Let's take a look at the most essential spices for Indian cooking, how to use them and where to buy. These fragrant and aromatic ingredients are the foundation of Indian cuisine and bring a touch of life to curries, dals, rice, meat, vegetables and much more.
I like to think of Indian spices as the heart and soul of Indian cuisine. They provide a rainbow of color, flavor and comfort to both humble and celebratory dishes.
After sharing an informative guide on common Indian spices such as cumin powder, coriander powder and garam masala, I am sharing a complete guide on the wide range of Indian spices and the unique characteristic of each. Get ready to spice up your life - and your pantry!
This article is part of the Cooking 101 Series. Check it out for more cooking basics and spice blends.
History of Indian Spices
According to the McCormick Science Institute, indigenous Indian spices were cultivated as early as the 8th century BC in the gardens of Babylon. These native spices are what is known as the seven spices of India and they include cumin, coriander, clove, cinnamon, turmeric, fenugreek and cardamom.
They were used for both culinary and health purposes, many of which were included in ancient herbal medicines. In Ayurvedic medicine specifically, spices such as cloves and cardamom were chewed after meals to promote saliva and aid digestion.
Fun Fact: Contrary to popular belief, curry powder isn't used in Indian cooking. It is an 18th-century British invention. It’s a blend of coriander, cumin, ginger, black pepper, cardamom, mustard, cayenne and turmeric.
Indian Spice Box - Masala Dabba
A Masala Dabba is a circular spice box that holds around 6-7 spices. And an Indian home wouldn't be complete without it. The spices vary from home to home, depending on region, cultural influences, personal favorites and which spices are used the most.
Indian spices can be used either whole or ground. There's textural and flavor differences between the two forms - a good example of this is cumin.
Let's now dive deep into the wide world of Indian spices. I have broken the spices down into three sections - whole spices, ground spices and spice blends.
Here is a list of some of the most widely used whole spices in Indian cuisine.
Cumin Seeds (Jeera) - Cumin seeds are the dried seeds of the plant Cuminum cyminum, a member of the parsley family. They are long, slender and boat-shaped, with colors ranging from black to green to white, the most common variety being light brown color.
These are typically used at the beginning of cooking when tempered in hot oil. This releases it's natural smokey, bittersweet flavor.
Coriander Seeds (Dhaniya) - Coriander seeds are the dried seeds of the Coriandrum sativum plant, another member of the parsley family. In other words, they are simply the seeds of the cilantro plant.
The seeds themselves are tan-colored and round. Since the whole seeds are hard to chew, coriander is most often ground to a coarse or fine powder. It's flavor is mellow and lemony and pairs beautifully with cumin.
Cloves (Laung) - Cloves are the flower bud of the clove tree (an evergreen tree). They come in the shape of a small, dark-colored spike with a flowering bud at the top. They are super pungent and mildly spicy, adding a nice punch of flavor to meats, vegetables and rice dishes.
When used whole, cloves are picked out before serving as to avoid biting into. A little goes a long way and the ground variety is most often paired with warming spices to tame it's astringent flavor.
Cinnamon - Cassia Bark (DalChini) - There are two types of cinnamon sold throughout the world. In the U.S., cinnamon is actually cassia, harvested from the bark of an evergreen tree and the one easily available in grocery stores.
It has a warm, sweet aroma with a stronger flavor than it's close cousin, Ceylon cinnamon (or "true" cinnamon). Ceylon cinnamon is lighter in color and slightly more mild than cassia. When it comes to Indian cooking, I use cassia bark in my recipes, both sweet and savory.
Fenugreek Seeds (Methi Dana) - Fenugreek seeds, commonly referred to in Indian cooking as methi, are small golden seeds with a sweet, nutty, maple-syrup-esque flavor.
They are often found in many curries and chutneys, with notes of medicinal uses too. Many suggest soaking the seeds in water overnight to soften their texture and bitter flavor.
Dry Fenugreek Leaves (Kasoori Methi) - Dry fenugreek leaves have a savory, warm aroma with a nutty, somewhat herbal taste similar to fennel.
The leaves are often used in marinades, sauces and curries. They are also one of the main ingredients in a savory rolled flatbread known as methi thepla.
Green Cardamom (Chhoti Elaichi) - Both green and black (see below) cardamom is a spice made from the seed pods of plants from the ginger family.
Green cardamom is referred to as true cardamom and the one you will find most often in recipes. It's flavor is strong, sweet and bright with notes of lemon and mint. The whole pod is used to flavor basmati rice and curries.
