Essential spices in Indian cooking – what to buy and where

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You don’t need a long list of spices to make Indian food, these 7 essential spices are all you need to get started. This post will show you which spices to buy and how to use these spices to make delicious Indian food. 

An overhead shot of an Indian spice box placed on an orange placemat with green borders.
Indian Spice Box

Indian cuisine is known for its lavish use of spices, but that doesn’t mean that you need a lot of spices to cook Indian food at home. Here’s a short list of spice/spice blends you need to get started with Indian cooking. 

7 Essential spices/spice blends used in Indian cooking 

  1. Cumin seeds (jeera)  –  Cumin seeds have a distinct earthy and aromatic flavor and can be a tad bitter. It imparts a nutty tinge to any dish. It is commonly used for tempering curries and vegetables. Most North Indian curries start off with a tempering of cumin seeds in hot oil just like this jeera rice recipe. Powdered dry roasted cumin seeds (bhuna jeera powder) is commonly used in garnishes for raitas.An overhead shot of cumin seeds
  2. Mustard seeds (rai) – While there are 3 varieties (black, white and brown) of mustard, the black one is most widely used in cooking. Most South Indians use mustard seeds for tempering instead of cumin seeds. In Eastern India, mustard seeds are crushed to a paste and added to curries to intensify its flavor. Check out this Ven Pongal recipe (a south Indian rice-lentil porridge) that uses mustard seeds for tempering.

    An overhead shot of mustard seeds
    Mustard seeds (rai)

  3. Cumin Powder (jeera powder) – Roast whole cumin seeds and powder them in a spice grinder or buy ground cumin powder. Either ways, cumin in both its forms – whole and powdered is a must have spice in your kitchen pantry. It is used along with coriander powder to enhance the flavor of curries and dals. Most North Indian curries call for this spice powder combination to be added once the onions and tomatoes are fried in oil. Use this spice powder to make dal fry recipeCumin Powder
  4. Coriander powder (dhania powder) – Coriander (the spice in powdered form and the herb) is used to season most curries, chutneys, and vegetable dishes. Coriander powder is usually added along with cumin powder in North Indian curries. You could either do a 1:1 ratio or 1:2 where you would use two teaspoons of coriander powder for every teaspoon of cumin powder.An overhead shot of Coriander Powder
  5. Chili powder – Chili powder is a must for most Indian meals and can liven up any meal when used in moderation. Chili powders can be of various varieties but the two common forms are Kashmiri (mild and used to impart color) and cayenne (extremely hot).

    Chili Powder
    Chili powder

  6. Turmeric powder –  Turmeric, one of the key ingredients in Indian cuisine is used in most preparations of vegetables and dals/lentils (except greens) to enrich the curries with its fragrance and yellow color. This versatile spice is also known for its medicinal properties and is often used as an antiseptic for minor cuts and burns.

    An overhead shot of turmeric powder
    Turmeric Powder (Haldi)

  7. Garam masala powder – A popular spice blend in Indian cooking, garam masala is commonly used in biryanis and north Indian dishes to add warmth. You can make it at home or get storebought. It is mostly added as a garnish after the cooking process is complete. There are exceptions though like this shrimp biryani where it is added during the cooking process. An overhead shot of garam masala

Important tips about spices

  1. Spices in their powdered form start to lose flavor in a few months. Buy whole spices and grind them as needed using a spice grinder or a powerful high-performance blender like Blendtec or Vitamix.
  2. Homemade powders are more potent than the store bought ones, so use sparingly. 
  3. Store the spice/spice powders in airtight containers away from direct light, heat and in a cool, dry place. 
  4. Most Indians store their essential spices in what we call as masala dabba meaning spice box.  Here’s a pic of my spice box – and you can find a similar spice box on Amazon.
An overhead shot of an Indian spice box with 7 spices in it.
Masala Dabba


5 easy recipes that you can make with basic Indian spices 

  1. Lemon Rice– a popular and flavorful South Indian dish that you can make in less than 15 minutes.
  2. Dal fry – This restaurant style dal fry comes alive with a tempering of cumin seeds in ghee and pairs well with jeera rice.
  3. Tadka Dal – A one-pot simple dal recipe – perfect for those who are new to Indian cooking
  4. Cabbage Palya– cabbage cooked South Indian style – requires minimal spices.
  5. Bean poriyal – A simple beans side dish made south Indian style with very few spices

Additional spices/condiments found in the Indian Pantry 

If you love make biryanis or are someone who likes to create your own spice mixes at homes, check out this list of additional spices for you to buy. Note – Don’t get overwhelmed, you don’t need all the spices listed below to get started with Indian food. Buy these ONLY when you have got a hang of making Indian food at home and are ready to move to the next level. 

