The Complete Beginner's Guide to Indian Spices

The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Indian Spices

In my post today, “The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Indian Spices” I am going to help you understand all about Indian Spices. Spices are what brings our food to life. My guess is that if you are reading this post, there is a good chance that you are interested in Indian cuisine. I will take a big leap of faith and assume you enjoy it too.

Understanding Indian spices

If the wide variety of Indian spices, their names, their appearance, their flavors, their health benefits seem to puzzle you at the moment, let me assure you, you are in the right place.

I remember when I first started cooking Indian dishes. I would add a little of one spice, a lot of another and wonder what went wrong with the flavors. 

  • Are garam masala and curry powder the same thing? How do they differ in taste? 
  • Which is easier to digest, cayenne or black pepper? 
  • Which spice do I add first?
  • Is curry the name of a dish or a leaf used in seasoning ?

It was super confusing and frustrating.

Some of the people I have met, who I know love Indian food, are intimidated at the thought of cooking it, in their homes .Their lack of understanding of how each spice works, (be it whole or ground) in a dish, is I believe the cause for their discomfort.

They’d rather order in and spend thrice as much. It is not just about the expense involved, sometimes it is not a healthy choice either.

Indian Spices- What, When & How to use

In this post, “The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Indian Spices“, I will explain to you, how Indian spices are used in creating the bold and complex flavors of our authentic Indian cuisine. You will learn about the flavors these spices generate, when and how to use them in your cooking , their health benefits and much more.

Do not let your fear and ignorance of Indian Spices intimidate you or stop you, from trying to cook Indian dishes at home. It is my promise that at the end of this post, you will be enlightened with  better knowledge and the “know how” of Indian Spices than when you began.

Having cooked hundreds of dishes in my own kitchen using Indian spices, I feel that once people are able to understand how to use them, how much or how little, when & what spices to use, Indian cooking becomes easy. It turns out to be much easier than they thought it would. I am here to explain just that and to make your journey into Indian cuisine easy and flavorful.

You never need to be frustrated about not knowing the “what, why and how to’s” of Indian spices or fear Indian cooking again. I have simplified it for you in my awesome post,  The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Indian Spices”, that it will take all the guess work out of you.

What are Indian spices, exactly?

Indian spices include a variety of spices grown across the Indian subcontinent (a sub-region of South Asia). With varying climates in different parts of the country, India produces a variety of spices, most of which are native to the subcontinent. Some others were imported from countries with similar climates and have since been cultivated locally for centuries.

What are the Indian Spices

Some of the commonly used Indian spices are :

Spices are such an integral part of Indian cuisine. They come in all shapes and forms and are widely used in Indian cooking. Be it as a whole spice or in its ground version, sometimes even in a paste form, Indian cooking is nothing without these flavorful aromatic spices .

One of the things that people find intimidating about cooking Indian food is the vast array of spices used — both whole and ground, which are often combined into complex spice mixes.

Your first step is to know the names of the commonly used Indian spices, how they look and understand the flavors they impart on a dish.

You can learn all about the 25 essential Indian Spices commonly used in cooking, their names, origin, appearance, flavors and their health benefits in my E-book ,” A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Indian Spices” here. In my E-book ,I give you a list of 25 essential Indian spices ,with colored pictures of each Indian spice to help you identify it better, list their health benefits and talk about how to incorporate each spice into your cooking.

A complete Beginners guide to Indian spices
A Complete Beginners Guide to Indian Spices

Get it here now, to add to your collection of recipe books. If you know a friend or family member who is interested in Indian cooking and wants to learn about Indian spices and how to use them in cooking delicious food, my E-book ,“A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Indian spices “ would be a perfect gift.

The fact is, unless you understand each spice , how they look , the flavor they impart, when & how to use them in cooking, it is going to be impossible to cook a deliciously authentic Indian dish.My E-book ,“A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Indian Spices” will make Indian cooking with spices, a breeze!

For example :

  • Most spices need to be dry roasted to release their essential oils, before being ground into spice mixes. Some exceptions would be spices like nutmeg, which is grated fresh for the best flavor.
  • Spices with stronger flavor need to be added first, and those with lighter and milder flavor last to impart the right touch of aroma to an authentic Indian dish.

When to use spices in Cooking?

