Spices

Spices are an integral part of Indian cooking and its flavour

Indian food and spices work like the perfect marriage. For centuries spices have been used in Indian cooking in one form or another, giving it flavour, complexity, distinction and its own unique character.

Spices not only compliment the main ingredient, they enhance its taste, make it more exciting and lend it richness. In fact, while spices are utilised the world over in all kinds of cuisines to varying degrees, it’s near impossible to imagine Indian food without them. They help define cooking from the subcontinent, whether from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. Spices have no borders, so wherever they originate from and wherever they are being used, the palate-tingling taste they give to food is nothing short of adventurous.


They derive from root, bark, fruit, flower and seed, yet whatever their form, whether fresh, whole or in ground, powdered form, spices can give fragrance and an aroma to a dish which heightens its anticipation.

Warm and earthy spices include turmeric, cardamom, nutmeg and saffron. Sweet spices include cinnamon and vanilla, nutty ones sesame and nigella, and fruity and acidic ones amchoor (mango powder) and tamarind. Bitter spices include fenugreek and lovage, whilst pungent ones feature clove, asafoetida, ginger and chilli.

How one prepares spices can vary anywhere from grinding, crushing, slicing, dry roasting and frying. How one uses can often be the deciding factor on the ultimate flavour of a dish. So, whether spices are added at the beginning of the cooking process, at the end, mixed with other spices, sprinkled over or even used for tempering, can all have a bearing.

Their health benefits are many with several boasting mineral salts and vitamins.  Over the years different spices have travelled to India from different countries. Chilli for instance, (is from South America) was never part of the Indian tradition and the only spice that existed to give hotness was black pepper (kali mirch). Even the salt used was in the form of rock salt.”

It takes great skill and experience to be able to instinctively judge how much spice to add to a dish and in what way it will flavour it. It is an art itself. Over time spices mixes, new flavours and aromas were introduced and fusions have been created as the world gets smaller and food is a language for all to enjoy.

Spices have many medicinal properties and is widely used in Ayurveda treatments. For example, saffron not only imparts colour and flavour, but it also improves the circulation of blood. Ayurvedics also know that spices can give off a hot and cold reaction.

Nutmeg for instance is warm and goes well with sweet dishes. Black cardamom is warm and strong and therefore is used in curry sauces whereas the green cardamom is slightly sweeter and cooler and goes well in Indian dessert dishes. Asafoetida has a cooling effect and is widely used in daals and vegetable dishes. In many parts of India where onion and garlic is not used, asafoetida is used giving the flavour and smell of onion and garlic without the same effect on the body.  It has great digestive qualities too. 


There are a handful of spices which due to the flavour they impart are widely used in Indian cooking. These include coriander, cumin, turmeric, garam masala, ginger and chilli. Knowledge of how to use them in the right quantity is very useful otherwise the flavour of the dish will be marred. There can also be an addictive quality to spices, with chillies in particular having such an effect.

Today as taste and flavours have evolved and modified, spices that are perhaps better known in the west are included that are not always considered traditionally Indian. Spices are a tool for any cook or chef to use in ways not limited by one’s imagination.”

An A to Z of Spices:

Amchoor
Beige in colour made from raw green mangos in powder form and is used in dishes to add a touch of tartness. It’s also good in marinades and tandoori dishes.

Asafoetida
Or hing, a pungent, aromatic and robust flavour used in small small quantities especially in daal and vegetable dishes.  Sometimes used to replace garlic. Good for the digestive system.

Bay Leaf
Or tej patta, this is good for use in biryanis and korma-style dishes, giving a fine aromatic taste. Store leaves in an air-tight container.

Caraway
Looks very similar to cumin though paler in colour.  Used in Indian savoury snacks and rice dishes but not as much in curries.

Cardamom
Or elaichi, three varieties available – the small white and green pods giving an aromatic flavour used in rice dishes, sweet dishes and chai masala.  The large black variety with its husky outer casing is used in garam masala and, some curry dishes.

Chilli
Is ground red chillies and made from the dried fruit of the capsicum plant. It’s a spice, which is used in practically all Indian dishes with the amount varying according to the desired hotness.

Cinnamon

Or dalchini, this is a sweet and warm spice, which can be used in both ground form and in its bark type form. It is a highly versatile and aromatic spice, suitable for savoury and sweet dishes.

Clove

Or laung, used both whole or in ground form, with a strong pungent flavour, used in garam masala giving a wonderful aroma to curries and rice dishes.

Coriander
Or dhania, this is one of the basic spices of Indian cooking. It can be used whole as seeds or in ground form to give a good earthy flavour in curries.

Cumin
Or jeera or zeera, which like several other spices used in Indian cooking, can be used whole or in ground form giving  an aromatic tastel in curries, dal, snacks, chutneys and rice.

Fennel
Or saunf, with a taste similar to aniseed, the seed has a highly aromatic flavour.  Used in daals, snacks and sweet dishes.  Also a favourite as a digestive after a meal.

Fenugreek
Or methi, this can be used in both seed form, with its mustard yellow colour and spinach-like leaves, which can be used dry or in fresh form. With a distinct flavour , fenugreek can be used in both vegetarian or meat curries. Also use in pakoras, and Indian breads such as theplas and puris.

Five Spice
Or panch phoran, this is a combination of five aromatic spices including nigella and fennel seed.  Use in daal dishes.

Garam Masala
A ground spice mix, which can be bought or made at home with toasted spices including cloves, black peppercorns, cumin, cinnamon and cardamom.

Ginger
Or adrak, a key ingredient of Indian cooking, use fresh or in ground form.

Lovage
Or ajwain, is closely related to caraway and cumin. Intensely flavoured, the seed works well in pickles, dal, snacks and fish dishes.

Mace and Nutmeg
Or javitri and jaifal, used in lightly flavoured dishes and desserts.

Mustard Seed
Or rai, this has a deliciously nutty flavour that works particularly well in dal and vegetable dishes.

Nigella Seed
Or kalonji or onion seed, this tiny black seed can be an aromatic addition to vegetable curries, to sprinkle on naan breads and used in chutneys and pickles.

Peppercorn
Or kali mirch, which is the black peppercorn and one of the spices of garam masala. Use whole in pulao rice and in biryanis

Poppy Seed
Used to flavour curries, the seed is much more flavoursome when toasted. Used in sweet dishes sprinkled on eg. on semolina halva

Saffron
Or zafran or kesar, this fragrant and colourful spice is often referred to as the ‘king of spices’ because it happens to be the most expensive. Used in small quantities mainly in rice dishes and desserts.

Sesame Seed
Or til, used to flavour snacks and breads and added to subtly flavour curries.

Star Anise
Or anasphal, used to flavour curries, and works well in rice and sweet dishes.

Turmeric
Or haldi, which is related to ginger family.  In its powder form, a bright yellow colour it is used in moderation in all curries, daals and vegetable dishes.

Tamarind
Whether used as a paste or pureed from a block, tamarind is widely used to give a sourness to a number of dishes from curries to marinades, as well as in chutneys to use as a dip with snacks.