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Spice or Masala

Spices are at the very heart of Indian cooking and in any Indian household. That’s what gives most dishes that delectable flavour and depth of taste.

For the food enthusiasts who are curious to know about spices, this handy list of the most frequently used top 28 Indian Spices with their names in Hindi and why is it used during cooking may prove to be helpful as a quick reference guide.

The multitude of spices used for cooking Indian food may be overwhelming and confusing for those new to cooking Indian food at home.

Masala is a term from the Indian subcontinent for a spice mix in certain proportions (From Urdu Masalah, via Arabic Masalih).[1][2] A masala can be either a combination of dried (and usually dry-roasted) spices, or a paste (such as vindaloo masala) made from a mixture of spices and other ingredients—often garlic, ginger, onions, chilli paste and tomato. Masalas are used extensively in Indian cuisine to add spice and flavour,[3] most familiarly in chicken tikka masala and chicken curry.

Spice mixes are blended spices or herbs. When a certain combination of herbs or spices is called for in many different recipes (or in one recipe that is used frequently), it is convenient to blend these ingredients beforehand. Blends such as chili powder, curry powder, herbes de Provence, garlic salt, and other seasoned salts are traditionally sold pre-made by grocers, and sometimes baking blends such as pumpkin pie spice are also available. These spice mixes are also easily made by the home cook for later use.

spice or Masala is a seed, fruit, root, bark, or other plant substance primarily used for flavoring, coloring or preserving food. Spices are distinguished from herbs, which are the leaves, flowers, or stems of plants used for flavoring or as a garnish. Many spices have antimicrobial properties [1]. This may explain why spices are more commonly used in warmer climates, which have more infectious diseases, and why the use of spices is prominent in meat, which is particularly susceptible to spoiling.[2] Spices are sometimes used in medicine, religious rituals, cosmetics or perfume production

Common Spices

If you are new to using spices, my suggestion would be to stock up on these essential everyday Indian spices. Prepare simple easy dishes using them and slowly work your way into using others. This will help with getting familiar with spices and understand what the primary flavour is and its usage.

Once you overcome this initial hurdle of ”Spices are confusing’ you are on your way to Spice Haven!

Essentia Indian Spices

Buy Whole Spices  – Top Tip

Spices come in many forms; whole, ground , roasted and roasted ground. My suggestion to you would be to buy whole spices instead of ground spices. Grinding fresh whole spices have a much better, robust taste and stronger flavour than the already ground one. But if you are starting out then buying ground spices too is good if not great.

It may surprise you to see that I have not listed Red Chilli Powder in the list below. The reason being that using fresh green chillies or even fresh bird eye chilli will give that spicy kick you need.  I am not a great fan of red chilli powder as I dont think it does much to the taste apart from giving the dish the hot kick! Fresh chillies are great on flavour and also for an impactful back of the tongue blow!

So here is the list of 5 Essential Indian Spices to Start Your Indian Pantry:

Cumin Seeds (Jeera) 

 CUmin Seeds- 5 essential Indian spice

Cumin seeds is a whole spice very frequently used in Indian cooking to add a characteristic nutty, smoky note to dishes.  They are tiny brown seeds with a very intense flavour.  They can be used whole, roasted or in ground form.

 Cooking Process: Used whole during the very first step of cooking known as Tempering in hot oil. It is also used to make freshly ground cumin powder for a fresh, robust flavour. It is also very commonly used to blend with other spices to make spice blends.

Used for: Popularly used in rice dishes, daals and vegetables. Flavouring for raitas and Indian beverages.

Usage Tip: One needs to be careful when using these tiny seeds as putting them in too hot oil will burn them. So you must add it to oil just before it starts to smoke. Care must also be taken when dry roasting the spices as they tend to burn fast.

Dish to try: This Spicy peas puffs recipe is made with roasted ground cumin seeds.

Cumin Powder (Jeera powder)

 Cumin powder - 5 essential Indian spice

Made from cumin seeds one can buy the already powdered ground spice from the store or make your own from whole cumin seeds. Its more smoky in flavour as opposed to the woody flavour when in whole form.

Cooking Process: Use directly  during the cooking process or sauteing.  Can also be used to make marinades and other spice blends.

Used for: Popularly used for making many Indian dishes such as vegetables, legumes, meat and fish.

Note when using: It is important to make sure that the raw smell of cumin powder goes away during the cooking process. Leaving the spice uncooked will make the dish pungent with a harsh flavour.

