Spices are the heart and soul of Indian cooking. Each spice imparts a distinct flavour, and there are unlimited combinations that can give your dish a wonderful and unique aroma. However, the list of spices needed for an Indian recipe can make anyone feel overwhelmed. It can feel almost impossible to select the right spices at the grocery store when you’re faced with endless options. Walking down the spice aisle at the grocery store always fascinates and intimidates me. Rows and rows of spice powders, sticks, seasoning blends and mixes, pastes and extracts are dizzying. I could spend hours smelling them and imagining the food they’ll be used for.
The Indian spices that grace our grocery store shelves are just the beginning. Ethnic foods stores offer a broader selection of spice blends and herbs that are sure to surprise your palate.
I hope this post will help you become more comfortable with Indian cooking and the spices/herbs most commonly used. I will continue a running list of spices, but make sure to leave a comment if there’s a spice you want to know more about.
The spices with an asterisk(*) beside the name are basic spices I recommend keeping on hand to pull together most common Indian dishes
*Cardamom – available as pods containing aromatic seeds. It’s used widely in Indian cooking, including rice, curries and desserts. Try adding 2-3 pods to your rice, while it’s cooking, to create a delightfully fragrant dish.
* Chili powder– add some heat and colour to your dish with this spice. It definitely packs a punch so use it sparingly or sprinkle on top of your dish for a pop of colour.
*Cinnamon – the sweet spice – it’s dried from tree bark and sold as ground cinnamon or sticks. Used mostly in Indian savory dishes but commonly found in desserts in Western culture. The sweet, warm flavour of cinnamon can be intensified by toasting the sticks on the stove before adding to your dish.
Cloves – dried up flower buds, used in cooking as well as medicinally. Cloves can be used whole or ground up and give a very strong and aromatic flavour to foods. Its versatile aroma allows it to be used in rice and curries, or incorporated into soups, desserts or warm drinks like apple cider.
*Coriander seeds – available as whole seed or powder – it gives a citrusy sweet flavour and forms the base of most Indian dishes. It comes from the coriander (ie – cilantro) plant which produces the spice and herb. Coriander powder loses its flavour quickly so it’s best to toast and then grind the seeds in a spice grinder as needed.
*Cumin – a staple spice, it’s the “salt and pepper” of Indian cooking. It’s available as the seed and powder. Cumin gives a warm, earthy and nutty flavour to dishes. Try toasting then grinding it to bring out a more intense nutty flavour.
*Curry leaves – a herb that gives a spicy and citrusy aroma, and an essential part of Indian cooking. Sauté 1 or 2 leaves in a bit of oil and other spices, such as fenugreek seeds or cumin, before adding to your curry..
Fenugreek seeds – this spice gives a rich but slightly bitter flavour to Indian food. Try frying in a bit of oil first before adding it into your curry.
*Garam Masala – blend of several spices. The combinations may differ but generally include cardamom, coriander, cumin, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. This combination spice is essential for most Indian cooking and can be found in the ethnic food aisle in most grocery stores.
Mustard seeds – most commonly used are black mustard seeds. Fry in oil first (along with a few fenugreek seeds) before adding to Indian dishes. The flavour is not very strong so don’t worry if you’re not a fan of mustard.
Saffron – very rare and expensive, it is the dried stigma of the Crocus flower. It adds a distinct but delicate aroma to your dishes, not to mention a vibrant colour as well. Used commonly in Indian biryani or the Spanish dish known as paella.
Star anise – dried fruit in the shape of a star. It gives a warm licorice flavour to your food.
*Turmeric – part of the ginger family, it is ground up and used in most Indian dishes. It has an earthy flavour and a vibrant yellow colour.