Spices, with their vibrant colors and mesmerizing aromas, are the heart and soul of Indian cuisine. Throughout history, the Indian sub-continent has been at the center of the spice trade, contributing a staggering 75% of global spices production.
This cultural influence is palpable in the rich tapestry of Indian flavors found in their diverse and varied cuisine.
Essential Indian Spices
For a non-Indian native, having these essential spices in the pantry can give a quick start in the world of curries. Imagine a rich, aromatic curry simmering in a pot, with its irresistible fragrance wafting through the air. The foundation of most Indian curries lies in these five essential spices:
- Red Chili
The fiery red chili, also known as “lal mirch,” brings the much-loved heat to Indian dishes. Whether you prefer a mild kick or a scorching blaze, you can tailor red chili to your taste.
Uses: It not only adds heat but also imparts a vibrant red hue to the dishes. Kashmiri Chili differs from regular red chili, offering mild, vibrant red chilies that add color and gentle heat to dishes without overwhelming spiciness.
Often referred to as the “golden spice,” turmeric is a staple in Indian kitchens. This ginger-like root is dried and ground to make turmeric powder.
Uses: Beyond its earthy flavor, it offers a warm yellow color, enhancing the visual appeal of the dishes. Turmeric is also used for its anti-inflammatory properties and is a crucial component of the famous Indian spice blend, “curry powder.”
The smoky, nutty flavor of cumin seeds, known as “jeera,” adds depth to Indian curries, making it a must for achieving authentic Indian flavors.
Uses: Cumin seeds are often used in tempering, either at the beginning of a recipe or as a final touch to a curry. Use roasted and ground cumin seeds in spice blends for kebabs and curries.
The fresh, citrusy taste of coriander, or “dhaniya,” perfectly complements other spices in Indian cooking.
Uses: Whole coriander seeds are often used along with cumin seeds in tempering, while crushed or ground seeds are used in kababs and curries. Fresh coriander leaves (cilantro) are widely used for garnishing, providing a burst of flavor to the dishes.
4. Garam Masala
This aromatic spice blend is a symphony of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, and other spices. Garam masala adds warmth and complexity to curries, making them truly indispensable.
Uses: As garam masala is a spice blend of other whole Indian spices, it helps to cover up the aroma of those spices in dishes where whole spices are essential, like biryani, pulao, kabab, and haleem.
The trick is to add a spoonful of garam masala and skip the individual whole spices with little compromise to taste. This spice blend is handy when you don’t have all the spices in your pantry.
Remember, garam masala imparts a subtle aroma to the dishes and has a lot of heat. Use caution, as too much of it can cause acidity and heartburn.
Whole Spices: Elevating The Aromas
Whole spices are added to the famous biryani, made with layers of korma curry and basmati rice.
Korma, a delectable fried onion and dairy-based curry, exudes a heavenly aroma that can transport you to the heart of India.
Elevate your korma or biryani with the following spices. These spices are often added whole in boiled rice or gravies and removed while eating.
They are also used in spice blends like “biryani masala,” “korma masala,” “Tikka masala,” “Madras curry,” etc., where they are in ground form. Remember, freshly ground whole spices are stronger and should be used in moderation.
Cloves’ sweet and pungent essence infuses korma with a unique flavor profile, adding delightful depth to the dish’s aroma.
Uses: Whole cloves can be used in halwa desserts, curries, masala chai, and even in Indian remedies. Cloves are widely used in other cuisines as well.
The “king of spices,” black pepper, brings a pleasant heat that complements the creaminess of korma and enhances the dish’s digestibility.
Uses: Black pepper is often used as a whole in most Indian curries, and it is the main spice in many dishes like “Kali mirch curry.”
7. Green Cardamom
The “queen of spices,” cardamom, with its sweet and floral notes, elevates the flavors of korma, Indian sweets like kheer, sheer khurma, kulfi to new heights.
Uses: Green cardamom is used in both sweet and savory food and drinks. In gravies, it is used whole form, while in sweets, it is always used in powdered form.
8. Black Cardamom
It looks similar to green cardamom but is bigger in size and has a black color.
Uses: Unlike green cardamom, it is always used in savory dishes and has a stronger taste profile, making it perfect for meat gravies like keema curry and Indian spice blends.
The warm and comforting touch of cinnamon adds a hint of sweetness and a delightful woody essence to the food.
Uses: Unlike Western cuisine, cinnamon is always used in savory dishes in Indian food. Indian cinnamon, known as cassia bark, has a stronger, spicier flavor and is used in moderation.
Do not confuse this with Ceylon cinnamon, which is milder and used more profusely in Western desserts.
Nutmeg and Mace
The dynamic duo of nutmeg and mace, derived from the same plant, brings the curry a subtle, nutty sweetness and complexity. Nutmeg is the fruit, and mace is the dried aril.
Uses: They are used in the recipes of most kababs, korma, biryani, and other dishes that use many whole spices.
10. Bay Leaf
The fragrant bay leaf, or “tej patta,” infuses the dish with its herbal charm, leaving a lingering note of freshness.