Black Cardamom (Motti Elaichi) - Black cardamom pods are larger than green cardamom and have a stronger, smokey, savory flavor.
Recipes using black cardamom usually call for the whole pod and seeds. The pods are then removed after cooking.
Black Peppercorns (Kali Mirch) - Black peppercorns, the most popular spice in the world, adds a pungent, earthy, woodsy flavor to just about any savory dish.
The whole peppercorn is most often used to make stocks, broths or marinades. The largest peppercorns are Tellicherry peppercorns, touted throughout the world for their stronger, more pungent flavor.
Mustard Seeds (Rye) - Mustard seeds come in a variety of colors, but the one most often used in Indian cooking is the black mustard seed. The black variety has the strongest, sharpest flavor.
The seeds are kept whole and tempered in hot oil at the beginning of cooking, most often used in stir fries.
Fennel Seeds (Saunf) - Fennel seeds, or fruit, are the dried seeds of the popular flowering plant. They are small and boat-shaped (similar to cumin) with a light, golden-yellow color.
The seeds themselves add a sweet, anise flavor to sweet and savory dishes. In Indian cooking, they are used in curries and spice blends.
Saffron (Kesar) - Saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, are hand-picked strands from the core of the flower Crocus sativus. It imparts a deep floral and slightly earthy flavor, while giving just about anything it touches a light-crimson hue.
High quality saffron should be bright red (with no hints of yellow) and smell like sweet hay. Saffron's flavor (and color) is brought out by first soaking it in warm liquid before adding to a recipe.
Nutmeg & Mace (Jaifal & Javitri) - Nutmeg and mace are the two spices made from the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrant). Nutmeg is the inner seed, while mace is the outer, light-reddish cover of such seed. Mace is first removed and ground to a fine powder, while the nutmeg seed can be sold whole or ground.
Nutmeg's flavor is milder than mace with sweet, warm undertones. Mace is slightly spicier, with a flavor combo similar to pepper and cinnamon.
Bay Leaves (Tej Pata) - Bay leaves are the leaves of the laural tree and can be sold either fresh, dried or ground. There are two varieties, Turkish and California, the Turkish (or Mediterranean) being the more popular of the two.
Bay leaves have a mild, herbal, aromatic flavor and are used in slow cooked preparations such as soups, stews, rice and sauces.
Curry Leaves (Kadi Patta) - Curry leaves are an herb that are bright green and glossy and in the same family as citrus fruits. Although they possess the same name as curry powder, the two could not be any more different.
They have a characteristic flavor that is both bitter and sweet, with citrus undertones. The leaves can be found both fresh and dried and can be used in just about anything from rice to dal to eggs. Although some recipes may require you to remove the curry leaves after cooking, they are completely edible.
Ajwain (Carom Seeds) - Ajwain, also known as carom seeds, are a fruit similar in appearance to cumin or fennel seeds. Their flavor is reminiscent of thyme, oregano and anise.
They are often used in Indian cooking as part of a spice mixture and are one of the seasonings in samosa dough, puri, dahi vada and some parathas.
Nigella Seeds (Kalonji) - Nigella seeds are small, black seeds similar in appearance to black sesame seeds. They are often referred to as "black cumin" and have a strong flavor similar to onion, oregano and black pepper.
Many traditional recipes use nigella seeds in curries, lentils and flatbread, like Naan. They also pair beautifully with sweet winter squash and root vegetables.
Panchporan - Panchporan (also known as panch phoran or paanch phoron) is an Indian five spice blend originating from Eastern India. It consists of equal parts fenugreek seed, nigella seed, cumin seed, black mustard seed and fennel seed.
This blend is always used whole and rarely ground and can be dry roasted or fried in oil. Panchporan is used in curries, stir-fries, rice dishes, meat, fish, vegetables, lentils and pickles.
Up next, the ground spices or spice powders. These are the ground spices found most predominately in Indian cooking and the ones I use most often at home.
Turmeric (Haldi) - Turmeric is a bright orangish-yellow ground spice made from dried turmeric root. It is widely known for it's antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (curcumin being the active ingredient) and transforms any dish into a wonderful golden color.
It's flavor is woodsy and slightly bitter, which is why a little goes a long way. It is one of the main components of curry powder.
Cumin Powder (Jeera Powder) - Cumin powder is light brown in color with an earthy, smokey and slightly bitter flavor. It is one of the most widely used spices in India and curry powder just wouldn't be the same without it. Make it at home using this easy cumin powder recipe.