Now that you understand what Indian spices are, it’s time for me to explain more in detail about using them in your cooking. Having very little knowledge about Indian spices earlier, you might have had questions floating in your mind like…

  • Do I use whole or ground spice for this dish?
  • What spice do I add first in the process?
  • What do they mean by “Blooming” of spices ? How is that done?
  • Is there a specific cooking technic I need to apply, when I use Indian spices?

How are spices used in cooking?

Spices are used in different forms

  • whole
  • chopped
  • ground
  • roasted
  • sauteed
  • fried
  • as a topping

When used in cooking these spices blend well with the other ingredients imparting their flavor to make the dish more delicious.

While some spices can be ground using a mortar and pestle, others like Cassia bark need a spice grinder or a powerful blender to be ground into a powder form.

What are some different Indian cooking technics using spices?

Indian cuisine is characterized by regular use of a wide variety of spices.Combining different spices in a single recipe creates the desired flavors in a dish.

The order in which these spices are added to a dish influence the taste of the dish. Hence cooking technic play an important role in the creation of an authentic Indian dish. A subtle shift in the cooking technic can completely change the way the spice tastes in a dish.

Spices with stronger flavor need to be added first, and those with lighter and milder flavor last to impart the right touch of aroma to an authentic Indian dish.

When cooking with spices one or more of the following methods are used to bring out the rich aroma of the spices to flavor a dish.Some of the widely used cooking techniques involved in Indian cooking, are listed below.

  • Tadka/Tempering
  • Talna/Frying
  • Bhunao/Sauteing
  • Tandoori/Roasting/Baking
  • Dum/Steaming
  • Dhuanaar/Smoking

Learn all about different “Techniques involved in Indian Cooking” in my blogpost here.

While we are on the topic of cooking techniques involved in Indian cooking, a note about “Blooming Spices”

What is meant by “Blooming” spices?

Spices are naturally fragrant, but to reach their full flavor potential, they need our help. Cracking and grinding spices is part of the equation. But it’s heat that really wakes up those aromatic oils. Toasting (dry heat) and blooming in oil (moist heat) are classic techniques.

Blooming is a technique where spices are added to hot oil, to release and amplify the flavor of the spice.It is important to remember that most of the flavor of spices is carried by the essential oils present in them.

Since, the flavor compounds are tied to the oils, it means, that they will not easily dissolve in water or water-based solutions.Hence dumping a bunch of spices into the stew and hoping the flavors are distributed evenly, does not guarantee success.

How is”blooming spices” done?

Blooming whole spices : Blooming whole spices in hot oil, extracts the aromatic compounds from the spice and helps flavor the dish.

How to bloom whole spices:

  • Heat the oil over medium heat until it’s hot but not smoking.
  • Add the whole spices and cook until very fragrant and little bubbles form around the spices. Don’t let them brown.
  • You can then add other ingredients to the hot pan and proceed with your recipe.

Note: When blooming spices like cardamom pods, cloves, or cinnamon  sticks, be sure to remove them from the finished dish before serving because you don’t want people to bite into them.

Blooming ground spices : Blooming with ground spice is similar to blooming with whole spices, the only difference being one needs to simmer the heat, since ground spice can get burnt easily and turn bitter.

How to bloom ground spices:

  • To begin with mix the ground spice with a little liquid from your recipe- water, stock, vinegar, wine whatever to make it a thick paste.
  • The moisture in the spice paste helps keep the ground spices from burning when you put the paste in the hot oil.
  • Then you cook the paste until all the liquid evaporates.
  • Watch for the oil to start separating from the spices, this indicates it’s time to stop cooking.

Now that you are familiar with the spices used in Indian cooking, the various cooking technics involved in using these spices, allow me to enlighten you about storing these spices, which lie at the heart of Indian cooking.

Why is it important to store spices?

Although spices do not go bad, over time they loose their potency which in turn affects the flavors. Ground spices loose their flavor more quickly than whole spices.

It’s wise to get whole spices in larger quantity and then make ground spices or spice blends in smaller quantities as and when required. Usually ground spices stay good for 4 to 6 months and whole spices stay good for a year.

How to store Spices

Spices are best stored in air tight containers away from direct sunlight in a cool dry area, either in your pantry or in your spice cabinet.

The Traditional way of storing Indian Spices/Masala Dabba

What is a Masala Dabba/Spice Box?

