8 essential spices in Indian food

Turmeric, cinnamon, amchoor, ginger or red chili: spices are one of the flagship and essential ingredients in Indian cuisine. Fall in love with the flavor, aroma and color that they bring to all kinds of recipes!

Written and verified by the nutritionist Anna Vilarrasa on October 20, 2021.

Last update: October 20, 2021

Spices in Indian food are very common. There are almost no dishes in which these do not have their place. And in general, it is not one, but several at the same time. The result is really tasty dishes as well as aromatic ones.

To try them and discover some of the most common, it is not necessary to make any trip. If you are curious and want to know them and introduce them into your diet, they can be incorporated in a simple and daily way.

The importance of spices in India

Herbs and spices are ingredients used to flavor and aroma foods and beverages.. They are consumed in very small quantities and have almost no nutritional value. However, thanks to its components, they are valued and studied for their possible positive effects on health.

Since ancient times, spices have been among the most expensive ingredients. Nowadays they are known and are also used to a great extent, as they allow us to approach and taste dishes from distant cuisines without leaving home.

In India its presence has always been very important. Perhaps influenced by the benefits and properties that Ayurvedic medicine gives them. They are an integral part of Indian cuisine and are part of all recipes and dishes that are known there.

The ways to use them are many and varied. Sometimes they are whole (like cinnamon stick, bay leaves, or cardamom seeds), ground, or crushed. They are almost always used together and there are even some ready-made mixes, such as garam masala, the tikka masala or the vindalo masala.

The 8 most common spices in Indian food

In India, 52 different spices are listed, although 109 of them are reported on the ISO list of spices and culinary herbs. For this reason, this short list is only one introduction of the most common or essential in all the country.

1. Coriander

If you have to choose one of the spices of Indian food, this is coriander. From this plant both the leaves and the seeds are used, which are the most common in Indian cuisine. They are added whole, crushed, ground or toasted and are used to thicken sauces and stews.

The plant belongs to the same family as celery and its seeds are small, round and light brown in color. They provide a flavor reminiscent of citrus. They are also used in infusions, as they are digestive and help eliminate gas and abdominal bloating.

Coriander has digestive properties, which is why it reduces the production of intestinal gas.

2. Cumin seeds

In many countries, cumin powder is used to flavor some dishes, but in India it is the seeds of this plant that are the basis of almost all recipes.

They are very similar to anise or fennel, but the brown color and the smoky aroma is what differentiates them from the previous ones. It is highly recommended to use freshly ground or roasted cumin in a frying pan with a little oil or ghee. Otherwise, it burns easily and imparts a very bitter taste.

3. Turmeric

The part that is used as a spice of the Curcuma longa It is the rhizome or underground stem. This is a plant native to India, where it was used as a pigment to dye skin, clothing, and food.

It is among the most used in this country to flavor curries, fried dough, poultry or fish. Its consistency is earthy and provides a spicy, sweet and warm flavor. It is also used to prepare drinks, either alone or with ginger or cinnamon.

4. Red chili powder

There are a few varieties of chili peppers in India and this particular spice is made from the seeds of red chili peppers. It has a quite powerful flavor, so it is added to recipes in very small amounts. However, it is part of almost all the dishes of the Indian cookbook, both meat and rice, chickpeas or salads.

Although the plant is native to Central America, the Portuguese introduced it to India and today this is the world’s largest producer. In addition, the country also has some of the hottest varieties of red chili.

5. Cinnamon

The part that is used as a spice is the inner bark of the trees of the genus Cinnamomum. Its cultivation in India is concentrated in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kherala, but its use is widespread.

It has a lot of presence in desserts and sweets, but it is also used to flavor lamb dishes, basmati rice and many types of stews. Provides a subtle and delicate aroma of wood and a special contrast of sweetness in savory recipes.

6. Amchoor or green mango powder

This is one of the least known among the spices of Indian food, as it is used almost exclusively in this country. It is obtained from the mango fruits that are harvested unripe, they are left to dry and they are ground.

The result is a light brown, aromatic powder with a very intense flavor. For this reason, it is used in very little quantity and is almost always added at the end of cooking. It is common in soups, sauces and marinades.

7. Cardamom

Cardamom is a true green gold, because it is the third most expensive spice in the world behind saffron and vanilla. The plant belongs to the same family as ginger and is native to southwestern India. It is common to enhance the flavor of drinks, infusions and puddings such as kheero the gajar halwa.

Green cardamom is the most common variety. Unlike black, it provides a subtle and sweet flavor reminiscent of eucalyptus.

