Indian cookery is characterized by the extensive use of numerous key spices that are essential in providing authentic tastes and unique flavours. Some spices can be dry roasted to release the essential oils before being ground into spice mixes and other can be blended using a pestle and mortar at home. Conveniently most spices are now available in supermarkets in both ground form and whole form and the online platform has also played an important role in making Indian spices easily available. Spices last longer if they are stored in air-tight containers in a cool dry place. Using spices correctly is important in Indian cuisine and understanding which spices compliment which ingredient is the secret in perfecting a curry, a starter dish and many accompaniments.
Dry whole red chillies are often fried in oil with other whole spices to release flavour and infuse the oil before the actual cooking of the masala sauce. The presence of dried red chillies does not necessarily signify scorching heat, in fact when left whole the flavour leaks into the hot ghee or oil slowly which gives a beautiful hot yet bearable flavour to the finished dish.
Red chilli powder is more potent and is the spice in the curry that usually has tongues tingling. It should be used in moderation to add a natural red glow to the dish together with a sharp spicy flavour without setting the mouth on fire. Red chilli powder is great to add to a marination to give it a natural red colouring if you do not want to use food colouring powder.
Red chilli is a great source of vitamin C and has been proven to soothe a cold and clear congestion of a blocked nose. Research also suggests it helps burning calories.
Turmeric (Haldi) - comes from the root of Curcuma longa, a leafy plant related to ginger. It is used in Indian cooking to give a golden colour to a curry or snack. It has a pungent, earthy aroma and taste and can be bitter if used in excessive amounts. Turmeric’s earthy taste tempers the strong spices used in curry making.
Research shows that turmeric is an ancient Ayurvedic treatment for digestive disorders and arthritis. It is also known to be a natural antiseptic used for healing cuts and wounds.
The small creamy brown seeds of the coriander plant give dishes a warm, aromatic and slightly citrus flavour totally different to fresh coriander leaves. The warm aroma of the coriander seeds is released into oil upon frying and the taste compares well to that of orange peel. Coriander seeds are great to flavour Indian snacks such as onion bhajis, whereas the powder is more used in curry making to keep the sauce smooth.
Coriander is said to be beneficial for aching joints, coping with a sore throat, allergies and digestion problems.
Cumin seeds belong to the parsley and dill family and are used for their distinctive aroma. Cumin is an aromatic spice with a bitter yet warm flavour. The seeds are fried in oil when making a curry or biryani rice dish which releases the full flavour. Cumin seeds can also be roasted and then added to dishes to give an even stronger flavour. To make cumin powder, the seeds are roasted and then crushed. Cumin can be used to season many North Indian dishes, including vegetarian and non vegetarian curry dishes, together with tandoori items and Indian appetisers. It is also widely used to prepare Indian rice dishes such as Pilau and Biryani.
Cumin is known to stimulate the appetite and can also help relieve symptoms of a cold due to its antiseptic properties.
Daalchini (cinnamon) is extremely aromatic and has a warm, sweet fragrance. Powdered cinnamon feels warm when placed on the tongue and this spice goes amazingly well with Indian red meat dishes and Indian rice dishes such as Biryani. Sizzling cinnamon sticks in oil releases its flavour to infuse the oil which can then be used for the rest of the curry making process. Cinnamon is used to flavour both sweet and savoury dishes ranging from curries and spice mixes to drinks and desserts. It is a major ingredient of the garam masala powder and also used to make specialist Indian masala tea.
Cinnamon is known for its relief of cold symptoms and to soothe coughs. It also has anti-bacterial properties and has been proven to reduce blood cholesterol.
Green cardamom has a complex flavour that compliments many sweet and some savoury Punjabi dishes. The aroma of green cardamom is very flower like and the taste is sweet and quite herbal. Like other spices cardamom can be used whole or ground. When using whole in rice dishes or even curries, it is usually kept whole and the flavour is slowly released upon cooking when being fried in the oil/tadka base. Although the actual cardamom would not be eaten whole, the flavour it gives off in a curry or biryani or pilau dish is immense. Cardamom powder can be made in two ways. One is using the pods only and the other is using the entire cardamom, it really depends on how you are grinding it. If you have a small coffee grinder, you can usually powder the entire cardamom quite smooth. Powdered cardamom is widely used in Indian desserts, although whole cardamom is also used for a few dessert recipes.
