Indian food, much like Indian culture is mysterious and exotic. Many shy away from preparing it because they’re unable to distinguish and understand the ingredients.
Since India is not a very affluent country, their food is made abundantly flavorful by their play of spices as well as the freshness of their vegetables – as a large percent of the population is vegetarian.
The Indian genius with spices is altogether mind boggling. Indian foodies have discovered the allure and the pleasure that Indian cuisine brings to the palate – that’s why it’s vastly popular all over the globe.
This will provide the jumping point to get your Indian pantry started.
Asafetida – (Heeng) – Used in savory dishes such as in vegetable curries and dhal – it has a very strong, off putting, pungent odor that mellows out in cooking and it tastes much like onion and garlic
Indian Bay Leaf – (Tejpatta) – Indian bay leaf is wider and longer than the leaves from the Laurel tree, where bay leaves come from. They have a clove/cinnamon smell and taste to them, differing from the regular bay leaf lemony and pine-like flavoring
Cardamom (Elaichi) – It comes in pods which are green with interior black seeds. Key spice for Garam Masala. It also has a very perfumed smell (in the Middle East you will find Cardamom tea everywhere.) Varieties: cardamom pods, seeds and ground
Chick Pea flour – (Gram) – It has gained notoriety as it is a gluten free flour and a lot of cooks have been experimenting with it. It is also used as a thickener for soups – much like cornstarch and used throughout India to make breads and other baked goods
Cilantro – In its green leaf form, it is shared by many cuisines – Asian, Mexican, Latin as well as Indian – however in Indian cooking it is more widely used ground and in seeds which is called Coriander. Coriander is the seed for the cilantro plant. In the US it is commonly known as cilantro, but in Europe, Australia and New Zealand it’s recognized as coriander leaf and also known as Chinese Parsley
Cinnamon – (Dalchini) – Used mostly in pieces and not ground – as the bark imparts a milder flavor
Cloves (whole and ground) (Laung) – A spice used ground or whole. It is very potent and a little goes a long way as it can overpower the flavors of all other spices
Coconut – Dried or in milk form – coconut is an ingredient that is used very frequently in Indian, Muslim and Asian cooking. The milk is used to flavor many dishes providing a distinct, rich and creamy flavoring. Coconut oil is used (as well as Ghee – clarified butter) in Indian dishes and also in Thai and Asian cooking. Once you start using coconut oil to cook with – you will realize that it imparts great flavor
Coriander (Seeds – whole) (Dhania) – It is one of the primogenital and oldest spices known to man, being cultivated in Greece as far back as the second millennium BC. It is a perfumed, citrusy scented spice that is large and in charge. It’s a universal and essential spice in Indian cooking and cannot be substituted for anything else. If a recipe calls for ground coriander it has to be included, because your dish will not taste the same without it
Cumin (Jeera) – Used ground or in seed form – cumin is a spice that is used also in many cuisines around the globe. Mediterranean, Latin, Spanish, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, Indian, Asian. Cumin is deserving of its own star on the Walk of Fame. There is no substitute and the fragrant smell of cooking with cumin is completely unmistakable
Curry Leaves – (Kadipatta) – They look like small citrus leaves and they deliver a pungent curry flavor to Indian dishes. They can be purchased fresh at Indian markets and they keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks and can also be frozen, which makes them keep longer. Dried curry leaves are available and are milder in flavor to the fresh version
Fennel Seeds (Mouri) – Small green seeds with the smell and taste of licorice
Fenugreek – (Methis) Seed or Dried Leaves (Kasuri Methi) – Fenugreek seeds is what delivers that distinguishing flavor in Madras curry powder, with a very earthy and pungent smell. Just like with cardamom and clove, to be used sparingly, as their flavor can permeate and overpower your dish. The dried leaf variety is used in a large variety of dishes and they are milder than the seeds
Garam Masala – Term means “Blend of Spices”. It’s very easy to make using spice grinder. It can also be purchased already prepared
1 TSP each Black and white peppercorns
4 Cloves n- toasted and ground
¼ TSP Mace
½ TSP Cardamom pods – toasted and ground
½ TSP Coriander seeds – toasted and ground
Cumin seeds – toasted and ground
1 Cinnamon stick
2 Bay leaves
Toast the cinnamon stick, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and cardamom pods. Cool and set aside. Mix the ground spices together and store in an airtight container – they keep for about 2-3 months
Tandoori Masala – This spice mix is used in Northern India for meats typically cooked in a tandoor oven and it is just as easily made. It can also be store bought
½ TSP cumin seeds – toasted and ground
½ TSP coriander seeds – toasted and ground
3 cloves – toasted and ground
1 Cinnamon stick – toasted and ground
½ TBSP ginger powder
½ TBSP garlic powder
½ TSP of Kashmiri red chili powder
½ TSP turmeric
¼ TSP ground mace
Toast the spices as for Garam Masala and mix them all storing them in an airtight container.