Roasted Cumin Powder (Bhuna Jeera) - Roasted cumin powder is made by first roasting whole cumin seeds until fragrant, allowing them to cool and then grinding them in a spice grinder. This enhances the flavor of ground cumin and really brings out it's bittersweet aroma.
Roasted cumin is typically used as a garnish in recipes, but is also found in many raita recipes, too. Make it at home using this easy cumin powder recipe.
Coriander Powder (Dhaniya Powder) - Coriander powder is light, bright, floral and citrusy. It is made from whole coriander seeds (the seeds of the cilantro plant) and pairs beautifully with cumin.
Coriander powder can be ground from either raw or toasted seeds. Make it at home using this easy coriander powder recipe.
Garam Masala - Garam masala is a warming spice blend, as it's name literally translates to warm (garam) spice (masala).
The base of it's warmth comes from spices such as cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, while more savory spices such as cumin, coriander, black pepper, fennel and bay leaf provide a wonderful balance. Make it at home using this easy garam masala recipe.
Red Chili Powder (Sukhi Lal Mirch) - Red chili powder comes in different spice levels and colors depending on the dried chili that was ground.
When an Indian recipe calls for red chili powder, it is referring to red chilis native to India. They provide the same heat level as cayenne pepper here in the U.S.
Kashmiri Red Chili Powder (Sukhi Kashmiri Mirch) - Kashmiri red chili powder is a unique ground chili known for it's bright red hue and smokey, mildly spicy flavor.
I like to think of it's flavor profile as a mix between mild paprika (ground bell peppers) and cayenne.
Dry Mango Powder (Amchur) - Amchur, aamchur or amchoor (aam is the Hindi word for mango) is a fruity ground spice made from dried unripe green mangos. It is sharp, tangy and citrusy.
It is mostly found in North Indian cuisine and a main ingredient in chaat masala, a finishing spice used in a lot of Indian street food.
Dried Ginger (Saunth) - Dried or ground ginger is an off-white, somewhat ivory powder made from dried ginger root. It has a strong, pungent aroma and slightly spicy flavor similar to fresh ginger.
It is used in many spice blends for curries, soups and stews, as well as being a great addition to masala tea and baked goods.
Asafoetida (Hing) - Asafoetida is the dried sap from the roots of Ferula plants used for both culinary and medicinal purposes. It is technically a gum-resin, with a soft yellow hue and strong, pungent odor.
Once cooked, it's flavor is similar to leeks or garlic. Hing is also popular in Ayurvedic medicine, as it is used to aid digestion, gas and bloating.
Ground Cardamom Powder (Elaichi Powder) - Ground cardamom is a light colored, soft powder most often made from whole green cardamom pods. The pods themselves contain small clusters of seeds that can be extracted and ground separately.
However, the ground variety sold in stores is made from the seeds, pod and all. It has a piney, fruity and slightly menthol-like flavor that is used in both savory and sweet recipes.
Himalayan Salt (Pink Salt) - Himalayan salt is a pink-colored salt extracted from the Khewra Salt Mine, located near the Himalayas in Pakistan and the reason for it's name. The salt is hand-extracted and minimally processed, which is why it is touted for it's many health benefits.
According to Healthline, pink Himalayan salt is estimated to contain up to 84 minerals and trace elements, which is what gives the salt it's special pink color. I use to season salads, raita, chutneys and Idli Dosa batter.
Popular Spice Blends
As a special bonus, I thought it appropriate to share a few popular spice blends used in Indian cooking as well. All are easily available at Indian grocers, online or can be made at home.
Chole Masala - Chole masala is the spice mix used to season chana masala and Punjabi Chole, popular Indian chickpea curries. Chana masala is the name of the dish, but the spice blend is sometimes referred to by the dish's name. The recipe will vary from region and household, but it typically includes turmeric, coriander powder, garam masala, kashmiri red chili powder, fennel powder, amchur and fenugreek leaves.
Chaat Masala - Chaat masala is a zingy, tangy and slightly spicy spice mix used most often as a finishing touch on salads, chaats (savory Indian snacks), curries and dals. It is a combination of cumin, coriander, fennel, amchur, black pepper, ginger, ajwain seeds, dried mint and asafetida (hing). There are instances where it is used as a spice in cooking, but the flavors truly shine when added at the very end.
Dhanjeera - Dhanjeera, also known as Dhania Jeera powder, is a simple combination of ground coriander (dhaniya) and ground cumin (jeera). A variety of other spices and flavorings can also be added such as red chili powder, cinnamon and black pepper.
