A question that I hear so much from people is “What are the essential Indian spices I should buy?” It’s a deceptively hard question as although it seems straight forward, there are a lot of variables which can affect the answer:
- It depends on what style of Indian food you want to cook. These spices I’ve suggested are for traditional and authentic Indian cooking. If you want to cook BIR style – the way food is cooked in ‘British Indian Restaurants/Takeaways’, the spices required will be quite different.
- It depends on what Indian regional food you’ll be cooking. India is a huge country with 28 states, all of which have their own unique cuisine. The spices used in Punjab won’t be the same as those used in Maharashtra, Kerala, or West Bengal.
- It depends if you’re cooking ‘home-style’ or ‘restaurant style’. Different to the first point, this is a distinction used in India for the food which is cooked daily at home and the food which is served at hotels and restaurants. Home-style food is generally more simply spiced, whereas restaurant style is richer and creamier. The average family will not serve Malai Kofta regularly – they’ll serve a simple Aloo Sabji.
Knowing your spices makes the difference between great food and mediocre food.
With this in mind I’ve complied a list which has a good variety of spices which will allow you to cook a wide range of food, from North India to South India. As you become more comfortable with Indian cooking and explore your own tastes, you can slowly add to your collection of spices.
16 Spices might sound like a lot and may seem overwhelming – but I’ve done my best to keep it simple for you. I’ve included 4 choices from each of these 4 categories:
This article is meant to be an informative guide which details why these spices are used, what flavour they give to food, and what dishes they’re commonly used in. Once you have this knowledge you’ll be able to choose which spices you think you’ll use most in your own cooking.
Before we get onto the article, if you’re interested in learning more about Indian cooking do check out my Guide to Indian Lentils & Beans, my more in depth article about Whole Seeds and my list of Essential Indian Cookware.
How to Store Ground Spices:
Ground spices have an incredibly long shelf-life and don’t ‘go bad’. However, freshly ground spices are a lot more flavoursome and aromatic than ones which are several years old. That’s why many people suggest grinding your own spices for optimum flavour – but what you can do to keep your spices, home-ground or pre-bought, fresher for longer?
- Store them in air-tight opaque containers. Glass containers look good, but you really want to minimise the amount of light the spices are subject to. Similarly, the plastic packets or jars they come in pre-bought will have the same problem.
- In a similar vein, store your spices in a cupboard. Avoid bright windowsills or storage racks directly next to your stove. The sunlight from the window and fluctuating temperature from the stove are not good!
- Do use a spoon to take out your spices when cooking instead of shaking them over your meal to deposit the spice. Not only can you measure your spices better this way, but there’s no chance of steam rising from the stove and getting moisture into the spices. To keep them as fresh as possible for as long as possible, the key is keeping them dry!
- Always use a clean, dry spoon. This goes back to the point before – you want to avoid any possible contamination with other food particles or water.
How to Cook with Ground Spices:
Ground spices are the best choice for when you want an even spread of flavour all throughout your dish. They are widely used in Indian savoury dishes such as Vegetable Sabjis, as well as snacks, starters, and breads.
Most ground spices are added near the beginning of cooking, but not first. The first spices to cook should always be whole spices, never ground spices. They are prone to burn quickly – that’s why spices such as turmeric, coriander and red chilli powder are always added after you have fried your whole spices and garlic/ginger/onion. Some people also add them after adding the tomato. This ensures the spices will fry (since there isn’t any liquid yet added to the dish) and yet won’t burn.
Ultimately though, it depends on the recipe – of course snacks and breads will require you to mix them raw into a batter or dough before cooking.
The exception to this is Garam Masala – and most other spice blends. They shouldn’t be fried and should only be added near the end of cooking, when all ingredients have been added and your dish is just simmering. This ensures there is no overpowering flavour.
Haldi (Hindi), halad (Marathi)
Pungent, bitter, warm and earthy.
Turmeric powder is a bright saffron-yellow ground spice made from dried turmeric root. It imparts a gorgeous yellow colour when cooked with and a musky, earthy flavour. It is possible to use grated fresh turmeric in cooking but the spice powder is much more widely used.
Practically all Indian savoury dishes will use turmeric, particularly lentil dishes and vegetable dishes. Only a small amount of turmeric is required, otherwise it can impart an unpleasant bitter taste.
