10 Essential Indian Spices Needed for Cooking

There are so many spices to explore and use in Indian cuisine. Here are 10 essential Indian spices you shall always need for cooking.

essential indian spices

Ginger is a key ingredient for Indian cooking

Indian spices are famous on a global scale for their medicinal and herbal properties. These noticeably colourful and vibrant spices are a value to the history of trade and culinary success within India.

While most Indian spices are essential for South Asain cuisine, many western chefs have been known to incorporate Indian spices in their classy dishes.

However, the history of Indian spices is unbelievable. Indian spices became popular as early as the 14th century through merchant trade across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

In fact, poets of that time began writing about the fragrance and wonders of these spices. Most noticeably the poet Guillaume de Loris who in his writing lists a number of the more exotic Indian spices which were not common in that century.

According to the ancient and holistic Indian Ayurvedic practice, in every Indian dish, there should be six tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, astringent and pungent. Providing you use fresh and pure ingredients.

When it comes to spices to achieve these tastes, the proportion of spices used matters significantly. Wrong amounts use can alter the taste quickly.

Hence, there are essential Indian spices which should always be available be in your cupboards to use. These spices are the basic ingredient for many simple, incredible and versatile Desi recipes.

Indian curries mostly have a base which is made from fried onions and spices. The spices are added to the onions once they are translucent and brown in the order stated by recipes.

For that tantalising flavour, these spices are mandatory to give your dishes an authentic taste.

Therefore, we present 10 essential Indian spices that you really do need for cooking Indian food.

Garam Masala

essential indian spices masala

Garam masala is one of the most fundamental spices used in Indian cooking. It is actually a combination of a number of different spices providing a very aromatic flavour to your cooking.

The ingredients of garam masala typically include coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

The mixture contains this even blend of the strong and warm spices which can be used in multiple dishes.

It is a spice which in South Asia and even in the UK is made at home. Some cooks prefer to make their own garam masala to create a balance of spices they prefer to be in it.

This can be done by dry roasting individual spices and then grinding them until powdered.

It was common to see Indian mothers and grandmothers in the 1970s-1990s in the UK, buying the ingredients from a Desi store and grinding them in a blender to create this essential Indian spice.

In fact, the original way to blend spices was to use a pestle and mortar which some families brought over from India to create garam masala.

Today, you can buy it at supermarkets and practically any store so it is readily available under different brands.

Depending on the brand of garam masala, most blends contain up to seven or eight spices.

The spice is used essentially in nearly every curry be it meat or vegetable based. Recipes will provide the exact amount depending on what you are making.

When you have a recipe with the word masala in it, it’s likely that garam masala will be a key ingredient.

Too much garam masala can make a dish taste gritty. Also, if the dish is not cooked for long enough, the garam masala will be very overpowering in taste. So, only use the right amount.

Garam masala can also be added to a variety of other dishes too including cakes, popcorn, mayo, apple butter, coffee and aam panna (a summer drink).

Turmeric (Haldi)

essential Indian Spices

Turmeric is one of the main spices needed in Indian cooking. It’s known as Haldi in native terms.

When cooking most curry dishes and soup-like dishes, this is one of the spices often added first.

The spice gives a yellow colour to the dish and has a bitter taste. So it is important to use the right quantity. Most recipes use between a 1/4 tsp to 1/2 tsp in dishes. Too much will result in a powdery and bitter taste.

Occasionally, people add turmeric to the caramelisation process of the onions alongside with salt. This step is the beginning of colour forming in a curry or marinade.

Turmeric can be purchased as a ground spice all though Desi mothers are know to create their own turmeric for added freshness. This process takes practice and creating ground spice can be complex.

Turmeric has multiple health benefits and sources say it has the ability to prevent cancer. It has really become a major health craze with it being available in health stores like Holland and Barrat.

The spice can also be used to elevate dishes like pakoras, paneer and frittatas. As well as contributing to a vibrant golden crisp colour.

