Indian spices include a variety of spices that are grown across the Indian subcontinent (South Asia). With different climates in different parts of the country, India produces a variety of spices, many of which are native to the Subcontinent, while others were imported from similar climates and have since been cultivated locally for centuries.
Spices are used in different forms - whole, chopped, ground, roasted, sauteed, fried and as topping. They blend food to extract the nutrients and bind them in a palatable form. Some spices are added at the end as a flavoring and are typically heated in a pan with ghee or cooking oil before being added to a dish.
Here is a list of most common spices generally used in Indian cooking.
Asafoetida (Hing) - also known as devil's dung. It is a distinctive and pungent spice. It is most commonly found in powdered form. When cooked, it has a truffle-like flavor and a roasted garlic aroma. It is used mainly for its digestive properties, especially in the cooking of beans and lentils, as it is reputed to have antiflatulence properties. A pinch of it can be fried in hot oil before the rest of the ingredients are cooked.
Bay leaves - these fragrant leaves with pointed ends are used in their dried form. These are used in curries and rice preparations.
Cardamom (Elaichi) - Cardamom has a sweet, lemony, eucalyptus flavor. It is world's second most expensive spice. It is available as a powder, dried pods, or loose seeds. Green cardamoms are the most common, but there are also black and cream varieties. It is one of India's favorite spices, used in curries, savory and sweet dishes, ice cream and custards. It is often combined with almonds and saffron. It can be used to flavor tea and also is great with black coffee. It is used in Ayurvedic medicine to remove fat and as a cure for urinary and skin complaints.
Cayenne pepper (Lal Mirch)- is a spice made from the seeds of plants in the capsicum family. Cayenne peppers' bright red color signals its high content of beta-carotene or pro-vitamin A. It includes both the ground seeds as well as the dried flesh. It should not be as hot as chili powder, but it is pretty hot and should therefore be used with care. Cayenne pepper is used to provide the heat for many spicy dishes.
Chilies (Mirchi) - it is the hottest flavor on earth. As a general rule, dark green chilies tend to be hooter than red chilies. Small, pointed chilies are usually hotter than larger, more rounded varieties. Whole chilies can be seeded to make them a little less hot. Chilies and chili powder should be used with extreme care.
Chili powder - Red color, fine powder. It is very hot because it is made from the dried, ground seeds of the chili, its hottest part.
Cilantro (Hara Dhaniya) - this fresh herb is a fragrant mix of parsley and citrus. The leaves are rather like those of flat-leaved parsley, but darker. The leaves have a very distinctive bitter-sweet taste. Cilantro it is usually added toward the end of cooking to preserve the fresh aroma. Also it is frequently used as a garnish. The seed of the cilantro is known as coriander.
Cinnamon (Dalchni) - is the dried bark of various laurel trees in the cinnamomun family. It is a sweet-tasting spice, with a warm, woody aroma. The smell of Cinnamon is pleasant, stimulates the senses, yet calms the nerves. It is available as a powder but is much better bought in sticks. When ground, the flavor becomes stronger.
Cloves (Luong) - small, dried, reddish-brown flower bud of the tropical evergreen tree of the myrtle family. They have strong, sweet aroma and hot, pungent taste, Cloves are best bought whole and ground, if necessary. They have been used in India for thousands of years, not only in cooking, but to sweeten the breath and to relieve the pain of toothache. They contain a mild anesthetic.
Coriander seeds (Dhaniya) - is a member of a parsley family. The seeds are oval in shape, ridged, and turn from bright green to beige when ripen. This spice tastes sweet and tangy, with a slightly citrus flavor. Coriander is usually sold in powdered form, although the whole seeds are also available.
Cumin (Jeera) - comes from the parsley family. The seeds are oval with ridges, greenish-beige in color, warm, nutty aroma and a taste that is bitter, but not hot. They can be ground to a powder. Cumin is usually dry-fried before use. It is used to flavor rice, stuffed vegetables, many savory dishes and curries.
Curry leaves (Kari patha or Neem) - are small grey-greenish leaves (a bit like bay), relative of the orange. They can be used fresh or dried. Their aroma is released by its heat and moisture. They are sometimes fried in the oil the food is cooked in, and then discarded. They are mainly used as an aromatic and flavoring for most curries and soups. When starting a curry or soup dish, put the curry leaves into the oil to fry until crisp.
Fennel (Saunf) - is a greenish-brown, small oval seed from Pimpinella Anisum, a plant in the parsley family. It has a sweet and aniseed flavor. Used sparingly, it gives warmth and sweetness to curries. The seeds combine well with peanuts and the zest of citrus fruit. Roasted fennel seeds are chewed to freshen the breath after the meal. They have digestive properties.
Fenugreek (Kasuri Methi) - is short, upright plant (related to spinach) with oval leaves. The entire plant has a strong, sweet aroma. The mature leaves have the bitter taste. Ground fenugreek (seeds) has a warm, yellowish-brown color with a strong curry-like taste. In powdered form, fenugreek is one of the main ingredients of curry powders.
