The Commonly Used Indian Spices

 

All you need to know about the Spices used in Indian Cuisine

 

 

Indian cuisine is characterized by the extensive use of numerous spices. Spices or Masala as it is called in Hindi, may be called the “heartbeat” of an Indian kitchen.

 

 

By extensive use of spices I do not mean that spices are used to make the food fiery hot. The spices are used to flavor the food, making each dish distinct and wonderfully aromatic. Each spice by itself imparts a very unique flavor, but when used together with other spices, the combination and permutation of different ones magically change the individual characteristics. Spices are also used for health benefits and medicinal purposes, to prevent diseases and also to preserve food.

Here I have written about only the few basic spices required to start an Indian spice cabin. There are many more, and some of them might be used only sparingly. I will add them slowly as and when required. I must mention here that the spices are also region specific; some spices which may be very popular in the northern regions of India might not be used as much in the southern regions and vice versa.

What we have here is a general spread, used by all in every state. Well almost! These spices below should be readily available in most grocery stores, or Whole Food stores, except for the Hing/Asafoetida, Fennel and the Fenugreek seeds. If you do not find them at your local grocery store, look for a local Indian/Bangladeshi/Pakistani grocery store and they will have it for sure.

 

Online sources where good quality spices maybe found:

 

 

Indian Spices
The Masala Dabba (container for spices) that every Indian kitchen owns…

 

Now let the journey begin…

 

Asafoetida (Hing):

hing/asafoetida

This is sap from stem and root of a plant, dried into a hard resin. The smell of this spice in the raw uncooked form is strong and pungent; so unpleasant that it is often called as the devils dung, or the stinking gum. However this initial funky pungent smell mellows and almost disappears, replaced by a smooth pleasant flavor when it is added to hot oil or ghee.  The flavor is not the spicy fiery kind, but more like Leek or Onion. Hing is definitely a gem in the kitchen. In its raw form, the strong aroma will contaminate other spices, so it is better stored in an air tight container.

The resin form is hard and deep amber in color It has to be powdered before it is used for cooking or medicinal purposes. I usually get Hing from India, in the hard resin form as you see above, as it retains the aroma longer than ground powder, and use a mortar and a pestle to grind it as I need it. In Indian grocery stores, the hing is usually found in powdered form. A little goes a long way when it comes to this spice; so only a tiny bit when seasoning and tempering to flavor food.

 


 

Tej Patta (Cinnamomum tamala)

 

Tej Patta/ cinnamomum tamala/ indian bay leaf

 

Often mistaken as the Bay Leaf (leaf of the Laurel tree ) used in Western cooking, these are actually three veined leaves of the tree belonging to Cinnamonum group of trees.

 

 

Cinnamomum tamala/tejpatta tree

Cinnamomum tamala or the Tamalpatra tree in my home in India

 

Tej Patta or Tamalpatra as it is called in Sanskrit are used to flavor different curries and rice.

The leaves are aromatic with a slight hint of the fragrance of cinnamon. The leaves are first browned in oil first to  increase the aroma.

 


 

Carom Seeds /Ajwain( Trachyspermum copticum):

 

Ajwain / Carom Seeds/Spice

 

These are pungent, tiny seeds grayish in color and often mistaken to be the “Bishop’s Weed”.  Ajwain has very strong flavors and the smell and the taste bears close similarity to Thyme. They have a sharp and slightly bitter taste on the tongue. In Indian cooking, the Ajwain is rarely used raw. They are usually dry roasted lightly or tempered in hot oil or ghee and used for seasoning a dish. Other than using the seeds for curries, the flavor of this spice works really well with breads and are very popularly used in “Paratha” (griddle fried flatbreads) in the northern regions of the country.

Besides culinary uses, it is used for medicinal purposes to aid in digestion and also as an antiseptic.

