Spices are a defining element of all Indian cuisine. No matter the complexity level of the Indian dish you are preparing, somewhere along the line it will call for a combination of spices. Marrying the flavors of spices in Indian cuisine is something of an art form. Make sure you’re ready for whatever Indian dish you want to prepare by keeping these five essential spices in your kitchen.
Cumin is a strong aromatic spice, typically sold either as seeds or in a ground form. Cumin is typically used to impart a warm and earthy flavor to many different Indian dishes and is well known for its ability to be paired with other common spices. Its straightforward flavor profile means that it works well on its own with vegetables such as potatoes and carrots and simple meat dishes like chicken.
One of the most ubiquitous spices used in Indian cuisine, coriander is one of the oldest-known spices in the world. Coriander has a nutty flavor with citrus notes that makes it a key ingredient in spice mixtures such as garam masala and is used heavily to make popular dishes such as chicken tikka masala.
Instantly recognizable from its bright hue, turmeric is used in many Indian dishes to give it a distinctive color and flavor. Turmeric has an earthy fragrance and a warm, peppery flavor that make it wildly popular in many curries and rice dishes. Turmeric is made from pulverizing rhizome, a relative of ginger, and is also renowned for its many health benefits. It is known to provide anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal benefits for individuals who consume it regularly.
Another common spice in Indian cooking are black and brown mustard seeds, which can be used interchangeably. These distant cousins to white and yellow mustard seeds, which produce the deli mustard that is common in many American refrigerators, impart a smoky, nutty flavor after they are “bloomed,” a process in which they are heated briefly in oil before they pop open. Their warm flavor makes them a common ingredient in curries and curry powders.
Like mustard seeds, cardamom comes in two different colors, green and black, both of which are used in Indian cuisine. However, unlike mustard seeds, these different colors are not interchangeable and impart very different flavors to different types of dishes. Green cardamom is the more common type, and it is known to impart a light, sweet flavor with strong eucalyptus and pine notes. It is commonly used by adding whole pods to curries or steamed pots of rice.
On the other hand, black cardamom is a very powerful spice, which must be used with caution to keep it from overpowering the dish. The powerful smoky flavor associated with it is achieved by adding only a few seeds to a dish. If a whole pod is used, it is best to remove the pod before serving as biting into one can be an unpleasant experience for the casual diner.
There are well over a dozen other spices that many Indian dishes call for, and learning how to use all of them in tandem with one another is a skill unto itself. But if you stock these five essential Indian spices in your kitchen, you can be confident in pulling off all of the classic Indian flavors you are hoping to replicate at home.