24 Top Indian Spices and How to Use Them
Indian food encompasses several centuries-old culinary traditions from all over the broad subcontinent. Pulling from these traditions to produce beautiful cooking is an almost spiritual act. Certainly exploring Indian food will greatly expand your cooking repertoire. Below are the the 24 top spices used in Indian cooking. Getting familiar with these is a great first step in your knowledge.
Master Indian Spice has developed a cook-at-home kit that walks you through the most fundamental cooking steps of many popular Indian dishes, such as Butter Chicken, Madras, Vindaloo and Korma. For CDN 4.99 you can try a cooking kit and experience the traditional method of Indian cooking first-hand. Cooking a few different dishes with Master Indian Spice's kits will give you the fundamental skills you need to work more complicated recipes with all the extraordinary ingredients we've described below.
Alright enough of that. Let’s get into the business of how to use Indian spices in cooking!
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 real contribution is its health benefits and colour. It is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant and helps with heart disease, depression, and arthritis. Turmeric is typically added, as a powder, to a curry sauce after the wet ingredients have been added.
Typically, turmeric takes only a teaspoon or two to flavour and colour a dish for a family of four. If you’re using it for health purposes, (i.e., if you wanna soak up the curcumin), make sure you include some black pepper in your recipe!
2. Cumin (Jira)
Cumin is an incredible spice. It’s in almost every Indian dish. It is fried in butter as the spice foundation for Butter Chicken, you fry it in oil for most taarka recipes, and you use it in all versions of the famous garam masala. It has a flavour profile not unlike carraway or dill.
Generally cumin is best used whole, and fried in oil at the beginning of a dish (the process called taarka). At a higher heat, cumin will turn brown quickly, in 15 or so seconds. Make sure you don’t burn it, and when it starts to pop, you know it’s done.
3. Green Cardamom (Cchoti Ilayachi)
You can’t mistake the flavor of green cardamom. It tastes a lot like eucalyptus (and hence like many cough losanges) owing to a compound called cineole. Still don't let that discourage you. Cardamom is one of the key ingredients in Indian cuisine, particularly in Biryani.
Whole green cardamom is a key taarka ingredient, one of those spices fried in hot oil at the beginning of cooking an Indian dish. Usually between two and six whole cardamom pods are what you will find in an Indian recipe
Coriander is the seed of cilantro. This seed has an aroma like citrus mixed with some leafy, woody notes. It is one of the main spice ingredients in Madras and Vindaloo, wherein it combines incredibly well with the sour elements in those dishes. Grind it just prior to adding to a sauce, or you can add it to your fry oil for a short amount of time just in advance of adding your onions. You’ll find it in many recipes that
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 and heartier meat dishes. When working with cilantro, be aware that some people find it tastes like soap.
6. 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. As a powder, ti’s fantastic for adding to sauces.
Check out our article on how to make garam masala, where we give you a recipe and a few more advanced instructions.
7. 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. There is no substitute for the unique fragrance of black cardamom Recipes serving about 4 people usually only use one or two black cardamom pods whole.
This spice is particularly important for Indian Biryani, and is very often used whole to infuse the rice in the final stage of cooking. Cooking Biryani rice is a two step process... You must first cook the rice until it is mostly cooked, with only a thin white core in the middle. Then it is cooked with the vegetables and meat and spices or biryani masala, this is the highest culinary height of black cardamom, and well-worth learning with a good Indian Biryani recipe.
8. Ginger (Adarek)
Ginger is an absolutely essential ingredient for most curries, and is one half of the recipe for ginger garlic paste. For most Indian dishes, if you are not using ginger/garlic paste (which you probably will be), you can use a 1-2 inch length of raw ginger, grated or minced and add it with your garlic after you’ve clarified your onions. Make sure you have peeled the ginger first.
9. Garlic (Lahasun)
Garlic 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.
10. Asafetida (Hing)
Asafoetida is one of our favourite spices. From a Western perspective, it is a weird spice. It smells a little strange. People say it smells terrible, but it is merely strong. It imparts a scent that is in the family of onions and leeks, sort of sulphrous and piercing, but really like nothing else you’ve had.
To use hing, or asafoetida, you must always add it to your frying pan when your oil or butter is hot. It should sizzle for a few seconds 5-20 before adding onions, garlic, or ginger. For a meal of four, expect to use between ¼ and ½ of a teaspoon of hing. Make sure to store it in a sealed container. You can find more out about this spice on our asafoetida blog post.
11. 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 bitterness and a hint of maple. You may use the ground seeds or the leaves, and either one has a sweet/bitter flavour. For the seeds, you can use the same proportions of fenugreek as you do of asafoetida.
The leaves are less prone to bitterness however, and have a delicious maple-like aroma. You may use up to a few tablespoons in a family size dish near the end of the cooking process.
12. Mango Powder (Amchoor)
Usually this powder is just called amchoor. It’s one of our favourite spices. If you find your dish is bland - if specifically it could benefit from a sour flavour, Amchoor is the answer. A teaspoon of amchoor will bring about as much sourness as a half a lemon. There's a little sweetness in it as well. Because this powder consists of dried mango, it is chock full of acids and a little goes a long way. You can find out more about this ingredient in Master Indian’s blog post on how to use amchoor.
13. 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.
