Spice is so much more than just salt and pepper. It’s culinary gold.
Now common cooking ingredients like cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg once served as one of the main reasons for the expansion of human trade. Ancient merchants traveled thousands of miles just to get a hand on these flavor-packed plants that grew almost exclusively in one part of the world — Asia.
Next time you take a stroll down the spice aisle in your local grocery store, try and remember that people once risked their lives just to get a hand on that two-dollar shaker of white peppercorn.
In the thousands of years since, spices have spread throughout the globe, enriching world cuisine and imbuing thousands of dishes with unbelievable flavor combinations. Yet, no method of cooking has quite been able to match the natural integration of spices of Indian cuisine.
Let’s explore 11 essential spices in Indian cuisine and discover some delicious dishes that take advantage of these miraculous plants.
Indian Spices List
- Garam Masala
Garam masala is the king of Indian spices, though, in truth, it was never really a fair fight.
This “spice” is a delicious, hearty mix of some of the most popular spices in all of Indian and Pakistani cuisine, including:
- Black peppercorns
- Black cardamom
- Green cardamom
“Garam” roughly translates to “heating the body,” and these aromatic spices are believed to get the blood pumping in all those who pepper them into their favorite dish. Garam masala blends vary between regions and households, so no two garam masalas will taste quite the same.
- Coriander Powder (Dry Dhania Powder)
Coriander, or dry dhania powder, is perhaps the most popular single spice in any Indian spice rack. Coriander and cilantro are made from the same plant — Coriandrum sativum.
While coriander refers to the leaves, seeds, or powder of the plant, cilantro only refers to the dried leaves. If you’ve ever had cilantro, you know that coriander isn’t exactly spicy, but sharp and refreshing. It’s one of the oldest spices globally and distinct for its signature golden-yellow hues and citrus-infused aromas.
- Cumin or Jeera Seeds
Cumin is a popular spice in many Latin-American and Middle Eastern dishes, though its true origin emerged in Indian cuisine.
Its characteristic intense, smoky flavor makes it one of the first additions in many spice mixes as well as different dals and curries.
Roast the seeds for just about 30 seconds to a minute, just until you can smell its signature toasty aroma. Then, grind the seeds into a powder before quickly cooling and blending it into the rest of the dish.
- Mustard Seeds or Rai
While cumin is one of the most popular tempering spices in North Indian cooking, that title goes to mustard seeds or rai when it comes to South Indian cuisine.
These crunchy seeds are known for their smoky, nutty flavor and are incredibly common in rice dishes and curries, including in our Chicken Coconut Curry with Mango. Many South Indian recipes call for these seeds to simmer in hot oil and pop, releasing their flavor before adding in the other ingredients.
- Turmeric Powder or Haldi
Haldi, or turmeric powder, will certainly stand out in your spice cabinet due to its signature yellow hues and earthy flavor profile.
Outside of the kitchen, turmeric is known for its antioxidant and medicinal potential, and it’s included in many natural supplements due to its anti-inflammatory properties. This spice is rapidly gaining popularity in the Western world with Turmeric lattés and the immunity-boosting Haldi Doodh.
- Chili Powder or Mirchi
Red chili powder isn’t simply chosen for its extra punch of heat; it also adds vibrant, peppery flavor and a distinct red hue to any dish.
There are many different types of red chili powder, though the most common is made from the Kashmiri red chili. If you’d like even more natural flavor, grind some red chili yourself from dried chili peppers.
Many people associate “spicy” with this red Mirchi but it is only one component of Indian cooking. Indian cuisine’s signature heat and spiciness come from a combination of all the items mentioned on this list, and it varies widely between regions and households depending on personal preference and heat tolerance.
- Cloves or Laung
Indian food is hardly the only world cuisine to feature cloves. They’re also highly prevalent in Middle Eastern, North African, and East Asian cuisine, commonly used to spice up curries, meat dishes, and even hot beverages, like chai.
Cloves are one of the main ingredients in garam masala and are known for their powerful anise notes.
- Green cardamom (Elaichi)
Elaichi, or green cardamom, is the world’s third most expensive spice, only bested by vanilla and saffron. Not only is it featured heavily across Indian cuisine, but it’s also commonly used as a medicine.
The light and sweet flavor is perfect for desserts, chai, spice mixes, and even hot chocolate. It’s often blended whole in spice mixes like garam masala, though it can also be popped open and lightly crushed into sweets or desserts.
- Dried Fenugreek Leaves (kasoori methi)
Dried fenugreek leaves, or kasoori methi, add a slightly bitter, earthy layer to any dish, similar to a fusion between celery and fennel seeds. It’s similar to how western cuisines use dried thyme or oregano. In essence, a little bit goes a long way.
In most dishes, the leaves are crumbled over veggie or meat curries like Butter Chicken or Palak Paneer before serving to add an extra layer of earthy, musky fragrance. These herbs are also often added to whole wheat dough to make a methi paratha or roti.
Fenugreek seeds are also common, and these resemble tiny wheat kernels but should be used in moderation, just like cloves.
- Fennel Seeds
If you’ve ever used an all-natural toothpaste, chances are you’ve come across this next spice.
Fennel seeds are one of the most common spices in Indian cooking and are harvested from fennel, a flowering plant species in the carrot family.
Fennel is flavorful and highly aromatic with dozens of different medicinal and culinary uses. They’re often used to add a sharp, minty bite to curry dishes or even consumed as a mukhwa, a post-meal digestive and breath freshener.
This might be news to American readers, but the cinnamon you know and love isn’t actually cinnamon.
The vast majority of cinnamon sold in the United States is actually Cassia, which is harvested from the bark of evergreen trees. Cassia has a warmer, sweeter aroma than its cousin, Ceylon cinnamon (often referred to as “true cinnamon”).
If you add Ceylon cinnamon to a bowl of kheer (Indian rice pudding), you’ll find that it’s a lighter shade of brown and has a milder taste than Cassia cinnamon. Either variety will work in Indian cooking, though Ceylon is more prevalent in India and thus more likely to feature in truly authentic Indian cuisine.
In Indian cuisine, cinnamon isn’t just for sweet foods — it’s also commonly sauteéd in many savory dishes and used as a primary ingredient in garam masala, Chicken Tikka Masala, and tasty drinks like chai.
Spice Up Family Dinner Night With Sukhi’s
When you look back at the history of the spice trade, it’s safe to say that today we’re a bit spoiled when it comes to spice. Even this lengthy list only represents a small peak into a truly stacked Indian spice cabinet.
You should also look for ingredients like black cardamom, asafetida (hing), amchur (dried mango powder), ajwain (carom seeds), bay leaves, and ginger powder to add complexity and rich flavors to your next homemade Indian dish.
Indian seasoning breathes life into our Tikka Masalas, our Coconut Curries, and our Mango Chutneys. They remind us of why we cook in the first place — to share the experience of eating delicious food amongst friends and family.
Browse our spice-filled collection of entreés, sauces, and samosas, all imbued with flavorful spices and designed to transform family dinner night from a slog in the kitchen to a celebration at the dinner table.
While you await your order, feel free to read through our blog to discover classic meat and veggie dishes that cut down on your cooking times while taking full advantage of these miraculous, flavor-packed plants.