The spice is available in powder form in most supermarkets in packets or pots.

Paprika

essential indian spices paprika

Paprika is a spice often used to give Desi dishes a nice red colour and contributes to their taste. In India, it is called Deghi Mirchi.

The spice originated in central Mexico and in the 16th century it was brought to Spain. Hungarians are very proud of this spice. It was transported to South Asia primarily by the Portuguese.

The spice is made from dried bell or sweet peppers (capsicums) or an exotic fruit found in India. It adds nice-depth to any Indian dish and should be used according to recipes.

Paprika is essential for meat-based dishes of a dry masala nature, especially chicken. As it gives a nice binding to the masala being made.

It is best added before any other spice after frying and making onions a brown colour and translucent.

The amount of paprika added to dishes must be right otherwise it can add too much sweetness and bitter tones to your Indian dish.

Smoked paprika is known to have a richer flavour for Indian cooking.

You can buy paprika in powdered form at most supermarkets in packets or pots.

Garlic

Indian Spices

Garlic has been quoted as ‘the third key ingredient in Indian home cooking’ by Meera Sodha. In fact, the order of cooking, people add oil, ginger and then garlic.

This spice is available in many forms, fresh, ground, paste, pureed and frozen.

Fresh, ground and frozen garlic are used mainly in curry dishes. While paste and puree are preferred for marinades and fried dishes like kebabs.

Garlic has an extremely strong lasting taste and is used to flavour the oil in curry dishes.

One dish it is commonly used for is Tarka Daal (yellow daal) where it an active ingredient for the tarka which is added to the daal just before serving.

Many have been known to charcoal garlic over the stove or on the grill. Then add it to dishes like tomato chutneys dishes and mango salad.

This spice is also eaten raw to relieve heart burns and to help reduce blood pressure

Garlic is available at most grocery stores.

Ginger

essential indian spices ginger

Ginger is a key ingredient for Indian cooking.

It is an established spice known for its health properties, distinct taste and even a hint of heat. This spice has herbal and medicinal properties.

In Indian cooking, ginger is frequently used in dishes containing meat and chicken as it helps bring out the flavour. It is also used as a garnish for daals and water-based dishes.

Ginger is also great for making chutneys and as well as a delicious lemon ginger drink.

Most supermarkets have ginger available in multiple forms. Such as fresh, frozen and paste.

Many prefer cooking with frozen ginger as it can be added to the pan straight away. It is much more convenient and often tastes the same.

Desi mothers and aunties are known to buy it fresh and prepare it by peeling it and cutting it into small cookable pieces and then freeze it themselves too for later use.

During colds and coughs, people use ginger to make tea and or a ginger curry is which is well-known to help when you are under the weather.

Eating it raw or lightly sucking on a freshly cut piece is of ginger known to ease digestion issues and nausea.

Some the best dishes with ginger include ginger chicken, shrimp with ginger, ginger curry and drinks which use ginger.

Cumin

essential indian spices cumin

Cumin is available as seeds or as a ground spice. It is natively known as Jeera. 

It’s found in ready-made spice mixes like tikka masala and garam masala.

This essential spice is used in many Indian dishes and is popular in meat and chicken dishes. Mostly used in curry recipes, this spice provides strong notes and a scented aroma.

In curries, some add pre-made ground cumin alongside with the curry powder and paprika. Then cook the mixture until thick masala forms.

While others use cumin seeds and do what is known as ‘dry roasting’. To dry roast, the cumin seeds are placed in a skillet an then roasted with the heat. Then they are placed in a blender until they become ground.

In some Indian dishes, cumin is the first spice used in whole seed form and fried with the oil or butter until you start hearing it crackle and pop. It has a very aromatic taste when bitten into in dishes.

There are many Indian dishes where cumin is the main spice, such as jeera aloo, cumin fried rice and even cumin biscuits.

You can buy cumin seeds or the spice in powdered form in packets at established supermarkets or Desi stores.

