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A brief guide of commonly used Indian spices and how to use them.
Indian cuisine uses many different spices (masala), not just for a layering effect of flavours, but also for their nutritional/medicinal values which are rooted in Ayurveda.
Spices are best stored in a masala dabba, which is a round metal box with a tight fitting lid, to ensure they remain fresh and dry. The box will usually hold seven small bowls for the most commonly used spices. Opened up and ready to use, they are so convenient to have on hand while cooking. I have a couple of these boxes as I sometimes use more than seven spices in a recipe.
Grind your own spices
It is always preferable to purchase whole spices and grind them as you need them. This is because after grinding, their oils dry and lose flavour the longer they are stored.
Many of these spices are quite hard, so the best way to grind them is either using a coffee bean grinder or a pestle and mortar. (A coffee bean grinder is easier).
If you prepare your own spice mixes, like Garam Masala or Chaat Masala, it is best to make small quantities so the flavours remain fresh and strong.
Here are some commonly used Indian spices
This is the hardened resin from the root of a plant. in its raw state, it is extremely pungent with a garlicky sulfur smell. However, when heated in oil, the aroma dies down and the taste improves tremendously giving it a leek/onion flavour.
Asafoetida is usually used in its powdered form, mixed with rice and/or wheat flour, turmeric, and gum arabic.
Only a small amount is required at a time. It is considered a good alternative to using garlic and onions in a dish as the powder replicates those flavours. It adds an super savoury, umami flavour to any dish.
It is a popular spice in Gujarat where in many cases, dietary restrictions rule out the use of onions and garlic, and is very popular in South Indian cuisine.
Black pepper kali mirch
These dried small round berries add a delicious hot peppery flavour to any dish. The whole berries can be added at the beginning or to a pressure cooker. Dry roast and grind the peppercorns to add towards the end of cooking any dish.
Black mustard seeds rai
These have quite a spicy pungent flavour. They are normally dry roasted on a low flame (till they start popping), to release their flavour, before adding other spices. They are also used to temper dals, and in pickles.
Black Indian salt kala namak
This is Indian volcanic rock salt, with a sulfurous smell. The crystals are black and pink but when ground, they produce a greyish pink colour.
With a lower sodium content than sea salt, it can be a good substitute for people on a low-sodium diet (consult a physician first).
The powder is used to make chaat masala, Jiralu and chutneys. It has a slightly salty umami taste, and tastes similar to eggs.
It is also popular with vegans to create egg-free dishes. Try sprinkling it on a Raita or on salads.
Cardamom (green) elaichi
These green pods hold small dark brown seeds inside. They are usually used crushed or freshly ground.
Cardamom is very aromatic and gives a wonderful clean, sweet and lemony flavour. It is a very popular spice and is used in savoury and sweet dishes, also for Masala Chai
Cardamom (black) kali elaichi
These are very different from green cardamom in both appearance and taste. They are large dark brown pods containing seeds, and the entire pod is used whole or ground to flavour savoury dishes. They have a strong, smoky, camphor flavour, and are warming and quite aromatic.
They are used in garam masala mixes, curries, dals, and biryanis.
Recipes: Punjabi Chicken Curry
Not to be confused with the cheaper rolled cassia bark from China, cinnamon bark from Ceylon is thicker and sweeter, and looks more like sticks.
Cinnamon is mainly used in savoury dishes for its warm sweet flavour. It can be used in powder form or whole, either dry roasted to release its oils which enhance the flavour, or lightly fried in oil to flavour the oil.
It is a spice in garam masala, and is used in meat and rice dishes as well as chutneys.
They are aromatic dried flower buds from a tree. They are highly aromatic and impart a warm, sweet and pungent flavour. They can be used whole or powdered.
Cloves are used in garam masala mixes, meat and rice dishes.
Coriander or Cilantro dhaniya
The fresh leaves, hara dhaniya, are usually blended used to make chutneys, or chopped and added to curries as a garnish or salads. Heat tends to reduce their flavour, so leaves are used raw. The leaves have a refreshing, lemon flavour for most people, but there are a few who have a gene that detects a soapy flavour.
The small, round light brown seeds are hollow and crunchy. They are usually used crushed e.g. in pickles, or ground to make curries and daals. Dry roasting in a skillet, on a low heat, heightens their flavour. When crushed, they release a wonderful citrus aroma with a warm, earthy flavour.
Ground coriander loses its flavour quickly, so it is best to heat and grind the seeds before use, rather than storing as a powder.
Ground coriander often used with cumin powder in curries.
Recipes: Coriander Chutney
Cumin, or white cumin seeds are an essential spice for any masala box. They are long flat, brown seeds, not to be confused with caraway. They have a very distinctive aroma with a warm, strong and earthy flavour which is capable of masking any gamey flavour in meats such as lamb or goat. Cumin and potatoes work extremely well too.
