Well known for dishes with bright hues and aromatic flavours, Indian cuisine boasts the use of an expansive range of ingredients to achieve the delicious taste of many traditional recipes. If you have ever wondered what the most common herbs and spices used to prepare authentic Indian food are, you’re in luck! In this blog, we’re sharing 11 essential herb and spice ingredients to stock up in your kitchen to help you create the perfect taste when cooking classic Indian cuisine.
Cumin Seeds or Powder
Cumin is a herb widely used in Indian cuisine and is commonly known as Jeera. This herb adds a wonderfully pungent earthy taste and subtle sweetness to a range of Indian dishes, as well as western dishes too. Cumin can be used in either a ground powder-like form or as whole seeds. When used as whole seeds in Indian cuisine, cumin seeds are typically tempered in hot oil to release the flavour and aroma. Whether preparing curries, soups or stews, cumin is a staple herb in Indian cooking, particularly when preparing recipes with many seasoning ingredients.
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Mustard (Rai/Sarson) Seeds
Mustard seeds (also known as Rai or Sarson) are an ingredient which have been used in Indian cuisine for over two thousand years and they have been partially popular in southern regions of India. Mustard seeds can be found in four main varieties; black, brown, yellow and white. However, black and brown varieties are mainly used in Indian cooking. They add a nutty and peppery flavour to recipes and are a favoured choice for adding to traditional spice blends. The peppering taste of mustard seeds is not to be substituted with peppercorns; however, the flavour is distinctly unique.
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Black peppercorns are used in a wide range of methods in Indian cuisine, from flavouring rice, marinades and dips to being sprinkled on salads and being a key ingredient in an authentic Garam Masala blend. They are also in fact the key ingredient behind the spice heat levels of Indian cuisine, despite what most people would assume is due to chilli contents. In the west, black peppercorns are most often used after the cooking process, freshly ground on to food to give it a kick of flavour. Meanwhile in Indian cooking, this ingredient is added towards the end of the cooking process to preserve its taste and aroma. Whole or ground/powdered black peppercorns are both suitable options, however, whole peppercorns tend to have a longer shelf life than the ground variety.
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Cardamom is a spice that is sometimes likened to the mint herb. This is supported by the versatility of the spice and how it can be used in an array of both sweet and savory recipes in Indian cuisine. There are two main types of cardamom; black and green, with black being more commonly used for Indian cooking. Both types of cardamom are best used in pod form where the flavour is freshest and more detectable in cooking. Black cardamom has a smokier flavour than green and is popularly used in Southern Indian cooking.
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Cinnamon Sticks or Cassia Bark
When recipes call for long simmering, it’s not surprising to find cinnamon or cassia bark on the list of ingredients when preparing Indian cuisine. Both spice ingredients have a similar aroma and state, coming from the same family. Both ingredients pair well with cloves and cardamoms to create the deliciously distinct flavours most of us are familiar with when enjoying Indian food. However, cassia bark (pictured above) is more commonly used due to its milder, muskier flavour and larger quantities. While cinnamon is used as well but more sparingly due to its strong taste.
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Chillies and chilli powder are widely used in a variety of Indian cooking. Some chilli powders such as Kashmiri, are milder in heat and spiciness but add a bright pigment of red to spice blends, marinades and recipe. While more fiery chillies like bird's eye chillies are ground and used alongside fresh chillies to enhance the taste and flavour of Indian recipes.
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Cloves are a highly fragrant and flavoursome spice used in Indian cuisine for rich, spicy or sparingly for sweet recipes. When used whole, this spice can be quite strong and pungent so it is primarily used in a powdered form, ground along with other spice blends such as curry powder or garam masala. Whole cloves can be found in rice dishes such as Biriyani or Pilau rice, however. While cloves are a distinct ingredient in Indian cooking, this spice is not used in everyday Indian home cooking, like other ingredients but rather for special recipes, occasions and in restaurants.
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Coriander, whether fresh or ground, is one of the most essential herb ingredients for Indian cooking. It’s used in everything from curries, stews and stir fries, to spice blends, marinades, dressings and even Indian sweets. Combined with other key ingredients such as turmeric and cumin, coriander is also commonly used to prepare Indian curry powders. Coriander seeds are also another essential herb in Indian cooking and similar to fresh and ground coriander, the seeds add a fragrant and aromatic spice-like flavour to many Indian dishes.
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Fenugreek seeds, known as Methi in Hindi are small, hard, yellow-ish brown seeds with a slightly bitter taste used in Indian cooking to prepare gravies and daal. This ingredient is key to creating a spicy and nutty curry-like flavour to dishes and can be used in whole or ground/powdered form. Fenugreek seeds can also be soaked overnight to soften and be blended into a paste to use in Indian cuisine. This seed/spice is also one of the healthiest in Indian cooking and is known to lower blood pressure and inflammation.
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Garam Masala is probably one of the most well known Indian spice blends, consisting of ingredients commonly used in a variety of Indian cooking. To make garam masala, herbs and spices are usually dry toasted to bring out their flavour before being combined with each other and ground to create garam masala powder.
The ingredients used to make garam masala can differ depending on the region of India or personal preferences. In general however, garam masala in Northern India uses ingredients which create sweet and aromatic flavours and mild spiciness due to black pepper being the only ‘hot’ ingredient. While in Southern India, garam masala tends to be spicy due to the use of red chillies. There are also regional differences in the form of garam masala; in North India, it is usually ground into a powder, while in South India, garam masala can commonly be found in a smooth thick paste. Whether powder or paste, garam masala is typically used in Indian recipes towards the end of the cooking process, almost like a ‘finishing spice’.
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Turmeric is the infamous ingredient which gives so many Indian recipes the classic ‘curry’ flavour and pigment. Even just a teaspoon of turmeric is enough to add warm, peppery and earthy aroma to a recipe fit to feed the whole family. When used along with other essential ingredients such as cumin and coriander, turmeric helps to create the desired taste in many Indian curry dishes. While commonly used in powder form, turmeric can also be used fresh and grated into recipes instead. Take caution when using fresh (or even powdered) turmeric, this spice is well known for its staining properties.
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