Indian food relies heavily on spices, which can present a frantic search for little-known spices. Which spices do you really need to stock up on? Where can you find them? And what other dishes can you make with traditional Indian spices?
Although there are many regional varieties of Indian food (no surprise, given the size and diversity of the country), the warm, flavorful spices and seasonings are almost always front and center in Indian dishes. But Indian cuisine doesn’t have to be limited to eating out, we also really enjoy the process of making certain recipes at home. Many of these items will be available in your local grocery or specialty store, but we’re including links so you can immediately get them online! So, we’ve rounded up some of the most essential Indian spices, where you can find them, and what other dishes you can include them in (because, why buy something you’ll never use?!)
In Indian cooking, the fragrant flavor of cardamom is used, most often in the form of a green or black pod. From flavoring basmati rice to curries and stews, cardamom pods are an essential ingredient in the Indian pantry. They are commonly crushed to release flavor, then stirred into the dish during the cooking process to infuse their signature aroma into recipes like in this basic tikka masala recipe. If you have to swap in ground cardamom, remember that 10 pods is about equal to 1.5 teaspoons of the powdered stuff. If you end up having a hard time sourcing the pods (though they’re pretty widely available), you can also use your ground cardamom in this Swedish specialty, cardamom buns called Kardemummabullar.
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If you’ve ever tried your hand at Indian food, you’ll probably recognize the ingredient Garam Masala, which is actually a phrase meaning “hot spice blend.” It’s typically made from a combination of ingredients including cinnamon, bay leaf, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cardamom, peppercorns, cloves, dried chile, nutmeg, and mace. The spices are warmed in a heat to release their fragrance, then ground and used in myriad classic recipes from lamb rogan josh to stewed chickpeas called channa masala. It is, of course, available in many premade iterations, and can be found in many stores and online. Though it has a distinctly Indian flavor (and thus, will infuse most other dishes with it), it’s an absolute must, and you’ll get a lot of use out of it, plus, it makes a great popcorn seasoning!
Find it at Penzeys
Unsurprisingly, given the name, mustard seeds are where your everyday Dijon and yellow are derived from. But, there are many different varieties of mustard seeds, all of which are used in Indian cooking. They have a smoky flavor, and require crushing or “blooming” (heating in another substance, usually a hot liquid) in oil before using. Use them in recipes like these peas inspired by the Southern Indian flavors, and save the extras for use in at-home pickling.
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This bright yellow spice actually comes from a root (which you can find in some grocery stores). It’s got an aromatic, and slightly bitter flavor, and provides the vibrant hue you see in lots of Indian food. Called haldi in India, it’s also an excellent anti-inflammatory ingredient and used widely in Indian food to flavor lentils (dal), rice, and curries. If you’ve got extra hanging around, combine it with some hot water and lemon for a morning tincture that’ll soothe and detoxify or use it in this Middle Eastern–inspired cauliflower recipe.
Find it at Thrive Market
Chances are, you probably already have cumin in your arsenal of spices, as it’s a popular ingredient in all sorts of cuisines, most commonly Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern. Called jeera in Hindi, cumin is a warm, somewhat pungent spice that can be procured ground or in seed form. If you stick to Indian flavors, use it in this spiced potato recipe or with red split lentils. Cumin also makes a great seasoning for simple chicken breasts and even gives a kick to homemade guacamole.
Find it at Thrive market
Article by Leah Bhabha, guest contributor.