 


Cinnamon (Darchini) – Cinnamomum zeylanicum:

cinnamon

The cinnamon sticks or quills are the dried bark of a tree.  There are two popular varieties of cinnamon; from Chin and from Ceylon. They both have similar flavors but the cinnamon from Ceylon has a sweeter aroma and is found more as sticks than a rolled up quill. The Ceylonese cinnamon is also not so easily available in local markets.

Cinnamon (and mostly the Ceylonese variety) in its stick/quill for as well as powdered,  is used extensively in Indian cooking, mostly for savory dishes. Often times a few bits of broken sticks are added as the oil heats up; this way the oil is flavored and the food is cooked in this fragrant oil. Sometimes it is dry roasted in a skillet before cooking, which intensifies the aroma.

The warm sweet flavors make it a popular spice for desserts in the western world, especially during the holidays.

It is one of the ingredients of Garam Masala.

 


Cloves (Laung/Lavang/Grambu):

 

clove/lavang/laoung/Syzygium aromaticum

 

Cloves are dried up flower buds. The fully-grown, unopened buds, are picked green and dried in the sun till they become dark brown and  are ready to be used for culinary and medicinal purposes.

Clove is extensively used in Indian cooking. The flavor it imparts to food is strong and warm. Clove is mostly used to flavor spicy food where the whole clove is cooked in oil or ghee. Clove is also a part of Garam Masala in the ground form. Use of clove in desserts is not very common in India, though not unheard of.

 


Coriander Seeds (Dhania):

 

Coriander/dhania

 

These seeds are the dry seeds of the regularly used fresh cilantro/coriander. Light brown or golden in color, the seeds are kind of hollow and crunchy and has a nice earthy, nutty flavor. The seeds are used whole for tempering, but more often they are ground into a powder to flavor food. Do yourselves a favor and stop yourself from buying store bought coriander powder. They lose the flavor fairly quick  when stored, so you will end up with a sawdust kind of powder with no flavor in it. The best way go about it, is to grind the seeds when you use them or store them in an airtight container only for a few days. I use the coffee grinder or the spice grinder to powder the seeds.

The seeds are powdered either by roasting them first in a dry skillet or without roasting them. The roasted seeds powdered have a darker shade and a different flavor than the other. Both are used in Indian cuisine.

The seeds are usually used in the ground form to be a part of various spice mixes, like Garam Masala, Sambar Powder etc.

 


 

Cumin Seeds (Jeera):

 

Cumin/Jeera

 

Cumin or Jeera is a very commonly used spice all over India. Known for its warm earthy aroma, it is used in the raw form, or cooked in hot oil or ghee to release its aroma. Sometimes the raw seeds are ground and sometimes the seeds are briefly roasted in the skillet and ground into a powder. The roasted and fried cumin seeds imparts a very unique, smoky flavor to food.

 


 

Fenugreek Seeds (Methi) :

 

Fenugreek Seeds/Methi

 

Angular buff colored seeds having a slightly bitter taste . One of the mixtures of Panch Foron. The unripe, raw seeds are cooked as side dishes in certain parts of India and they are not bitter.

 


Fennel Seeds (Saunf or Mouri):

 

fennel-saunf diptych 1

 

These might look like Cumin Seeds, but when looked closely they are actually greener and wider. Fennel is another ingredient of the Panch Foron.These are also dry roasted and used with tiny sugar candies to make mouth fresheners after meals. Fennel is known for its digestive qualities.

 

Fennel Seeds/Saunf/Mouri


Green Cardamon (Choti Elaichi) :

 

Cardamom

 

Cardamom pods holds tiny little black seeds inside. The seeds are taken out and used whole in cooking or in the from of powder. Its used in a LOT of Indian cooking whether it be vegetables, meat, rice or even desserts. Cardamom is also an important part of Garam Masala.