Dry roasting the seeds on a low flame brings out their flavour. Be careful not to overcook them as they burn easily, giving a very bitter taste and you will have to throw them away and start again. Cumin seeds are also used to make breads such as roti and paratha. Lightly frying the seeds in oil gives a lovely flavour, as in this tempering for daal. It also works very well with yogurt dishes and lassi.
Ground cumin seeds are used to make mixes like Garam Masala, and the popular Indian drink Jeera Pani. They also go very well with yogurt dishes and lassi.
Black cumin shahi jeera
Often confused with caraway or nigella seeds, black cumin is milder than cumin, with a slightly sweet taste. When heated, it gives a slightly nutty flavour. It is commonly used in Northern India to flavour rice and meat dishes. A good substitute for black cumin, is in fact cumin, and not caraway or nigella seeds, which have very different flavours.
Curry leaves kari patta
These have an earthy curry and citrus flavour with a mild bitter after taste. Lightly fry to release the citrous notes. The fresh leaves have a better flavour than the dried leaves. They may be used whole or dried and crushed. They leaves can also be frozen.
The leaves are often used to temper a daal, but are also used in curries and vegetable dishes.
These seeds are warm, aromatic and have a liquorice-like flavour similar, but milder than that of star anise. They can be used whole or powdered and are commonly used in Kashmiri and Gujarati savoury dishes. They are also used in pickles.
This is one of the spices used to make Panch phoran. Sugar coated fennel seeds (saunf mukhwas) are also eaten raw after a meal as a digestive aid and breath freshener.
Fenugreek leaves kasuri methi
These leaves are extremely pungent can be used fresh or dried. Fresh leaves are known as methi, and are used fresh as a vegetable as in the dish aloo methi (potatoes with fenugreek leaves) or to make methi parathas.
The dried leaves are known as kasuri methi. Only a small amount is required as it is very strong. It is typically added in the last few minutes of cooking to add an extra layer of flavour.
Fenugreek seeds methi dana
These are yellow, small hard seeds. They are lightly roasted to enhance their flavour and reduce bitterness. They have a bitter maple syrup flavour, and are used whole or powdered in pickles, vegetable dishes, and daals.
The seeds are an ingredient in Panch phoran and Sambar mixes.
Ginger is ubiquitous in Indian cuisine. It adds a clean, pungent and spicy flavour to any dish. It is usually minced and added at the same time as garlic, or julienned to add as a garnish.
Indian Bay leaf tej patta
Not to be confused with European Laurel bay leaves. When a recipe calls for the Indian bay leaf, never substitute it with the European variety, as the flavours are very different – use a piece of cinnamon instead.
These aromatic leaves have a faint cinnamon fragrance and are browned in oil to release their flavour. They are used to flavour curries and rice, and can be used dried and ground in spice mixes.
This is the fruit which surrounds the nutmeg seed. It has a peppery and more delicate flavour than nutmeg. Mace is ground to a powder and goes well with biryanis, pickles and red meat curries.
Mango powder amchur
This is a sour and tangy spice, which is used as a souring agent and acts as a thickener. It adds a sour fruity flavour to curries, marinades and chutneys.
Nigella seeds kalonji
They are usually used whole, and sometimes ground. They have a pungent, nutty flavour.
They are used to make the mix Panch Phoran, and are also used in curries, in fish dishes, pickles and Indian breads such as Naan.
This is the seed from the Mace fruit. It is warm, nutty and slightly sweet but strong, so it is used sparingly, grated into curries such as butter chicken, rice dishes and spice mixes.
Red chilli powder lal mirch
This is made from ground Indian red chillies. There are different varieties of red chillies in India, the mildest being Kashmiri red chillies (deghi mirch). This variety is very popular chilli adds wonderful colour to a dish. Bird’s eye chilli powder packs quite a punch so it should be used carefully. Jwala chillies are the most popular variety of hot chillies in India.
Red chilli powder is used throughout Indian in marinating meats (tandoori chicken), in curries and vegetable dishes.
Delicate saffron threads are the most expensive spice in the world. They add a saffron colour to food and their flavour is strong so only a small amount is required at a time. The taste has been described as being sweet, similar to honey and hay-like.
The way to use saffron is to allow it to bloom by first soaking it for 30 minutes in a little room temperature water. This brings out the flavour of the dried saffron strands and the flavoured water can be used too.
Saffron is usually used to make desserts such as kesar kulfi, sweets and other milk based desserts like phirni. It is also used to flavour rice or added to curries, such as meatball curry.
Star anise chakra phul
This star shaped, dark brown pod containing seeds is used whole or can be ground to a powder. It can be dry roasted or lightly fried in oil.
It has a stronger liquorice flavour than fennel seeds, and is delicious with meats, in biryanis and masala chai
The turmeric root is usually ground and used as a powder in most savoury dishes. A small amount is sufficient as it lends its deep golden colour and warm, earthy, peppery flavour to a dish. It is known for its antiseptic qualities. The root is also sliced to make the popular turmeric pickle in Gujarat.