Indian cooking is known for its spices or masalas. Every Indian kitchen will have a spice box (called the masala dabba) that holds the basic spices/masalas. Let us demystify Indian masala dabba by looking at the essential Indian spices. If you are new to Indian cooking and you want to understand the basic & most essential Indian spices that you should have in your spice box, take a look at this list. These are listed in alphabetical order.
We are Mad about Spices at Framed Recipes. 🙂
Use these spices in various forms, at different stages of cooking, roasted or raw (kachha), and enjoy an explosion of Indian flavors.
A proper understanding of basic spices needed in Indian cooking can help you get the dish right and taste authentic Indian cuisine. Most of the Indian recipes (at least the day-to-day ones) are pretty forgiving in terms of the quantities of spices and aromatics used. So, if the recipe calls for 10 grams of garlic and you eyeballed it, it is not the end of the world. Similarly, if you are following a recipe that uses 1 teaspoon red chilli powder and you have a milder palate, reduce the quantity - the dish will still turn out to be good.
If you are following a gluten-free diet, pay attention to the label to ensure that the spices are indeed gluten-free.
This is a pungent spice that is used in very small quantities. This adds flavor and also aids with digestion. I tend to use this, especially when preparing dishes with "gassy" ingredients.
You get hing in block form or in powdered form. Many use it in powdered form due to the convenience factor.
Bay Leaves/Tej Patta
I typically use these leaves as a whole in my pulaos and soups. These leaves are hardy and do not soften on cooking. Discard the leaves before serving the dish.
Most of the Indian sweets/mithai use this spice - ground cardamom/cardamom powder is used in small quantities as a flavoring agent. Cardamom has a fruity, minty taste. This is also an important ingredient in garam masala(garam masala - is a widely used Indian spice mix- gently roasted whole spices are ground to a fine powder). I also use them as a whole (gently crushed) in Pulao/Pilaf recipes.
This is also known as the queen of spices.
Though there are two different varieties - Black Cardamom (Badi Elaichi) & Green Cardamom (Chhoti Elaichi), I would recommend starting off with the green cardamom, which is the common one.
This is the King of Spices. The small shriveled pods are dried black peppercorn berries. I recommend buying whole peppercorns and crushing them using a mortar & pestle or by using a pepper mill to use them in your recipe. They also play an important role in preparing the garam masala.
A small backstory - These berries grow on vines and we had a few of them growing in our backyard, back in Kerala. My dad used to pickle fresh, tender ones in salt and small pieces of ginger and we used to eat it with rice. The salt cut down on the peppery fierceness slightly, but ooh! that used to be tasty.
What you see above are the white peppercorns that come from the same berries but are processed differently. I typically use them in dishes in which I don't want the black peppercorns to be seen.
I recommend starting with black peppercorns as they are easily available.
Jeera is one of the most important spices used - both in South Indian cuisine and North Indian cuisine. You will find uses for both whole seeds as well as ground cumin.
I recommend keeping both (whole as well as powdered) in your spice collection.
Chillies are extensively used in most Indian savory dishes. There will be uses for fresh green chilies or whole dried red chillies or red chilli flakes. There are a variety of chillies with varying degrees of spice level and heat. I extensively use Bydagi chillies and Kashmiri Red chillies in my cooking.
Red chilli powder is also used extensively in Indian Cooking - the heat level varies with the type of chillies used to make the powder.
NOTE: Indian red chilli powder is nothing but ground red chillies. Do not confuse this with the chili powder available in the US which is a combination of spices.
I recommend having whole Kashmiri red chillies and Kashmiri red chilli powder in your spice collection.
With green chillies, you can use any fresh chillies available in India. I have found that Thai green pepper and Serrano pepper to be good substitutes as well.
In most of my Indian cooking, I use these in my savory dishes and as a whole (maybe gently crushed). These are easily available in almost all grocery stores.
This spice is used in small quantities. They have a spicy and warm tone to them. Used as a whole in Pilaf/pulao or meat dishes. This is also an important ingredient in making garam masala.
Dadima ke nuske: my grandmother used to give this to us kids when we complained of a toothache.
Coriander seeds are used as a whole or in powdered form in many South Indian and North Indian dishes.
I recommend keeping both (whole as well as powdered) in your spice collection.
Curry Leaves/Kadhi Patta
This is important to have in stock especially if you are into South Indian cooking. These are hardy leaves with a slightly citrusy flavor. These are used in South Indian curries or stir fry, as a whole.
You will find these with your local Indan grocer. I buy them in bulk, and dry and store them.
Fennel seeds add a unique sweet and aromatic flavor to the dishes. They are also used as a mouth freshener in India.
Fenugreek seeds have a slightly bitter taste and have a ton of medicinal properties when used in your diet. They are used extensively in North and South Indian cuisine - in seeds form, as sprouts, fresh leaves as well dried leaves.
These seeds are used extensively in sabjis, curries, parathas, pickles.
You can find the seeds, fresh leaves, and dried leaves (Kasuri Methi) at your local Indian grocer. You will find the seeds and dried leaves online too.
If you have found seeds, it is easy to sprout them and also grow them in a container to get fresh methi leaves.
I recommend having methi seeds and Kasuri methi in your spice collection.
These are small seeds especially used in tadka or tempering the dish.
Tadka/Tempering is a way to infuse aromatics, spiced flavored oil into your sabjis, and curries.
Mustard leaves are also consumed, especially in North India.
One of the most exquisite spices. This is used in very minute quantities as a coloring and flavoring agent.
This is the powdered form of dried turmeric root. This is used extensively in Indian cooking. Turmeric is known for its medicinal properties. Also used in many face packs and is believed to be a home remedy for many skin concerns.
Mint & Cilantro/Pudina & Dhania Patta
These herbs are also used extensively in curries, as a garnish, and also work as main ingredients in some chutneys and dips.
Indian dishes typically use different types of oils based on the region of their origin. Coconut Oil, sunflower oil, mustard oil, gingelly oil, ghee, butter, etc. are the most commonly used ones.
Essential souring agents
This guide will be incomplete if I do not mention the souring agents.
- Plain yogurt or homemade curds (as it is called in India) is widely used.
- Fresh tomatoes are very popular in curries. Diced fresh tomatoes (or in some cases tomato puree/paste) are sauteed along with onion, ginger, and garlic (along with spices) to form the base of most North Indian curries.
- Lemon or lime juice can be drizzled on sabjis for a hint of acidity.
- In South Indian cuisine, you will see tamarind as an important souring agent (along with yogurt & tomatoes).
- Dried mango powder or amchur is also used.
Onion, ginger, garlic
Apart from the spices listed above, if you are into mostly, North Indian cooking, stock your pantry with fresh onion, ginger, and garlic. Most of the North Indin dishes use a combination of these three. South Indian cooking also uses these three ingredients, but in a slightly different way than in the North Indian technique.
Coconut needs a very special mention in this blog. 🙂
Coconut plays a very important role in my everyday dishes. Freshly grated coconut is a key ingredient in most dishes in Kerala as well as Konkani cuisine. You can read all about coconuts in my Coconut 101 blog post.
We are truly Mad about Spices at Framed recipes. 🙂
Use fresh spices in your Indian cooking to get the best results. If you are new to Indian cooking, buy these basic spices in smaller quantities and experiment to find out what best suits your taste. That's how I started. Growing up, we used to have mostly Konkani food at home. Since I love to experiment with different flavors and cuisines, I slowly started my research and learned more about spices and spice concoctions. Read my tips for recipe success to get started.