Already have the essential spices* to make Indian food and want to step your game up? Here are a few more basic Indian spices to add to your arsenal.
*This is part of a series on Indian spices. The previous post introduces six essential Indian spices to start cooking.
As described in the previous post of this series, it’s much easier than it may seem to start cooking Indian food. All it takes is a few easily accessible spices to make a wide variety of awesome dishes. And say you acquired these spices and now have a few curries, dals and whatnot under your belt, it might be time to step things up. Adding just a few more basic Indian spices to your collection will open up myriad possibilities with your cooking. And like the spices in the previous post, all of these are pretty easy to find. Where I live, all of these are available at my local chain grocery store and/or the local Indian, Mexican, or Middle Eastern market. And of course, they’re just a few clicks away via the interwebs.
Here are a few more spices to level up your Indian cooking.
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Versatile, dirt cheap, and widely available, you really should have dried red chilies around. There’s a reason why they are a staple in almost every Indian kitchen. To infuse gentle heat into dishes, they are commonly toasted in oil along with other whole spices. Also, they can be dry roasted (but careful not to burn them, they get unpleasantly bitter) and ground along with other spices. The red chili powder you see at Indian markets is simply these chilies ground up.
Dried red chiles come in many varieties and vary in heat level and color. For example, Kashmiri chilies are brightly colored but relatively mild heat. On the other hand, chiles from South India tend to be on the hotter side. In the US, chile de arbol and chile japones are commonly available in grocery stores, so I tend to use those quite a bit. But don’t sweat the details, any of these types will work well.
Used across various cuisines around the world, you probably already have bay leaves in your kitchen. They are well known for their ability to infuse delicate flavor into stews, soups, and basically anything that needs to simmer for a while. Similarly they are used to flavor dals, curries, and even rice dishes. Also knows as tej patta in India, they are often one of the first ingredients to go into the pot and get added to hot oil with other whole spices. And other times they are last thing you add before simmering away. In addition, bay leaves are an ingredient in some packaged chana masala blends and other pre-made powders.
While fresh bay leaves have their time and place, I tend to almost exclusively use dried ones in my cooking. For more geekery on the differences between fresh and dried, and how cooking time affects flavor, check out this awesome article from Serious Eats.
Cinnamon (or Cassia):
Depending on where you are from, you may be used to having cinnamon in sweet dishes like cakes, pies, or in hot drinks like cider or tea. But in Indian cuisine, cinnamon is a very routinely added whole to curries and rice dishes. The unique sweet/savory/astringent dynamic of cinnamon can add incredible flavor and aroma to your dishes. It’s also very common ingredient in various spice blends.
It should be noted that there are many varieties of cinnamon, and oftentimes what gets labeled as cinnamon is actually cassia (which is sweeter and stronger in flavor, and harder in texture). Where I live, cassia is much more available than “true cinnamon” and it works fine for me if I can’t get a hold of cinnamon.
Cardamom, with its unmistakable characteristics, is absolutely essential to Indian cooking. Bold, floral, and a bit medicinal, cardamom is one of the most complex and assertive — yet versatile — spices around. From the most decadent of curries to the sweetest of desserts, cardamom is everywhere in Indian cuisine. There are two main kinds, green and black cardamom. In general, the green kind is brighter in flavor and generally more versatile as a cooking ingredient. Black cardamom has a bit of smokiness (due to being dried over flames) and has properties that can work really well in curries but perhaps less so in sweet stuff. My rule of thumb is that unless the recipe specifies otherwise, go with green cardamom.
Also, while it may be tempting to use cardamom powder instead, I suggest sticking with the whole pods. Even though it’s a bit more work to smash the pods (and empty them out if you’re making a powder), it’s truly worth the additional flavor and aroma.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that chili peppers were introduced to India. Before that, the main source of heat in Indian dishes was good ol’ black pepper, which is actually native to India. And while you almost certainly have some kind of black pepper in your house, you may not have whole peppercorns. These are superior to the ground kind in pretty much every way. They retain more flavor and aroma than ground pepper, and lots of Indian recipes call for whole peppercorns instead of ground pepper. And in any case, they can be stored in a pepper grinder to give you quick and easy crushed black pepper whenever you need it.
Like cinnamon, cloves might be something that you associate with wintery beverages or pumpkin-ey things. It’s got that warm, sweet, and spicy thing going on, which makes it really flexible but also overbearing if you use too much. In Indian cooking, cloves are commonly sautéd in oil with other fragrant spices at the start of cooking to infuse the dish with its flavor. Also, it’s a pretty common ingredient in spice blends like garam masala. And remember, a little goes a long way with these fellas.
Warm, earthy, and citrusy, whole coriander seeds are ubiquitous in Indian kitchens. Whole, they are used as a pickling spice or a component in many different spice blends. In some regions you may find them used whole in curries or fried goodies. However, most commonly these seeds are roasted and ground into coriander powder. As I mentioned in the previous post in this series, coriander powder is one of the most fundamental of Indian spices, and you should use the freshly ground kind whenever possible. It’s worth the little extra legwork if you have the time.
And there you have it. A few more basic Indian spices to help you make authentic and ridiculously delicious food. If you have the spices from part 1 and 2 in this series, you are equipped to make nearly anything that you get at your local Indian restaurant. I hope you like your neighbors and/or roommates because when the smells from your kitchen hits them, you will suddenly have company.
Now what? Here are few recipes that use the ingredients from part 1 and 2 of this series:
Aloo Methi: Crispy roasted potatoes with spices, aromatics, and fenugreek leaves. Omit the hing if you don’t have it around, not a big deal.
Chana Masala: Probably my #1 go-to Indian dish, I order this at every Indian restaurant and I’m always making it at home. This recipe calls for fennel seeds but it will still taste incredible without them.
And a couple others:
Vegetable Pulao (pilaf): A spiced rice and vegetable dish that is straight-forward to make and always a crowd pleaser.
Paneer Butter Masala: Luxuriously rich restaurant-style curry. You can swap the paneer for tofu if you want this on the lighter side.
Hope this helped demystify Indian spices a bit. Let me know what you make with these spices! Until next time…