 


 

Cardamon Black (Badi Elaichi or Kali Elaichi) – Amomum subulatum :

 

badi-elaichi_black-cardamom-1.jpg

 

Black cardamom, also known as hill cardamom, Bengal cardamom, greater cardamom, Indian cardamom, Nepal cardamom, winged cardamom, or brown cardamom, comes from either of two species in the family Zingiberaceae (ginger). The seed pods are about 2.5-3 cm in length and have a bold flavor. The pods are dried over open fire and the process leaves the pods with a smoky aroma.These are bigger and very different from the the small green cardamoms, and are not as delicately flavored as their green counterpart. This is probably the reason why these are barely used for flavoring desserts. The intensity of the flavor emerges as they are cooked slowly and for a prolonged period and that is why it is used a lot for braising food, or flavoring the Indian masala (spice) mix for curries, meats or for stews, lentils and pilafs.

If you have not tried this before, just try dropping a split pod when you cook your rice and see how it changes the flavor of the rice! A good easy recipe to start with.

 


 

Mustard Seeds (Sarson/Shorshe or Rai):

 

Mustard seeds/Rai

 

While there are close to forty kinds of mustard, three principal types used as spices: Black mustard (Brassica nigra), White mustard which are actually yellow (Brassica alba) and brown mustard (dark yellow) (Brassica juncea). In Indian cooking all three are used, though use of black mustard seeds with stronger flavors is more common. The black mustard seeds have the most pungent taste, followed by the yellow mustard seeds.The white mustard is usually the mildest.

The seeds are usually used to temper/season food by adding them to hot oil. The seeds are also ground to make a paste (usually in the eastern and northern regions of India) and used in cooking fish and vegetables. Mustard paste is used to make many Indian pickles in the northern regions of the country.

The oil pressed out from the seeds and commonly sold as mustard oil is used for massage as well as cooking in the northern and eastern regions of India.

 


 

Nigella (Kalonji/Kalo Jeera) :

 

Nigella/Kalonji/Onion Seeds

 

These are tiny black seeds mostly forming a part of the Panch Foron (recipe below). Nigella is also referred to as Onion Seeds. They are mostly used in breads – like naan, tandoori rotis, parathas, and also sometimes to season stir fries and curries. In the Eastern India this is extensively used to season fish.

 


Nutmeg (Jaiphal):

 

These are seeds of a fruit. The part that is actually used is the inner part of this seed. Its used in ground form, mostly in biryanis. Unlike in western countries, its almost never used in desserts in Indian cooking.

 


 

Panch Foron (Five Spice Mix):

 

Panch Phoron

 

This is a five mix spice. “Panch” means “five”. The following spices are used in equal amounts:

Cumin Seeds

Radhuni/ (use Mustard Seeds if no Radhuni)

Nigella Seeds

Fenugreek Seeds

Fennel Seeds

This particular spice mix is extensively used in East Indian cooking and also as a pickling spice in most states in India.


 

Red Chilli/Chile Powder:

 

Red Chili Powder

 

This is ground up dried red chili peppers (as shown below).  There are different varieties of Chili Powder available in the Indian groceries. They are made from different kind of peppers with different colors, aroma and also the spice/heat level.

The Kashmiri Chili Red Chili Powder is a mild chili powder but with very vibrant  colors and this is what I usually use in my kitchen. Another one which I like to use is the Reshmapati Red Chilli Powder; this one has a beautiful color too.

 

If you cannot get your hands on the Indian variety, feel free to use cayenne or paprika or even crushed red pepper. The color and the flavors will differ a bit, but they really can be substituted.

However do keep in mind that the Chilli/Chile Powder is not the spice mix to make the Mexican Chili.

 

 


 

Red Dry Chilli:

 

Red Dry Chili Pepper

 

This is the hot peppers dried up, esp. the cayenne pepper type. They have different flavor then the green hot peppers are are usually sizzled in oil and cooked up with the vegetables or meat.

These dried peppers may be ground up to make Red Chili Powder.

