An Introduction to Indian Spices
Sophistication and subtle use of some herbs & spices characterize Indian food and Indian cuisine. These spices play a very important role in Indian cooking. If there are no spices, it’s not Indian food. We Indians have a habit of spicing up our food to make it more hot and tasty. Some of the spices are required for the aroma, some for flavor and some for complimenting other spices.
Spices are defined as “a strongly flavored or aromatic substance of vegetable origin, obtained from tropical plants, commonly used as a condiment”. Spices were once as precious as Gold. India plays a very important role in the spice market of the world. In ancient times majority of the spices were produced in India and exported world wide. It was then, the spices of India attracted people across the borders and forced them to come to India for Spice trade.
Masala is a word very commonly used in Indian cooking and is simply the Hindi word for “spice.” So, whenever a combination of spices, herbs and other condiments are ground or blended together, it is called masala.
The Indian spices can be categorized into three main categories:
- The basic spices
- Complimentary spices
- Aromatic or secondary spices
1. The Basic spices: There are a few basic spices in Indian cuisine that go into most dishes. Often a very basic vegetable dish is made by adding cumin or mustard seeds and asafetida in some hot ghee (clarified butter) or oil until they sizzle and pop. Then the vegetables are added and steamed.
1a. Cumin Seed : Other Names: jeera, jeeragam, jilakara, black cumin, kala jeera, royal cumin, shah jeera, Comino, cummin
A basic Indian spice. Used mainly in North Indian food and is used for its strong distinctive taste. When roasted, whole cumin seeds release more aroma and gives the dish a sweet flavor. Cumin can be used as a whole spice or in the powdered form. Cumin seed powder lends a sweet and mild flavor to a dish and is one of the main ingredients in the popular mixed Indian spice called Garam Masala.
1b. Coriander Seeds : Other Names: dhaniya
Mainly used for its fresh, soothing and cooling taste, coriander seeds are very light weight and have a mild flavor. Although they come form the same plant, they should not be mixed up with cilantro. Coriander seeds like cumin is used as a whole spice and in a powdered form. In a powder form it is an indispensable spice in the spice box of Indians. The aromatic fragrance of the roasted coriander powder enhances the taste of any dish.
1c. Black Mustard Seeds : Other Names: Mohri
In India the black mustard seeds are preferred over the larger yellow ones found in the western world. It has a strong but pleasing flavor and known for its digestive qualities. It is spluttered in oil or Ghee(clarified butter) and used as a tempering. Mustard seeds are used in India to flavor vegetables, pulses and pickles.
1d. Turmeric : Other Names: Haldi
Looks similar to a ginger root but when cut has a gorgeous orange-yellow color. Turmeric is mainly used in Indian dishes for its medicinal properties and for the gorgeous intensive color it gives to the dishes. It is mildly aromatic and has a delicate scent of ginger. Turmeric is a wonder spice and is used throughout Asia to treat cases of stomach and liver ailments. It is also used externally to heal sores and in cosmetics.
1e. Chilli Powder : Other Names: Lal Mirch, mirchi powder
The Indian chili powder is made from spicy ground chilies and is often hotter that the chili powder available in the US/European stores. It has a pungent, hot aroma with a strong bite to it.
1f. Asafetida : Other Names:Hing, asafetida powder, asafetida, devil’s dung, ferula, foetida, heeng
This is often used as a digestive. It has a strong odor and a slight garlicky flavor. Do not taste this raw – it is NOT a pleasant experience. Using it in the recommended recipe however, works wonders. Just a pinch is used for cooking in dishes with lentils and beans.
1g. Garam Masala : Other Names: Mixed Spice powder
Garam Masala is powdered blend/mix of spices(aromatic spices, see below) that may include cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, black peppercorns, nutmeg, mace. Garam means “hot”, but not chili hot, hot in the sense that these spices are said to increase body temperature. It can be used a a mix of whole spices as well. A whole garam masala could include whole cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom (black or green), whole mace, and black peppercorns. Powdered garam masala is often added at the end of cooking in small quantities so that the full aroma is not lost whereas, whole garam masala is used in north Indian cooking, especially meat dishes and as aromatics for rice dishes. Often these are fried in hot oil before other wet ingredients such as meat, onions, garlic, and/or ginger are added. Different regions use different mixtures and proportions of the spices. A Garam masala will vary from household to household.
2. Complementary spices : Spices like fennel or nigella seeds are sometimes added along with some of the basic spices to add to flavours. These are used in combination with the basic spices and aromatics mentioned below according to the dish being prepared.
2a. Fennel Seeds : Other Names: Saunf
Although this is a basic Indian spice, it is not essential. It is mainly used in North Indian cuisine and posses digestive qualities. If you often visit Indian restaurants you will find these coated with colored sugar and offered after meals as a mouth freshener. Fennel seeds are also often used to spice up teas and drinks.
