20 Indian Spices and How to Use Them

If you are a cook or a chef, your spice larder is like your artist's palette. If you're looking to broaden that palette, it only takes a handful of Indian recipes to explore a whole new world of culinary colours, metaphorically speaking. For that reason, Master Indian has assembled a list of the 20 spices we consider the most essential to Indian cooking as we know it.

For our customers who want to take a step beyond our spice kits, this list is a perfect reference for the cook whose looking to get to know Indian spice on a personal level.

1. Turmeric (Haldi)

Turmeric is enigmatic because its flavour is subtle. Turmeric's flavour contribution is distinct yet in the background. Perhaps more than flavour, turmeric's contribution is health benfits and colour. It is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant and may have an beneficial impact on heart disease, depression, and arthritis. Turmeric is typically added, as a powder, to a curry sauce after the wet ingredients have been added.

2. Cumin (Jira)

Cumin is an incredible spice. It has a flavour profile not unlike carraway or dill. Fundamental to many Indian curries, cumin is an absolute delight when the whole seeds are toasted or fried in oil in the first stages of cooking an Indian dish. 

3. Green Cardamom (Cchoti Ilayachi)

Green cardamom has a flavour quite like eucalyptus owing to a compound called cineole. Many people liken them to citrus, and although the piercing flavour of cardamom occupies the same general region of the palate as citrus, its effect is quite unique. Cardamom, too, can be added at the beginning of the cooking process, toasting or frying before adding oil. You can use the pods whole, or pound them to release, and partially pulverize the seeds.

4. Coriander/Cilantro (Dhaniya)

Coriander is the seed of cilantro. This seed, has a flavour like citrus, but it is still unique in its own right. It is one of the main spice ingredients in Madras and Vindaloo, wherein it combines incredibly well with the sour elements in those dishes. We recommend grinding coriander before adding it to a dish. You can add it to your fry oil for a short amount of time just in advance of adding your onions.

The leaves of the same plant, cilantro are indispensable as a flavourful garnish for virtually any dish, but go especially well with rich, deeply-flavoured dals the heartier meat dishes. When working with cilantro, be aware that some people find it tastes like soap.

5. Garam Masala

garam masala

Much like the yellow curry powder we know in the West, Garam Masala is actually a combination of spices including pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cumin, coriander, Indian bay, pepper, and some others. It is the main ingredient in many dishes, including Chana Masala. Flavour-wise, it has elements of what Westerners think of as pumpkin pie spice, but for savoury dishes.

6. Black Cardamom (Kali Ilayachi)

Black cardamom has the aroma of green cardamom, except that the pods are much larger with more seeds. Black cardamom pods are also dried over a fire, and hence are blackened and smoky in flavour. Recipes serving about 4 people usually only use one or two black cardamom pods, pounded and either toasted or tempered in fry oil at the beginning of the cooking process.

7. Ginger (Adarek)

Ginger is an absolutely essential ingredient for most curries. Use a 1-2 inch length of raw ginger, grated or minced and add it with your garlic after you’ve clarified your onions. 

8. Garlic (Lahasun)

Garlic is not so much a spice, but it is an essential seasoning. Using garlic cloves of the size you get in commercial garlic, between 4 and 10 cloves in a 4 person recipe will give you a good hearty garlic flavour. For a milder flavour, add it at the beginning when you start frying your onions, or for a sharper flavour, add it after your onions are soft, giving the garlic less cooking time.

9. Asafetida (Hing)

Asafetida, a spice that we’ve mentioned in our previous blog posts, is the resin of the giant fennel. It’s quite aromatic, and though it smells unpleasant in its raw state, it adds an incredible flavour reminiscent of leeks. Usually you’re only adding a pinch in a 4 person recipe.

10. Fenugreek (Methi)

Fenugreek is a subtle spice. Tasting it on its own as a raw ingredient doesn’t give you a ready understanding of where it might fit into your cooking, the seeds in particular have a seedy bitterness and a hint of maple. You may use the ground seeds or the leaves, and either one has a sweet/bitter flavour. Too much of the ground seeds will impart a bitter flavour. Roughly a half teaspoon in a 4 person dish does the job. The leaves are less prone to bitterness however, and you may use up to a few tablespoons in a family size dish near the end of the cooking process.

11. Indian Bay (Tej Patta)

Indian bay is used in much the same manner as European bay. It is included as a whole leaf and usually cooked for the length of the dish, removed just before serving. It’s aromatic flavour is reminiscent of cinnamon and clove, but much more subtle with a leafy flavour of its own. Indian bay leaves are usually added with the whole spices at the beginning of a dish and browned slightly, imparting their flavour into the oil, and into the subsequent ingredients as the dish cooks.

12. Cinnamon/Cassia Bark (Dalachini)

Cassia bark is an ingredient you find in most Indian grocery stores. It is a relative of cinnamon, and you can use it in exactly the same way. Thus this advice goes for both cinnamon and cassia. Usually cinnamon and cassia bark are fried whole at the beginning cooking an Indian dish.

13. Fennel/Star Anise (Saunf/Chakra Phul)

We include these spices under one heading for the sake of comparison. Both taste like licorice, but tennel is a milder, sweeter flavour, while Anise is slightly stronger. They can both be used as whole tempering spices, or they can be roasted without oil and ground. 

14. Carom (Ajwain)

While it tastes somewhat like Anise, the seed-like fruit of this plant have an intensely savoury flavour, akin to oregano and thyme. Carom is an assertive ingredient, and tempering in oil or roasting them will produce a more subtle flavour. For the western chef looking to try a new dimension of flavour, carom is a must.

15. Nutmeg/Mace (Jaiphal/Javitri)

One of the key ingredients in Garam Masala, Nutmeg and Mace are a part of the same plant and generally have the same flavour properties. Both have a sharp, nutty aroma. To preserve the aroma, we recommend using whole nutmeg and grating as needed. Nutmeg, along with mustard can add a complex and complimentary note to curries that are coconut or almond-based.

16. Cloves (Lavang)

If you’ve ever cooked an easter Ham, you know the power of cloves. Cloves are a delicious with a curry rich in other powerful spices. Add too much, and you will overpower other subtler flavours, thus cloves must be used with great moderation. In a simple curry whose other main flavours are garlic and chili peppers, cloves function deliciously well. Find them in dishes like Patiala chicken.

17. Mustard Seeds (Rai)

Mustard Seed
Whether it’s brown, yellow or black, Mustard seeds are an essential component in Indian cooking, imparting a nutty, sharp flavour. Mustard is almost always included in the first stage of cooking, toasted or fried, whole, in oil.

18. Black Pepper (Kali Mirch)

You all know the flavour of black pepper. It is worth noting that its particular sharpness is unique in the pepper world. You are likely to taste the heat of black pepper first before any other hot ingredient, and it adds a powerful high flavour note that no other spice can hope to duplicate. Add black pepper as a finishing spice.

19. Indian Red Chili (Lal Mirch)

Indian red chili is a ground spice with a heat similar to cayenne pepper, though it may be hotter or milder depending on where the chilies come from and how they're grown. Typically its flavour is more floral than cayenne, and it is a brighter red. This is also a good ingredient to add slowly at the end, when you're adjusting the heat of your dish.


20. Curry leaves (Kadhipatta)

By no means the least siginificant Indian Spice, fresh curry leaves are difficult to find. Though they are called curry leaves, they are absent in many curries. They are the leaves of the Murraya koenigii, and – while available as a dried herb – are best used fresh, in the first stage of cooking, fried up with onions and your tadka spices, to impart a pungent, citrus-like aroma.

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