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Discover some of the ingredients that make one of the world’s most beloved cuisines so special with these spices used in Indian cuisine. Be drawn to their beauty, learn about their aroma and flavor, and get inspired to use them in your own cooking.
Some originate from India and some in other parts of the world, but all play an integral role in bringing to life many of India’s most iconic and flavorsome dishes.
1 – Turmeric
Turmeric is one of the most popular Indian spices. It is not only used for cooking, but it is also a popular ingredient in beauty products and skin treatments, along with being a natural dye.
Turmeric is most commonly used in powder form, has a strong earthy flavor, and is mildly bitter. It gives any dish a lovely golden-yellow color and is most commonly used in savory dishes.
Turmeric is a staple in every Indian kitchen. It adds bright color and rich flavor to food while also boasting anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties.
This beloved spice is used in every part of the Indian subcontinent in stews, gravies, curries, vegetables, rice, and more.
2 – Amchur (Dry Mango Powder)
Amchur is dry mango powder and is a delicious spice that gives any dish a salty-tangy burst of flavor. Amchur is made by grinding dried green mangoes, creating a pale beige-brown powder.
Amchur powder adds acidity and zest to a dish; it is also used to tenderize meat, reduce bitterness, and work as a souring agent. For vegetables like okra, where you need to remove the sliminess, a souring agent like amchur works like magic.
Amchur is a great alternative to lime juice for other dishes that need a hint of acidity without more moisture. Make amchur a staple in your pantry as it can elevate the flavor of so many dishes while packing a delicious punch.
Whether you are using it to level up your samosa or add some zing to your bhindi masala, this is a hugely popular Indian spice.
3 – Cardamom
Cardamom is rightly called the “Queen of Spices” as it is a fragrant, flavorful, and versatile spice that enriches any dish be it sweet, savory, or even just a cup of tea.
Indian cardamom or elaichi is a small green pod with cardamom seeds nestled inside. When used in rice dishes or gravies/curries, cardamom is used as a whole spice. This means the whole pod is added to the dish.
Cardamom has a sweet smell and a very distinct flavor and greatly elevates any dish it is added to. The pod itself should not be eaten and is just used for the flavor, hence is discarded after cooking.
In desserts and beverages like tea or kheer, the cardamom pod is broken apart, and the seeds inside are ground and used. In its powder form, cardamom can be consumed, bringing some truly wonderful flavor combinations to the foray.
4 – Kashmiri Red Chili Powder
This vibrant, bright red powder is arguably the quintessential Indian spice. Kashmiri chili powder consists of ground, dried red chilis that give most Indian dishes their piquancy and vivid coloring.
While Kashmiri red chili does carry some heat, it is not particularly hot or spicy. It is used more as a flavoring agent.
Kashmiri red chili powder is milder than most other red chili powders and has a sweet and smoky taste. It originates from the Kashmir region, although it can now be found in most other parts of India.
This spice works especially well for spicing up meats, kebabs, and different types of gravies/curries, whether made with meat, vegetables, or lentils.
5 – Cumin (Seed/Powder)
Indian cumin seed or jeera is a commonly used whole spice found in pretty much all Indian pantries and kitchens. When used as a whole spice, cumin seeds are “tempered” wherein they are added to hot oil. The cumin seeds sizzle in the heat and release their aroma and flavor.
Whether you are adding it to sauteed vegetables or a spicy gravy, cumin seeds add depth and intensity to a dish. The seeds are hard and dry and have an earthy, sweet, and bitter taste.
Cumin powder is essentially ground cumin and is very often used in combination with cumin seeds, adding a subtle yet distinct flavor profile to a dish.
6 – Coriander (Seed/Powder)
Coriander powder is ubiquitous in Indian cooking and is often used in combination with cumin seeds. Coriander seeds and coriander powder are equally popular in Indian cuisine as is coriander leaf, which is also known as cilantro or Chinese parsley.
Coriander seeds are often roasted, which helps bring out their flavor. Coriander has a citrusy, nutty taste and is generously used in Indian savory cuisine. The flavor of coriander comes through whether using it in its seed form or as freshly ground powder.
Coriander also has a very distinct taste and can easily be overpowering if used too sparingly. Besides being an essential Indian spice, coriander is also used in the beauty, pharmaceutical, and beverage industries for its unique smell and medicinal properties and is often used in gins and beers.
7 – Indian Bay Leaf
Indian bay leaves or tej patta can often be found in various Indian rice dishes like pulao and biryani as well as lentil stews like rajma. While the bay leaf itself is discarded after being cooked, anywhere it is deposited, its magic and its flavor will linger.
Indian bay leaf has a strong cinnamon-clove taste. The bay leaf is usually cooked in oil or ghee along with other spices, which helps enhance its flavor.
Despite a number of myths about bay leaves being dangerous if consumed, that isn’t always the case. While it is definitely not harmful to eat the bay leaf, the leaf is difficult to eat as it has a crunchy, unappetizing texture. Its flavor, however, is mesmeric, which is why tej patta is found in Indian kitchens around the world.
