to use a ‘masala dabba’, or a spice tin with little sections for each of the 7 essential Indian spices. These essential spices can vary from household to household. A typical masala box (box used to store 7 spices) or masala dabba in an Indian kitchen can include these spices:
Turmeric, Cumin Seed, Cardamom, Coriander Seed, Garam Masala, Red Chili Powder and Black Mustard Seeds.
However, in South Indian kitchens, the essential spices that go into a masala box can be different. The masala box is also called as ‘Anjari petti’ in Tamil and the spices that go into it are:
Mustard seeds, Cumin seeds, Coriander seeds, Fenugreek seeds, Black peppercorns, Dry Red chilies, Urad dhal
Why are spices used in Indian Cooking?
In Indian cooking, spices have been used for years due to their medicinal Ayurvedic benefits. Spices are a natural way to add flavor and aroma to many dishes in Indian cooking, without adding fat or too much additives.
Spices such as turmeric and cumin are known to aid in digestion and to reduce inflammation. Others, such as bay leaves, cloves, kasuri methi, elevate a dish and enhances its flavor profile. Marinade your meats in turmeric, garam masala, kashmiri chili powder to pack in punches of flavour!
How to add spices while cooking
While there is no rulebook on the order of adding spices while cooking, it depends on the recipe you are following and the type of dish you are making! However, in most recipes, you will find a general order to the way the spices are added in most dishes.
For example, the whole spices will be added usually at the beginning of the dish to release their flavors, however, some spices are added at the end of the dish - long cooking times can cause the spices to loose their flavour and aroma.
Here are some guidelines for using spices:
- Add whole spices (such as mustard seeds, cumin seeds, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, etc.) at the beginning of cooking the dish. Heat some oil, and once the oil is hot, add the whole spices. The spices will release their aromas and crackle once they are heated.
Whole spices can also be added as a finishing or garnish to some dishes to heighten their flavors – this is called a ‘tadka’. Dals can be finished with some cumin and whole red chilis heated in oil. Sambar (lentil stew) and chutneys can be finished with a tadka of green curry leaves, urad dal and mustard seeds.
- Add spice powders during the middle or towards the end of the dish. Some spice powders such as garam masala are added towards the end of a recipe, to heighten the flavors of the dish. Some recipes call for a finishing of roasted cumin powder.
- Most herbs are added as a finishing touch – fresh coriander is added as a garnish in many Indian dishes, and kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves) are added towards the end of the cooking process.
Common Indian Spices (Whole Spices):
Mustard Seeds (Rai) – These black seeds are used in many curries, such as fish curry, sambar, especially in South Indian cooking. Always heat them in oil first to release the aromas. Once the pop and crackle, you can add them to temper curries.
Cardamon (green elaichi) - The sweet scent of cardamom adds life to rice dishes such as biryani. It is also used in meat dishes and to flavour Indian desserts such as gajar halwa and kheer. Use it whole, or remove the skins and crush the seeds to a powder, to use in its powdered form.
Coriander seeds - One of the most common spices in an Indian spice rack, coriander is known to be an aromatic spice, and is used for most curries, in its powdered form. To make your own batch of coriander powder, get coriander seeds in their whole form, and lightly roast them on a pan until they are fragrant. Then grind them and store them in an air-tight jar.
Black cardamom - Do not confuse it with green cardamom! Used in their whole form, black cardamom is a powerful and potent spice, unlike green cardamom. It can used in lentils and rice dishes and also also used in spice blends such as garam masala.
Cinnamon (Dalchini) - The bark of the cinnamon tree is a mild, sweet spice used either whole, or in powdered form.
Whole black peppercorns (Kali Mirch) - Used to add heat to Indian curries and rice dishes (such as biryani). when used in their whole form. Add freshly ground black pepper to curries.
Cloves - With their anise-like scents , cloves are quite a strong spice and need to be used in moderation. Use them in rice dishes or
Cumin (Jeera) – Used in many Indian curries both meat and vegetable-based dishes. Has an earthy flavor to it. Also used as part of tadka or tempering. Cumin if sometimes confused with fennel or anise - cumin is more brown in color and has a more smokey, earthy taste.
Shahi Jeera - These seeds are easily confused with cumin, but are very different. They are also known as black cumin, and have a distinctive smoky flavour. Add it to your rice dishes (biryani, pulao) and meat curries to give them a richer aroma, and also use them in garam masala spice blend.
Fennel (saunf)as aa fresh, anise-like aroma. Used as a breath freshener, and good for digestion. Ideal for use in garam masala spice blend and as part of the meat marinade in chicken biryani.
Fenugreek seeds (methi) - The musky taste of mustard seeds are essential to spice blends such as sambar powder, and the very common Madras curry powder. On their own, fenugreek seeds have a very strong, almost bitter scent that can be overpowering, so do not go overboard!
Nutmeg and mace - Mace is the dark-red outer covering of the nutmeg. Fresh nutmeg is processed by removing the pulpy outside and sliding off the mace. Just like with black pepper, keep the whole spice nutmeg handy and use a grater to grind fresh nutmeg to round off yor dishes.
Nigella Seeds (Kalonji) - These have a nutty taste, and are commonly used in an Indian spice blend - 'panch phoren'. Nigella seeds are very common to regional Bengali cooking.
Ajwain (Bishop's weed) - Flavour similar to thyme, with a taste similar to anise. It is used to make samosa pastry casings, parathas, in chutneys and in temperings for dal and curries.
Indian Spice Powders and Spice blends:
Turmeric – The golden spice, used to added a lovely color to the dish, has mild flavor. Known for boosting immunity and reducing inflammation. Can be used to make immunity boosting drinks such as ginger-turmeric tea.
