When it comes to Indian cuisine people get overwhelmed by the amount of spices we use in our recipes. If you get to know why we use them and what they are used for, it will be very helpful for all you beginners.
People often think Indian food is hard to cook at home because of its elaborate cooking techniques. To make you feel at ease, I’m starting a new series called…
Indian food made simple. I have simplified all the recipes and has step by step instructions and pictures which makes it easier for you to follow and it’s made with simple ingredients and basic spices you have in your pantry. This spice post will be a wonderful prelude for the vegetarian recipes I’m going to post in this category.
I have been blogging for a year now, I still get lots of questions regarding spices. So I thought of updating and reposting this spice article with added details so that you get a better knowledge about the spices we use everyday.
Get ready to go on this flavorful spice journey with me …
Flavorings – Whole and Ground Spices
Must Have Aromatics
These are basic spices that makes our food very flavorful. Now I’m going to categorize them so that it’s easy for you to understand.
Indian spices are divided into 5 groups.
- Spices that enhance color
- Spices that give heat (spiciness)
- Spices that thicken and flavor
- Spices which add a unique aroma
- Spices that give a finishing touch
These are the must have Flavorings
- Turmeric powder
- Red chili powder
- Kashmiri chili powder (Paprika)
- Cumin powder
- Coriander powder
1. Spices that enhances the color
Turmeric powder gives the food a golden yellow color. Since It has the antibacterial qualities we always use them when we cook fresh vegetables.
Kashmiri chili powder (paprika) which is very mild and is added in gravies to get the beautiful red color.
2. Spices that add heat (spiciness)
Red chilli powder (cayenne) is very spicy it gives the food that extra kick. Milder version of the chili powder is also available.
We always use freshly ground Black Pepper which adds an extra depth of flavor in soups, salads and gravies.
You can mellow down the spice level by using paprika or milder chili powder and milder green chilies. This way you get the flavor not the heat.
3. Spices that thicken and flavor
Coriander powder and Cumin powder are very important in our cuisine it has this wonderful aroma and it is added to almost every single dish we make to flavor and thicken it.
4. Spices that give that wonderful aroma
The best part about Indian food is the Aromatics. These following spices give a unique flavor to our dishes like, Biriyani, Kurma, Curry and masala chai.
- Fennel seeds
- Star anise
- Cinnamon sticks
- Bay leaves
We make our own aromatic spice blends at home. These are the famous ones – Garam Masala, curry powder and chaat Masala. Each spice mix is made with different ingredients and have a unique taste.
The star of all the spice mixes is garam masala which is a dry roasted, powdered blend of cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and whole black pepper.
We South Indians use curry powder which has the same ingredients as garam masala but instead of pepper we add spicy red chilli and turmeric to give that extra kick and golden color to our curries. Milder versions are also available in stores.
This is one amazing spice mix we use to season our salads. In addition to other spices black salt and the dry mango powder are the key ingredients that makes it taste very unique. We use them on both veggies and fruits.
These are the must have spice blends in our pantry. They are readily available in stores I really recommend you to buy and keep these at home. They come in very handy when you make dishes like curry, gravy, sauté, stir fry and salad.
5. Spices that gives the finishing touch
Black Mustard seeds and cumin seeds are very important seasonings in our cuisine. It’s popped in hot oil to release its flavor and poured on top of the prepared dish. This gives a finishing touch and adds a unique flavor to our curries. You can taste this on dishes like sambar, dhal and chutney.
The spices below are very unique to our cuisine. These are the optional spices you might add to your collection.
Dried fenugreek leaves (methi leaves) are used in some dishes like kadai and dhal as garnish. We also use this to flavor flatbreads. It is very similar to dried oregano leaves.
Toasted Fenugreek seeds/powder is added in South Indian curries at the end of the cooking process to give a finishing touch. It’s a key ingredient in making Indian pickles.
When it comes to fenugreek, less is more. Otherwise it will overwhelm the flavors and gives a bitter taste.
One particular spice I want to talk about is Asafetida. This has a very pungent odor. We add this whenever we cook lentils and beans since it has a medicinal quality to prevent intestinal gas. It is also a key ingredient in Indian pickles.
Saffron and Edible Camphor are very potent spices they have a very strong aroma, just a pinch goes a long way. Its used mainly in desserts and festive dishes. Ground nutmeg and cinnamon are also used in Masala chai and dessert recipes.
How to store spices ?
We Indians have a unique way of storing the spices. This is called a Masala Dabba.
We keep all the Falvorings – powdered version of the spices in one container because we use them in almost all our dishes and it promotes efficiency when preparing food.
We prefer storing all the aromatics separately because not all the dishes call for it and it’s kept that way to maintain the very unique aroma of each spice.
These are the basic and must have spices we have in our spice cabinet. Now you have a clear idea about our spices. I am going to show you how to organize them in your spice drawer or cabinet.
Some spices are so strong and potent they infuse other spices with its smell. These Spices have to be stored in seperate containers
- Always store whole black Pepper and freshly ground pepper in separate containers
- Dried fenugreek leaves come under this category too
- So is Asafetida it must be kept in its original air tight container.
Always keep your spices in air tight containers, it really keeps them fresh for sometime.
When you get spices, buy them in small packs because they lose their potency and aroma if it’s kept for sometime.
I recommend you to store the spices which you don’t use very often, in the freezer. This keeps them fresh for a long time.
We use ground Almonds, ground Cashews or Milk powder to thicken our curries and give a nutty and creamy taste to our curries. Chickpea flour is also used to thicken some curries.
We South Indians use Ground coconut paste as a thickener in many of our curries and kurmas. We also use coconut milk.
Grated or sliced coconut is used in sautés and stir fry and chutneys. It is also used as a garnish in dishes like upma.
Garnishes / Herbs
We garnish all our dishes with fresh Coriander and Curry leaves. Mint leaves are also used as garnish is some dishes.
In addition to all the spices, freshly grated ginger and garlic are the must haves in our curries.
Most of our gravies are tomato based, We South Indians use tamarind pulp in many of our dishes, it gives the unique tanginess to our curries. It can be substituted with fresh tomato purée or tomato paste.
We either use sesame oil or coconut oil for cooking and peanut oil is used for deep frying.
We use Iodized salt in cooking since It is the only source of iodine for vegetarians and it helps to maintain good thyroid function. It is advised that you keep this in air tight container otherwise the key ingredient (iodine) evaporates when exposed to air for a long time.
This is my spice drawer, these are the basic spices you need to make a good Indian meal at home. You don’t need to go and buy a whole lot of spices, I bet most of the spices are already there in your spice cabinet. So what are we waiting for? Let’s get cooking!
I’m so happy to know that people from around world love Indian cuisine and want to cook and enjoy them at home. Hope the information I gave was helpful in understanding Indian Spices and this will inspire you to make and taste Indian food more often.