Green cardamom is said to help with digestive disorders and some research suggests it is also good for coping with diabetes.
Black cardamom is used to flavour many Indian rice dishes and curry dishes which specifically use red meats. The spice as a smoky taste and aroma as it’s dried over a smoke fire before being packaged. As with green cardamom, you do not eat this spice whole, it’s usually added to dishes to release its flavour. It is not usually powdered, although the pods are often used in the preparation of selected sweet dishes.
The spicy cardamom pods contain many essential oils which are released during cooking (frying or steaming). The spice is known to be a great source of potassium, calcium and magnesium together with an excellent source of iron.
Mustard seeds are the most commonly utilized form of mustard in Indian cooking. Mustard powder can be made by simply crushing the mustard seeds at home using a pestle and mortar. There are three main types of mustard seeds, including, black, brown and white. Black and brown mustard seeds are most common in Indian cooking and the aroma of the seeds is similar to that of curry leaves and the taste is just like mustard in its taste form. The seeds release the flavour when being sizzled in oil or roasted. Black mustard seeds are strongest in terms of their flavour than the other varieties and thus are more common to Indian cooking. They are used more extensively in South Indian cooking forms, although several North Indian recipes also incorporate their usage.
Mustard seeds are known to be a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium. Some research suggests they contain compounds that help fight cancer. For aching muscles, mustard powder can be filled into a bath to soothe the pain and relax you.
Mace is the lacy covering of the nutmeg seed shell which has a sweet fragrant aroma similar to nutmeg but stronger. It tastes warm and sharp although it is somewhat sweeter than nutmeg. Dried mace pieces are not easy to crush and therefore it is advised that mace powder is bought readymade. Two-three blades of mace are strong enough to flavour one curry or rice dish. Mace is part of Garam Masala and it compliments lamb dishes together with some vegetable curries and rice based dishes.
Mace is full of essential oils, vitamins A and C, carotenes, iron and calcium.
Ajawain seeds are pale khaki coloured and look like a smaller version of cumin seeds. They are extremely fragrant and taste similar to thyme with a stronger more distinct flavour. Carom is often used whole in Indian cooking, especially to flavour Indian pastry which is deep fried, although curried Indian dishes use the powdered form, often crushed at home yourself in a pestle and mortar. Carom is also used in Indian pickle making for its preservative properties and is a main ingredient of achari dishes also.
Ajawain is known to aid digestion and to soothe a stomach pains. To relieve symptoms such as a blocked nose or throat ache, it is recommended that ajawain is added to a cup of boiling water and then the steam inhaled.
Amchoor powder is used to give a sweet and sour tang to Indian dishes without adding moisture as lemon would do. It is made from dried raw unripe green mangoes and used in various vegetarian dishes that use lentils and pulses. It is also used in some chutneys and popular Indian snack foods including some bhajia and samosa recipes.
Dried mango powder has a high iron content and also helps combat acidity. It’s a fair source of vitamin A and Vitamin E which is said to help the hormonal system to function properly.
Fenugreek is used as a herb, spice and vegetable. Dried fenugreek leaves retain almost all the goodness of fresh fenugreek and is great to use in both marinations and in curry dishes. It flavours chicken curry dishes especially well and is usually crushed upon adding into a curry. Kasturi methi is the name used for dried fenugreek leaves (the leaves of the fenugreek plant) and it is a very common ingredient used in North Indian cooking. Fenugreek seeds are used more for pickling purposes and in achari Indian dishes.
Methi is said to be beneficial as it is said to cure arthritis naturally. It is also known to relieve constipation and reduce colic.
