There are more than 40 Indian spices. Many are obscure and used only in certain regions, like stone flower and garcinia. We’ve come up with this list of 24 essential spices that are used in just about all Indian food, encompassing several centuries-old culinary traditions from all over the broad subcontinent.
Combining traditional spices 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 spices is a great first step in your knowledge.
1. Turmeric (Haldi)
Indian food needs turmeric. Turmeric, a ground spice, has an earthy supporting flavour. Of all the spices used in Indian cooking, this one has huge health benefits, and an astounding yellow colour. Usually only a teaspoon is used to flavour and colour a dish for a family of four. If used for health purposes, make sure to include at least a dash of black pepper in your recipes. Turmeric is a great anti-inflammatory, but without the piperine from black pepper, its effects are diminished.
2. Cumin (Jira)
Cumin seed is a spice with a flavour profile a little like caraway or dill, and is a staple of Indian cooking and curries. Generally cumin seeds are best used whole, and fried in oil at the beginning of a dish (the process called taarka).
At a higher heat, cumin seeds will turn brown quickly, in 15 or so seconds. Make sure you don’t burn them, and when they start to pop, you know they’re done. Ground cumin powder is also an essential spice used in India, and is one of the key ingredients in garam masala spice mix.
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. It’s great 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, and is one of the most essential spices in our list.
This seed has an aroma like citrus mixed with some leafy, woody notes, and is used in many dishes including Madras and Vindaloo. Ground into powder just prior to adding to a sauce is the best way to use coriander seeds.
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 that the flavour tastes like soap.
6. Garam Masala
India’s most famous seasoning is Garam masala. It’s actually a combination of dried spices including pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cumin, coriander, tej patta, pepper, and some others. It is the used in many dishes, including Chana Masala. Add one to two teaspoons while your onions are frying, or while your sauce is simmering. Sometimes it’s used as Garnish.
Check out our article on how to make garam masala, and use it in Indian cuisine. We should note that of all spices, garam masala is the most diverse. It’s like no other spice in that the list of ingredients used to make it vary immensely from region to region, and hence the taste does also. Some contain mustard, some contain a lot of fennel, some just a little, but no matter what food you’re eating in India, this spice, rather this mix of spices will likely be an ingredient.
7. Black Cardamom (Kali Ilayachi)
Black cardamom seeds have the same eucalyptus scent as green ones, and are one of the most essential spices in our list. The key difference is that before being used in food, they’re dried over a fire, hence are blackened and smoky in flavour.
There is no substitute for the unique fragrance of black cardamom. Many dishes use them. Recipes serving about 4 people usually only use one or two black cardamom pods whole. In Indian cooking, you’ll often find these in Biriyani.
8. Ginger (Adarek)
Of all Indian spices, Ginger is an absolutely essential ingredient for most curries, and is one half of the recipe for ginger garlic paste, used in most food of India. It’s fine to use this spice dried. Some recipes even call for it. Most Indian dishes call for ginger/garlic paste. If you have none, you can cut a 1-2 inch length of raw ginger, grated or minced and cook it with your garlic after you’ve clarified your onions. Make sure you have peeled the ginger first.
9. Garlic (Lahasun)
What’s garlic doing in a list of Indian spices? Well, it’s not uniquely Indian (or technically a spice), but it is an essential Indian 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 flavor. For a milder flavor, add it at the beginning when you start frying your onions, or for a sharper flavor, add it after your onions are soft, giving the garlic less cooking time.
Asafoetida (hing) is one of our favourite Indian spices. To cook with hing, is to cook with one of the most powerful aromatic spices in the world.
To use hing, 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)
One of the subtle Indian spices is Fenugreek. Fenugreek seeds are quite bitter, but have enormous health benefits. The leaves are a green aromatic spice and are less prone to bitterness, and have a delicious maple-like aroma. This Indian spice is what people say “smells like curry.”
Of all Indian spices, this spice may be the most essential. You may use up to a few tablespoons in a family size dish near the end of the cooking process, but start with a teaspoon. Fenugreek seeds also have many health benefits.
Usually this powder is just called amchoor. It’s one of our favourite spices and when added to any dish, it imparts a great sourness. It’s a common Indian seasoning, and it’s extremely sour.
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. Tej Patta
In Indian cooking, Tej Patta 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.
Tej Patta leaves are usually added with mustard seeds, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, and other frying spices at the beginning of a dish and browned slightly.
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 frying spice, and is the key seasoning of the incredible tamarind chutney that you will find in many restaurants or as a side of dipping sauce when you buy chapatis, samosas, and other Indian street-type foods.
17. Carom (Ajwain)
Carom is very strong, and used in many Indian dishes. Each tiny carom fruit 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.
When used in Indian dishes, it is used in moderation, fried first imparting a smoky flavour, and balances well with cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and other assertive flavours like mustard, cardamom or cumin.
18. Nutmeg (Jaiphal)
Whole, grated nutmeg is a common ingredient across India, particularly in south Indian cuisine. When used as a whole spice, you can either shave it with a sharp knife. Use this spice by shaving the nutmeg with a sharp knife. You can also leave the nutmeg whole or smash it into larger chunks, and use it in a taarka step.
In south Indian cuisine and many Indian dishes, nutmeg is toasted and ground along with coconut, sesame, and poppy seeds, and mustard seeds, 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 Spices in Indian Food
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 in Indian Cuisine
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. Spicing a Sauce in Indian Cooking
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.