A Comprehensive Guide to Indian Spices: Whole Seeds

Close up detail shot of cumin seeds

If you’re a beginner to using spices in your cooking, I really recommend checking out my article on 16 Essential Herbs and Spices for Indian Cooking. In that article I’ve personally picked the spices listed from years of experience, and it’s a great introduction to the different types of spice. However, you’re looking to delve deeper into the world of spices then this is the article for you! 

Whole spices are one of the most important components of Indian cookery. Being able to layer different textures and flavours with spices is what brings complexity, balance and depth to a dish. Once you understand the individual flavour aroma and use of each spice you’ll be empowered to take your cooking to the next level. 

Seeds can be used for many things – bringing texture and bite to a dish, as well as adding spice, sweetness, freshness or tanginess. Some seeds can even be soaked and ground to replicate a creamy texture which is used to thicken Indian gravies. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the ingredients required for making Indian food and how to use them, then do check out the rest of my articles on this subject: 

For now let’s move onto the article so you can learn about the flavour profile, appearance and uses for this spices! 

Sweet Basil Seeds

Tukmaria / Sabja (Hindi), Tulshi cha bi (Marathi)

Mildly floral and cooling.

Sweet basil seeds are a lesser known Indian ingredient that have a small teardrop shape and black interior. They come from the Thai Basil plant. 
Before use the basil seeds have been soaked in water for around 5 minutes. After soaking they will swell in size and become gelatinous, making the inside crunchy and the outside soft.

The most famous use of sweet basil seeds is Falooda, a dessert layered with rose jelly, sweet basil seeds, sevai (vermicelli noodles), rose syrup, milk and ice cream. They can also be used for other drinks.

Sweet basil seeds are sometimes mistaken for Chia seeds as they are similar in appearance. Although different, you can use sweet basil the same way you would use Chia. 

Black Cumin Seeds

Kala Jeera / Shahi Jeera (Hindi & Marathi)

Smokey and earthy and nutty. 

Because of English translations, this one results in a lot of confusion. Black Cumin Seeds are used in South-Asia, but practically unknown elsewhere. Because kalonji shares the same English translations – black cumin seeds or black caraway – it’s often confused for kala jeera, although they look nothing alike. Try to use the Hindi names to avoid confusion and mis-buying. 

Black cumin has a thin, small and curved appearance. The seeds are (as the name suggestions) much darker than ordinary cumin. It has a similar taste, but with a more intense smoky flavour. Often used in rice dishes, it can be substituted with ordinary cumin if need be.

Carom Seeds

A pile of carom seeds / ajwain

Sharp, bitter and thyme-scented. 

Carom seeds are small oval seeds with a light brown-green colour and lines stretching from the top to bottom. They have an intense sharp and bitter taste which is very pleasant, and an aroma similar to thyme. 

Carom seeds are not often used in savoury dishes like ‘curries’, but are instead used in snacks foods like Pakora and Breads. Using just a small pinch of these seeds in Pakora or Cheela will give a delightful flavour which really heightens the dish. 

Interestingly, carom seeds are said to aide in digestion, so they are often added to breads which are heavy on the stomach like Makki ki Roti or Bati

Coriander Seeds

Sabut Dhaniya (Hindi), Dhane (Marathi)
A pile of coriander seeds

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. 

Cumin Seeds

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. 

Fennel Seeds

Saunf (Hindi), Badishep / Sop (Marathi)

Sweet, warm and licorice-like. 

Fennel Seeds are medium sized, slightly curved, and with ridges. They’ll be pale-green coloured when fresh and gradually turn to brown  as they age. 

They have many uses – in spice mixes such as Panch Poran (Bengali 5 Spice), Chai Masala, Pav Bhaji Masala, and many more. 

Fennel seeds can be used whole or powdered in many recipes, but are particularly prevalent in Kashmiri and Nepalese cuisines. They are also added in small quantities to sweet dishes like Marathi puranpoli
Because of their light, anise-like flavour, fennel seeds are often eaten as a mouth freshener after a meal. You can buy sweetened seed mixes called mukhwas for a mouth freshener too. 

Fenugreek Seeds

Methi Dana (Hindi & Marathi)

Bitter, nutty and slightly sweet. 

Fenugreek seeds are large, oblong shaped golden-brown seeds. They have a strong aroma and a bitter taste, so should be used in moderation. 

Use fenugreek seeds crushed and fried as a tempering to many savoury dishes. They are sometimes added to samosa stuffing like in my Bread Samosa recipe. 

Fenugreek seeds are also added to various South Indian dishes such as Dosa and Idli batter, as well as SambarThe addition of the seeds to Dosa & Idli keeps them soft and aids in fermentation.

Finally, fenugreek seeds can be used to grow fresh fenugreek to use in your cooking. For more information on how to grow fresh methi, see this article.  