Ghee – Clarified butter – and used more so that oil in most Indian cuisine. You are able to buy Ghee now in many stores
Black and White pepper – I can’t emphasize this enough, please grind your own pepper – and DO NOT buy it already ground. Peppercorns once ground, lose their aroma, become stale. so you might as well don’t bother using them. Invest in a good pepper mill – once you start grinding your own pepper – you will realize the importance of using “fresh ground”
Ginger/Garlic Paste – The most prevalent staple of Indian and Asian cooking. You can make your own Ginger/Garlic paste – but nowadays, it can be purchased it from any good Asian and Indian market. Once opened, it keeps for a long time refrigerated. You will be surprised how much you will use this paste
Mango powder (Amchoor) – Mango powder has a sour fruity flavor and a honey-like smell. Used in stir fried veggie dishes, curries, soups and used to add a “tart” fruity flavor without incorporating the actual juice of citrus and vinegars, such as in chutneys and pickles. Sometimes used to tenderize meats. Mostly a spice and flavoring agent used in cuisine from the Northern regions
Mustard Seeds – (Sarson/Rai) They can be yellow, black or brown and they are also an essential ingredient in Indian cuisine. They need to be toasted with other spices so they pop and release their nutty and smoky flavor. e very careful when browning them as they burn very quickly!
Nigella Seeds – (Kalonji) These smack black seeds that are often confused with black sesame seeds but are very different. They have a subtle onion, black pepper and oregano taste and they are used in a lot of Indian and Middle Eastern dishes
Whole Nutmeg and Whole Mace (Jaipal) – Mace is the outer covering of the nutmeg and it is milder in flavor. Buy nutmeg whole and grate it. Like peppercorns, do yourself a flavor and make sure that if a recipe calls for ground nutmeg you don’t buy it already ground. It goes stale very quickly and stale nutmeg is … well kinda gross.
Saffron (Kesar) – Did you know that Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world – even more expensive than gold by the ounce? One ounce of saffron is about $1500 and one ounce of gold is about $1300 – the pricing always fluctuates. It is the most exclusive and costly spice worldwide – so it is fair to say – use it sparingly. It comes from the stems of the dried crocus flowers that are grown mostly in Spain and Kashmir; since it requires so much work to harvest, hence it is a high-ticket item. It is used for its mild flavor and coloring qualities – I typically dissolve it in warm water before I add it to my dishes. It has a wonderful aroma, that once you smell it, you never forget it.
Sesame Seeds (Til) – Used toasted to provide a bit o’ crunch to some dishes, deserts and breads
Star Anise – (Chakra Phool) – Used whole or ground it is an ingredient that adds distinct flavor to Biryani Rice and to many Indian sweets and deserts. A little bit goes a long way here as well
Tamarind (Amli) – It is also known as Indian date and it is a souring agent that brings an awesome tartness to relishes, marinades and sauces. It’s used predominantly in Indian, Asian and in the West Indies. Once you learn how to use it – you’ll love it!
Turmeric (Haldi) – It is bright yellow in color and mostly a coloring agent – although it has a mild sweet flavor and an earthy smell to it as well. It’s the spice that gives curries and Biryanis their distinct yellow color. It stains easily – so be careful how you use it