24 Top Indian Spices and How to Use Them
At Master Indian Spice, you can learn a lot about spices. If you have always wanted to be able to make Indian food like restaurants do, then stick with Master Indian Spice, try our spice kits, download our ebook, and you will have the knowledge of a beginner Indian chef.
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. You fry it in butter for a 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 Halls cough losanges) owing to a compound called cineole. Cardamom, too, can be added at the beginning of the cooking process, toasting or frying in oil before adding onions. You can use the pods whole, or pound them to release the seeds. Keep them in the dish for the duration of cooking.
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! 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. Recipes serving about 4 people usually only use one or two black cardamom pods whole.
They are particularly important for Indian Biryani, and are sometimes used whole to infuse the cooking rice with their singular flavour.
8. Ginger (Adarek)
Ginger is an absolutely essential ingredient for most curries, and is one half of the recipe for ginger garlic paste. Use a 1-2 inch length of raw ginger, grated or minced and add it with your garlic after you’ve clarified your onions.
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, and perhaps a little on the sweet or savoury side, a teaspoon of amchoor will bring a punch. 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 like fennel, but sharper and less floral (if not in appearance then in flavour. It's another great fried whole spice.
17. Carom (Ajwain)
Carom is a crazy spice. 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 quite a bit 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 that popus up from time to timme while someone eats the meal.
18. Nutmeg (Jaiphal)
Whole, grated nutmeg is a common ingredient in south indian cuisine. It is toasted and ground along with other spices, as well as sesame and poppyseed 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, nutty 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. Add black pepper as a finishing spice.
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 Company
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, and you want some practical hands-on guidance, simply buy a few of our spice kits. They give you a grocery list, walk you through the authentic steps of preparing a restaurant-quality Indian meal, and you will begin to learn what it takes to make real, authentic Indian food. It's simple, fun, and truly authentic.