A common confusion for most new to cooking Indian food, is the complexity of spices used in Indian cooking. This guide lists the 5 most essential spices that you need to start cooking Indian food at home without being overwhelmed by all the spices out there! The idea here is to start small and built on it only after you get comfortable.
The use of spices is essentially to give flavour and a distinctive taste to any dish. It could be an Indian dish you make or perhaps Moroccan, African or even quit essential British. Using spices is not limited to any specific cuisine as such. Once you get comfortable with the idea and use of spices you can use them in many ways in many dishes.
My earlier post on how to use spices is a step wise guide on understanding and using Indian spices for cooking.
Dont Overload Spice Rack With Spices
If you think that all Indian dishes use an arsenal of spices to get that unique taste then there is a surprise in store for you. A regular home cooked Indian meal will normally have a small selection of spices that goes in a dish. The selection can range anything from using 2 spices to as many depending on the complexity of the dish.
Here I have listed the 5 most commonly used Indian spices that form the base of most Indian dishes.
You really do not need to buy every single spice that a recipe calls for but instead make a dish of your own starting with the spices listed below.
Stick to Common Spices
If you are new to using spices, my suggestion would be to stock up on the these essential everyday Indian spices. Prepare simple easy dishes using them and slowly work your way into using others. This will help with getting familiar with spices and understand what the primary flavour is and its usage.
Once you overcome this initial hurdle of ”Spices are confusing’ you are on your way into Spice Haven!
Buy Whole Spices – Top Tip
Spices come in many forms; whole, ground , roasted and roasted ground. My suggestion to you would be to buy whole spices instead of ground spices. Grinding fresh whole spices have a much better, robust taste and stronger flavour than the already ground one. But if you are starting out then buying ground spices too is good if not great.
It may surprise you to see that I have not listed Red Chilli Powder in the list below. The reason being that using fresh green chillies or even fresh bird eye chilli will give that spicy kick you need. I am not a great fan of red chilli powder as I dont think it does much to the taste apart from giving the dish the hot kick! Fresh chillies are great on flavour and also for an impactful back of the tongue blow!
So here is the list of 5 Essential Indian Spices to Start Your Indian Pantry:
Cumin Seeds (Jeera)
Cumin seeds is a whole spice very frequently used in Indian cooking to add a characteristic nutty, smoky note to dishes. They are tiny brown seeds with a very intense flavour. They can be used whole, roasted or in ground form.
Cooking Process: Used whole during the very first step of cooking known as Tempering in hot oil. It is also used to make freshly ground cumin powder for a fresh, robust flavour. It is also very commonly used to blend with other spices to make spice blends.
Used for: Popularly used in rice dishes, daals and vegetables. Flavouring for raitas and Indian beverages.
Usage Tip: One needs to be careful when using these tiny seeds as putting them in too hot oil will burn them. So you must add it to oil just before it starts to smoke. Care must also be taken when dry roasting the spices as they tend to burn fast.
Dish to try: This Spicy peas puffs recipe is made with roasted ground cumin seeds.
Cumin Powder (Jeera powder)
Made from cumin seeds one can buy the already powdered ground spice from the store or make your own from whole cumin seeds. Its more smoky in flavour as opposed to the woody flavour when in whole form.
Cooking Process: Use directly during the cooking process or sauteing. Can also be used to make marinades and other spice blends.
Used for: Popularly used for making many Indian dishes such as vegetables, legumes, meat and fish.
Note when using: It is important to make sure that the raw smell of cumin powder goes away during the cooking process. Leaving the spice uncooked will make the dish pungent with a harsh flavour.
Dish to try: The Next time you make a chilli beef or something similar try adding a a teaspoon of cumin powder and lift the flavours up like this recipe of Corned Beef Hash
Coriander Powder (Dhania powder)
Made from dried coriander seeds, this powdered spice is a must have in an Indian kitchen. My recommendation would be to make it fresh from whole seeds just like cumin powder but stick to the powdered version if that of convenince to you. Very woody and aromatic, this gives the dish a very typical Indian taste.
Cooking Process: Use straight into the dish during the cooking process and saute well. Can also be used to make marinades and other spice blends.
Used for: Just like cumin powder it is also used in many Indian dishes such as vegetables, legumes, meat and fish.
Usage Tip: Like most ground Indian spices, coriander powder too can leave a pungent strong raw smell to the dish if not sauted well.
Dish to try: Try adding coriander powder in your quinoa and taste the difference. Here is a recipe of Quinoa stuffed peppers for you to try.
The King of Indian spices. This is one spice that no Indian kitchen can do without. Its simply a must have to make your Indian pantry. Garam masala powder is essentially a blend of different spices. Different regions of India have their own garam masala blends but its the North Indian Garam Masala blend which is broadly used in most dishes.
Cooking Process: It can be used directly during the cooking process or sauteing or right at the end of cooking to impart flavour to the dish. Can also be used to make marinades.
Used for: Popularly used in many Indian dishes such as rice, vegetables, legumes, meat and fish.
Usage Tip: : As Garam masala is a blend of spices adding too much of the spice will overpower the dish and make it taste quite sharp. Do not exceed more than 2 tsp of this spice in your recipe if making a dish for a minimum of 6 people.
Dish to try: These Spicy Spinach and Cannellini Beans Fritters use Garam Masala as the only source of spice in the dish.
This is the famous ‘yellow spice’ which gives an Indian dish the characteristic yellow colour. More of a colouring agent than a flavouring agent, this spice is now considered the new ‘Super Food’. An off shoot of the ginger family its known for its anti-inflamatory and antiseptic properties.
Cooking Process: To be used directly during the cooking process or sauteing. Also used to add colour to dishes.
Used for: Popularly used to give a vibrant colour to dishes such as rice, vegetables, legumes meat and fish.
Usage Tip: : Just like Garam masala over usage will lead to a strong colour in your hands and also give the dish a pungent taste. Care should be taken not to overuse the spice.
Dish to try: Adding turmeric powder to this Egg Curry with cashew paste gives the dish a pleasing yellow colour.
Get Your Pantry Started:
This list of 5 essential spices is a good starting point for you to cook home style Indian dishes. All you need is a bit of practice with spices. Start by cooking simple recipes using the spices listed above . This will help you with understanding its texture, smell and the overall impact of the flavour on the dish .
Starting simple often leads to greater things!!