Ingredients: Indian Spices (Indian Cooking Basics I)

This post contains information about ALL Indian spices and spice mixes that may be used in my recipes. It will be updated once in a while. This way, they are all on one page and it is more organized. All of these spices are quite commonly used in Indian cooking, but some of them are more often used than others. For beginners, I recommend buying turmeric powder, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, Indian red chili powder (If you don’t like food too spicy, get Kashmiri red chili powder. You can also use a combination of regular Indian red chili powder and Kashmiri to create medium-spicy dishes.), and garam masala. These are used in the majority of Indian recipes. I strongly recommend visiting an Indian supermarket, where the spices are much, much, much, much, MUCH cheaper than in American supermarkets. It is also much easier to find the less common spices in an Indian supermarket. If there is none near you, you may have to order online which is very expensive. If you love Indian food, it may still be worth it.

Indian cuisine and all South Asian cuisine uses many spices to give flavor to food. This is different from East Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines, which use a combination of fermented sauces and spices to flavor foods. Spices each give a different flavor and color to food, making each dish look and taste distinct. Spices also have medicinal purposes and even modern scientists agree they may help prevent some diseases.

It is necessary to Indian cooking to have a spice grinder. Buy a coffee grinder and use it only for spices.

Many spices are not on this list, but all of the common ones are. Some spices are used mostly in Northern Indian cuisine and some are used in mostly Southern Indian cuisine.
Hindi names are in parentheses next to each spice name. Many Indian supermarkets label spice names in an Indian language (not always Hindi). They may be spelled differently in English letters, but I choose the most common way of spelling.

Asafoetida (Hing)
Asafoetida is the dried sap from the root and stem of a plant called Ferula assa-foetida. It smells absolutely terrible. It is added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking, only a very small amount is used. Once added to oil, it becomes a more pleasant smell. Overseas, it can only be found powdered in a bottle resembling a medicine bottle. This powder contains a filler and it does not have much of the actual asafoetida in it. It still smells terrible…
In India, it can be found in solid form. This solid form must be pounded in a mortar to a powder before using.
No-onion-no-garlic recipes often use asafoetida to boost the flavor. Some Indian people do not eat onion or garlic for religious reasons. Recipes with onion and garlic can also contain asafoetida.

Indian Bay Leaf (Tej Patta)
Indian bay leaves are not western bay leaves, which are the leaves of the Laurel tree. Indian bay leaves are the leaves of the Cinnamomum tamala tree, which is related to the cinnamon tree. Many Indian recipes call for “bay leaf”, and they refer to this spice. The western (Laurel) bay leaf is not used in India. You can find the Indian bay leaf at Indian supermarkets. They look different from Laurel bay leaves because they have three veins instead of one. The leaves are added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking.

Green Cardamom (Choti Elaichi)
Green cardamoms, the dried fruit of the Elettaria cardamomum plant, are the third most expensive spice in the world, but are still much cheaper at Indian grocery stores than American grocery stores. Each small pod contains tiny black seeds that are often powdered in Indian dishes or desserts. Green cardamoms are also lightly crushed and added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking, or ground into spice mixes such as garam masala.

Black Cardamom (Bada Elaichi / Kali Elaichi)
Black cardamoms, the dried fruit of the Amomum subulatum plant, are larger than green cardamoms and have a very different flavor. They are also cheaper, so are often incorrectly described and used as an inferior substitute to green cardamom. Black cardamoms are not used in sweet foods. They have a smoky flavor because they are dried over a fire. They are ground into spice mixes such as garam masala, and are also lightly crushed and used whole in braised dishes or rice dishes.
*A related species, Amomum costatum, is used in Sichuanese cooking, in braised meat dishes, and is called 草果 (cao guo – “tsall gwuh” – literally: grass fruit). These can be substituted with the Indian black cardamom.

Carom Seeds (Ajwain)
These tiny seeds are the seeds of the plant Trachyspermum ammi and are often mislabeled “Bishop’s weed”. They are added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking. They are also used to season parathas.

