Which Spices are Used in Indian Cuisine?
What are the essential spices in Indian cooking and how to use them? Find out in this detailed article, written by Srikant Singh, the author of the online course The Mastery of Spices.
Before I start this article, let me put a disclaimer, to call a Cuisine Indian would be a blasphemy, ignoring its diversity in food, culture and people. Broadly speaking the food is as diverse as the number of languages and dialects the country has, and that runs into thousands. India is a large diverse subcontinent that still excites those who wish to traverse through the deserts, lush fields, thick forests and rugged terrains of the country.
This country loves its food and since centuries it has embraced and loved every new spice she was introduced to. If the Indian kitchen were to be imagined as a collection of several Indian cuisines, the kitchen would look like a library of spices. The collection would be huge and where to begin would be the first question that would come to your mind. A deep desire to learn about spices and your curiosity to know them better has brought you here, so let me begin with the essentials.
Here are the most essential spices that you need to have in your kitchen if you are beginning to explore the Indian cuisine.
First are the FOUR MOST ESSENTIAL SPICES that are a must have in an Indian kitchen.
1. Coriander or Dhania :
Most people think of cilantro leaves when they come across the word coriander. In Indian cooking when we talk about coriander as a spice, it’s the seeds that we are talking about.
Coriander seeds vary in size and color depending on its variety and there are two main ones, European and Indian. European Coriander seeds are larger and are considered to be more flavorful, however the Indian coriander seeds are marginally smaller, lighter in color with a greenish tint and has a unique lemony flavor to it.
The Spice is a small pod with two seeds in it and it holds its true aroma like many other whole spices like a secret treasure. It is only when the whole coriander is roasted it’s true lemony flavor emerges. Precisely for this reason it is recommended to buy the whole spice and roast and grind on demand, only enough to last a few days. The finer the powder the more uniform its flavor will be. When added to the curry, it imparts to it an earthy, citrus, floral and nutty flavor. Coriander powder thickens the curry and adds sweetness to it, it evens out the flavor from other spices that were added to the dish. The spice is also a major ingredient in many spice mixes like Garam Masala, Sambar Masala.
2. Cumin or Jeera :
This spice is commonly known as Jeera in India, but most people confuse it with fennel, black cumin and caraway seeds. To clear out the fog, if you walk into any spice store, any respectable spice merchant will know what Jeera is. Depending on the country of origin, cumin comes in varying sizes, flavor and aroma.
The Cumin seeds preferred in the Indian kitchens is the Indian Jeera. It is much larger and more flavorful than the other varieties.
Just like coriander, you will know the true aroma of Jeera when it is roasted. Roasting spice is an art and roasting Jeera is a work of patience. The darker the roast the more bitter it is, and it’s used as a seasoning in yoghurt based dishes or the popular Indian street foods. Jeera is an excellent digestive and its dark ground roast is often consumed with plain yogurt at the end of a meal. Most kitchens in India roast and grind a week’s worth of Jeera on their own.
Jeera is used whole and in powdered form. It is also a main ingredient in popular spice blends such as Garam Masala and Panch Phoran, Jal jeera and chaat masala. When used in combination with coriander powder for making curry, the ratio is usually 2 parts coriander powder and one part Jeera powder. It is used to temper the lentils and to flavor the oil in which vegetables or rice are cooked.
Until the Portuguese arrived at the Indian shores, black pepper was the mainstay in Indian kitchens to make the food hot. Today though, Chili is an integral part of every Indian kitchen and it varies in heat from mild to very hot. They are used in several forms: fresh green chili, dried red chili, dried and ground red chili. Fresh red chili is hardly ever used in Indian cuisine.
The ghost chili or Naga Jolokia, dubbed as one of the hottest chilis in the world is used in some cuisines in the North eastern cuisines of India, but is unknown to the rest of the country.
Guntur chili, Byadagi chili, Mathania Red chilli, Kashmiri chilli are other popular varieties. Chilis also come in various shapes and sizes. They can be round, long or conical and can have varying lengths. Some have a smooth skin while some varieties can have a wrinkly texture.
Some cuisines and spice mixes demand for a certain type of chilli to be used and not all chilis are created equal. For example Kasmiri chili is mildly spicy but imparts a bright red color to the food. But Kashmiri red chili is a rare commodity and what you will most often see in the market is a blend and not true Kashmiri chili powder.
Most manufacturers sell their chilli powder as blends of two or three different varieties of chili. Different brands are popular in different markets. In some parts the color of the chilli powder plays an important role while in others the heat is most valued.
Since grinding chili is not a recommended amateur sport, people buy ground red chili powder of their preferred brand from the market.
If making fresh chilli flakes is your passion then always prefer the chili with a thicker skin.
Turmeric is a spice that has the holy status in Indian kitchens. It’s used both as a home remedy and in everyday cooking. Turmeric is one of the few indigenous spices of India and grows in various parts of India. The varieties differ in the amount of curcumin with a range of 3 to 7%. The higher the amount of curcumin the more color it imparts, the greater is its healing property and the more valuable it is.