2b. Fenugreek Seeds : Other Names: Methi, halba
This spice, which is actually a lentil, is used throughout India for it’s distinctive flavor (it has a slight bitter taste) it gives the dish and for its wonderful healthful properties. Fenugreek is used in small quantities and is used throughout India – both in North and South Indian Cooking. As a matter of fact, after turmeric, fenugreek seeds is the most medically useful item in an Indian kitchen.
2c. Nigella Seeds : Other Names : Kalonji, onion seeds, calonji, hasbasoda, ketza, black caraway
Small black seed, sometimes called onion seeds, although they are not really seeds from onions. these are often used in North India to enhance vegetable dishes. Toasting the seeds briefly brings out the flavor.
2d. Carom Seeds : Other Names: Ajwain
These have a strong peppery-thyme flavor. This poppy seed like plant comes from the lovage plant. It is very popular in North Indian cooking. It is used in preparing many Indian vegetables and pulses.
3. Aromatics or Secondary Spices : To the above spices we would add chopped onions, tomatoes, herbs and any of the following secondary spices and create a curry. We go light with the Aromatics and added them in small quantities or in the form of garam masala.
3a. Green Cardamom : Other Names : Elaichi, Choti Elaichi, cardamom pods, cardamom powder
This is used throughout India to flavor curries, vegetables, rice, dessert and the ever famous masala chai. The pod itself is neutral in flavor, it is the brown sticky seed inside the pod that gives that wonderful flavor. The pods should be kept whole, as ground cardamom quickly loses flavor. When you require cardamom in the powdered form, the best way is to crack open the pods using the back of a spoon and powder the small brown/black seeds inside in a mortar or it is recommended to grind small quantities at home using a coffee mill. When a recipe calls for whole cardamom, the pods can be cracked open slightly to release the full.
3b. Black Cardamom : Other Names : Kali Elaichi
This is larger in size and darker in color. It is often used to flavor meat, poultry and rice dishes. The spice is coarser in flavor than the green variety. The inner seeds are often one of the spices used in Garam Masala.
3c. Cinnamon Sticks : Other Names: Dalchini
It is the bark of the cinnamon tree that is often used in India in many curries and pulavs to give the dish a rich flavor. With its warm, sweet flavour, cinnamon is one of the biggest workhorses on the spice shelf. Cooks often use it to flavour baked goods and drinks but cinnamon also works wonders in stews and sauces.
3d. Cloves : Other Names: Laung, lavang
Cloves are nail-shaped dried flower buds that have a strong, pungent, and sweet flavour. They are used in many meat dishes, marinades, pickles and in many garam masalas. Cloves are used whole or in powder form. In India clove oil is also used due to its medicinal value. Many Indians chew on cloves to relieve toothaches and it is used also as a mouth freshener after a meal.
3e. Nutmeg : Other Names: Jaiphal
This is usually used in powdered form, grated freshly using a whole nutmeg. Often it is used to flavor Indian sweets, but may be used in some savory dishes.
3f. Mace : Other Names: Jaivitri
Mace is the dried reticulated ‘aril’ of the same fruit that nutmeg is the seed of. It has a warm and pleasing flavor. It is best to use the blades whole and remove them after cooking as biting it is not a pleasant experience. It’s used to flavor curries, masala chai and certain vegetables as well as Indian desserts.
3g. Black Peppercorns : Other Names: Kali Mirchi
It is said Vasco da Gama risked everything and started on an endless sea voyage primarily in search of one thing pepper. And was he successful in his great quest! It’s called the ‘king of spices’ and accounts for the lion’s share of spice exports from India.
3h. White Peppercorns : Other Names: Miri
The most common pepper is round, black, shriveled and hard. White peppercorns are the same as black ones but the outer black shells are removed. White peppercorns are sharper and less pungent but they are smooth and creamy.
3i. Saffron : Other Names: Kesar, zafran
It requires over two hundred thousand stigmas from crocus sativus flowers and a short harvest season of just 10 days per year to make a pound of saffron. That’s why saffron is the world’s most expensive spice.Indians use the threads in hot milk for about 15 minutes before using it to bring out the colors in fancy Mughal dishes it’s not usually in everyday cooking.
3j. Bay Leaves : Other Names: Tejpat, Laurel Leaf
Indian Cassia also known as Tejpat (Cinnamomum Tamala) is a small to moderately sized ever green tree. The leaves of this tree is the spice having clove like taste and a faintly pepper like odour. The leaf is mainly used for flavouring foods like rice and meat dishes. It is also a spice used in garam masala.