Use turmeric at the beginning of your savoury dishes, adding only after you have fried your onions or tomatoes.
Turmeric is also used widely in Indian culture as a healing ingredient, including in Haldi Doodh – Turmeric Milk.
Dhaniya Powder (Hindi), Dhane Powder (Marathi)
Earthy, mellow and lemony.
Coriander powder is made by dry-roasting and grinding whole coriander seeds. We often make our own coriander powder with this method rather than buying readymade, but for a beginner readymade powder is good. It’s a warm brown in colour with a musky, citrusy scent.
So many dishes use coriander powder – particularly South Indian preparations like Rasam. It’s also a vital ingredient in lots of Indian achaar (pickles). It brings a gentle citrus flavour to dishes.
Use coriander powder near the beginning of your cooking, after you have added your onions.
You’ll find many Gujarati recipes use Cumin-Coriander Powder mixed as they pair very well together.
Red Chilli Powder
Lal mirch (Hindi), lal mirchi (Marathi)
Spicy and hot.
Red Chilli Powder is what gives most of the ‘heat’ to Indian dishes. It’s made from Dried Red Chillis which are ground into a powder. There are many varieties of chilli with different levels of heat which can affect the taste of the Chilli Powder. It also gives a wonderful colour to dishes.
In some areas of North & South America, ‘Chilli Powder’ refers to a spice blend. This is not what we want for Indian cooking – Chilli Powder should just be made from dried chillis.
Add chilli powder to your dish after your onions or tomatoes. It needs gentle cooking for around 30 seconds, but be sure not to burn it or it will become bitter.
Chilli powder can be used sparingly sprinkled on top of street food.
Garam Masala (Hindi & Marathi)
Warm, sweet, hot and fragrant.
Garam Masala is a spice mix made from a range of aromatic spices. It’s usually a deep, dark brown. Every family in India will have their own secret recipe for Garam Masala, so it’s unlikely that you’ll find two the same!
There are many spice mixes across India depending on the region and the dish, but Garam Masala is one of the most widely used.
Add only a small pinch of Garam Masala at very end of your dish. It doesn’t need frying, but should be allowed to infuse with the dish, which is why it’s added right at the end as a finishing spice.
It should only be used in very small quantities or it will become very overpowering.
How to Cook with Whole Seeds:
Cooking Indian food is primarily about layering flavours to create a complex balance of flavour-notes when you eat. This ensures that no one spice is more overpowering than the others. Whole seeds are one of the predominate ways that we can layer a dish.
Whole spices are nearly always fried in oil at the beginning of making a savoury dish. This infuses the oil with their aromas and allows the spices to release their flavours. Cooking the spices whole in this way allows us to build flavour as when you eat there will be little bursts of flavour inside each seed, giving you both a taste and texture hit.
You can also sun-dry or dry-roast whole seeds and grind them into a fresh powder to use. This is not applicable to all seeds – for instance mustard powder is not used in Indian cooking.
Find out more about my top picks below.
Jeera (Hindi & Marathi)
Warm, earthy, sweet and mildly bitter.
Cumin Seeds are light brown, slightly pointy oblong shaped small seeds. They can be used whole or dry-roasted and ground into a powder.
The whole seeds are commonly used in Indian cooking to give a wonderful crunch and aroma to savoury dishes. Add your cumin seeds at the very beginning of cooking – allow the oil to heat, add the cumin seeds, and let them crackle. Once they smell aromatic and are slightly browned, they’re done.
Cumin seeds are sometimes mistaken for Ajwain (Carom Seeds) and Vilayati Jeera (Caraway Seeds) which both have a different flavour profile and should not be substituted. Shahi Jeera (Black Cumin) is also often confused with Cumin Seeds, but it can be substituted for Cumin – Shahi Jeera just has a much more intense smoky flavour.
Black Mustard Seeds
Sarso / Rai (Hindi), Mohri / Rai (Marathi)
Spicy and pungent.
Mustard seeds are small, dark brown to black seeds with a matt colour, smooth texture and round shape.
Black Mustard Seeds are the most flavoursome and ‘hot’ of all the varieties, with a stronger, spicer and less bitter flavour. You can substitute them with Brown Mustard Seeds, but avoid the white ones as they don’t pack the same punch.