Fresh Turmeric is essentially a rhizome and its shape resembles that of ginger, however there are also much rounder varieties available. In everyday cooking though fresh turmeric is hardly ever used. Turmeric roots are dried and then ground into a fine powder and in everyday cooking turmeric powder is always preferred over the fresh one. Almost all Indian dishes use Turmeric, it imparts an earthy, astringent flavor to the food and bright yellow color.
Fresh Turmeric is on the other hand higher in curcumin content and therefore used mainly as medicine or to prepare Golden milk.
There are also some exquisite varieties of Turmeric like the Black Turmeric or the Mango turmeric but these are exotic ingredients and deserve their own space for discussion. One thing you must remember though is that in cooking, you cannot interchange yellow turmeric with any other rare type turmeric.
Download the Visual Spice Guide, to learn the basics of cooking with spices.
Apart from the four above mentioned essential spices, there are more fragrant spices that are used in the Indian kitchen:
5. Cassia Stick Dalchini :
If you have ever eaten an Indian Rice delicacy called Biryani and have found a piece of stick in it, lift it with your fingers and very gently taste it with the tip of your tongue. It might send you mixed signals about your fondness towards it. This spice gives the rich aroma and flavor to many rich aromatic dishes and is a must have ingredient in garam masala..
It is also used for making curries that have meat as it very nicely masks the smell of the meat. The spice also gives a very nice stock flavor to the soups and lentils.
This is a spice that is often sold as cinnamon. The fact is that the cassia comes from cinnamomum cassia whereas true cinnamon comes from cinnamomum verum plant. They are of the same botanical family but are different spices. Both cassia and cinnamon look the same to an untrained eye. Cassia is much sweeter and much stronger in flavor.
Both cinnamon and cassia are barks of the tree but cinnamon is a roll of layers of very thinly sliced bark. Cassia on the other hand are sold in broken dark brown pieces of bark or rolls of the lighter inner bark that are not layered. In Indian cooking, however, cassia is used more than cinnamon.
The common question people have is “Which of the two is better” and the answer is it depends on how and what purpose one is using it for
6. Tejpat, Indian BayLeaf :
When Indian recipes started to get popular one of the ingredients of the recipe would be written as “bay leaf”. The result was not so spectacular, often because the bay leaves that they were putting in the Indian dishes were out of sync with the rest of the aromatic, sweeter spices like cardamom and clove. It even surprised many Indians who had set foot abroad for the first time often wondering why this leaf looks so different, tastes so different and still called bay leaf.
Indian bay leaf is actually called Tejpat, literally translating to a sharp tasting leaf. It is the leaf of the cassia plant and has a very warming taste, something that is a great mix of clove and cinnamon. Apart from being a very popular ingredient in Ayurvedic medicine, it is liberally used in day to day cooking. It is also a very inexpensive spice which also explains its popularity. The plant grows in tropical and humid climates and is a popular spice in the Northern region of India. The leaf is always bloomed in oil in which the food is cooked.
If you happen to find this leaf in your plate, ideally you must suck it thoroughly without chewing it and then discard and you would have earned your place in the local tribe.
7. Ajwain, Carom Seeds :
When the soul of Thyme went on a world trip it seems like it left its footprint in certain spices. Ajwain and thyme are not the same plant, yet people often get them mixed up. They look slightly similar, they even have this sharp piercing taste. One third of the volatile oil present in Ajwain is Thymol, which is the oil present in Thyme.
The Spice Ajwain must also not be confused with celery seeds. Ajwain deserves its own place in the kitchen and your medicine cabinet. If you are new to eating beans and lentils and if you are on a hunt for homemade gastric disorder remedies, this simple spice is your find. It is used as an effective home remedy against bloating and other gastric disorders. Owing to its powerful digestive qualities it is used in cooking extensively.
8. Green Cardamom :
The queen of Indian spices Green cardamom is distinctively the most aromatic of all spices. If you chew a pod and enter a public space you will get some kind of stares, secretly hoping that you would tell them the secret of your fragrant breath. Green cardamom is green and if you come across Black cardamom which is much bigger then you must understand that these are two different spices from two different plants.
They are both pods with seeds in them, which probably explains their same last names. The spice is a major ingredient in Garam masala and is used extensively when the intent is to make a very aromatic dish, be it savory or sweet. Green cardamom can be used whole or its seeds can be used in crushed and ground form. It is almost always used in every single Indian sweet dish. The aroma gives the food a touch of royalty and elegance. At home this spice is used on special occasions owing to the fact that the spice is much more expensive than its other aromatic companions.
9. Tamarind :
Long before Tomatoes became popular in India, many locally available souring spices were used and Tamarind is one such spice. Although the spice is available and known throughout India, it’s most extensively used in the Southern States of the Indian peninsula. It’s also a popular spice in South East Asian countries.Tamarind is a fruit of the tamarind tree and when unripe, it resembles green beans, just thicker ones.
Different countries process it differently when the Tamarind fruit is ripe. In some countries they are deshelled, deseeded and made into a paste. However in the Southern states of India they are deshelled and sundried. The sweet and tangy flavor of Tamarind is unmatched and unique. South Indian foods like Idli and Dosa are always served with Sambar. This Spicy lentil soup is soured with Tamarind extract. Tamarind’s tangy flavor is a must in several Indian street foods, pickles and chutneys.
10. Fenugreek Seeds :
The spice has the word Greek in it but no one in present day Greece have probably heard of it. Known commonly as Methi in India, this inexpensive, nutritious and flavorful spice will almost always be a part of every kitchen in most parts of India.
To an untrained eye they look no different than tiny uniformly colored stones and biting them will leave a bitter after taste in your mouth.
It is probably to remind us that not everything that tastes like cardamom and clove is a spice. Fenugreek is a tribe in its own right and its use has to be justified, too much of it in a dish and you will make the food bitter. The fenugreek seeds are used in Panch Phoran, Sambar Masala and it’s also one of the prime ingredients in Indian pickles. The seed when soaked in water softens and then both the water and the seeds are ground together with lentils and rice to prepare Idli dosa batter. The seeds can also be sprouted and added to your salads. The earthy flavor and aroma of this spice is only realized when it blooms in oil or hot water.
Fenugreek, just like Turmeric, occupies the shelf as a healing spice. It helps in reducing flatulence, greatly helps in reducing blood sugar, used in many home remedies for cough. The spice is also popular amongst nursing mothers as it boosts lactation.
11. Mustard Seeds :
There isn’t a kitchen in India that will not have mustard seeds in its spice box. But Mustard seeds come in three varieties: brown, black and yellow. Yellow mustard is sweeter and less pungent than the other two. Black mustard seeds are smaller in size and are the most pungent of all.
Black mustard and brown mustard often get substituted for each other but for those recipes that demand yellow mustard, there can be no substitute.
Yellow mustard seed is a major spice in the Bengali cuisine. Brown and black mustard seeds find their use in several spice mixes from Southern India and in Panch Phoran.
The spice can be bloomed in a hot medium like oil to release its nutty flavor. When achieving pungency in a dish is the main goal then this spice needs to be ground in a mortar and pestle into a fine paste along with sharp tasting herbs like garlic, ginger and green chilli. The brown mustard seeds are also used to extract Mustard oil – a favorite cooking oil in the Eastern parts of India.
This is an inexpensive and humble spice but is not short on both flavoring the food and it’s invaluable healing properties.
12. Curry Leaf :
To many, curry leaves are an ingredient in a recipe and not a spice, mainly because in India it’s mostly used fresh and quite literally straight out of the tree branches. Technically all spices are dry seeds, herbs, fruits, flowers and leaves. And this is where fresh curry leaves will not get classified as a spice in India. However, it’s dried and sold as a spice in parts of the world where the tree can’t grow.
Curry leaf is rightly spelled as Kadi leaf or Kadi Patta. Kadi means bitter and patta means leaf. To know why someone would use a bitter tasting spice in food, you will actually have to try using it. Once you have had a taste of it in food, you might actually find a new meaning to the phrase “Leaving a bitter taste in mouth”.
The unique flavor of this spice is unlocked when it is bloomed in oil along with black mustard seeds and red chilli. It is used extensively in the southern indian cuisines. It is used to flavor the oil in which the food is cooked or to temper an already cooked dish. Until cooking was made popular on the internet, few people from the Northern part of India knew about this spice or herb. These days it is a popular tree in the backyards or mini gardens of houses across the country. Curry leaves won’t be found in spice shops in India. People get it from the trees in the neighborhood or as a complement from the local vegetable vendor.
This spice is so popular in Southern India that almost no dish is complete without its addition. Like several spices, curry leaf improves digestion, contains several essential vitamins and it’s a popular home remedy for treating an upset stomach.
13. Black Pepper :
It is one of the few spices that originate in India and most abundantly in the Malabar coast of Kerala and the tropical rainforests of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. To clear out the confusion, white, red and green pepper are all but the pepper from the same plant. What changes their color is the processing. I explain it in great detail in my online course The Mastery of Spices.
Pepper is used abundantly around the world. In India it’s used most regularly in the state of Kerala, where almost every dish will have some peppercorns in them. Before the chili plants were introduced in India, pepper was what gave the heat to the food. Pepper is not just a spice, it’s valued also for its medicinal properties. Several popular spice blends will use pepper in varied amounts. Pepper in Indian food is always consumed in its dry form and white, red or green pepper in India is a rarity, if not unknown.
14. Asafoetida – Hing :
This is a spice that’s, mostly, not produced in India, but India is its largest consumer. There are communities in India that don’t eat garlic and önions. Asafoetida helps fill in that gap in taste. Lentils and beans are also consumed in India everyday. Tempering the food with Asafoetida helps in digestion and reduces flatulence.
Hing or Asafoetida is a resin from a plant and is commonly available in the markets in powdered form, usually mixed with fenugreek powder, wheat flour or turmeric. For those who are experts at using it, they prefer to buy the spice in its purest form, which looks just like a grey lump of clay. This is a spice that should be kept away from other spices, its odor is contagious and can steal the aroma of other spices. It should also be kept in a closed airtight container. It’s used in powdered form in spice blends like Sambar masala, but its most common use is in tempering lentil soups where it makes a profoundly pleasant difference to the taste and aroma of the food.