Coriander

essential indian spices coriander

Coriander is available as coriander seeds and as fresh leaves. These are both important and necessary based on the recipe.

Coriander is also available in a ground powdered form, which is used as a substitute if fresh coriander is not available. But the taste is never the same as its fresh form.

Fresh coriander leaves are used as a garnish for most Indian dishes, like daals, sabzis, chicken or meat curry,  on top of tandoori roast, once the dish has been cooked.

Whereas, coriander seeds are used in the early stages of cooking, like in kebabs and sometimes in masala recipes.

The seeds are dry roasted and then crushed to create ground spice. Coriander has a citrusy flavour with a distinct aroma.

Furthermore, coriander carries a lot of health benefits including being a source of vitamin C and K. These help with the bodies healing process.

Some popular Desi recipes with this spice include coriander rice, coriander paneer and coriander chutney.

Fresh coriander can be bought as a shelf plant from many stores, or in bunches and even in powder from supermarkets.

Red Chilli Powder

essential indian spices red chilli powder

Red chilli powder is made up of ground chillies and used in almost every lunch and dinner recipe.

Adding a hint of chilli powder makes all the difference as it has the power to uplift the dish.

However, the spice is not only used to create a delicious curry but is also mixed in with marinade. Chilli is one of the key ingredients for most masala specials and tandoori or tikka mixes.

It can accompany fresh green or red chillies or used as a substitute but note it does not taste the same. Fresh chillies are known for their crisp potency and heat, whereas red chilli powder has a different kind of subliminal heat.

Red chilli powder is notorious for its hidden health benefits which known to the Desi elders. One being, providing the body with a stronger immune system.

This mischievous Indian spice is added after all the other curry or masala spices.

In a curry, the chilli powder is mixed in with the chicken or meat as it sizzles along with the other spices. This is done before adding the water to create a curry base.

You can buy the powder in packets or post at any well-known supermarket.

Saffron

essential indian spices saffron

Saffron without a doubt is one of the most expensive Indian spices to purchase and grow. This luxury spice comes from the plant named ‘saffron crocus’. The plant resembles a light purple flower with a crimson thread in the centre.

The vibrant threads are used in South Asian cooking such as biryani or milky desserts.

To extract the flavour from the saffron, some people like to crush the saffron strands using a pestle and mortar and soaking it in milk. Or, simply leaving whole strands in milk and remove them once the milk takes on the colour of the saffron.

Saffron is also used as food colouring, often to colour white rice. To do this, saffron strands are placed in warm water which will help absorb the colour from the stands as well as the fragrance.

In cooking, only a few strands are used because saffron in nature is strong, expensive and too much can ruin a dish.

Cinnamon

essential indian spices red cinnamon

Cinnamon, available as a ground spice or as cinnamon sticks. This is a must-have in South Asian kitchens and our Desi mums cannot do without this Indian spice.

A sweet tasting spice which has a distinct fragrance which is favoured in meat dishes and desserts. The cinnamon stick is not eaten, rather removed from the dish once the dish is ready.

In curry dishes, cinnamon is fried with other spices like curry leaves and cardamon to illuminate and enhance the fragrance of the curry base.

While in dessert dishes or tea, the cinnamon stick is boiled along with the contents for the best results and removed before consumption.

For many famous Indian desserts, cinnamon remains the key secret ingredient and without it, perfection cannot be achieved.

Spices have a long shelf life so they can be used over a period of months and help create tasty and luxury dishes.

These spices are the most essential in Indian cooking and cuisine. So, make sure you stock these in your kitchen, to use as and when you make those delicious Indian dishes.

Rez is a marketing graduate who loves to write crime fiction. A curious individual with a heart of lion. She has a passion for 19th-century sci-fi literature, superhero movies and comics. Her motto: “Never give up on your dreams.”

Image courtesy of britanica.com, India Ayurveda, The Wakaya Group, Medical News Today, Cha's Organics