Top 12 Essential Spices for Indian Cooking

When it comes to cooking up the culinary delights of Southern Asia, there is a multitude of herbs and spices that you can use to acquire the exquisite flavours and pungent aromas that would make any high street Indian takeaway pale in comparison.

Once you know your spices, it's not such a daunting task to start throwing things together in the kitchen to whip up an amazing curry to wow your family or dinner party guests with. So without further ado, here is a list of twelve of the main Indian spices to get you started:

Dried Red Chilli Lal Mirch

Red Chilli - Lal Mirch

Probably the most obvious of spices, red chilli is what you need to give your cooking a fiery kick! Use whole dried red chillies, or crushed red chilli flakes or powder, to add warming heat to curries, kebabs and other savoury dishes. Red chillies vary in intensity and are known to aid digestion. They can also be used fresh.

Turmeric Haldi

Turmeric - Haldi

The turmeric root looks similar to ginger, but has a beautiful golden yellow colour and is famous for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant health benefits. More commonly used in its dried powdered form, turmeric is only needed in small amounts to add a subtle flavour yet a vibrant colour to any dish it is added to.

Coriander Seeds Dhania

Coriander Seeds - Dhania

Coriander seeds can be used whole or crushed into a powder and give a woody, leafy, almost citrus aroma to curry dishes, savoury yoghurt dips such as raita, as well as vegetable patties and kebabs.

The leaves of the coriander plant are also a classic herb which is typically used in South Asian cooking to give a sort of flavour and fragrance that will take your cooking to the next level.

Garam Masala

Garam Masala

A combination of whole spices such as cinnamon, mace or nutmeg, peppercorns, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, bay leaves and cardamom pods that have been toasted and crushed into a powder. The fragrance of garam masala is sublime when sprinkled over savoury dishes such as curries.

Cumin Seeds Zeera

Cumin Seeds - Zeera

Used in almost all savoury dishes of the Indian subcontinent, cumin seeds add incredible flavour and an intense aroma, especially when slightly toasted before use. Not to be confused with fennel seeds that are green and have an aniseed-like taste, cumin seeds are brown and smoky in flavour.

Cumin powder can also be used in your recipes but it is more common to use these little, ridged seeds whole for their flavour and appearance.

Green Cardamom Elaichi

Green Cardamom - Elaichi

A key ingredient used everything from sweet and savoury dishes to milkshakes, lassi and hot drinks. Green cardamom pods are best when split open to release the little black flavoursome seeds that have a heavenly, light eucalyptus fragrance into your dishes, desserts or drinks.

Black Cardamom Kali Elaichi

Black cardamoms are larger and have a stronger flavour compared to their smaller green counterparts. They are dried over a fire therefore the intensity of their smoky flavour means they should be used sparingly in savoury dishes such as pilau, biryani and curry sauces.

Black cardamoms are used whole to infuse their flavour and then discarded at the end of cooking, not eaten, the same goes for cinnamon sticks and cloves.

Black Cardamom - Kali Elaichi

Cinnamon Sticks / Cassia Bark Dalchini / Dar Chini

You can get away with using either cinnamon or cassia when it comes to Indian cooking as both of their fragrances and flavours are very similar, so much so that often you fill find products labelled with cinnamon, that actually contains cassia instead.

Cinnamon, also referred to as true cinnamon, is often a bit more expensive than cassia, which is also known as Chinese cinnamon. Cinnamon and cassia can be used in savoury dishes, desserts and drinks and are renowned for their digestive health benefits.

Cloves Long

With a strong flavour, owed to the amount of essential oil they contain, cloves are a spice that is regularly used in South Asian cooking as well as for medicinal purposes. Just like clove oil can be purchased from a pharmacy to alleviate toothache and fight off infections of the gums and teeth with its antibacterial properties, a whole clove can be placed into the mouth, in the area where the pain is being experienced. This is a common practice in South Asian culture in the unfortunate event of having painful teeth.

With regard to cooking, cloves should be used sparingly due to their flavour which can be overpowering if you add too many. That said, a couple of cloves in a curry, rice dish or a drink do make a world of difference. 

Black Pepper Kali Mirch

One of the most well-known spices, black pepper is used around the world to season food however this spice is native to Southern India. Dried peppercorns come in a variety of colours with differing flavours however, it is the black peppercorn that is an integral part of South Asian cooking, used whole, or crushed into a coarse or fine powder.

Fenugreek Methi

Fenugreek Seeds - Methi

Fenugreek is responsible for adding that amazing curry aroma and flavour to a Madras curry powder. You can either use the seeds, whole or ground into a powder, or fresh or dried methi leaves, all of which will give a mouth-watering, restaurant-style flavour and fragrance to curry dishes and other savoury recipes.

Ginger Adrak

Ginger - Adrak

Used fresh or dried and ground into a powder, ginger gives a whole new dimension of flavour to many dishes, not to mention, of course, curries. Widely used for its healing properties and health benefits (ginger is famous for aiding digestion as well as being great for a bad chest when consumed in a hot drink), ginger is a must-have ingredient for any kitchen.

After reading about all these incredible spices, we hope that you will be inspired to try something new and diversify your cooking.

There are many other spices that also play an important role in Indian recipes however those we have listed above are twelve of the most popular ones used across South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan.