One of the most common questions I encounter as an Indian food expert is, “What are the essential spices for Indian cooking?” Candidly speaking, answering the question was harder than I expected, not least because Indian cuisine showcases over 40 spices. While some of these ingredients are daily necessities, others are regional specialties; the task lies in separating the two. Consequently, by drawing on my decade-long journey into the heart of Indian cooking, I’ve organized these spices into straightforward categories: ground spices, whole seeds, and aromatic surprises.
By the time you’ve finished reading this article, you’ll have a clear image of how to stock your pantry, how to identify the spices, their unique flavor profiles, and last but not least, how to cook Indian food.
Once you know these essential spices for Indian cooking, you’ll have started your journey into mastering the Indian cuisine.
Table of Contents:
Here are the Essential Ground Spices for Indian Cooking:
Turmeric Powder (Haldi)
Turmeric powder is a bright yellow ground spice made from dried turmeric root. It has a bitter, warming, and earthy flavor profile. The ground spice adds vibrant color to all recipes and therefore appears in curries, Indian breakfasts, street food, and Indian side dishes. However, when used in excess or overcooked, turmeric can taste overly bitter, so be moderate.
According to Healthline, turmeric boasts anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticancer health benefits — the ancient Indian medical system of Ayurveda also agrees, promoting it as a healing spice.
Coriander powder (Dhania)
Coriander powder is made by dry-roasting and grinding whole coriander seeds. The spice has a warm brown color with a musky, citrusy scent and woody flavor notes. Ideally, freshly ground seeds provide the best taste, but the ready-ground powder is also appropriate.
As one of the most essential spices for Indian cooking, you’ll want to add coriander powder at the beginning of your recipes. As a result of its status, Indian curries, main meals, and lentil dishes frequently use ground coriander. It pairs well with cumin.
Red Chili powder (Lal mirch)
Red chili powder is ubiquitous in Indian food, providing fiery heat to Indian recipes. Depending on the variety of dried chilis, the resulting powder can vary in color, flavor, and heat. For example, Kashmiri chili powder is vivid and mild, while scotch bonnets are dangerously hot.
Not to be confused with South American chili powder, this is not a spice blend; it’s just powdered dried chilis. It provides great color and heat to Indian curries and lentils, or you can sprinkle it on street foods.
Garam Masala is a spice mix made from a range of aromatic spices. It’s usually a deep, dark brown color with warm, sweet, hot, and fragrant overtones. Every family in India will have their secret recipe for Garam Masala, so it’s unlikely that you’ll find two the same!
Next, the Essential Whole Seeds for Indian Cooking
Cumin seeds (Jeera)
Cumin seeds are small, oblong-shaped, light brown spice with a warm, earthy, sweet, and subtly bitter bite. At the beginning of your dish, fry the cumin seeds in oil until they pop, bringing a delightful crunch and woody aroma to savory recipes.
Don’t just use cumin seeds in curries. They are also considered essential for Indian rice dishes like pulao and biryani. Another way to use cumin seeds is for “tadka” or “tempering” in recipes like dal tadka.
Black mustard seeds (sarso / Rai)
While there are many varieties of mustard seeds, Indian cuisine typically uses the hotter brown or black varieties. Smooth and tiny black mustard seeds have a robust, spicy, and less bitter flavor than their yellow counterparts.
Use black mustard seeds at the beginning of your cooking by frying them in oil until they pop. An essential spice for South Indian cooking, recipes such as chutney, pickles, vegetable sambar, bharli vangi, and many more use the ingredient liberally.
Coriander seeds (sabut dhania)
Did you know you can use coriander seeds, not just coriander powder or fresh herbs? Coriander seeds are brown-green colored with a distinctive citrusy, nutty, and spicy flavor makeup. It tastes similar to coriander powder but offers more texture and bursts of fresh flavor rather than an even layer of seasoning.
Carom seeds (ajwain)
Carom seeds, not to be confused with caraway seeds, are a small oval-shaped spice with a thyme scent and sharp taste on the palette. Although you won’t find carom seeds in Indian curries, they’re in numerous snack foods like onion bhaji, pakora, bati bread, and vegetable samosa dough.
Interestingly, WebMD states that carom seeds are proven to benefit digestive health, in addition to further antifungal and antibacterial properties.
Finally, the Essential Aromatic Spices for Indian Cooking:
Cinnamon Sticks (Dalchini)
Your Indian grocery store probably stocks two varieties of this essential spice: Ceylon true cinnamon and Chinese cassia bark. Although similar in appearance, both have unique flavor traits, and we highly recommend the golden-brown tightly curled quills of Ceylon cinnamon, which is sweet, spicy, and woody.
Green Cardamom (Elaichi)
The gorgeously fragrant aromatic yet herbal cardamom pods are deep green — the brighter the green, the fresher they are. Inside, cardamom pods hide small brown seeds. You can use the spice whole or remove the seeds and use them separately.
Uniquely, cloves are dried flower buds. They boast an intensely powerful sweet, penetrating, and almost numbing flavor. The numbing sensation comes from a trace amount of astringent eugenol in the spice, which, per Healthline, is a natural anesthetic and anti-inflammatory medicine.
In addition to their use as a medicine, cloves are an essential ingredient in garam masala and other spice blends, along with biryani and curries. It pairs well with other aromatic spices.
Star Anise (chakra phool)
Perhaps the most beautiful of all Indian spices, star anise is obtained from the fruits of an exotic tree native to Southern China. They have a rich brown color, a distinctive 8-pointed star shape, a beautifully perfumed aroma, and a potent flavor reminiscent of licorice.
You can use star anise in masala chai, curries, rice dishes, and even dal. Although you can use it whole, the spice is removed from your bowl before serving, as it scents the recipes while cooking but is rather unpleasant to eat whole!
Frequently Asked Questions about Essential Spices Used in Indian Cooking:
Aside from salt and pepper, the five main spices used in Indian cuisine are turmeric powder, red chili powder, coriander powder, cumin powder, and garam masala. While that may be true, learning to use more spices will level up your cooking even further.
Indian cuisine boasts many different spices and seasonings. Nonetheless, the most common finishing spice blend which is used to season food is called garam masala, which translates to “hot spices.”
In Marathi, badiyan translates to “chakra phool.” In Hindi, the same spice is called either “badiyan” or “chakra phool,” while in English it’s called star anise.
Aside from salt and pepper, the five main spices used in Indian cuisine are turmeric powder, red chili powder, coriander powder, and cumin powder.
In Hindi, star anise is called “badiyan” or “chakri phool.” Moreover, its English name is star anise.
This post was first published on September 9th, 2020, and was later updated on August 3rd, 2023.