"If there is a common denominator in all Indian foods," says renowned Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey, "it is, perhaps, the imaginative use of spices."
Indian cooks use an array of seasonings — for color, aroma, and flavor — in virtually every dish. The results are always spicy (but not always hot) and always identifiably Indian. It's very common for Indian cooks to begin a recipe by frying whole and ground spices in oil--to intensify the flavor. They also make a paste of spices by grinding them with a small amount of water. You'll find more whole spices in Indian recipes than in other cuisines, though some powders are staples, too.
Try our classic Indian recipes here.
Essential Spices for Indian Cooking
The Indian cook's favorite spices include:
- Cardamom: Cardamom is aromatic and delicious in both sweet and savory Indian dishes, like meat curries, rice dishes, and desserts. Cardamom coffee--made with cardamom pods, coffee beans, milk and sugar--is an Indian treat. Indian cooks tend to prefer the delicate flavor of unbleached green cardamom.
- Curry Powder: In India, the word curry is used for a flavorful dish of meats, fish, and/or vegetables and a spicy sauce. Indian cooks generally make their own curry spice blends from whole and ground spices to suit whatever dish they're preparing. You can make your own, too, and so individualize your Indian dishes. But when you're in the mood for convenience, a quality prepared curry powder will fit the bill nicely.
- Fennel Seeds: Cooks in North India use these tasty, licorice-like seeds to flavor meat, chicken, and vegetables. You'll also find fennel in Bengali Five Spice blend. Fry the whole seeds in oil, or roast and grind them. Indians also chew on the seeds to aid digestion and freshen the breath after a meal.
- Garam Masala: A spice mixture is called a Masala in India. There are many variations on this blend, with each Indian cook developing his or her own unique recipe. The traditional blend includes both hot and sweet spices, like cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, black pepper, and nutmeg. In some areas, star anise and fennel are also included. Garam Masala is fairly strong, so use it sparingly at first. Sprinkle it--just before serving--over meats, vegetables, and pulses.
- Turmeric: This colorful ground spice gives many Indian foods--especially grains and sauces--their lovely golden orange color. Turmeric is often used sparingly and in combination with other spices because it's a bit bitter.
- Black Pepper: Before the introduction of chilies to India, black pepper was relied upon to provide Indian food with its bite. Native to India, it's still a staple in Indian cuisine, and you'll find it in most savory dishes.
- Cayenne: Use cayenne to add warmth and the color of fire to any savory Indian dish or spice blend. You may see it listed as red chili powder blend in Indian recipes. Use it sparingly at first! Place a shaker of cayenne on the table for those who like to pump up the heat in their meals.
- Chilies: These pungent peppers are used to enliven meats, vegetables, pulses (peas, beans, and lentils), and dressings. They're found in curries, especially in South India. You'll want to experiment with different varieties, for different effects.
- Cilantro: Used both as a garnish and flavoring in Indian foods, some say cilantro is an acquired taste. If so, Indian cuisine can coax you. You'll find it in salads, sauces, soups, and many other dishes. Its flavor is potent, but it diminishes some with cooking.
- Cinnamon: Delicious in coconut milk and with fruits and other beverages and desserts, cinnamon is also used to add flavor and aroma to meat and rice dishes and chutneys. Cinnamon is a key ingredient in the Indian spice blend Garam Masala. When using whole cinnamon sticks in your Indian recipe, be sure to remove them before serving.
- Cloves: Indian cooks often use whole cloves for flavor and aroma, with savory foods like meat, and with sweets, too. Many recipes call for whole rather than ground cloves; remember to remove the whole cloves before serving your dish. Indians also use roasted and ground cloves, and they suck on whole cloves to freshen the breath.
- Coriander: Indian cooks use coriander to add sweetness to recipes, especially in Southern India. You'll find its cooling, slightly lemony taste in chicken, egg, and meat dishes, as well as desserts.
- Cumin: A staple in North India, cumin is used for its strong flavor; it often plays against the heat of chilies. Use ground cumin or fry the whole seeds in oil. They're also often roasted and ground. Cumin is very popular in curries, raitas, salads, and chutneys, and it's one of the spices in Bengali Five Spice.
- Fenugreek Seeds: Excellent in vegetarian dishes, fenugreek seeds are found in Northern and Southern Indian cooking. The seeds are strong and bitter, so use them sparingly. (They become even more bitter if burned, so cook them carefully.) You'll find fenugreek in pickled dishes, curries and curry powder blends, fish curries, sambar (a lentil stew) and Bengali Five Spice.
- Garlic: Garlic is a staple in most (but not all) areas of India. You'll find it in recipes for curries, fish, poultry, and meat--often combined with onions and chilies. Most Indian recipes call for fresh garlic, but for convenience you may want to stock up on dried garlic flakes, powder and/or granules.
- Ginger: Found mainly in North Indian cuisine, the sweet, warm, peppery taste of ginger appears in coconut milk stews, chutneys, and fish, poultry, and meat curries. Grate your own ginger root as needed, or use powdered ginger for convenience.
- Mustard Seed: Indian cooks in South and West India rely on mustard seed (often partnered with chilies) for its strong, distinctive flavor. Often the seeds are fried in oil, which gives them a nutty, rather than hot, taste. (The seeds pop when fried.) Brown mustard seed is more potent than yellow, but either can be used in Indian recipes.
- Nutmeg: In Indian cooking, nutmeg is often grated onto sweets. It's also found in the spice blend Garam Masala. Nutmeg is similar to mace, but with a more delicate, sweet taste.
- Onions: Onion are the basis of many curries, and they're found in much of India's cuisine (though some sects prohibit the use of both garlic and onions). For convenience, stock up on onion flakes, granules and/or powder.
- Saffron: For unique color, flavor, and aroma, Indian cooks often include saffron in light-colored dishes, like desserts and grain recipes. (Indian spiced rice, or biryani, often contains saffron.) To release the flavor fully, very gently dry roast the exquisite spice in a cast iron frying pan before adding it to your recipe.
- Salt: Most cooks understand how salt brings together the flavors of a dish. With so many spices used in the typical Indian recipe, salt plays an important role. Sea salt is thought to be more flavorful than ordinary table salt, which has had minerals removed.
- Star Anise: Sweet and aromatic, star anise gives a licorice-like hint to curry blends and garam masala. It's often found in Indian meat and poultry recipes. Try it in Indian soups and stews, and with fruits.
Other Key Ingredients
In Hindi, "chai" means tea. And what we call "chai tea" is called masala chai (spiced tea). Ground spices (cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, cardamom, and ginger), black tea and sugar are the traditional ingredients; milk is sometimes added.
In some regions of India, buttermilk curries are popular. They're served over rice and with fish. If you don't often have buttermilk on hand, you might consider stocking up on buttermilk powder.