Chaat Masala
This spice blend is commonly used in Indian street food, which is called chaat. Beginners should buy it from the store, because many of the spices in it are not too commonly used in Indian cuisine (all of them are still on this list though). I will make a post soon containing all of my spice blend formulas. Look forward to it!

Cinnamon (Dalchini)
“True cinnamon” is the dried inner bark of the Cinnamomum verum tree, which is mostly grown in Sri Lanka. This is very hard to find and would be very expensive. Most cinnamon is actually the dried inner bark of the Cinnamomum cassia tree. The “true cinnamon” has a sweeter flavor, and the “cassia cinnamon” has a slightly stronger flavor. Both are good to use. In Indian cooking, cinnamon is usually used as whole sticks, added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking. The cinnamon sticks are also ground as part of spice mixes such as garam masala.

Cloves (Laung)
Cloves are the dried flower buds of the Syzygium aromaticum tree. They are fully-grown and unopened green buds are picked and dried in the sun until dark brown. Cloves are very strongly flavored and are added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking. They are also ground into spice mixes such as garam masala.

Coriander Seeds (Dhania)
These are the dried seeds of the cilantro/coriander plant, Coriandrum sativum. They have a very different flavor from the cilantro leaves. This spice is usually added as a powder, but can also be added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking. They are also commonly ground into spice mixes such as garam masala and sambar powder. This is one of the most common Indian spices, used in most Indian dishes. Buy the whole seeds and grind them in a spice grinder, about 1/2 cup at a time. Store this in a small airtight container until used up. Powdered spices lose flavor faster than whole spices so this is better than buying coriander powder.

Cumin Seeds (Jeera)
The dried seeds of the Cumimum cyminim plant, these are also very commonly used in Indian cooking. They can be added whole to hot oil at the beginning of cooking, or used ground into powder. They are also ground in spice mixes such as garam masala. The ground form can be made from raw cumin seeds, or dry-roasted cumin seeds. The roasted, raw, and fried cumin seeds all have different flavors. Like coriander, I recommend buying the whole seeds and grinding them when necessary.

Fenugreek Seeds (Methi)
The seeds of the plant Trigonella foenum-graecum, fenugreek seeds are added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking or ground into spice mixes.

Dried Fenugreek Leaves (Kasuri Methi)
The dried leaves of the Trigonella foenum-graecum plant are used in the famous dishes of butter chicken, butter paneer, and malai kofta! They are essential to the flavors of these dishes. You can find them in Indian grocery stores.

Fennel Seeds (Saunf / Mouri)
The seeds of the plant Foeniculum vulgare look similar to cumin, but taste very different. They are added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking or ground into spice mixes. The powder is also used in Indian cooking.

Garam Masala
This is a spice blend used very commonly in Indian cuisine. Beginners can buy it premade, but I recommend everyone to grind it at home once you have all the ingredients. Cumin and coriander seeds should be owned by all people who cook Indian cuisine, and the other spices are also quite commonly used. Check out Indian Cooking Basics II for the formula.

Dry Ginger Powder (Soonth)
Ginger is the rhizome of the plant Zingiber officinale. The rhizome is very commonly used fresh in Indian and Chinese cooking. However, it is also dried and powdered. The powder has a different flavor than fresh ginger, and it is much, much stronger.

Mace (Javitri)
Mace is the aril of the fruit of the Myristica fragrans tree, native to Indonesia. It looks like a red coil around the seed, which is called nutmeg (see nutmeg below). Mace is ground as a part of biryani masala, and rarely used otherwise.

Dry Unripe Mango Powder (Amchur)
This powder adds a sour flavor to many Indian dishes. It is quite hard to find, but you should be able to get it at an Indian supermarket. It is made from unripe mangoes, which are the fruit of the Mangifera indica tree. The unripe mangoes are dried and powdered.

Black Mustard Seeds (Rai)
These tiny black round seeds are the seeds of the plant Brassica nigra. These seeds are added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking. They are used very commonly in South Indian cuisine.

Brown Mustard Seeds (Sarson)
Brown mustard seeds are larger than black mustard seeds, and they are the seeds of the Brassica juncea plant. They are less commonly used than black mustard seeds.

