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Indian Spices Explained – Masala Magic

Here’s a low-down on some of the most popular and frequently-used spices to look out for during India vacations.

5 min
Indian Spices Explained – Masala Magic
Author: Jen

Do you know your Indian spices? Supermarkets around the world often sell little jars vaguely labeled ‘curry powder,’ the contents of which are used to imbue a generic ‘Indian’ flavor to the dish being prepared. However, as you will no doubt learn when you visit India, each Indian spice serves a specific purpose, often related to both health and taste. Consider this a basic guide: Indian Spices Explained!

Indian Spices Decoded

A Glossary of the Most Important Indian Spices Used :

1 Turmeric

This yellow powder is a staple in dishes across North India and South India, and yellow lentils are further colored with a pinch of it. While it’s the powder which comes in use most to flavor the cuisine in India, the root form is ground into a paste and used as a ‘facepack’ for brides and grooms before their wedding day, since turmeric also lends the skin a healthy glow. An entire ceremony revolves around it!

While cooking, if you nick yourself while chopping, sprinkle a tad of turmeric on the gash to stop the blood flow – it’s an antiseptic! 

Indian Spices Explained – Masala Magic

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2 Cinnamon

This flavorful spice traces its roots back to India. Cinnamon comes from the bark of an evergreen tree and is used to give both an aroma and taste to a dish. It is generally used in pulao (a rice dish), biriyani (a rice dish) and often forms the ‘tadka’ or basic concoction of spices, seeds, onion and tomato for heavy lentil dishes, such as chickpeas and black beans. Cut off a small chunk and pop in hot oil as you begin cooking.

Indian spices explained
Street cart peddling Indian spices

3 Curry Leaves

These are dark green flat leaves that are used in a dish to impart flavor. You’ll find that this is widely used in most dishes, especially if you visit South India. Some people even use it without crushing and it is often grown in backyards. It is widely used in palyas (vegetable-based dishes, flavored with mustard seeds and often with grated coconut) and lentil dishes like sambar as a final garnish.

4 Cloves

Black cloves are tiny and shaped like a tiny spear with a head on top. They have a distinctive flavor and are often used right at the start of a dish preparation, popped into boiling oil along with other big spices: whole peppers, bay leaves, cinnamon and cardamoms.

Our Top Tip: A traditional Indian cure for mild toothache has been to pop a clove into your mouth and nurse it there: it acts as a mild analgesic!

5 Cardamom (black and green)

Black cardamom is a well-known spice used to impart a strong taste and aroma. Just one big one is often enough to flavor biryanis, meat stews and pulao (flavored rice). It’s popped into hot oil at the start of a preparation.

Green cardamom is much smaller than the black variety and often used in conjunction with tiny black cloves to begin a dish preparation. Its distinctive flavor requires only a basic use of it: four tiny pods will flavor a pot of chickpea lentils! It’s also used to flavor tea, lending its name to ‘elaichi (green cardamom) chai’.

South India is famous for its spice plantations, especially cardamom and cinnamon. There’s even a region called ‘Cardamom Hills’ in the Western Ghats of the country’s southwestern coast! A spice plantation tour in South India in well worth your time, especially if want to get to know your spices better.

Indian spices explained
Elaichi tea or tea flavored with cardamom is popular in India

6 Saffron

Saffron is one of the most expensive spices used in Indian cooking. It is used to flavor a dish and also as a coloring agent. It is widely used in Indian desserts like kheer. It is generally mixed with milk and then added to the kheer. It lends an orange color. In Indian cooking, saffron is generally added at the end of the preparation of a dish.

7 Coriander Powder

Coriander powder is one of the most extensively used ingredients in Indian cooking. Almost all Indian dishes have Coriander Powder as an ingredient, added alongside the turmeric, cumin and chili powders. It is also used a lot in marinating chicken, lamb, prawns, fish etc. when a pinch of the powder is smeared onto the chopped slices or meats in question. Tandoori dishes rely on coriander (or dhania) powder as an important ingredient, as you will no doubt discover during your India vacations.

8 Ginger

Ginger is widely used in Indian cooking. Popular Indian dishes like kadai paneer, kadai chicken, mixed vegetables have this spice. Ginger and garlic are often used together at the start of a preparation but for many Indians who don’t use garlic for religious reasons, it’s shreds of ginger that can flavor a range of lentils from south-Indian sambars to north Indian ‘kali’ or black dal (lentils). Ginger is also used to flavor Indian tea. It also has a lot of medicinal properties. Hot water or hot tea infused with ginger is said to cure a nasty cough. It is also used to remove stomach acidity and just might work wonders during your India vacations.

9 Cumin

This ingredient is used a lot in almost all Indian curries and dals and meat dishes as well. It is used as whole cumin seeds, popped into boiling oil as you begin cooking and often additionally in its powdered form as well, in conjunction with the coriander, turmeric and chilli powders. For yogurt dishes, such as raitas and dahi vadas (savory donuts with yogurt), a sprinkling of chili and cumin powders on the finished dish indicates that they are ready to be consumed!.

10 Fennel Seeds

These are consumed mainly after having a meal as a mouth freshener. They are also used in masala chai (flavored Indian tea) to flavor it. It is used in the tempering of Indian dishes.

Complex combinations of Indian Spices

Sometimes basic spices are combined to create more complex combinations, such as garam masala and panch phoron, two of our favorites!

11 Complex Indian Spices: Garam Masala

Garam masalas drizzled on to several North Indian dishes, usually dry preparations such as, say, cauliflower-potato or a kadai chicken. It often comprises ground spices including cardamoms, cloves, peppercorns, and cumin seeds and is available as a distinctive, deeply flavorful dark brown powder.

12 Complex Indian Spices: Panch Phoren

Panch phoron is a whole spice combination used in most East Indian Bengali cooking. It’s popped into boiling oil right at the start of preparation and is a mixture that blends cumin, fenugreek, nigella, fennel, and mustard seeds. It is to Bengali dishes what mustard seeds are to south Indian dishes and jeera seeds are to North Indian food dishes: an initial whole seed that is used as a base flavor.

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