Ask anyone what the most distinctive thing about Indian cooking is and nine out of ten people will answer – spices. And guess what? They’re right. Indian cuisine makes extensive use of a variety of spices and herbs - spices that excite you with their fragrance and linger playfully on your palette long after you’ve finished eating.
No doubt spices are the soul of Indian cooking. Not just food, but drinks as well as sweets use them to “spice up” the flavor. That said, given the variety of spices used, it can be a daunting prospect for an amateur cook to keep track of all of them. This article has been written with the purpose of making things slightly easier for them.
Indian spices can be broadly divided into two categories – the essential spices and the secondary spices. Essential spices are those that are used most often and form an integral part of daily cooking in India. Secondary spices, on the other hand, are reserved for special occasions to add that extra flavor and fragrance to the food. This article only looks at essential spices, the secondary ones being covered in a separate one.
Got your pen and paper handy? Let’s get started, shall we?
Cumin Seeds (Jeera)
Used more commonly in North Indian food, whole cumin seeds, when roasted, release a unique aroma and impart a “sweetish” flavor to the dish. Although generally used whole for the purpose of tempering, powdered cumin seeds also has its own place in Indian cooking.
In its powdered form, dhaniya is an indispensable part of the Indian kitchen, used in almost every dish that is made. It has a fresh and soothing taste and a mild flavor. Coriander seeds are also used in Indian cooking, though not as often as the powder. Coriander leaves are used as garnish to make the food look more attractive.
Haldi, in its whole form, looks incredibly similar to ginger. But, when you cut it open, it has a beautiful yellow-orange color. Turmeric is generally used in its dried and powdered form and like coriander, widely used in Indian cooking. It lends beautiful color and mild aroma to the dishes. Turmeric is also popular for its medicinal qualities. Used internally, it can treat liver and stomach ailments and externally, it is said to heal sores.
Red Chilli Powder (Lal Mirch)
Indian chilli powder is made by grinding whole red chillies. For this reason, it is a lot hotter than the chilli powder used in Europe and America. Indians are partial to red chilli powder and love the hot aroma and strong bite it gives the food.
Heeng has a very strong flavor and is used quite sparingly in Indian food. It has a very distinctive odor and just a pinch or so is added to the food being cooked.
Garam Masala literally translates to “hot spice”. It is not a spice in itself, but in fact a blend of several roasted whole spices, which could include cardamom, cloves, black peppercorns, cinnamon, mace, fenugreek seeds. Although the name indicates that garam masala would be hot, it’s not hot in the same sense as red chillies. The term "hot" is in the sense that it can increase your body’s temperature. Take care not to use Garam masala liberally since it can be quite an overpowering flavor.