Uses: This is added to boiling water for biryani rice. The bay leaf flavor is mild and easily fits in most meat-based Indian gravies.
11. Star Anise
The striking star-shaped spice introduces a licorice-like aroma, creating a captivating dance of flavors in the dish.
Uses: This spice has a very unique flavor and pairs well with dairy or coconut-based curries and curries that include a paste of nuts like cashews and almonds. It is often added to masala chai and pink tea.
Seeds Used as Spices
Indian pickles, or “achar,” are an explosion of flavors, and these seeds are at the heart of preserving their tangy essence. These seeds are also used to make Bengali panch poran spice blend.
Also called “kalonji,” nigella seeds contribute a mild onion-like flavor to pickles and lend an intriguing texture. You just can’t miss this flavor.
Uses: These seeds are often added to sabzi curries and achari curries.
13. Fenugreek Seeds
The bitter yet addictive taste of fenugreek seeds, or “methi,” plays a key role in pickle preparations, adding complexity and depth.
Uses: Fenugreek seeds are added to many gram-flour-based vegetarian curries. They are an essential spice in Pakora Kadhi.
Dried fenugreek leaves are popularly used in North Indian recipes like butter chicken, Karahi, Handi, and more. Fenugreek also aids digestion, making it a good pair with gram flour that can cause bloating.
14. Mustard Seeds
With their characteristic pungency, mustard seeds, or “rai,” are vital in creating the distinct flavors of Indian pickles.
Uses: Like fenugreek, mustard seeds are added to pickles and sabzi, and even flour-based gravies like kadhi, pakora, aloo masala, samosa, and many South Indian recipes.
15. Fennel Seeds
The aromatic and slightly sweet fennel seeds, known as “saunf,” contribute a refreshing touch to the food.
Uses: This sweet spice is popularly used as a mouth freshener. It is used in a popular spice blend of nihari and haleem. It infuses earthy flavors into marinated meats and vegetables.
16. Carom Seeds (Ajwain)
Known for their digestive properties, carom seeds impart a slightly bitter, earthy flavor to Indian bread and snacks.
Uses: This spice is popularly used in Indian bread and pastry like samosa, paratha, and naan. It is also an essential ingredient in pakora and some dal recipes.
Fruit, Leaves, and Stamen Are Used as Spice
For certain dishes and special occasions, these spices play a specific role in enhancing flavors:
17. Anaar Dana (Dried Pomegranate Seeds)
The dried pomegranate seeds add a tangy, fruity twist to chutneys and spice blends, making them a delightful feast for the senses.
Uses: Anaar dana is used more commonly in Persian cuisine. In Indian cuisine, it is added to ground meat kababs like chapli kabab and keema naan, anaar dana chicken, and mashed potato stuffings.
This sweet and sour fruit lends its distinctive taste to various dishes, from tangy chutneys to flavorful sambar.
Uses: It is also added to gram flour curries. Most chaat recipes like pani puri, channa chat, and methi puri are unimaginable without this ingredient.
Derived from dried green mangoes, amchur imparts a tangy, sour taste to pickles, making them irresistible.
Uses: Amchur is called upon to add sour tinges to Kebab and snacks like pani puri, chaat, and masala aloo. It can be substituted with lemon or tamarind in many dishes.
20. Curry Leaves
Curry leaves are to South India and Gujrati what Lemongrass is to Thai cuisine. These thick dark green leaves are often grown in Indian neighborhoods for fresh supplies.
Uses: They are added in the tempering and add citrusy notes to various dishes, from dal and sabzi to chat, kadhi, dhokla, dhokri, and sambhar.
Last but the most precious spice is saffron, “the spice gold.” This spice requires labor-intensive harvesting and is actually the stamen of a flower. They come in various quality grades with different taste intensities and aromas. Saffron is also called “kesar” and “zafaran.”
Uses: Saffron is used in drinks from tea to sharbat. It suits best in making Indian sweets like zafrani kheer, kesar kulfi, sheer khurma, kesar ladoo, kesari lassi, and much more. Savory uses include adding biryani and korma to make zafarani biryani and Zafrani murgh.
Indian Spice Blends
This detailed guide seems incomplete without some information about popular spice blends. While Indian curry masala and garam masala can save you from buying a lot of spices separately, other popular spice blends like tikka and tandoori are great choices for marinating food like meat and veggies for grilling.
If you’re embarking on a rice dish, biryani masala is a great option. Chaat masala is the ultimate Punjabi spice that is more of a condiment and can be sprinkled on anything from snacks to curries for an added flavor boost.
Chai masala is used to make masala chai. This soothing and refreshingly warm milk tea can lower stress and help you unwind after work.
As you venture into the world of Indian spices, let your taste buds be your guide. Explore, experiment, and savor the diverse flavors these magical spices bring to your culinary creations.
Embark on a flavor-packed journey through the colorful tapestry of Indian cuisine, where every spice tells a story, and every dish is a celebration of life.