Laung (cloves) are dark brown in colour and shaped like a nail. In fact it got its name thanks to its shape, from the Latin word clavuswhich which means nail. Cloves are highly aromatic with a warm, pungent and spicy taste. Cloves are used to flavour some Punjabi meat based curries, although they are more commonly used in Biryani and Pilau rice dishes. Cloves are also part of Garam Masala. They often pair well with other whole spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and peppercorns.
Cloves have anti-inflammatory properties and are also used commonly as a mouth freshener. Chewing on a single clove has been proven to relieve toothaches and according to Ayurveda, cloves improve circulation, digestion and metabolism.
Fennel seeds are the dried seeds of the fennel plant and have a liquorices like sweeter taste. They are commonly used for the preparation of Indian sweet dishes and Indian masala tea. Fennel seeds are a key ingredient of the common Paanch Phoron Masala, which is commonly used to make Indian pickles, chutneys and a few marinations. Fennel is mostly used in seed form although some dishes require the seeds to be roasted and then powdered.
Fennel is also considered a digestive and mouth freshener, chewed by many as an after dinner ‘mint’. Saunf (fennel) is also boiled and steeped in water and then strained and given to babies as a colic reliever. Fennel is also known to help bloating, cramps and gas.
Kalonji (onion seeds) are tiny black triangular seeds with a bitter and peppery flavour. They are widely used in Indian cuisine and commonly recognizable in naan breads, oil-based pickles and the spice blend Paanch-Phoron. As with many spices, the flavour of kalonji is enhanced by roasting for 1-2 minutes in a hot pan or when making naan bread, added to the dough mix before forming the naan and placing in a very hot oven.
Onion seeds are also used for skin disorders and the oil is also effective in the soothing of an earache. Research also suggests that onion seeds are beneficial to calm an upset stomach and also a natural remedy for headaches, colds and infections.
Saffron comes from the saffron crocus flower. Saffron threads are the thread like stamens of those flowers. They are a dark orange colour and highly fragrant with a honey like taste. Saffron is very expensive because of the difficulty harvesting the saffron and time consuming as each stamen is handpicked. In Indian cuisine, saffron is used in fish and rice dishes and some sweet dishes. Saffron needs to be soaked in hot water or milk for about 15 minutes before being used.
Saffron is used for asthma, coughs and has also been known to be used to help sleep problems.
Peppercorns also known as Kali Mirch are a common pantry item these days. It may be hard to believe it was once so valuable that it was used as currency and in barter exchange. Peppercorns are produced from the still-green unripe berries of the pepper plant. Peppercorns have a very strong flavour and are widely used in Indian cuisine both whole and ground into a fine powder. Whole peppercorns are commonly used for lamb dishes and rice based North Indian specialities together with other whole Indian spices such as cinnamon, cloves and cardamom.
Peppercorns act as digestive stimulants and aid combat illnesses like joint problems, indigestion, diarrhoea and constipation.
Bayleaf is an aromatic leaf with its fragrance being more noticeable in cooked food than even its taste. The flavour of bayleaf is slightly bitter and when dried its quite herbal. Dried bayleaf is used in Indian cooking to add a sweetish taste somewhat similar to cinnamon although a little milder. It is often used in rice dishes such as Biryanis and used whole while tempering for vegetable dishes and then removed upon serving.
Bayleaf has many properties which make it useful for treating high blood sugar, migraines, bacterial infections and gastric ulcers.
Chaat masala is the perfect seasoning to ass a zingy, tangy and slightly hot masala taste to Indian starter dishes and snacks. Chaat masala is also used commonly as a seasoning on Indian salads and the famous Indian snack food ‘chaat’ which is a generic name for hot, tangy, sweet nibbles. Asafetida, mango powder and black salt distinguish chaat masala from other masala giving it a perfect taste of salty and sourness. Fresh fruit is often sprinkled with lime juice and chaat masala too. Often when Indian fried foods and tandoori foods lack seasoning and have been cooked already, it’s a good idea to sprinkle a little chaat masala on the top of them for extra flavour.
Chaat masala is said to be a good digestive for stomach disorders.