Nigella Seeds AKA Black Caraway Seeds (Kalonji / Kalo Jeera)
These seeds of the Nigella sativa plant are often mislabeled “onion seeds” or “black cumin” (black cumin is actually a different plant called Bunium bulbocastanum, but it is called this because “kalo jeera” literally means “black cumin”). They are used to flavor breads, ground in spice mixtures, or added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking.

Nutmeg (Jaiphal)
Nutmeg is the seed of the fruit of the Myristica fragrans tree, native to Indonesia. They are used powdered in dishes such as biryani, and also added to spice blends such as garam masala. Buy them whole and grate them freshly.

Panch Foron
This blend of 5 seeds is used in East Indian cooking. It is a mixture of the following spices in equal amounts:
cumin seeds
radhuni (seeds of Trachyspermum roxburghianum plant)
nigella seeds
fenugreek seeds
fennel seeds

Black Peppercorns (Kali Mirch)
The most common spice on Earth, used all over the world, black peppercorns are the dried immature fruit of the Piper nigrum plant. In Indian cooking, the spice is usually ground into spice blends such as garam masala. Buy them whole and grind them with a pepper mill when the powder spice is called for.

Dry Pomegranate Seeds (Anardana)
These seeds of the fruit of the Punica granatum tree are added to hot oil at the beginning of cooking to add a sour flavor to foods. The seeds are also eaten fresh.

White Poppy Seeds (Khus Khus)
The seeds of the Papaver somniferum plant, poppy seeds are not too commonly used in Indian cooking. You may have seen them in muffins before. The Papaver somniferum plant is also the source of all narcotic drugs such as morphine and codeine! The seeds actually contain trace amounts of these drugs! However, they will not cause any effects at all, so don’t worry.

Indian Red Chili Powders (Lal Mirch)
Indian red chili powder is made from pure ground red chilies. There are many different kinds that you can find at an Indian grocery store, such as mild (Kashmiri), medium spicy, and extra spicy. I use Kashmiri red chili powder because it is very mild but very, very red. If you do not have an Indian store near you, you can use a blend of cayenne pepper powder to taste and paprika for color.
Indian red chili powder is not the spice blend called “chili powder” in the USA! The “chili powder” is a blend of chili, cumin, coriander, oregano, and other spices used to make the Mexican-American dish called chili.

Whole Dry Red Chilies
These chilies are the fruit of the plant Capsicum annum. They can be found at Indian grocery stores. You can substitute chile arbol or chile Japones, found at Mexican grocery stores or sometimes American grocery stores. They are split in half and added to hot oil for seasoning. Indian people include all the seeds. If you do not food too spicy, don’t add all the seeds, or don’t add any seeds for a non-spicy dish.

Saffron (Kesar)
The most expensive spice, saffron is the stigma of the flower of the plant Crocus sativus. Each plant can have 4 flowers, and each flower can have 3 stigmas. That means the each plant can only have 12 tiny pieces of saffron. They are all hand-harvested. Saffron from Spain is the best quality. Do not confuse saffron with safflower, a very cheap dried flower that may look somewhat similar to saffron. Saffron is usually used in rice dishes such as biryani and also in the Spanish rice dish paella.

Indian Black Salt (Kala Namak)
This salt is light purple color in powder form. It is used in spice blends such as chaat masala. If you can’t find it, you can buy chaat masala from the store.

White Sesame Seeds (Til)
Sesame seeds are used in South Indian cuisine, but not much in the rest of the country. They are sometimes included in a spice blend.

Star Anise (Chakra Phool)
This spice is not used too often in Indian cooking, just sometimes part of a spice mix. It is very common in Chinese cooking, though.

Turmeric Powder (Haldi)
The rhizome of the plant Circuma longa is boiled, dried in hot ovens, then ground into a deep orange-yellow powder used very commonly in Indian cooking. It adds yellow color to foods and contains circumin, which may prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, and more. The powder is most commonly used in Indian cuisine, but the raw rhizome is also sometimes used.

Let’s get cooking! I am working on a basic Indian cooking series going over the basics of Indian cooking and sharing many popular and delicious food. This is Part I. As more recipes and information are published, they will be listed below. Have fun!


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