Black Mustard Seeds

Sarso / Rai (Hindi), Mohri / Rai (Marathi)
Up Close photo of Indian spice Black Mustard Seeds

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. 


Nigella Seeds

Kalonji (Hindi & Marathi)

Herby, slightly bitter, smoky and onion-y.

Nigella seeds are very small jet-black tear-drop shaped seeds with little to no scent but a strong flavour which combines many flavour notes – oregano, cumin, and onion. 

Because of the translated English name – black cumin, black onion seeds, and black caraway – these are often confused for Kala Jeera. They are in no way similar or replaceable. To ease confusion, try to refer to these as either Kalonji or Nigella only. 

The most famous use of Nigella seeds is sprinkled on top of NaanThey give a wonderful additional flavour and can be added to other Indian leavened breads too, such as KulchaThey can also be used in various sabji and are another essential spice for Bengali Panch Poran. 

Dried Pomegranate Seeds

Anaradana (Hindi & Marathi)

Sweet, sour and fruity. 

Anardana are the dried seeds of the pomegranate fruit. You can make your own by sun-drying or dehydrating pomegranate seeds, but the best and most flavoursome spice comes from the wild pomegranate grown in the Indian Himalayas. If you can, try and select seeds which are on the softer side.

Dried Pomegranate Seeds are used in many dishes to give a sour, tangy and slightly sweet depth of flavour. They are usually used ground. Add a small amount to any vegetable gravy dish – it goes particularly well in Punjabi Chole.

Lemon juice, tamarind pulp and amchoor powder are all acceptable substitutes. You’ll usually find tamarind used in South Indian dishes and Anardana or Amchoor in North Indian ones. 

White Poppy Seeds

Khus khus (Hindi), Khas khas (Marathi)

Nutty, slightly spicy and sweet.

White poppy seeds are tiny, dull-white to beige coloured seeds with a rounded shape. Although black poppy seeds are predominately used in the West, white poppy seeds are sed exclusively in Indian cooking. The flavour of the two is very similar. If using poppy seeds to top breads like Kulcha, black will be fine – but if you’re using them as a paste, always opt for white. 

Poppy seeds are commonly used in North and East Indian cooking, particularly in Bengali dishes like Aloo Posto. They are also widely featured in Mughlai style dishes, where they may be soaked and ground along with other nuts and seeds to make a thick paste for dishes like Korma. 
You can also use them in drinks like sherbet and khus khus doodh.

White Sesame Seeds

Til (Hindi & Marathi)

Sweet, buttery and nutty.

White sesame seeds are small, pale-white teardrop shaped seeds which have a deliciously smooth and buttery taste. 

You may not associate sesame seeds with Indian cooking but they are actually used quite widely, particularly in West and South India. Famous dishes to use sesame seeds include Marathi Bharli Vangi,  where the seeds are roasted and then ground. 

Sesame seeds can also be added to various snacks and pakoras, like Kobi Vadi or Kothimbir Vadi.  They can also be tempered in oil and mixed with other spices such as curry leaves, then used to top snacks like Dhokla and Khandvi. 
Finally, you can also use them in desserts. Til Ladoo and Til Chikki are two famous examples.

Melon Seeds

Tarbooz ke Beej / Magaz

Nutty and sweet. 

Melon seeds are large, oval seeds with an off-white colour. You can buy one type of melon seeds or a mixed pack of four varieties of melon seeds (charmagaz). 

Do be aware that the word ‘Magaz’ means ‘brain’ in Hindi. This is because melon seeds are reported to have great health benefits and increase brain function. However, don’t confuse it with the dish which actually cooks brains! 

They are most often used soaked and blended alongside other nuts and seeds to thicken a large variety of dishes and produce a characteristically creamy texture. 
Because melon seeds have a hint of sweetness and a natural crunch, they’re also often added to Indian sweets like Halwa and sweet drinks like Thandai. 

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Glossary of Whole Seeds in English, Hindi and Marathi

Sweet Basil SeedsTukmaria / SabjaTulshi cha Bi
Black Cumin SeedsKala Jeera / Shahi JeeraKala Jeera / Shahi Jeera
Carom SeedsAjwainOwa
Coriander SeedsSabut DhaniaDhane
Cumin SeedsJeeraJeera
Fennel SeedsSaunfBadishep / Sop
Fenugreek SeedsMethi DanaMethi Dana
Black Mustard SeedsSarso / RaiMohri / Rai
Nigella Seeds / Black Onion SeedsKalonjiKalonji
Dried Pomegranate SeedsAnardanaAnardana
White Poppy SeedsKhus KhusKhas Khas
White Sesame SeedsTilTil
Melon SeedsTarbooz ke Beej / MagazTarbooz ke Beej / Magaz

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