  1. Asafoetida (Hing) – It is a resin popularly used in its powdered form to flavor curries. It is often used in lentil dishes to avoid flatulence. Hing is usually introduced in the dish during the tempering process. It is mostly used in South Indian and Western cooking. Jains (who don’t eat onions and garlic) often used asafoetida as a substitute due to its strong flavor. Tip – use it sparingly.
  2. Whole dried chilies – The few commonly found varieties of dried whole chilies are Kashmiri, Boriya, Byadgi (these are the ones I stock at home). Kashmiri and Byadgi chilies are mild chilies and they are known for the deep red color. They are mostly used in tempering. Boriya is medium spicy and is ground to make chili flakes (commonly known as paprika). Byadgi and boriya chilies are especially popular in south Indian homes and are used to temper sambar and rasam.
  3. Black peppercorns – Whole black peppercorns are used to give the dish an instant lift making it popular with most cuisines in the world. Peppercorns along with the next 6 ingredients are the essential spices that are commonly used to make biryanis. They are added to hot oil to unlock its flavors as part of the tempering process.
  4. Cloves – Whole cloves considered to be rich in flavor are added to biryanis or curries for its aroma.
  5. Cinnamon sticks (Dalchini) – Available in sticks as well as in the powder form. The sticks are used in curries and biryanis and the powdered form is used in sweets and baked goods. Look for the Ceylon cinnamon (it is more expensive than cassia and flavorful).
  6. Bay leaves – They have a sweet woody aroma and slightly pungent flavor. They are added more for the fragrance than the flavor.
  7. Black cardamom – An essential ingredient in garam masala, black cardamom with its sweet and nutty aroma adds a nice flavor to biryanis.
  8. Green cardamom – This extremely aromatic and versatile spice is used in sweets like Shrikhand and Kalakand. It also makes its way into our daily tea and even biryanis.
  9. Carom seeds (Ajwain) – When crushed, carom seeds give out a strong and distinctive fragrance that enhances both the aroma and the flavor of the dish. We love adding it to parathas and theplas and even some curries like this dum aloo.
  10. Fenugreek seeds – From tempering dals to making sweets, fenugreek seeds are widely used in South Indian dishes.
  11. Coriander seeds – Just like cumin seeds, they are available whole as well as in powdered form. Dry roast them and grind them to make a fragrant mix right at home. They are a key ingredient in many of the spice mixes such as garam masala, Kundapur masala, and Sambar powder.
  12. Black salt – A pungent smelling condiment is actually more pink than black in color. This high sulfur content salt is added to any street food or raitas to perk it up.
  13. Dried methi leaves (Kasoori methi) – Fresh fenugreek leaves are sun-dried to make kasoori methi. These aromatic leaves make for perfect garnishes in butter chicken or paneer makhani. I love to dry roast them for 30 seconds or so before adding them as a garnish.
  14. Dried Mango powder (Amchur powder) – Amchur is made from sun-dried raw, green mangoes. Used very much like limes to add tang to any dish. If you are running out of channa masala powder, a tiny bit of amchur makes for a good substitute. Use it in this chana masala recipe.
  15. Fennel seeds – The seeds have a warm, sweet and intense flavor when used whole or powdered. They are used in baked goods, desserts as well as to add a zing to roasted veggies.
  16. Saffron (Kesar) – It is often used to color the rice in the biryanis or as a garnish in desserts. It has a strong intense aroma so when it comes to saffron less is more.
  17. Sesame seeds – These black or white colored seeds are known for their warmth and that’s why it makes its way in laddoos and chikkis.
  18. Poppy seeds(khus-khus) – They have a distinct nutty aroma and its used to add texture to dishes be it flatbreads or curries.
  19. Whole nutmeg or nutmeg powder – Nutmeg powder is sweet, aromatic and often used in both sweet and savory dishes.
  20. Pomegranate seeds – It is used to add tang to chutneys and curries.

This is the other spice box I have to store the additional spices that I use for biryanis and other curries. This masala box is available on Amazon as well. 

A wooden spice box with 9 compartments
Indian spice box

Store bought spice mix for specialty dishes

  1. Chole/Channa Masala – Use this spice mix to make this chickpea curry – channa masala or chole.
  2. Pav bhaji Masala – Adds flavor to this veggie-loaded street food recipe (Pav bhaji).
  3. Sambar powder – This spice mix is an essential component of this lentil-vegetable stew called Sambar. It is easy to make sambar powder at home. Check out this recipe. 
  4. Rasam powder – To make lentil based soups like this Rasam recipe


How to use spices in Indian cooking?

This is the process most Indians follow when cooking with spices. The sequence may sometimes vary depending on the dish and there will be variations from one household to the other. 

  1. Start with heating oil over medium heat. 
  2. Once the oil is hot, add whole spices such as mustard seeds and/or cumin seeds first (along with asafoetida, if using). This is called the tempering process. If you are using other whole spices along with mustard/cumin seeds, wait until these spices have started to splutter (in case of mustard seeds) or sizzle (in case of cumin seeds). The reason being mustard/cumin seeds take the longest to cook and you don’t want your other spices/dals (whole chilies, fenugreek seeds, urad dal, whole cloves, peppercorns, bay leaves, curry leaves, etc) to get burnt. 
  3. Add onions along with ginger/garlic paste/green chilies if using. Fry till the onions have softened and turned translucent.
  4. Add spice powders (cumin powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder, chili powder) along with salt. Fry them for about 30 seconds. 
  5. Add tomatoes. Fry them till they turn soft and mushy and oil starts to leave the sides. (Note – Sometimes I do add the spice powders and tomatoes together). 
  6. Add meat or vegetables
  7. Add garam masala and/or lime juice in the end once the cooking is complete. Mix well. 
  8. Garnish with finely chopped cilantro. 

Where to buy spices for Indian cooking
To be able to make authentic tasting Indian food, it is important that the spices in your pantry have been sourced from India by your retailer. I prefer buying my spices and spice mixes from local Indian stores such as Patel brothers. They have 52 locations in the US, and it may be easier and cheaper to get your spices from them. If you don’t have access to an Indian store, most of these spices are available on Amazon. Here’s a link to all the essential Indian spices on Amazon for an easy buying experience. 

Preferred brands – Laxmi is the brand that I rely on for whole spices and for spice mixes – Everest and MDH  are good options.

If you have any questions about these spices, feel free to drop a note below. 

 

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