8 – Chaat Masala
Chaat masala takes you on a culinary adventure quite like no other powder. Even a smidge is a burst of flavors – spicy, salty, tangy, sweet, and sour all rolled into one. Chaat masala is a unique combination of a number of spices that gives it its inimitable taste that adds both depth and vibrancy to a dish.
Chaat is a traditional Indian street food, and while chaat masala is definitely used in this dish, it can also be used with fruits, yogurt, vegetable salads, and drinks like buttermilk and juices.
Chaat masala is made by toasting and then grinding a number of whole spices, which is why it does not require any cooking or heating when added to food.
9 – Cloves
Indian cloves are one of the most flavorful whole spices you can find in a spice rack. These dried flower pods explode with flavor when added to dishes.
Cloves can be used in savory food as well as in Indian desserts, can be used either ground or whole, and have a very strong taste and smell. Cloves have a sweetness to them but have a spicy aftertaste.
This spice is packed with antioxidants. Cloves aid in digestion and help treat gut issues, besides also being good for dental health. Whether used in rice dishes like pulao or in a digestive and mouth freshener like paan, cloves can be found throughout Indian cuisine.
10 – Garam Masala
Garam masala is a spice blend that is a combination of a number of spices like cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaf, fennel, cumin, coriander, and red chili powder, to name just a few. Garam masala is used in savory dishes, which gives them a boost of flavor and adds more than a little richness.
There are multiple variations of garam masala, with most households having their own preferences. Garam masala can be a combination of spices in varying quantities, a blend of spices with one prominent ingredient, or can include a whole slew of other spices and ingredients like onions, garlic, vinegar, asafetida, nuts, and star anise, among others.
11 – Asafetida
Asafetida is a spice powder with a very distinctive, pungent, and sometimes overpowering aroma. Asafetida or hing has anti-inflammatory properties and is added to savory dishes giving them a peppery, garlicky flavor.
Asafetida is a flavor enhancer and is very popular in vegetarian Indian dishes as it provides a depth of flavor and fragrance to any dish it is used in. While asafetida in its raw form has an overwhelming aroma, it gets more subtle and delicate when cooked and introduced into the food.
12 – Fenugreek
Fenugreek is one of those wildly versatile foods that can be used as an herb, spice, or even a vegetable.
Fenugreek is commonly used in its seed and powder form as a flavor enhancer. It is a small, hard seed that is sometimes eaten raw to help with digestive issues but is most often tempered in oil or dry heat and then cooked along with other ingredients to reduce its bitterness.
13 – Carom Seeds
Carom seeds or ajwain are small brownish-green seeds that resemble cumin seeds. Ajwain is used to flavor Indian food with its strong, pungent taste. Carom seeds are most commonly tempered or spluttered in oil and used in curries, dals, vegetables, meat, and rice dishes.
Ajwain can be used in its seed form or can be ground and powdered. Carom seeds are good for digestion and in treating digestive issues, and also have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
14 – Mustard Seeds
No Indian kitchen is complete without a bottle or jar of tiny, black mustard seeds. Most Indian dishes require tempering, which is when spices are heated in oil until they splutter, and then added or poured into a dish. Mustard seeds are the most popular tempering ingredient in Indian cuisine.
Tempering allows the little seeds to burst open, releasing their flavor. When mustard seeds are not tempered, they are bitter and flavorless. Mustard seeds are the primary ingredient in any Indian dish, hence are truly integral to Indian cooking.
15 – Dry Red Chili
Indian food is synonymous with spice, and rightly so, due to the number of spices used in cooking. However, all of the spices, few, if any, bring as much fire to the table as the dried red chili.
There are 12 types of dried chilis in India, grown in different parts of the country, all hitting different levels on the Scoville scale but all renowned for their searing flavors and deep aromas. One of them is the Ghost Pepper, which is considered the hottest chili in the world, officially declared by the Guinness Book of Records in 2007.
Dried red chilis can be used raw, lightly sauteed in oil or heat, or ground and used as a powder or a paste in so many dishes. In fact, most Indian kitchens will have jars or sacks of dried red chilis in storage simply due to the sheer number of chilis used in Indian cooking.
16 – Tamarind Powder
With streets lined with tamarind trees, it is no surprise that tamarind is hugely influential in Indian cooking, be it as a fruit, paste, pulp, or powder. Tamarind powder has an extremely tangy taste and is used to liven up a range of dishes.
Whether used in traditional soups like rasam or as a dip or chutney in Indian street food, tamarind has a unique sweet, salty and tangy taste unlike any other.
Indian Spices Summary
As you can see, Indian cuisine simply wouldn’t be where it is today without the huge array of spices that elevate, enhance, and bring each and every dish together.
From their hues to aromas, heat to flavors, so many iconic Indian dishes simply would not be as we know and love them today without these key ingredients.
Hopefully, I’ve helped open your eyes, mind, and senses to some of India’s most important spices and helped you understand how to use them so that, hopefully, you can get inspired and try them from the comfort of your home kitchen.
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Contributor: Nandhini Parthib is an Indian content writer, deeply passionate about Indian culture, travel, and cuisine, who is keen to share more about India through her writing.