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.
The Masala Dabba (container for spices) that every Indian kitchen owns…
Now let the journey begin…
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)
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 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):
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:
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 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):
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 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) :
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):
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.
Green Cardamon (Choti Elaichi) :
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 :
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):
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) :
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.
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):
This is a five mix spice. “Panch” means “five”. The following spices are used in equal amounts:
Radhuni/ (use Mustard Seeds if no Radhuni)
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:
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:
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:
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!
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 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.
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!
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.
and many more!!