It can be mixed whole in combinations like the garam masala, but in the preparation of desserts it is advisable to open the pod and crush the seeds that are inside a little.

8. Ginger root

Native to South Asia, it is about one of the key components in the cuisine of many Asian countries. Ginger root can be used both fresh and dried and adds freshness and mild spice to a myriad of curries, fish and vegetables.

Perhaps it is one of the most appreciated today for its beneficial properties. As this review of studies published in Nutrients, its use is effective as an anti-inflammatory and digestive. In addition, it helps relieve nausea and vomiting.

Mussels recipe with coconut milk

This is a very simple and different way to cook delicious mussels. The ingredients needed for 4 servings are as follows:

  • Salt.
  • 1 onion.
  • 1 red chili
  • A little ginger.
  • 1 kilogram of mussels.
  • 1 tablespoon of garlic paste.
  • Fresh coriander for garnish.
  • 400 milliliters of coconut milk.
  • Turmeric powder: 1 tablespoon.
  • 1 teaspoon of ground cumin.
  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil.
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds or ground coriander.

Before you start cooking, wash and prepare the mussels. Then peel and chop the onion very finely and do the same with the chili. Grate a little ginger and prepare the rest of the spices.

Next, heat the olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan and fry the onion for 2 minutes. Add the garlic paste and ginger and stir for 2 more minutes. Then add the coriander, turmeric, cumin and salt. Mix for another 2 minutes.

Now pour the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Add the mussels little by little, cover and cook for a few minutes until they open. Turn off the heat and they are ready to serve, garnished with a little chopped fresh coriander.

Using coconut milk with mussels and Indian spices can be an interesting combination that you’ve never tried before.

Chicken biryani

A very complete dish that is prepared in layers of rice and chicken, seasoned with a creamy yogurt sauce and spices. To prepare 4 servings you need the following:

  • 2 onions.
  • 600 grams of chicken.
  • 3 or 4 bay leaves.
  • 1 cinnamon stick.
  • 4 or 5 cloves.
  • Ghee or olive oil.
  • 1 tablespoon and a half of salt.
  • 3 tablespoons of whole yogurt.
  • Red chili powder: 1 tsp.
  • 1 tablespoon of turmeric powder.
  • 3 or 4 grains of green cardamom.
  • 2 cups of basmati rice and 3 cups of water.
  • A handful of raisins and a handful of raw cashews.
  • 1 tablespoon garlic and 1 tablespoon ginger, finely chopped.
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh mint and 1/4 cup coriander.

Step by step in the elaboration

In a saucepan add 1 tablespoon of ghee or oil and sauté the onion for 15 minutes over medium heat. When it is golden, reserve. In the same casserole add another tablespoon of ghee and sauté the raisins and cashews.

In a large bowl mix all the marinade ingredients: yogurt, garlic, ginger, chili, turmeric, mint, coriander and salt. Also add 3/4 of the caramelized onion. Mix well and add the chicken once it is clean. Cover and let stand for at least an hour or overnight.

To make the rice, soak in cold water for 20 to 30 minutes. After draining, rinse 2 or 3 times and set aside. In a large pot, add the cloves, bay leaf, cardamom and cinnamon along with the rice and 1 tablespoon of ghee. Add the 3 cups of water and a little salt to season. Cover and cook for 10 to 12 minutes.

To finish, cook the chicken in a saucepan covered with 2 tablespoons of ghee or olive oil. After 8 minutes add the rice in a single layer on top of the chicken. Cover the rice with the remaining quarter of an onion, the cashews and the raisins. Leave another 8 minutes and the dish is ready to serve.

Last indications to use the typical spices of Indian food

Using all these must-have spices in Indian food can be overwhelming at first, especially for people new to cooking. For this reason, it is advisable to go little by little and try simple recipes.

At first, there is no pre-established rule about the order in which spices should be added in Hindu recipes. But some guidelines can help you get the most out of them:

  • Whole spices (branches, seeds or cloves) are best added at the beginning of recipes, along with a little oil or ghee. Once hot, these will release all their aromas.
  • Ground or powdered spices are usually added in the middle or at the end of the process. Thus, most of them are used to enhance the flavor of the dish.
  • Fresh herbs and leaves are added last as a garnish and to add a touch of freshness.

The best way to preserve spices at home is keep them in dark places, away from heat sources and protected from moisture. Also, if they are not used very often, it is not necessary to buy each and every one of them.

In order to enjoy the potential of Indian spices in the kitchen, the best advice is to try to follow the recipes to the letter and the end result is sure to be a total success. For this reason, we encourage you to try them and let yourself be intoxicated by the power of Hindu gastronomy.

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