Dish to try: The Next time you make a chilli beef or something similar try adding a a teaspoon of cumin powder and lift the flavours up like this recipe of Corned Beef Hash

Coriander Powder (Dhania powder)

Coriander powder - 5 essential Indian spice

Made from dried coriander seeds, this powdered spice is a must have in an Indian kitchen.  My recommendation would be to make it fresh from whole seeds just like cumin powder but stick to the powdered version if that of convenince to you. Very woody and aromatic, this gives the dish a very typical Indian taste.

Cooking Process: Use straight into the dish  during the cooking process and  saute well.  Can also be used to make marinades and other spice blends.

Used for: Just like cumin powder it is also used in many Indian dishes such as vegetables, legumes, meat and fish.

Usage Tip: Like most ground Indian spices, coriander powder too can leave a pungent strong raw smell to the dish if not sauted well.

Dish to try: Try adding coriander powder in your quinoa and taste the difference. Here is a recipe of Quinoa stuffed peppers for you to try.

Garam Masala

Garam Masala powder - 5 essential Indian spice

The King of Indian spices. This is one spice that no Indian kitchen can do without. Its simply a must have to make your Indian pantry. Garam masala powder is essentially a blend of different spices. Different regions of India have their own garam masala blends but its the North Indian Garam Masala blend which is broadly used in most dishes.

Cooking Process: It can be used directly during the cooking process or sauteing or right at the end of cooking to impart flavour to the dish.  Can also be used to make marinades.

Used for: Popularly used in many Indian dishes such as  rice, vegetables, legumes, meat and fish.

Usage Tip: : As Garam masala is a blend of spices adding too much of the spice will overpower the dish and make it taste quite sharp. Do not exceed more than 2 tsp of this spice in your recipe if making a dish for a minimum of 6 people.

Dish to try: These Spicy Spinach and Cannellini Beans Fritters use Garam Masala as the only source of spice in the dish.

Turmeric (Haldi)

Turmeric - 5 essential Indian spice

This is the famous ‘yellow spice’ which gives an Indian dish the characteristic yellow colour. More of a colouring agent than a flavouring agent, this spice is now considered the new ‘Super Food’. An off shoot of the ginger family its known for its anti-inflamatory and antiseptic properties.

Cooking Process: To be used directly during the cooking process or sauteing. Also used to add colour to dishes.

Used for: Popularly used to give a vibrant colour to dishes such as rice, vegetables, legumes meat and fish.

Usage Tip: : Just like Garam masala over usage will lead to a strong colour in your hands and also give the dish a pungent taste. Care should be taken not to overuse the spice.

Dish to try: Adding turmeric powder to this Egg Curry with cashew paste gives the dish a pleasing yellow colour.

Get Your Pantry Started:

This list of 5 essential spices is a good starting point for you to cook home style Indian dishes. All you need is a bit of practice with spices. Start by cooking simple recipes using the spices listed above . This will help you with understanding its texture, smell and the overall impact of the flavour on the dish .

Starting simple often leads to greater things!!

Your Favorite Indian Spices

There are many Indian spices that you will find in any Indian kitchen. Not all are used everyday. I am sure you have some of your favourite that you like to use in your dishes? Do let me know your favourites and share this post and join me to break the myth that cooking Indian food requires an arsenal of spices!

Why Are Spices Used For Cooking

A popular reason for most attendees who attend my cooking classes is not just to learn ‘A’ dish.

It is more a need to know, when and how to add spices during the cooking process for the dish to taste authentic.

This indeed is very important.

The use of spices is what makes Indian cooking different and perhaps a bit complex than any other cuisine.

Saying that cooking with spices is not just limited to Indian cuisine. They can be used with any dish you fancy spicing UPP!

In fact, every cuisine in the world has native spice mixes and blends.

Using spices for cooking food has become increasingly popular because of their flavour and health-enhancing properties.

But randomly adding spices without an awareness of their effect on the dish, may lead to a flavour mishap.

This may well discourage you from experimenting with spices because you don’t want to waste that beautiful cut of lamb you bought from the fresh market.

It’s always a good idea to learn and understand how to work with spices in its best form for their maximum impact on the dish.

In short, the reason we use spices for cooking is:

  • To add instant flavour and taste to a meal
  • To define cultural cuisine such as Indian, Mediterranean, Cajun, Middle-Eastern etc.
  • Added health benefits that come from using spices
  • Make food look appealing

A 5 Step Guide To Cooking With Spices For Dummies

There is a method that is recommended to be followed when cooking with spices.