 


 

Kala Namak or Rock Salt – A Culinary Salt:

 

Rock Salt - Kala Namak

 

A salt with unique flavors.

This is the common name for the mineral “halite”. Rock salt is a form of NaCl or the common table salt with some impurities in them. The slightly pungent smell in the salt comes from the presence of the sulphate. This salt is used as a final garnish by sprinkling on the fresh fruits and vegetables, salads and fried savories most of the time, though it is used during the cooking process in some dishes. The salt comes in the form of different hued crystals and are usually ground to a powder before used for culinary purposes. Do not forget that rock salt is used for making ice cream too!

 


 

Saffron (Kesar):

 

Saffron

 

The king of spices! That is what I think…

This is probably the most expensive spice. Looking like tiny orange threads, these are actually the stigmas of a flower called crocus.

Saffron adds beautiful flavor and color to rice dishes, gravies and desserts.

 


 

Turmeric Powder/Haldi:

 

Turmeric Powder/haldi

 

 

Turmeric is actually a ginger like rhizome in the raw state. The inside is deep orange yellow in color. The rhizome can be grated (fresh) and may be used in cooking. Raw turmeric is often times ground into a paste and used to improve skin and complexion. It also has very strong medicinal properties.

 

raw turmeric

 

However in for everyday cooking, the rhizome is dried and ground for the purpose of cooking. It gives the food a yellowish color. Turmeric is also known for its antiseptic qualities.

Grocery stores usually sell the dried powdered form of turmeric.

 

 


Do Not Forget the other Essentials!

 

Garam Masala

Chaat Masala: a mix of different spices in the powdered form. It is usually used in little amounts to flavor food after cooking; sprinkle on salads, and fried savories. It is easily available in the Indian grocery stores and there are many brands that sell this spice mix.

Ghee- Clarified Butter

and many more!!


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61 comments to The Commonly Used Indian Spices

  • Brilliant post, Soma!! Great pictures and wonderful introduction to Indian spices!

  • This is just wonderful information and again, such gorgeous pictures.

  • See I learned quite a bit now by reading this. Thanks for such an informative post Soma!!

  • Such a great breakdown of all those beautiful spices!
    I want them all! Now!

  • This is a really beautiful and very helpful guide to spices. Thank you so much

  • [...] bit of it. If you are seeking for knowledge on Indian spices or spice mix, read this very helpful post from her. Every time I have a doubt on any recipe or I am looking for ideas, I approach her and no [...]

  • [...] bit of it. If you are seeking for knowledge on Indian spices or spice mix, read this very helpful post from her. Every time I have a doubt on any recipe or I am looking for ideas, I approach her and no [...]

  • om prakash srivastava

    very nice and easy to understand by hindi speaking people. thanks for great informations

  • chris

    WOW! Absolutely fascinating info on Indian spices. I spent a month in India a few years ago, and have been in love with the food ever since. Thanks!

  • jojo

    there is nothing mentioning about black pepper….where can i get it from…???

  • The last picture: kesar is awwwwwwweeesommmmmeee!!!!!! Your pictures are inspiring me just too much.

  • honey

    hi..thnx fr this very informative posts of spices..but one question what is ” JAYIFAL N JAVITRI ” I heard abt this spice a lot n whats its use for??? please reply

    Jayifal/Jaiphal is same as nutmeg (I have it up in the post) and Javitri is Mace. Both are use mostly for savory dishes in India. In Pulao, Biryani, Meat and in some elegant regal vegetarian dishes too.

  • This lesson in Indian spices and their names is very valuable. It really makes so many other recipes that I thought I could make and then realized were useless because I didn’t know what the ingredients were called in English. Please explain tempering when you get the opportunity. Thank you for your strong teaching skills and the very beautiful pictures.

    Thank you.