These seeds are much more commonly used in West & South Indian cooking than North Indian.They are used at the beginning of cooking – allow the oil to heat, add the mustard seeds and let them pop. They are the first whole spice that you should add, generally. They are also used as a tadka (tempering) – fried in oil along with other spices, commonly curry leaves and green chillis.
Sabut Dhaniya (Hindi), Dhane (Marathi)
Nutty, spicy and citrusy.
Coriander seeds are medium sized round seeds in a pale brown-green colour. It has much the same flavour as coriander powder, but is preferable when you want to bring texture or sudden burst of flavour to a dish rather than an even blend of flavour.
Use coriander seeds lightly crushed and add them at the beginning of a dish. You can also incorporate them into achaar (pickles), rubs, or even on top of bread, like I did with this Kulcha.
You can also dry-roast and grind coriander seeds into powder. We do this often as it has a more intense flavour than the pre-made flavour. It’s great to have the seeds so that you can choice to use them whole or powder – it gives you variety.
Ajwain (Hindi), Owa (Marathi)
How to Cook with Aromatic Spices:
Aromatic spices are generally used in very ‘rich’ (not home-style, everyday) meals. They have an unbeatable aroma and flavour which gently infuses into the gravy of your dish. As well as being used in savoury dishes, they are also commonly found in fragrant rice dishes like Pulao and Biryani. With a few aromatic spices in your arsenal you’ll be able to take your cooking up to another level.
With a small batch of aromatic spices you can also make a full range of Indian sweets, where Cardamon in particular is widely used. On top of that, if you’re partial to a cup of Masala Chai chances are you’re familiar with the stunning flavours and aromas from these spices!
Aromatic spices are also key ingredients of most Indian Masalas. If you’re confident enough to grind your own spice mixes, they’re worth investing in.
Make sure you remember to remove aromatic spices before you eat – they’re not meant to be eaten as they stay hard, so it can be an unpleasant experience otherwise!
Dalchini (Hindi & Marathi)
Sweet, spicy and woody.
There are two common varieties of Cinnamon – Ceylon (‘True’) Cinnamon and Chinese Cinnamon (Cassia), which are often confused. They both have distinct flavours and appearances, but True Cinnamon is the one used most in authentic Indian cooking. True Cinnamon sticks are pale to golden brown with tightly curled quills which bend into each other.
Cinnamon is usually used in its whole form in Indian cooking. The whole sticks part a lovely sweet, spicy and almost floral aroma to any dish. They are most commonly used in rice dishes like Pulao and Biryani.
Whole aromatic spices like Cinnamon are also used to make the famous Masala Chai!
[Hari] Elaichi (Hindi), Velaichi (Marathi)
Aromatic, sweet and herbal.
Green Cardamon pods are medium sized pods which are green on the outside and when split reveal small brown seeds inside. The fresher the cardamon the brighter green in colour they will be, so pick accordingly!
Cardamon has a gorgeous flavour which hovers between savoury and sweet, making it perfect for savoury dishes and desserts.
The whole pods are used to impart gentle flavour into savoury dishes – particularly rice dishes, but also ‘curries’ – and are also often boiled in sugar syrup as in Rasgulla to give a wonderful flavour to desserts. The seeds inside are often crushed or ground and added to the majority of Indian sweets, from Sevai Kheer to Mango Lassi.
Laung (Hindi), Lavang (Marathi)
Sweet, penetrating and numbing.
Cloves are dried flowerbuds with an intense, powerful flavour. They are short brown sticks with an unopened bud on top and small ‘leaves’ surrounding the bud. This spice has a potent flavour which is sweet and almost bitter. They contain trace amounts of an astringent, which creates a numbing feeling.
Cloves are commonly used in Biryani, as an essential part of Garam Masala and other spice blends, and of course in Masala Chai. It pairs well with other aromatics like Star Anise, Peppercorns, and Green Cardamon.
Cloves are almost always used whole in Indian cookery. The flavour can be overpowering, so it’s recommended to only use a few at a time.
Chakri Pool (Hindi), Badiyan (Marathi)
Potent, sweet, and liquorice like.
Star anise are a beautiful spice obtained from the fruits of an exotic tree native to Southern China. They have a rich brown colour and a distinctive 8-pointed star shape. The beautiful perfumed aroma is comparable to liquorice, and the flavour is similar to aniseed.