Biryani Masala - Biryani masala is the spice mix used to season any type of biryani (mixed rice dish) that is both aromatic and fragrant. The list of spices is very similar to that of garam masala, however the proportions are different. It includes both savory and warming spices such as bay leaf, fennel seeds, star anise, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, nutmeg and mace.
Tandoori Masala - Tandoori masala is a mix of spices that is used to flavor many meat and seafood dishes that are first marinated and seasoned with said spice mix, then cooked in a tandoor (clay oven). Ratios will vary between region and household, but it typically includes cumin, coriander, turmeric and garam masala. Many restaurant recipes will also add a touch of orange or red food coloring to enhance the color and appearance of the dish.
Chai Masala- Chai masala powder is spice blend I use to make the popular Masala Chai. It is a favorite of my hubby and I, so I always make sure to have a stash of this aromatic spice blend on hand. Plus, grinding the spices yourself far outweighs the flavor and quality of store-bought masala chai tea bags. It includes cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns and fennel.
How to Use Indian Spices in Cooking
The recipes are truly endless when it comes to using Indian spices in cooking. It includes anything from marinating, stir fries, curries and desserts. I've listed some of my favorites recipes below, broken down into the specific course or method.
Marinating Recipes: Marinating recipes may require a bit more time and planning ahead, but the results are well worth it. Some of my favorites include Tandoori Chicken Wings, Whole Tandoori Chicken, Tandoori Chicken Sliders, Tandoori Fish Tikka and Paneer Tikka.
Stir Fry Recipes: These are the ones that are fast, quick, easy and gets food on the table in no time. My favorite go-to's include Aloo Gobi, Bhindi Masala, Beetroot Coconut Stir Fry and Green Beans and Carrots Thoran.
Indian Curry Recipes: Classics never go out of style and that's what you get with Indian curries. Definitely try Lamb Korma, Chicken Korma, Vegetable Korma, Mutton Curry, Chicken Vindaloo, Rajma, Chana Masala, and Kala Chana.
Rice & Condiments: The rice and condiments are what make a classic Indian meal complete. Make sure to try Cumin Rice, Saffron Rice, Lemon Pickle, Green Chutney, Mint Chutney, Tamarind Chutney, Peach Chutney, Raita, Avocado Raita and Boondi Raita.
Dessert Recipes: Desserts add that special sweet ending to just about any meal. Some of my favorites include Kheer, Badam Halwa, Moong Dal Halwa, Besan Ladoo, Coconut Ladoo, Kulfi Ice Cream, Gujiya, Kalakand, Rasmalai and Carrot Burfi.
Where to Buy Indian Spices
My favorite Indian spice sellers include brands like 24 Mantra, Jeeva, Deep and Lakshmi and Sadaf. Select spices are also widely available at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and big supermarkets.
That being said, I find spices to be more economical from specialty grocers rather than major supermarkets.
Don't have an Indian grocer nearby? Over the past few years, I have been able to find all my commonly used spices on Amazon. For a complete list of my preferred brands, checkout my Amazon storefront.
How to Store
I recommend storing Spices, both whole and ground, in airtight containers in a cool, dark place (most notably your spice cabinet). Keeping them away from heat and light ensures the spices last longer.
To get even longer storage out of your whole spices, feel free to store them in the freezer.
Do spices expire? Many spices you buy from the grocery store and online sellers have best buy dates that are often a few years away. But in all honestly, spices begin to lose their potency and flavor once opened. Whole spices tend to last up to 1 year while ground spices last 6 months.
Frequently Asked Questions
The seven Indian spices, aka those native to India, are cumin, coriander, clove, cinnamon, turmeric, fenugreek and cardamom.
The ten essential Indian spices every kitchen should have on hand include cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom, red chili powder, ginger, mustard seed, fenugreek, turmeric and saffron.
The main spices used in Indian cooking include the 10 essential spices mentioned above, along with nutmeg.
If we really had to narrow it down to 5 Indian spices, they would be cumin, coriander, black mustard seeds, red chili powder and turmeric.
The most popular spice is garam masala, which is actually a spice blend. The actual recipe will vary by region and household, but it includes coriander, cumin, green cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, bay leaf, fennel seeds and black cardamom.
We hope you found this information useful. Please comment below and let us know what you think. And if there's a spice that you'd like to see in this list, tell us the name and we'll get to work. Happy Cooking!