This stepwise guide shares a few tips on identifying the right spice to go with the type of food you wish to make, when and how to add spices to your dish during the cooking process.

This guide takes you through a journey of a spice life cycle when cooking with them to elevate the flavours.

Step 1 – Get to know your spices

There are seemingly hundreds of spices all over the world.

Few are integral to Indian cuisine such as cumin powder, coriander powder, garam masala powder, chilli powder, turmeric powder and few others.

The way to know your spices is to work with them.

You need to understand that each spice plays a certain role in the dish.

Use your sense of intuition when it comes to selecting and adding spice to the dish.

You can do so by smelling or perhaps even tasting just a tiny speck of the spice you wish to use.

One key point to remember is that not all spices render taste.

Different spices serve different purposes.

Few add flavour and aroma, some spices are used to add taste while there are others used for adding colour.

It is mostly the powdered spices that enhance the taste of a dish, while whole spices are used to impart flavour and aroma.

For example, a spicy vindaloo or rogan josh will require more spices to make it hot and spicy and hence use more quantity of powdered spices.  While a mild korma or creamy gravy will require whole spices,  since korma dishes are mild and aromatic.

When it comes to cooking with spices, it is best to first identify whether the dish requires enhancing taste, flavour or both and select your spices accordingly.

This will give you an idea of how much or how little or the type of spice you need to make the dish.

This list of 28 Indian cooking spices with information on how to use them and their impact on food will get you going.

Step 2 – Anticipate the change in form

Once you are able to differentiate between whole and ground spices and their impact on food,  it is time to start cooking.

We know that carrots taste different when eaten raw, cooked, boiled or baked.

This goes the same for spices.

A unique quality of spices is the way the essence of a particular spice changes when it is processed further.

What I mean by this, is that same spice can taste different and give a completely different kind of taste or flavour to the dish depending on how it has been processed during cooking.

Let’s take cumin seeds as an example ingredient for a Lamb Bhuna recipe.

Cumin seeds when used whole imparts a very woody aromatic flavour but does little to its taste. The same spice in a powder form provides a pungent spicy taste to the dish. If the seeds are roasted and ground then the flavour and the taste both get further enhanced and give a woody, fresh and a sharp spicy taste to the dish.

In this Lamb Bhuna dish we have used whole spices and then used them again in a roasted ground form.

This changes the form of spices during the cooking process. That is it changes from being a raw whole spice to roasted ground spice emitting stronger flavour compounds.

cooking spices - how to use Indian spices
Different forms of spices – Cooking with cumin seeds

So, once you have selected your spices, think about the following two points:

  1. The form you will be using it in that is whether as a whole spice, ground or roasted form and;
  2. How it’s going to be processed further during the cooking methods applied i.e. tempered, sautéed, simmered.

Planning the type and form of spice and anticipating the change in taste will have a direct effect on the dish’s palatableness.

Step 3 – Consider combinations during the cooking process

This brings us back to the question of ‘What spices go with what food?’

Apart from being of a particular form that is ground or whole, spices also have distinctive taste classification such as sweet, sharp, pungent or simply a colour enhancer.

When familiarising yourself to spices in Step 1, do at the same time identify the taste classification of the spice.

There is a Taste classification spice chart below that guides you on how to use spices along with what food combinations go best with spices.

This will help in simplifying the underlying taste that you wish to bring in the dish.

For example:

  • sweet spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom will give a subtle sweetness to the dish and impart flavour.
  • sharp or hot spices such as chilli powder, pepper, garam masala will render heat.
  • pungent spices such as coriander powder, cumin powder,  asafoetida are primarily the taste enhancers giving the dish a distinctive taste.

When using spices, it’s always a good idea to bear in mind the combination of taste with other ingredients in the dish. This will help you to get a balance of taste and flavour.

Step 4 – Less is More – when cooking with spices 

A common belief when cooking with Indian spices is that Indian food is spicy.

Does that mean that you add as many or as much spices to your dish just for it to be called ‘spicy’?

The answer is a loud NO!!

Spices, especially those that render heat such as chilli powder, pepper, is an individual preference.

If one person enjoys the hot kick that does not mean that others like their ears and mouth to be put on fire!

Also, spicing a dish with every other spice from your cupboard DOES NOT mean you are making a spicy curry.