Kashmiri Red Chili Powder - There are several varieties of chilies in India, and just as many varieties of red chili powder. if you are stocking your pantry and are loking for one red chili powder - go for Kashmiri Chili powder. This spice gives the dish a beautiful red color, but imparts very little heat. A close substitute is paprika powder - although paprika is sweeter in taste.
Garam Masala – This classic blend of whole spices is a much beloved Indian spice blend. There are many versions of garam masala in Indian cooking. Essentially, it is a blend of roasted whole spices and usually includes cardamom, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, fennel, black peppercorns and bay leaves.
Sambar powder - Sambar is a South Indian lentil stew that is made with its own special spice blend. A blend of mustard seeds, fenugreek (methi) seeds, red chillis and coriander seeds, Sambar powder is often confused for Madras Curry Powder.
Chaat Masala - This zingy, sour, sweet, tangy spice blend that adds that special something to Indian street-food - chaat! A blend of dried ginger powder, black salt, cumin, pepper and dried tamarind powder, this spice blend is also sprinkled over fruit salad to pep it up. Used commonly in street-style chaat such as bhel puri, sev puri, dahi papdi chaat, etc.
Amchur or amchoor - Aka, dried mango powder, amchoor is made by grinding up sun-dried, unripe, green mangoes. It adds tang and is used as a souring agent in curries such as Indian pickles, chutneys, and some dals.
Herbs and Dried Chilies Used in Indian Cooking
Dhaniya or Coriander leaves – Coriander leaves, sometimes substituted with cilantro, are added fresh as a garnish to many curries, salads and rice dishes. I also love using chopped coriander as a meat marinade, especially when I'm making chicken biryani.
Kasuri Methi or dried fenugreek leaves - If you grab a fistful of kasuri methi and inhale the aroma, they smell bitter and have a distinctive earthy smell. It offsets the richness of rich sauces, and enhances their flavours. Use it to enhance the the flavours of the sauce in butter chicken, paneer tikka masala, etc. To use kasuri methi, lightly crush some in your palms and add it to the curries towards the end of the cooking cycle.
Mint or Pudina - A herb that is a staple in almost every household, mint is known for its cooling properties, and adds freshness and zing to many dishes. Use it to make green chutney, or in a marinade for meat-based dishes such as this chicken kabab.
Curry Leaves – Curry leaves - the leaves of teh curry plant (not to be confused with the generic term 'curry') can be used fresh or dried. They have a nutty flavor and are used in tempering mostly in South Indian cooking. Can also be used as a garnish and for finishing disesh such as South Indian fish curry.
Bay leaves or Tej Patta - Dried bay leaves are very common to Indian rice dishes. remember to remove them when you're eating - just like with all other whole spices! They add aroma and flavour to curries and are very commonly used in biryanis and pulaos.
Saffron - The most expensive spice in the world, saffron is said to be more valuable by weight than gold. This ingredient adds colour and spice to briyani or dessert. Saffron is expensive but come with health benefits and a delicate fragrance and floral undertones that it lends to dishes. The color imparted by saffron is unique, use it to finish your biryanis, or desserts such as kheer. Use it in a non-traditional desserts such as peach, balsamic and saffron jam, for instance.
Asafeotida (Hing) - Asafoetida is a yellow powder that is derived from a gum or sap of the 'Ferula' plant. It has a very strong pungent smell, some people find the smell almost foul or rotting. It is used extensively in Indian cooking and added in dals and curries with pulses, to aid in digestion. and prevent bloating. The strong smell of asafeotida vanishes while cooking.
Curry powder vs. Garam Masala
Lets talk a little about curry powder - what is it and how does it compare to garam masala? Is it really needed for Indian cooking?
Curry powder - that you see in supermarkets is sold as a blend of Coriander, Fenugreek, Cumin, Turmeric, Bay Leaf, Nutmeg, Cloves, Onion and Back pepper. In Indian households, there is no such thing as 'curry powder '- curry powder is a generic mix of Indian spices that are marketed as a one-size-suits all product. Sure, you can use it if you are looking for a shortcut to making your favorite 'curry' at home.
But just as the word 'curry' is a generic term for all Indian sauce-based dishes, 'curry-powder' is a generic blend of spices that are perhaps more suitable to beginner cooks.
Garam masala on the other hand, is a blend of some spices that add warmth - such as cloves, cinnamon, fennel, star anise, etc. Unlike curry powder, which has turmeric that gives it that yellow hue, garam masala is all about the intense aroma of the roasted whole spices. There is no turmeric in garam masala. I highly recommend that you pass up on that store-bought curry powder and stock up on some of the basic Indian spices mentions above.
How can I store Spices?
Whole spices should be stored in air-tight containers such as these, away from direct sunlight and heat and moisture. You don't need to keep them in a refrigerator.
For spice powder, try to buy whole spices (cumin, cloves, fennel, coriander seeds) and grind them at home rather than buying pre-ground spice powders from the store. To grind your spice powders, toast the whole spices in a pan (lightly heat them without oil) for a couple minutes. This releases their natural fragrance. After they cool down, grind them using a spice grinder or coffee grinder. Grinding whole spices at home keeps them so much more flavourful and potent that buying ready-made spice powders.
Spice powders will lose their potency after 6 months, you will need to replace them every 6 months. Whole spices can last for upto a year. I highly recommend making a small batch of freshly ground spice powders and spice blends- that lasts you a couple of weeks or so - rather than keep a large batch for months on end.
Where can I buy spices?
Indian spices and fresh herbs are available at your local Asian grocery store. You can also buy them online on Amazon.com.