    Here is a post about Tempering or Tarka as we call it. No photos yet, I hope it helps: http://www.ecurry.com/blog/indian/indian-kitchen-basics/what-is-tarka/

    Regards

    Soma

  • [...] I like my food aromatic. A brilliant introduction to the most commonly used Indian Spices from eCurry, one of my favourite blog [...]

  • [...] spices and seeds. Most people will know most of these but it is quite a good reference – Indian Cooking Seeds & Spices. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  • samsoddoha

    what is the our indian name of chia seed?

    I am not exactly sure, but I googled and I think what we use in India (not sure if it same as chia, but they are similar) is called “sabja” or they are kind of similar to Tukmaria.

  • hie!
    i do not know if you use it or not, but “amchur” or dried mango powder is also a staple in Indian kitchen, especially in Rajasthan.

    Will add it. I had started this off by adding the basic spices that covers all of India in general; the kind of spices that one would need to buy to start of an Indian spice pantry. But will add more slowly.:) I do not use it as much. (but use Sumac! – not very Indian)

  • Michelle

    Just found your site. Thank you so much for putting it out there!!

  • Nedrra Lanakila

    I love this page! I just linked and Pinned it on Pinterest, thanks for your generosities. hugs.

  • Wim

    Thanks,

    always a pleasure and feast even for the eyes to be remembered of India and its passion for food…

  • Tenzin Nyima

    Hey Soma, thank you so much for such a valuable guidance on basic Indian spices. I will look forward to learn more. Thanks!

  • What a fabulous post this is. Indian cuisine is still a mystery to me, but I love it.

  • Kasturi Raghavan

    you have done a wonderful job.you could have added black pepper,
    which has a lot of medicinal value.Excellent colourful pictures.

    Thanks! Will add the black pepper. I quite forgot about it :)

  • [...] wondered what spices go in an Indian curry? This post explains clearly with beautiful [...]

  • Hattie

    I just discovered your post and since I love curry will visit often. Thanks for those delicious recipes.

    Thank you!

  • i like this post very much . . .
    it is very helpful for my studies . . .
    Thanx for a kind work . .

  • indira

    found description very informative but i did not find the answer to my query mother used to use a flower head like substance when she made her garam masala.I have been unsuccesful in sourcing this in shops it looked like a dried flower head black with white tips extremely aromatic as its difficult to obtain i do wonder if its related to the opium family and therefore sales are banned any thoughts


    Hi Indira,

    I am not sure what spice it could be. Clove is a flower but I already have it listed here, so I know it is not what you mean. The first thing that came to my mind is Dagad Phool used in Maharashtra. I have never used it, neither have seen it in real life. So it is not listed in the post.

    I had posted in the Facebook page of my blog asking if anyone can help and answer your question. Here is the link and you can read to see if you find your answers:https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=234419356697239&id=159731510779233&comment_id=959657&offset=0&total_comments=25&notif_t=share_comment

    Some readers have left comment in the post after you did with their thoughts too,

    Look up Dagad Phool in Google images and see if it is what you are looking for. I hope I knew what it is and if you do find it, please let us know!!

    Regards
    Soma

  • Joyi

    Star Anise (Illicium verum) probably?

  • Gorgeous Gorgeous Gorgeous!!.. Cd keep reading the post over & over..

  • If the Western people on here don’t know what a spice is in English, just google it. There will almost always be a translation somewhere. Also, don’t be afraid to go beyond your comfort zone- it’s the only way to learn. The other is to actually eat, live and breathe Indian food- great way to learn.

    To Indiria- you are looking for star anise.

  • V

    You are probably talking about mace? The outer covering of nutmeg.

  • Stunning photos, Soma. Love. I’ve everything but the laurel leaves. Hmmm…must remedy. ; )

  • Felicity

    This is great, Soma. So useful and beautifully presented. Thanks

  • these are really nice pictures with high resolution, i wish that i will put these types of images on my websites, thanks for sharing these pictures.