14. 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, and left in.
15. Fennel (Saunf)
Fennel and anise both bear a strong resemblance to black licorice. Fennel is great as a whole spice in taarka, and is another key ingredient in the flavouring of madras and other curries. Indian restaurants often use candied fennel seed as an after-dinner mint.
16. Star Anise (Chakra Phul)
Anise tastes like fennel, but sharper and less floral. Star anise is used in some preparations of Garam Masala. It is a delicious taarka, or frying spice, and is the key seasoning of the incredible tamarind chutney that you will find in many Indian restaurants or as a side of dipping sauce when you buy chapatis, samosas, and other Indian street-type foods.
17. Carom (Ajwain)
Carom is a crazy spice. The flavour is strong and startling when eaten raw (which we don't recommend, just as we wouldn't recommend eating asafoetida raw). Though it looks like a seed, it is technically a dried fruit. Each tiny seed has a huge amount of thymol in it, and this gives it a flavour a bit like thyme, but several times stronger. Using carom in breads is common throughout India.
A small quanity of carom in a sauce adds huge character, particularly because the seeds tend to hold onto their very strong flavour. Typically 1/8th of a teaspoon is enough. Once it's fried in hot oil or butter, it emits a slightly smoky taste which adds an element of surprise to many Indian meals. It balances well with most common Indian spices, and is particularly good for adding dimension to a taarka dal or another dish with a lot of other assertive spice flavours like cardamom and cumin.
18. Nutmeg (Jaiphal)
Whole, grated nutmeg is a common ingredient across India, particularly in the south. using it as a whole spice is a completely different experience than using the ground spice, which rapidly loses the strong nutmeg flavour.
To use a whole nutmeg, you can either shave it with a sharp knife, which is a delighful experience, since it crumbles into a coarse powder as you slice it. The advantage of a freshly grated or shaved nutmeg is that it still contains all those volatile oils and moisture that give it such a distinctive flavour. You can also leave the nutmeg whole or smash it into larger chunks, and use it in a taarka step.
In south Indian cuisine, nutmeg is toasted and ground along with coconut, sesame, and poppyseed along with other spices to make masalas (spice mixes) for Keralan chicken curries, and thattukada (street vendor) dishes.
19. Mace (Javitri)
Mace is a webbing or leaf-like spice that wraps the nutmeg seed. Mace has an even more savoury, musky flavour than nutmeg, but they are similar enough that their flavours can easily be confused.
Mace is often fried whole, and usually one blade or leaf of mace is enough to really impart a strong flavour
20. Cloves (Lavang)
If you’ve ever cooked an easter Ham, you know cloves. They're strong. Add too much, and you will overpower other subtler flavours. Generally for a family-sized meal, we're using between four and ten whole cloves, depending on the dish. They are another very important biryani ingredient. You can find them in dishes like out Patiala chicken, in all Biryanis, and in many aromatic Indian curries.
21. Mustard Seeds (Rai)
Whether it’s brown, yellow or black, Mustard seeds are an essential component in Indian cooking, imparting a nutty, sharp note to many curries, and like many of the whole spices we've mentioned, they are often favoured for cooking in oil at the beginning of preparing a recipe.
22. 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.
23. 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.
24. Curry leaves (Kadhipatta)
By no means the least siginificant Indian spice, curry leaves are one of the most enigmatic Indian spice. They are the leaves of the Murraya koenigii, and – while available as a dried herb – are best used fresh, in the first or second stage of cooking, fried up with onions and your tadka spices, to impart a pungent, citrus-like aroma.
How to Use Indian Spices in Cooking
So let's wrap this into a stepwise process. For some specific techniques and more detailed instruction, you can download our ebook. Signup through the site's popup, and we'll email it to you. But here, in 5 steps, is how to cook an Indian curry-style entrée.
1. Marinating with Indian Spices
Marination usually involves yogurt or some other acidic ingredient, plus spices. This is so for butter chicken, tikka, and many of the classic dishes associated with Indian cooking. A mixture of ground spices such as turmeric, garam masala, cardamom, coriander, cumin, is common for this step.
2. Frying Spices in Oil
You can fry your indian spices slowly or quickly. Try 10-20 minutes at a low-to-medium heat in a pan with some oil or butter, or 10-30 seconds at a medium-high heat, taking care that the spices do not burn. The second (or sometimes first) step is thus infusing oil with flavours, and it is a critical step.
3. Frying Onions and Other Vegetables
Onions come in after the oil is infused with spice flavour. Along with the onions you can add ginger, garlic, leeks, chilies, and ground spices such as garam masala and ground cardamom and coriander, or black pepper.
4. Adding Indian Spices to a Sauce
Finally, when you're adding sauce ingredients to an Indian dish, such as coconut milk, milk, cream, tomato sauce, tomatoes, or tomato paste, you can add more spices at this stage, such as turmeric, paprika, and Indian red chili powder to balance all the flavours you've added thus far.
If this whole process sounds intimidating, please know it doesn't have to be. Master Indian Spice's cooking kits are all you need to get started. You'll just have to buy yourself some groceries, such as chicken, tomatoes, onions, and coconut milk. Then you can simply let the kits walk you through the authentic steps of preparing a restaurant-quality Indian meal, and you will learn the fundamental skills needed to work with Indian spices.