The secret behind the amazing taste and aura of Indian food is the brilliant Indian masalas which are generously added. It is these spices which lead to the rich fulfilling taste that you get from all the Indian foods. You will be surprised to know about the range of spices which are used in the cooking of Indian food. While some spices are dry roasted and some blended, there are some which are used according to the chef’s preference or the requirement of the dish.
If you are just beginning to learn to cook Indian food, you will need the following spices and nuts to be able to cook any Indian dish successfully-
A brown colored, oval-shaped seed called Ajwain (or Carom), is widely used in the Indian kitchen as a seasoning to bring flavor to the food. Ajwain is a rare spice which not only adds flavor to food but also has several health benefits. One of the major reasons why your mother never forgets to add this seed to your meal is because it keeps your stomach strong!
Taste: Bitter, pungent flavor, with a strong aromatic essence.
The oldest known spice in the world, Coriander (also known as Dhaniya Beej) is a yellowish-gold, oval round seed. In an Indian kitchen, coriander is extensively used across various regional cuisines to flavor curries, snacks, stir-fries, and even a few breakfast dishes. This flavorful condiment is used in many cuisines such as Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi.
Taste: Strong aromatic seeds with citrus notes.
Cumin, (popularly known as Jeera) is a light brown, ridged seed with an intense fragrance. This seed is roasted and powdered, for a more intense flavor. It helps to add an earthy and warm flavor to the foods, making a staple in curries in Indian cooking. Jeera is also used in curd based salads.
Taste: Earthy, warm, and nutty flavor.
This dark yellow colored, twisted cylinder shaped seed, is found in every Indian kitchen. Also known as Methi, this seed is often used in the preparation of other spices. In North India, fenugreek is used mainly in pickles and chutneys. While in the other parts of India, these seeds are used in a range of spicy dishes.
Taste: Earthy, musty flavor.
Fennel (or Saunf) are olive green, sweet and spicy seeds. Fennel is used in various dishes and spice mixes which add flavor to lentils, meat, and even sweets. In Kashmiri cooking, this is the key spice used in the preparation of the traditional Rogan Josh.
Taste: Licorice-like flavor.
Mustard seeds are usually black, brown or yellow in color (popularly known as Sarson). The strong taste of these tiny seeds is what makes it an important spice in Indian cooking. The flavor of these seeds is best released once they are crushed or cooked in oil. The smoky, nutty flavor is a staple for curries and mustard oil is used a lot in North Indian cooking.
Taste: Smoky, nutty flavor.
Anardana is a pale reddish-brown colored dried seed with a juicy coat and a tangy taste. Retaining the qualities of fresh pomegranate seeds, anardana has a mild sweet and tangy flavor which adds richness to the dish. In Pakistani cooking, it is used for curry preparation.
Taste: Sweet & tangy flavor.
This light brown, oval-shaped grain, (also known as Til) is quintessential in Indian cooking. Sesame has a mild nutty flavor which is further enhanced when the seeds are roasted. It has a distinctive smell when used in cooking.
Sesame seeds are also very rich in calcium.
Taste: A nutty crunch and sweet flavor.
It is a dried gum resin found in the stem of several varieties of Ferula. Hing has a sulfuric, pungent odor, however when cooked, gives a mellow, garlicky flavor to the food. Hing is very aromatic spice and can ruin the taste of any dish which is why it must be used very carefully.
Taste: Strong garlicky flavor.
Cloves are brown colored aromatic buds of the flowers of the plant Syzygium Aromaticum (a tree native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia). Cloves (or laung) can be used as whole or ground as a seasoning. Cloves have a powerful sweet-savory flavor. This is an essential spice in dishes such as rice and meat. Cloves are often chewed after meals to freshen the breath.
Taste: Aromatic, sweet flavor.
Cardamom (or Elaichi) is a “less is more” spice. You must use this spice with caution. This is a spice you have to keep in the freezer or it tends to lose freshness very quickly. Or you can buy whole pods and further grind them for the dishes which demand cardamom. Chai, curries, and rice dishes – all get a flavor boost from cardamom.