There has to be a method and need for it.

There are few nuances and tricks when it comes to cooking an authentic Indian curry that I share here.  In no way does adding spices to a sauce make it a spicy curry.

As I mentioned in previous steps, first get yourself familiar with the spice, its form and work on the combination of mixing spices with other ingredients.

The best way to do this is to follow recipes which call for simple and minimum spices. Start with small amounts like ½ to 1 tsp of spice and slowly work your way.

Over spicing simply kills the taste of other ingredients and does more harm than good.

Step 5 – Experiment with spices 

I hope by this step you have a better understanding of why spices are used in food and how it impacts the flavour depending on the type and amount of spices you add.

The best way to get comfortable working with them is to turn your kitchen into a spice lab!

If you start small but often, you will get more confident using and cooking with spices.

Do not limit yourself to making Indian dishes alone. You can spice up your steaks, stews and soups too!

The advantages of doing this are that spices give an instant lift to any dish and also have health benefits. 

As you get more comfortable with using spices in combination with others, you can eventually start making your own spice blends and storing them for easy access.

There is no limit to the various kinds of combinations you can make with spices varying the ingredients and quantities.

Spice Chart With A List Of Common Spices, Their Uses & Suggested Food Combinations

All you need to do now is to follow the 5 steps explained above and start with an easy recipe that requires minimum spices.

This infographic is a list of common spices popularly used and is a good start-up point for beginners.

Treat this ‘How to Use Spices Chart’ as a reference to spices you may wish to add to your pantry.

Begin with a few of these spices which will gradually help you identify the spices, their primary taste, the impact it has on the dish and the best food combinations using the spices.

Spice infographic of List of spices for beginners for cooking with spices and their uses

Recipes For Beginners To Cook With Spices

With the cooking tips and guidelines mentioned above, all you need to do is get cooking with some simple spices.

Start with recipes that use 2-3 spices like this Easy Pumpkin and Beans Curry with Coconut Milk. This dish is made with basic Indian spices both in whole and ground form and is a good starting point.

This Multigrain Pulao Dish uses a mix of whole and ground spices that elevated both the taste and the flavour of rice and is very easy to make.

Convenient Way To Bring Flavours Of The World On Your Table

If the whole process of buying individual spices, looking for recipes and making them sound a bit complicated to you, then I have a perfect solution.

Try the World is an online gourmet store with a collection of exotic international dishes delivered to your doorsteps.

If you subscribe to one of their packages, they will deliver pre-packed boxes of multiple dishes from around the world to try.

Every box comes with an assortment of international dishes. It also includes detailed recipes and cooking method to make each of the dishes at home.

Cooking tips and stories about regional cuisines makes cooking with the new ingredients not only easier but exciting.

As a special reader of my blog, you get to try one of their boxes for free by clicking on the link below.

Take a food journey around the world

Introducing new flavours from around the world and experimenting with spices and other ingredients couldn’t get any easier.

All you need to do is order a box while all the ingredients and instructions get delivered to you ready for you to begin your culinary affair.

So put on your scientist coat aka apron and get experimenting and enjoy Spicing it UPP !!

Tips For Cooking With Spices And To Conclude

If you have been toying with the idea of adding spices to your food and are not sure where to start, then all I can suggest is get yourself 3 basic spices such as

  1. cinnamon stick
  2. coriander powder and
  3. cumin powder

These three spices are very versatile and have a subtle flavour.

They can be easily added to many dishes and not just Indian meals.

Few tips on to begin adding these spices to your meals are:

  • Throw in a cinnamon stick while you boil the soup broth.
  • Add a tsp or two of cumin powder to your stews and soups
  • Add coriander powder to dressings and rubs
  • Marinade your meat with a mix of cumin and coriander powder.
  • Add a stick of cinnamon when you cook rice
  • Make a little blend of cinnamon powder, cumin powder and coriander powder and add a tsp to make a basic curry sauce with onion, ginger, garlic and tomatoes.

Following these tips will help you become comfortable with spices and slowly you can build your spice cabinet.

My suggestion is to start with the dishes you have already made before and alter the recipes by adding a tsp or two of your chosen spice and taste the difference.

If you like the change when experiment with few more until you become a spice pro!! 🙂

Over to you

What has been your experience so far with adding spices to your food?

Do you have any favourite spices that you feel most comfortable using?

Let me know your thoughts.

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