12 Essential Spices for Indian Cooking

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A spice market with various different spices in baskets and jars

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, the seasoning’s 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.

Here are the Essential Ground Spices for Indian Cooking

Turmeric powder on a small wooden spoon, with whole turmeric in the background.
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.

A small bowl of coriander powder, with blurry whole coriander seeds in the background.
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 in a small glass bowl with whole red chilis in the background.
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.

A plate featuring essential spices for cooking Indian garam masala, including cinnamon, star anise, cloves, and more.
Garam Masala

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!

Use the spice sparingly, adding only a small pinch in the last minutes of cooking to preserve its freshness. Garam masala is typically a finishing spice for curries and lentil dals.

Next, the Essential Whole Seeds for Indian Cooking

Close up of cumin seeds spilling out of a wooden spoon.
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

A small clay bowl full of black mustard seeds on a woven brown cloth.
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.

Close up of a white bowl full of coriander seeds.
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.

You can incorporate coriander seeds into pickles, bread like kulcha, or in tempering for Indian lentils. You can also grind them into a powder.

A small clay bowl full of carom seeds, with more carom seeds covering the whole background.
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

Five sticks of true cinnamon on a white background.
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.

Cinnamon is a vital ingredient for Indian cooking, with its uses extending to rice dishes like biryani, masala chai, aromatic curries like chana masala, and even desserts.

Green cardamom pods on a green cloth.
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.

Due to their versatile flavor, cardamom pods are essential for cooking Indian desserts like rasgulla, gulab jamun, and kheer.

A small wooden spoon holding cloves on a marble background, with a jar of more cloves in the distance.
Cloves (laung)

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.

Close up of star anise spice.
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!

If this article helped you, you may also like:

A guide to lentils, legumes, beans, and pulses
A guide to Indian cookware

Frequently Asked Questions about Essential Spices Used in Indian Cooking:

What are the five main spices used for 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.

What is Indian main seasoning?

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.”

What does badiyan mean in Marathi?

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.

What are the four spices for Indian cooking?

Aside from salt and pepper, the five main spices used in Indian cuisine are turmeric powder, red chili powder, coriander powder, and cumin powder.

What is badiyan spice in Hindi?

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.


  1. Thank you for highlighting these 12 essential spices for Indian cooking. I didn’t realize the difference between Ceylon true cinnamon and Chinese cassia bark.

    1. I’m so glad this article on essential Indian spices taught you something new, Debbie. Unfortunately not many people know the difference between Cassia and Ceylon cinnamon, which is a shame as they have very different flavors.

  2. Combining traditional spices to produce beautiful cooking is an almost spiritual act. Certainly exploring Indian food will greatly expand our cooking repertoire. Thank you for these

    1. I love that description of it as a spiritual act, Beth! I highly recommend exploring Indian food and the essential spices, as it brings so much color and flavor to cooking.

  3. Hi, thanks for sharing this awesome blog post about essential spices for Indian cooking. I’m a big fan of Indian food and I want to try making it at home. Your list of 16 spices is very useful and covers a lot of different dishes. I like how you explained the flavour and usage of each spice, and how to store them well. I learned a lot about the whole spices – seeds and aromatics.

    1. Thank you for such a lovely comment, Kimberley! I’m so pleased you found my list of essential spices helpful, and hopefully it aids you in your Indian cooking journey.

  4. Your guide to essential spices for Indian cooking is incredibly helpful! It’s like a flavorful journey through the world of Indian cuisine. The way you’ve explained each spice’s role and provided tips on combining them is perfect for both beginners and experienced cooks. Time to spice up our dishes! 🌶🍛

  5. One of the reasons why I love Indian cuisine is because of the diverse range of spices they use. These spices add flavour to the dish and make it more vibrant and lively. From the warm and earthy aroma of cumin to the sweet and fragrant notes of cardamom, Indian spices are sure to tantalize your taste buds. Whether making a simple dal or a complex biryani, incorporating Indian spices can take your dish to the next level. So don’t be afraid to experiment and add a little spice to your life!

    1. I’m so glad you found it helpful! Some Indian spices (despite the name) aren’t the “hot and peppery” type, but have a gentle aromatic and fragrent aroma. It may be worth exploring them!

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