Green cardamom is used in many sweets as well.
Taste: Warm, spicy, sweet flavor.
A brown colored bark of the plant Cinnamomum Casia, (also known as Dalchini) has a sweet and hot sharp taste. It can be used as a whole stick for infusion or ground as a seasoning to flavor sweets as well as savory dishes. The spice adds a slight delicate sweetness to savory recipes.
Taste: Hot & sweet flavor.
Dry Mango Powder
Dry Mango Powder (or Amchur) is a pale yellowish green colored powder made from sun-dried raw mangoes.This is one of the staple spices used in a North Indian kitchen as it adds a tangy punch to many dishes. This spice is used to bring sourness to the curries and to tenderize meat.
Taste: Tangy and sour flavor.
Also called Jaiphal, this spice is mainly used in Mughlai cuisine. The seed of the fruit of the tree native to Indonesia, Nutmeg is an extremely aromatic spice which has a sweet, peppery flavor to it. It can either be grounded or grated and is used to spice sweets throughout North India.
Taste: Warm, sweet, nutty & spicy flavor.
Saffron (or Kesar) is one of the most expensive spices, simply because it is one of the most labor-intensive spices to produce. It is a dried, deep brown/orange stigma of the flower Corcus sativas and needs to be picked by the hand.
Taste: Slightly bitter and slightly sweet flavor.
Onion seeds are given this name due to their somewhat oniony flavor. These black, tear-shaped seeds are from the Nigella sativa plant. This is another spice which is a staple in North Indian kitchen as it is used in many dishes as well as sprinkled over naan.
Taste: Pungent, bitter taste.
Paprika, (commonly known as Mirch) is a deep red powder made from ground sweet red chilies. This spice has a mellow, subtle, sweet flavor and is majorly used for coloring in dals and sauces. This spice is an absolute essential in a North Indian kitchen.
Turmeric (also known as Haldi) is an underground stem of the plant Curcuma longa which is native to India and further related to ginger.Usually, the stem is boiled, dried and grounded into a deep-yellow powder, while many households tend to use fresh turmeric in dishes. Haldi is one of the most essential spices which is used in kitchens throughout India.
Taste: Earthy, slightly bitter taste.
Garam literally translates to “heat” and this spice exactly does that! Garam masala heats the body because of its warming properties in the mix of spices. Garam masala is a mixture of different Indian spices. Garam masala is usually added towards the end of cooking to give the dish a nice pop of aroma and flavor. This is also one of the staple spices in North Indian kitchens.
Taste: Hot flavor.
Indian Bay leaves
Indian Bay Leaves or Tej Patta are aromatic leaves with a bitter, sharp taste. Indian bay leaf is much larger in size than a commonly found bay leaf and has a lighter shade of green. Crushed or used as a whole, Indian bay leaf is mostly used in a dried form in Indian food. It is widely used in curries and gives biryani the flavor which people crave for.
Taste: Bitter, sharp taste.
The star-shaped brown colored spice from China has a licorice-like flavor and is known as ‘Chakra Phool’ in India. It is an exotic spice in Indian cuisine. It has a strong and delightful fragrance, because of which it is used often in biryanis, chicken, and seafood dishes.
Taste: Strong licorice flavor.
A little spicy, a little sweet – the root of ginger is used in cooking in its fresh, dried as well as ground forms. Fresh ginger adds a delicious, peppery flavor to the dish. It is used widely as an aromatic spice in Indian cuisine. It is often mashed into a paste along with garlic and added to hot oil at the very beginning.
Taste: Spicy, sweet, slightly citrus flavor.
Peppercorns come in three varieties – black, white, and green. The best thing about pepper is that it tastes great in literally everything. There is a research which suggests that black pepper consumption can reduce high-fat diet induced oxidative stress to our body.
Taste: Hot and zesty flavor.
Which spices do you use while cooking food at your home? Let us know in the comments below.
Tanisha Diwan, among other things is primarily a shopaholic, devourer of books, fashion & food writer, daydreamer and traveler, who still takes delight in reading hopeless romantic novels and sipping on hot masala chai.