It’s time for another Indian 101 class! To learn more about this series, visit my Indian Cooking 101 page.
Whole Spices vs. Ground Spices
When it comes to spices, I prefer to buy whole spices and grind them myself using an inexpensive coffee or spice grinder. Whole spices last longer and maintain their flavor longer than pre-ground spices. They’re also cheaper to purchase when you buy in bulk. That said, using ground spices can reduce prep time and if you use them regularly and continue to re-stock, then you don’t have to worry as much about the loss of flavor.
Once you stock your kitchen with whole spices, they should last you a while.
People often mistake Indian food for being a complicated cuisine. I think part of the reason for this myth is due to the long list of unfamiliar ingredients that accompany most recipes. Once you familiarize yourself with the ingredients, you’ll be set to cook any Indian dish!
I’ve created an Indian Cooking section in my blog’s shop that you can check out. You can find a lot of what’s listed below in the shop.
Gather Spices before Cooking
When it comes to cooking Indian cuisine, read through the recipe once before starting. Gather all of the spices together in a small bowl, so that when the instructions call for them, you’re not searching for several jars of spices at once. Prepping the ingredients beforehand can save you a lot of time and stress when it comes to preparing a meal. It can also help keep spices from burning.
An Overview of Indian Spices
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all of the spices used in Indian Cooking. If I forgot to list a spice that you’d like to know more about, just leave me a comment! Also, these are in alphabetical order, not in the order of what’s used most.
Black Cardamom: this is larger than green cardamom and not as commonly used. It has a potent smoky aroma, use sparingly.
Black Salt (Kala Namak): This pinkish-grey salt has a pungent, sulfurous flavor. It’s a spice that’s often used in chutneys and chaat.
Brown/Black Mustard Seeds: Brown/Black mustard seeds are commonly used in Indian cooking and are more intense than yellow mustard seeds. Brown or black mustard seeds are typically first cooked in hot oil, until they begin to pop or splutter. They are pungent, slightly spicy and nutty.
Cardamom: Cardamom is warm, floral and very aromatic. It’s one of my favorite spices to use in sweets and also in savory dishes.
Cloves: Cloves have a uniquely sweet and warm aroma, making them perfect for both sweet and savory dishes.
Coriander: Unlike cilantro leaves, coriander seeds are mild in flavor. Even if you’re a cilantro hater, give the seeds a chance. I find that coriander seeds to be sweet and nutty with subtle notes of lemon.
Cumin Seeds: Cumin, a member of the parsley family, and has an earthy and smoky flavor. By first dry roasting the seeds in a cast iron skillet, you can intensify this flavor.
Curry Leaves: Curry leaves are from a plant and they provide dishes with a unique smoky and citrus-like flavor and aroma. You can find fresh curry leaves at most Indian grocery stores, or on amazon. I typically store extra leaves in a ziplock bag in my freezer and use them as needed. (See my blog post on curry leaves vs. curry powder).
Curry Powder: Curry powder is a blend of spices that contains coriander, cumin, turmeric, red chili powder as well as other spices. Curry powder does not contain curry leaves. (See my blog post on curry leaves vs. curry powder).
Dried Fenugreek Leaves (Kasoori Methi): This is the secret to getting homemade Indian food to taste restaurant quality. Dried fenugreek leaves (also known as kasoori methi) adds complex flavor to any curry or dish. It’s earthy, warm, sweet and bitter. You can find dried fenugreek leaves at any Indian store and also on amazon.
Garam Masala vs. Meat Masala: You will see both of these spice blends used on my website – they are not interchangeable. The garam masala that you find in stores is typically a north Indian blend. My homemade meat masala is different in flavor and is primarily used in south Indian cooking.
Hing (Asafoetida): this spice has a very strong flavor reminiscent of garlic and onion. It’s often used as a substitute for garlic and onion. It also has a reputation for helping with digestion.
Kalonji (Nigella Seed): Kalonji, also known as nigella seed or as onion seed, are small, black, triangular shaped seeds that look similar to sesame seeds. They’re nutty, peppery and pungent. They are often used in pickle or chutney recipes and some restaurants will even add kalonji to naan bread.
Kashmiri Chili Powder vs. Cayenne: Cayenne is a spicy chili pepper that will add heat to a dish. It ranges from 30k-50k Scoville units. Kashmiri chili powder on the other hand is very mild and registers at around 2k Scoville units. The reason many recipes call for Kashmiri chili powder is because it adds a nice red hue to dishes. If you want to substitute a spice for Kashmiri chili powder then I suggest using paprika.
Mustard Oil: Mustard oil has a horseradish or wasabi-like flavor and is very pungent, so a little goes a long way. Mustard oil is very popular in Indian and South Asian cuisine, however, due to the erucic acid found in this oil, it can only be sold as “massage” oil in the United States. That said, this oil is becoming increasingly more popular, even among American chefs. You can purchase this oil in any Indian grocery store or on amazon.
Saffron: Saffron, one of the most expensive spices on the market, requires just a pinch to impart its flavor and beautiful golden color onto any dish. Soak a couple threads of saffron in a tablespoon or two of warm water or milk before using.
Star Anise: This star-shaped spice has a licorice-like flavor. While star anise and fennel seed are somewhat similar in flavor, I find star anise to be savory and slightly bitter whereas I consider fennel seed to be more sweet.
Turmeric: Turmeric, one of the most popular Indian spices, has a long history of medicinal use dating back thousands of years. It has has a warm, peppery, bitter flavor and will add a bright yellow color to any dish.
If you missed the previous Indian 101 “class,” check out this post: Curry Leaves vs. Curry Powder