The masala dabba, or spice box, is the quintessential toolbox for the Indian cook. One of the best kept culinary secrets of the South-Asian cuisine is the humble circular stainless steel storage box.The assortment of spices included in the spice box varies not only from region to region but also from family to family.

The traditional ones were made of wood and is part of the gift a daughter receives when she moves out of her parental home and into her new home.

The basic circular stainless steel masala dabba’s we see today vary in size and style, and come with four key components listed below.

  • seven bowls/containers (or more) that can each be pulled out and cleaned regularly (they are small enough to fit into the palm of your hand)
  • one or more miniature spoons that fit into these bowls
  • a thin lid with a tiny round metal handle that can nestle into the main box to secure the spices
  • and a main lid that covers the entire container.

What is the importance of using a masala dabba/spice box?

When making Indian food, timing is key. It’s critical that spices are handy and that precious cooking time isn’t sacrificed unscrewing jars or scrambling for items tucked away in a cabinet. Certain spices are added at specific times, such as cumin or mustard seeds just when the oil heats up, followed by turmeric and/or ground coriander.

The masala dabba is the most practical tool for any cook as it is placed right next to the stove and fits well into any kitchen drawer.Selective spices can be added while cooking when the masala dabba/spice box is within reach

Other methods of storing spices

The Bottom Line

Unless you understand each spice, how they look, the flavor they impart, when and how to use them in cooking it is going to be impossible to cook, a delicious and authentic Indian dish.

My amazing E-book “A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Indian Spices” will guide you every step of the way to make for a joyful culinary experience. Get it here now.

In this post, The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Indian Spicesyou have everything you need to get started with authentic Indian cooking using the spices in hand.Go on and give it a try!

Before you start your delicious cooking with spices make sure to leave a quick comment on what you think about my post on “The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Indian Spices”

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Shwetha Shenoy
3 years ago

I have been just reading this blog & fantastic information delivered to us. Spice plays a significant role in the kitchen. But I’m more privileged to know know more deeper. I must say its an amazing guide. Thank you for sharing this information with us.

3 years ago

I use so many of those spices you named. I had never heard of blooming spices, I am definitely going to try that next time I cook (which isn’t very often) but it sounds like that will make the flavor of the dish really stand out. Thank you for sharing!

Ruth Iaela-Pukahi
3 years ago

This is really good information! I’m so clueless about spices. Someday I hope to figure it out. 🙂

3 years ago

I am not usually the cook at my house, but the quarantine has changed things. I am now working from home and my husband is back at work outside the home, so cooking falls to me. I have been learning about the different spices we have in my cabinet and figuring out what I like. Your tips on Indian spices are excellent!

3 years ago

I have never tried cooking Indian food, but I need to give it a shot

3 years ago

Thank you for this guide. I have used some of these spices but overall I have to say I am not as familiar with this flavor profile.

3 years ago

This is great information.

3 years ago

Wow that was great information. I love Indian cuisine, but I don’t make it at home. Time to give it a try!

3 years ago

WOW!! Fantastic guide to spices. Thank you for sharing this awesome information!

3 years ago

Such a wonderful resource to have. Thank you for your knowledge and sharing.

3 years ago

Wow! So much great info all in one place! Thank you!

3 years ago

This was very informative! I’ve never cooked Indian food, but maybe with the knowledge on the spices, I can start experimenting!

Sara - Seek Discover Learn

Thanks for sharing your knowledge of spices.

3 years ago

I LOVE Indian spices and use them frequently. I learned some new things from your post!

3 years ago

Indian food is beyond delicious but it feels very much out of my wheelhouse. This article definitely helps to make it more understandable. Thank you so much!

3 years ago

Wow! Thank you for this great resource! I LOVE Indian food but have a lot to learn about the spices.

Julia Kelahan
Julia Kelahan
3 years ago

This is super helpful. My family loves Indian food so this helps as I learn more and experiment.

Suzan | It's My Sustainable Life
Suzan | It's My Sustainable Life
3 years ago

Indian cuisine may be my very favorite to cook & eat 🙂 Thank you for breaking down the spices for all!

Eva Keller
3 years ago

So informative and thorough! I love most of the indian spices but for some reason don’t really eat indian food all that often. I feel like your post really has all the basics all in one place!

3 years ago

I didn’t even realize that some of those spices were of Indian descent. Interesting.