Garam Masala – meaning “hot spices” - is a mixture of ground spices (recipes vary) (cloves, cardamom, cumin, peppercorns and cinnamon, bay leaves). Depending on the ingredients of your dish, you can enhance the garam masala by adding other spices.
Garlic (Lassan) - closely related to the onion. It has a powerful pungent or hot flavor when raw, which mellows when it is cooked. It has very strong odor. Bulbs, whose segments are usually called "cloves" are the part of the plant most commonly eaten. Garlic helps to purify the blood and lower blood pressure. It is considered as a cure for heart ailments.
Ginger (Adrak)- the fresh root gingeris a knobly rhizome with a sweet aroma and hot, pungent taste. Inside, the ginger is hard and woody, yellow and fibrous. It is easiest to cook with, once peeled and grated. The length of the root indicates maturity, and the longer it is, the hotter and more fibrous it will be. Ginger makes a tasty paste, especially if mixed with garlic.
Mango powder (Amchur) - This sour powder is made from unripe mangoes. It has a tart taste. It has a sour, lemony taste, with a slightly sweet edge. The primary use of it is for Chutneys. It is used in soups, pastries, and in vegetarian dishes as a souring additive, as well as to samosas and relishes. Amchur is also an essential ingredient in making Chaat Masala. It gives any dish a tangy, sour flavor, and is the perfect substitute for lemon, tamarind or lime juice. If you are unable to find you can use a dash of lemon.
Mint (Pudina) - Indian mint has a stronger flavor and more pungent aroma than Western varieties. The warm sweet fragrance of mint is cooling to the palate, leaving a fresh aftertaste. Indian cooking and is widely used in chutneys, relishes, salads, sauces and teas. Mint is mostly added to biryanis (Moghul rice preparation), lassi - the North Indian refreshing drink. Mint is also perfect as a garnish for desserts, and goes well with fruits, iced tea, lemonade and yogurts as well as a variety of cocktails.
Mustard seeds (Rai) - in Indian cooking brown mustard seeds are more commonly used but black seeds contain a higher proportion of the volatile mustard oil and strongest flavor. The larger yellow variety, known as white mustard are much les pungent. Powdered mustard has no aroma when dry, but a hot flavor is released when it is mixed with water. The seeds can be put whole into very hot oil and popped.
Nutmeg and mace (Jaiphal and Javitri) - is the seed of the evergreen tree. Mace is the fleshy lattice, covering of the nutmeg (hard nut), which is golden brown in color. Nutmeg has more robust flavor than mace, but thy are otherwise very similar. They have nutty, warm and slightly sweet flavor.
Onion Seeds (Kalonji) - are small, irregular shaped black seeds of the plant that grows in India - Kalonji. This spice can be used fresh or dry roasted in curries, and added to vegetables, relishes, pickles and yogurts.
Oreango (Ajwain) - it has a strong, pungent odor and flavor similar to pepper and anise. They contain thymol oil, which gives a taste reminiscent of thyme. it is used in lentil dishes, vegetable parathas, pakoras and meat dishes.
Paprika powder- is ground from dried sweet peppers (family Capsicum Annum, relative of chili) the fruits of a tropical evergreen bush. It is milder than chili powder or cayenne. Paprika has bright red color and a mild, sweet flavor with a cardamom aroma. Paprika is rich in vitamin C, and so helps colds and influenza. It is also said to treat digestive troubles, cramps, circulations problems, and shingles.
Peppercorns (Kali Mirchi) - pepper's name comes form the Sanskrit Pippali nigrum, which means "black spice". Peppercorns have a pungent, woody aroma and hot, biting taste. Black pepper is more aromatic, white is stronger and hotter. Pepper is the only spice that us used to flavor food before, during and after cooking. Whole or grounded peppercorns can be added to most non-sweet dishes.
Saffron (Zaffran) - this spice is made from orange colored dried stigmas of the especially cultivated crocus (75 stamens are needed to make 100 g (4 oz) of the spice.) It is the most expensive spice of all. It has a distinctively pungent, honey-like flavor and aroma. It is available as whole threads or powdered. When ground they form a russet powder. The filaments can be lightly roasted, crumbled in a little hot water and left to infuse to bring out their full strength. Saffron is used to color rice dishes, sweets, puddings, sauces and soups to bright yellow.
Tamarind (Imli) - is the sticky, dried, brown pod of the evergreen tree. It has a sour taste and very tart, citric flavor. The pulp must be soaked before usage. In India, tamarind is mostly combined with meat or legumes (lentils, chick peas or beans). It adds a distinctive cooling quality to curries, chutneys.
Turmeric (Haldi) - comes from the root of Curcuma longa, a leafy plant related to ginger. It has a bright yellow color and a pungent, warm, earthy aroma and taste. Although it becomes bitter if too much used. It is mildly antiseptic. Turmeric is an essential spice in Indian food, giving a rich, appetizing color. It is used in curries, fish dishes and with beans because of its digestive properties. Research show that turmeric inhibits blood clotting, reduces liver toxins, and helps the liver metabolize fats and so aids weight loss.