Many Indian recipes start with a basic process of frying onions in oil and then adding ginger and garlic which are two key ingredients of Indian cooking. Fresh ginger is often made into a paste with fresh garlic. Alternatively ginger can be used in its powdered form as an alternative. In fact ginger powder is one of the secret spices used in some blends of garam masala.
It is said that ginger helps to soothe a cough, arthritis and muscle pain. In some parts of the world, ginger juice is applied to the skin to treat burns.
In most Indian cooking the use of fresh garlic in indispensable. Many dishes call for garlic which goes hand in hand with fresh ginger and it’s fair to say it’s an essential ingredient in Indian cuisine. It is often paired with onion, tomato and green chillies when cooking masala curries. Garlic can be used in its powder form which also has a strong taste, although fresh is always preferred.
Garlic has been proven to lower cholesterol and thin the blood which is said to prevent strokes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Garlic is also believed to combat the growth of cancer cells.
Also known as Jaiphal, nutmeg is the seed of an evergreen tree indigenous to Indonesia. Nutmegs are sold without the mace or hard shell and are dark brown on the outside and lighter brown on the inside. Nutmeg has a sweetish flavour and is best grated into sweet desserts. It is not extensively used in Indian cooking, although it is part of our unique blend of garam masala and thus powdered and added to the mix this way. The powder is prepared by roasting the whole seeds and then crushing them using a pestle and mortar. Nutmeg powder can also be used to add to marinations in Indian cuisine and it especially goes well with roasted lamb. Nutmeg and green cardamom pair well and marinations which include these two spices taste particularly delicious.
Nutmeg and nutmeg oil have been used for illnesses related to the nervous system and digestive system. Nutmeg is also said to improve the appetite and treat vomiting and nausea. Nutmeg helps to improve concentration and also aids in soothing aching muscles and joints.
Star anise has a liquorices taste similar to regular anise, only stronger. Star anise is the unusual fruit of a small oriental tree. It is used as a secret ingredient in Indian cooking in selected curries and rice dishes. It goes well with other spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg and can also flavour sweet dishes well.
Star anise is prescribed as a digestive and also helps to cure colic in babies as well as an upset stomach.
Anardana is the dried seeds of varieties of pomegranate. They are sour, tangy and fruity in flavour and used in selected North Indian savoury dishes, for examples vegetable and legumes. Bits of the pomegranate pulp remain on the seeds as they dry up, so they are a bit sticky and serve as a souring agent in Indian cuisine, similar to the way in which tamarind can also be used. The seeds can also be roasted and then ground into a powder in place of lime or lemon when the two are not available. Anardana is also added to Indian ‘street food’ type dishes such as chaats and pakoras to give it the sweet sour tang. It also adds a rustic sour taste to chickpea dishes.
Pomegranate seeds contain dietary fibre, vitamin c, iron and calcium to name but a few. They have been proven to help aid the common cold, diabetes, blood pressure and coronary related illnesses.
The king of all spices, that’s what I call the Garam Masala. Garam masala (masala meaning spices and garam meaning hot) is an aromatic mixture of whole spices which are usually dried and then ground into a smooth fine powder. This spice is the secret to achieving success when making an Indian dish. If the blend of garam masala is right, you can be sure that your dish will be great. Most Indian savoury dishes have garam masala added to them. Garam masala should always be added at the end of the curry making process so that all the flavour of the spice blend is retained as opposed to being lost during if added towards the start. Home-made garam masala varieties are always toppers, especially those made with a minimum of 12 different spices. The one we make at The Brilliant is our uniquely made 15 spice garam masala which dates back to over 60 years. Garam masala is the finishing touch to an Indian curry dish and is also added to marinations, snack dishes and starter dishes. It really is the magic spice in Punjabi cuisine and you can bet that if your blend of garam masala is right, your dish will taste spot on too!
As garam masala usually has 12 or more spices, it has the goodness of all the spices within it, so there are various benefits of this spice. It is said to help slow down the ageing process and also helps for weight loss. The spice is also known to include many powerful antioxidants and could also help lower cholesterol as research suggests.