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Indian cuisine: 15 essential ingredients

Spicy, exotic and exiting: this is the way to describe Indian cuisine. It can be sweet, savory, bitter, sour or hot, more often than not it is all of the above. These explosive flavor combinations are what attract so many foodies and adventurous cooks.

Indian cuisine does not go light on spices and neither should you: this is not only the key to a well-rounded dish, but also the secret to take your meals to the next level. But with the dizzying array of herbs, spices and other foreign ingredients out there, experimenting can feel overwhelming, but don’t fret! This article will help set you off on your culinary trip to India.

How do I choose and use the spices from this list?

Using whole spices is the way to get the best quality and the most flavor into your Indian meals. This, in turn, begs the question how to process and combine them. Mortar and pestle is the traditional, but time-intensive way to go. A powerful blender or a grinder are better choices for creating fine, smooth blends even with the hardest barks.

Go slow at first when you are just beginning to integrate new spices and don’t feel like you need to get them all at once. But here is an alphabetic list of 15 essential ingredients to get you started.

indian spices

Black pepper

Most households are already familiar with this India native. Grind fresh corns into the dish or toast to release flavor and mild heat into any savory meal.

Cardamom

These little green and black beans pack a powerful, warm aroma. Many see it as an essential Indian ingredient, but it truly shines in combination with clove and cinnamon. Crack the beans open with a knife, toast lightly and toss into curies, chai teas or baked goods.

Cassia bark

This hard, rough and thick bark is often confused for (true) cinnamon. Both have a similar sweet and spicy profile and can be used to add depth to savory dishes or sweets.

Clove

Use this sweet warm spice with braised meats and pastry, but do so with caution: its strong medicinal flavor can overpower the rest of your bouquet.

Coriander

Most know it as a Mexican staple, but coriander is also used to add a trace of fresh citrus to many specialties in the Indian cuisine. Roast it in the pan until the seeds start popping for best results.

Cumin

This light brown seed lends a characteristic earthy, smoky aroma to the dishes. Get whole pods and carefully roast them similar to coriander if you truly want to unfold its fragrance.

Fennel seeds

Use these sweet seeds with any meat plates and take advantage of its fine licorice note and digestive qualities.

Fenugreek

This herb with a smell of burnt sugar is so important for the musky, earthy profile of many Indian dishes. Handle with caution to avoid excessive bitterness.

Garam masala

Though not strictly a spice, but rather a mix, garam masala is so essential and easy to use that it is a staple in many pantries. Make sure to add this blend to your curries at the very end of cooking.

Ginger

Fresh ginger lends a zesty, piquant taste and a whole range of health benefits when used in chai teas and traditional hearty dishes.

Mustard seeds

Buy darker seeds for the most pungent flavor in curries, pickles and with meats.

Nutmeg

As opposed to others on this list, nutmeg does not need to be toasted before using; least you destroy its delicate warm scent.

Red chili pepper

Chilis are the reason people fear Indian cuisine for its fire. Just regulate the amount of sweet heat to your liking.

Saffron

This dark red king of spices is more expensive than gold. Even a little pinch gives a distinct yellow color and floral notes to your creations.

Turmeric

Sprinkle in a pinch of turmeric to replace saffron and add a happy golden color and anticeptic qualities to your rice, meats or curries.

Final tip

Buy the spices based on the recipes you want to cook, try, adjust and don’t be afraid to experiment! Otherwise, many meal kit providers also include dishes inspired by Indian cuisine to help you find ingredients you might love.


Photos by Vitaliy Lyubezhanin & Pratiksha Mohanty

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