  • Hi Soma
    Living in South Africa we have the highest population of Indians outside of India cosequently we have Curry returants are all over Natal. I love curry and make a fair curry myself , having learnt from one of my Indian collegues. This website is fantatic and I definitely will try some of the spices I have never heard of.

  • [...] We started by frying up three spices- mustard seeds, jeera (cumin) and kalongi (nigella…you can find a great, in-depth guide to Indian spices here). [...]

  • Melanie

    Hi Soma,

    I wonder about the cinnamon sticks. When you say add the cinnamon, am I supposed to add the sticks whole or should I ground them? or just removed them at the time of serving? I am confused with this in the Butter Chicken recipe.

    thanks,

    Use the whole sticks in the oil/ghee. You may pound them to break them in smaller pieces if you wish, but it is not required. They release the aroma when they hit the hot oil or skillet. After cooking, you may remove them if it bothers you. In India, we just let them be and remove them to the side if they happen to land on our plate :)

  • I being an male living in Punjab(north India)knew little about the spices used in kitchen.Today I feel knowing a bit more what I have been eating for so long.I
    some could tell/write the medicinal value of these herbs.Where could I find an article on the same.

  • Bajwa

    While using hing in lassi it should be roasted or raw? You would agree that hing is not sold in market in pure form but mixed with wheat flour to make granules.

    You can blend in the hing just by itself. If you want you can roast it too. Yes the hing sold in the market are not pure (the pure form is available in some places and will come in chunks not powder). The powdered hing is mixed with wheat flour and hence much milder than the pure hing.

  • Ms. Susmita Roy

    Wonderful information with beautiful pictures….. :-)

  • Riyaz

    What is anise seeds

  • nwachoko

    English name of this spice Ulima

  • wonderful explanation

  • Thanks for the wonderful information and superb pictures too..!!

  • Masala dabba is called anjaraipetti in south india which means a box for 5 items

  • [...] every single Indian spice is available at a grocery store near you. However, just because you can’t get hold of the [...]

  • srinivas

    really ..great info ..god bless you sister ! ;)

  • shiv singh

    Nice blog for cooking,spices,food….read more…..share it…..

  • john mclaughlan

    Absolutely brilliant site for a beginner like myself keep it going love it.

  • [...] for curries, but various salads, pancakes, breads, rolls/sandwiches, etc. and a very useful guide to Indian spices. The diversity of the recipes was what appealed to me the most. I have previously attempted [...]

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  • Valerie Ware Hayes

    Just came upon your website and it is quite informative, beautiful pictures, an excellent source for the beginner like myself.

  • Thank you so much for this information. I have just started cooking a few Indian dishes, so I am eager to learn about the different spices. My brother, who lives in Korea, is planning to visit the family here in Canada. He absolutely loves Indian cuisine, so I want to impress him.

  • Mirthia

    I am starting to think some of this spices are racing my Blood Presure, besides Ginkgo Biloba and anise seed that I know for sure raise it.I would love to know what is raising it.
    Can someone help me please?

  • Alina A

    Hi, I’m looking for the name of a spice that is used in desserts. It is very sweet and aromatic smelling. My Iranian neighbor used to make cupcakes and they would smell wonderful! I live in an Indian neighborhood and smell this fragrance from cooking when passing by a house. Thank you.

    We use a lot of cardamom in desserts. Would you think that it is cardamom? I have the photos and descriptions of two kinds of cardamom in this list. The small green ones are usually used in desserts. The other one would be saffron. Cardamom is used in savory dishes too. Both the spices are used in Iran too.

  • Carol-Ann

    My brother has traveled extensively. His favourite food is Indian food. He said that he cannot look at a picture of Indian food without his mouth watering. I recently tried cooking Indian food; now I know why he feels this way. Nothing satisfies your taste buds like Indian cuisine does. Thank you for this information.

  • Hi, Nice blog for cocking and the recipe is very different. Thank you…

  • Lav

    This is amazing , helped me tons ! thanks :)

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