The Magical World of Indian Spices

Indian food is well loved all over the world. Bring some of its irresistible flavors into your kitchen.

By FamilyTime


While most of us think of curry when we think of Indian food, there is far more to the varied and complex cooking of the subcontinent. It's easy to incorporate it into your everday cooking.

Without doubt, curry is a popular flavor and in fact, it is not a single spice but a mixture of spices that together produce a familiar flavor. Still, no two curries are the same.

As a rule, Indian home cooks use far more spices and flavorings than do most Western cooks. This should come as no surprise since the country enjoys a long and revered history in the spice trade.

Indian food is a rich blending of exotic spices and delicate herbs crafted into rich or light sauces and seasonings for poultry, meat, fish, grains, and vegetables. It’s possible for a Western cook to recreate the food of India with a little knowledge, adventurous shopping, and the willingness to try unfamiliar ingredients.

An Overview of Indian Food
Much of India is vegetarian. Hindus do not eat beef and Muslims, another large group, do not eat pork. Because a majority of the population practices Hinduism and its way of life, there is a rich history of vegetarian dishes.

This means vegetables, legumes, grains, and fruit play major roles in Indian cooking. Fish, chicken, lamb, and goat are the most common sources of protein.

Rice, arguably the most popular grain, is eaten throughout the country. Indians are wonderful bread bakers, too, which means wheat and other grains are treasured as well.

Indians like sweets although they are not keen on the butter-, egg-, and flour-based desserts popular with Western cooks. Their sweets tend to be sugary and candy-like.

An Indian Spice Rack
Because of its conducive climate, nearly all herbs and spices grow beautifully in India and so it may seem futile to identify “typical” ones. Instead, we will list those that may not be as familiar to an American cook as others.

Cardamom: Sold most commonly as a large pod, green cardamom is one of the world’s most popular spices. Americans have yet to embrace it as fully as others do, but it’s integral to sweet and savory Indian dishes.
Cassia: This bark-like spice is similar to cinnamon and in many recipes is interchangeable.
Coriander: Indians use fresh coriander and coriander seeds. Fresh coriander is usually called cilantro in the United States. Coriander seeds are strong and pungent.
Cumin: Cumin is a mild but distinct herb, integral to curries and other preparations from the north to the south of India. It’s usually sold as seeds.
Curry leaves: Despite their name, curry leaves are not necessary for curry powders. They are used in Indian cooking as an herb to flavor meat, poultry, and fish dishes.
Fenugreek: This is generally sold as dried seed or ground into powder. It’s a powerful spice and should be used sparingly. It’s essential for most curry powders.
Garam masala: This is a mixture of cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, peppercorns, mace, cumin, and coriander seeds, as well as other spices that appeal to the cook. Home cooks in India grind their own garam masala and tend to avoid commercially produced brands. Other masala mixtures include goda masala and tandoori masala, which are different blendings of spices.
Ghee: The closest thing to ghee in Western cooking is clarified butter. Ghee is made differently but has the same keeping and cooking properties. It’s used throughout India alongside oils.
Jaggery: This dehydrated sugar cane juice is used to sweeten Indian treats, tea, and other drinks, as well as some savory dishes.
Lemongrass: This aromatic grass is quite easy to find in American markets. It’s used in Indian soups and teas, as well as fish and meat dishes.
Nigella: Sold dried, this seed-like fruit is not well known in America. It’s used in spice blends throughout India, and particularly in the western part of the country.
Star anise: Star anise is the fruit of tree that is used when dried. Indians use it mainly in rice dishes and some curries.
Tamarind: From the pod of the tamarind tree, this is the Indian cook’s primary souring ingredient. Tamarind is sold as a pressed, fibrous slab or a jammy concentrate. The pressed tamarind needs to be reconstituted with water.
Turmeric: All curry powders include golden turmeric. It’s used most often as a powder but is a perennial plant that is related to ginger.

Other Ingredients
Indian cooks rely heavily on the spices and spice mixtures named above but also cook with those more familiar to the Western home cook. They love garlic, onions, and ginger. They grow and use fresh basil, dill, mint, and bay leaves.

Indians also cook with coconut. Coconut milk, grated coconut, ground coconut, and sweetened, flaked coconut find their way in savory and sweet preparations.

They depend on all manner of tree nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, and pistachios. Legumes are equally important, including chickpeas, lentils, limas, kidney beans, dried peas, and mung beans.

Finally, the spiciness so many people associate with Indian cooking comes from a colorful and wide array of chilies. While these are not native to the subcontinent, once they were introduced in the 15th century by the Portuguese (who brought them from their native Mexico), Indians embraced them and use them widely.

Not all Indian food is fiery. Indian cooks have learned to use chilies judiciously and with subtlety, as well as more aggressively.

Learning to use Indian spices and herbs as Indian cooks do takes practice. As with any culinary discovery, the journey is half the fun.