Spices in Indian food are very common. There are almost no dishes in which they do not have their place. And in general, it is not one, but several at the same time. The result is really tasty and aromatic dishes.
To try them and discover some of the most common ones, it is not necessary to make a trip. If you are curious and eager to know them and introduce them in 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 give flavor and aroma to food and beverages. They are consumed in very small quantities and have almost no nutritional value. However, thanks to their constituents 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 also known and used to a great extent, as they allow to bring closer and taste dishes from distant cuisines without leaving home.
In India, their presence has always been very important. Perhaps influenced by the benefits and properties given to them by Ayurvedic medicine. They are an integral part of Indian cuisine and are part of all the recipes and dishes known there.
The ways of using 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 blends, such as garam masala, tikka masala or vindalo masala.
The 8 most common spices in Indian food
In India, 52 different spices are listed, although 109 of them are known in the ISO list of spices and culinary herbs. For this reason, this short list is only an introduction to the most common or essential spices throughout the country.
If you have to choose one of the spices of Indian food, it is coriander. Both the leaves and the seeds are used from this plant, which are the most common in Indian cuisine. They are added whole, crushed, ground or roasted 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 fruits. They are also used in infusions, as they are digestive and help eliminate gas and abdominal bloating.
2. Cumin seeds
In many countries cumin powder is often used to season some dishes, but in India it is the seeds of this plant that are at the base of almost all recipes.
They are very similar to anise or fennel, but the brown color and smoky aroma is what sets them apart. It is highly recommended to use freshly ground or toasted cumin in a pan with a little oil or ghee. Otherwise, it burns easily and imparts a very bitter taste.
The part of Curcuma longa used as a spice is the rhizome or subway stem. This plant originated in India, where it was used as a pigment to dye skin, clothes and food.
It is among the most used in this country to flavor curries, fried dough, poultry or fish. It has an earthy consistency and provides a spicy, sweet and warm flavor. It is also used to prepare beverages, either alone or with ginger or cinnamon.
4. Red chili powder
There are a few varieties of chillies in India and this particular spice is made from the seeds of red chillies. It has quite a potent flavor, so it is added to recipes in very small amounts. However, it is part of almost every Indian recipe, whether meat, rice, chickpeas or salads.
Although the plant originated in Central America, the Portuguese introduced it to India and today it is the world’s largest producer. In addition, the country also has some of the hottest red chili varieties.
The part used as a spice is the inner bark of 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 strong presence in desserts and sweets, but it is also used to season lamb dishes, basmati rice and many types of stews. It brings a subtle and delicate woody aroma 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, since it is used almost exclusively in this country. It is obtained from mango fruits that are harvested unripe, dried and ground.
The result is a light brown powder, aromatic and with a very intense flavor. For this reason, it is used in very small quantities and is almost always added at the end of cooking. It is commonly used in soups, sauces and marinades.
Cardamom is a real green gold, as it is the third most expensive spice in the world after saffron and vanilla. The plant belongs to the same family as ginger and is native to southwest India. It is commonly used to enhance the flavor of drinks, infusions and puddings such as kheer or gajar halwa.
Green cardamom is the most common variety. Unlike black cardamom, it has a faint, sweet flavor reminiscent of eucalyptus.
It can be mixed whole in combinations such as garam masala, but in the preparation of desserts it is advisable to open the pod and crush a little of the seeds inside.
8. Ginger root
Originally from South Asia, it is 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 light spiciness to a myriad of curries, fish and vegetables.
It is perhaps one of the most appreciated today for its beneficial properties. As this review of studies published in Nutrients indicates, its use is effective as an anti-inflammatory and digestive. In addition, it helps to relieve nausea and vomiting.
Indications for using typical Indian food spices
The use of all these infallible spices in Indian food can be overwhelming at first, especially for people who are new to the habit of cooking. This is why it is advisable to go slowly and try simple recipes.
In principle, there is no pre-established rule about the order in which spices should be added in Indian recipes. But some guidelines can be helpful to get the most out of them:
Whole spices (twigs, seeds or cloves) are best added at the beginning of recipes, along with a little oil or ghee. Once hot, they will release all their aromas.
Ground or powdered spices are usually added in the middle or at the end of the preparation. Thus, most of them are used to enhance the flavor of the dish.
Fresh herbs and leaves are added at the end as a garnish and to add a touch of freshness.
The best way to keep spices at home is to keep them in dark places, away from heat sources and protected from humidity. 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. That is why we encourage you to try them and let yourself be intoxicated by the power of Indian gastronomy.