As an aromatic spice, Star Anise is a vital ingredient in many Indian Masala, Biryani and Masala Chai. It’s usually used whole and taken out prior to eating. It can also be added to many savoury dishes like Chole/ChanaMasala, or even some variants of Dal.
Like other aromatics, it’s usually added at the beginning of cooking and used in very small quantities so as to not overwhelm with flavour.
How to Cook with Indian Herbs:
Indian herbs are generally used in four different ways:
- To garnish a meal, like adding fresh coriander on top;
- As a leafy-green and major ingredient in a dish, like fresh fenugreek or dill;
- To temper a dish (fried in oil with other spices), like curry leaves, and;
- To infuse into a dish, like Indian bay leaves.
To begin, you may only use coriander as a garnish to your meals. But if you want to make richly aromatic savoury dishes and fragrant rices, you’ll need bay leaves. If you want to dabble into South Indian food, curry leaves are a necessity. And dried fenugreek contributes an unmistakable smokey sweetness which is used in marinades and as a finishing ingredient.
Fresh Curry Leaves
Kadi Patta (Hindi & Marathi)
Subtle, citrusy and pungent.
Curry leaves are medium sized, glossy deep green leaves from the Curry tree. They have a subtle flavour which can be compared to lemongrass – lemony and aromatic.
You won’t find curry leaves in many North Indian dishes, so this may be one to skip if you cook mostly from that region. But curry leaves are an essential ingredient when making West or South Indian cuisine. They’re used in Dals, Rasam, and lots of snacks and savoury dishes.
They’re most often used in a tadka – fried in very hot oil along with other spices, before being added to a dish.
Fresh curry leaves impart an unmistakable flavour. They can be hard to find outside of India, so dried leaves are the substitute. They aren’t as flavoursome but will do in a pinch. If you can get hold of fresh ones, they freeze well.
Dried Fenugreek Leaves
Kasuri Methi (Hindi & Marathi)
Slightly bitter and similar to Maple Syrup.
Kasuri methi are very small dark green dried leaves. They are made by frying fresh fenugreek leaves. If you do this yourself at home, the colour will be more vivid green than the darker, duller green of pre-bought leaves. It has a slightly bitter taste which mellows to a subtle caramel flavour.
It’s used in savoury dishes as a finishing ingredient, to give a depth of extra flavour at the end. To get the most from your kasuri methi, rub it between your hands before adding right at the end of cooking. You can also dry roast it for extra flavour (just be careful not to burn). It’s also used in various Indian breads.
Don’t substitute fenugreek leaves for dried fenugreek and vice versa. Fresh fenugreek can be dried at home or added fresh, but add more as the dried one has much more flavour.
Indian Bay Leaves
Tej Patta (Hindi & Marathi)
Mildy herbal, floral, aromatic.
Indian Bay Leaves are always sold dried. They range in size from small to large, and are a musky olive green colour. Their flavour is aromatic and comparable to cinnamon and cloves.
They are often confused with European Bay Leaves, but an easy distinguishing factor are the three large veins which run vertically along Indian Bay Leaves. Don’t try to substitute European Bay Leaves – they have a very different flavour.
Mostly used in North Indian cooking, this may be one to skip if you mostly cook South Indian dishes. It’s an essential ingredient in many Indian Masalas (spice mixes), as well as Pulao, Biryani and too many savoury dishes to count.
Don’t eat Indian Bay Leaves. Pick them out of your food before serving – they’re just there to give flavour.
Dhaniya (Hindi), Kothimbir / Sambhar (Marathi)
Fresh and citrusy.
Coriander (or Cilantro for Americans) is probably the herb which comes to mind when you think of Indian food. It’s a deep green leafy herb with long stems and many small leaves. You can use both the stems and leaves in your cooking, although some people prefer to just use the leaves. It has a refreshing zesty flavour, although there are a few people who perceive it as ‘soapy’!
Many people confuse Parsley and Coriander. To tell them apart, coriander has rounder, lighter green leaves. If all else fails, check the aroma – it should be lemony.
Fresh coriander is best used as a garnish on top of savoury dishes, as it loses its potency when cooked. You can also make a range of chutneys, such as Dhaniya Chutney or Pudina Chutney. You can also incorporate it into snack items like the Marathi Kothimbir Vadi.