Indian food can be daunting, much of it because there’s this perception that there are thousands of ingredients – the spices, especially, can seem very foreign! I’ve tried to simplify things by listing the major spices that I use in my cooking – with these spices you can make 95% of the food I list here – there are additional spices you can add in, but they are non-fundamental spices that add a nuanced flavour – these are the basic spices everyone should start with.
There are two basic types of spices: Ground & Whole spices.
For ground spices, I’ve arranged my plate with milder tastes at the bottom and richer/stronger/earthier tastes at the top. If you’re cooking veg dishes, then use more of the spices along the bottom – meat dishes thrive on all of the spices. From the bottom, moving clockwise, we have: Turmeric; ground Coriander, Garam Masala, ground Cumin; smoked paprika, and, in the centre, salt.
For the Whole spices, I’ve arranged my plate with milder flavours on the top left corner and richer/stronger/earthier tastes in the bottom right. Veg dishes thrive on the spices towards the top left – meat dishes tend to use more of the spices closer to the bottom right, but can take all the other spices, too. Starting at the top left and moving clockwise, we have: Curry leaves; coriander seeds; cumin seeds; green cardamom; chillies (fresh or dried – I usually only have dried); cinnamon sticks; cloves; black cardamom; peppercorns; ginger, and bay leaves. Don’t worry, I’ll go through each individually!
Turmeric has significant cultural and culinary meaning in India. It is a strong antiseptic as well as giving food an awesome colour.
Ground coriander has a mild earthy flavour and good addition for a mild curry.
Garam masala is a mix of whole spices that are ground together – it has a very rich, earthy flavour – great for meat dishes.
Ground cumin has a nice rich flavour and wonderful for adding the distinctive Indian tang to your food.
I use smoked paprika as a milder alternative to ground Cayenne chillies – it’s milder, but still gives a bit of bite.
Salt – necessary for seasoning!
I’ll admit, curry leaves aren’t popular with my mum, but I’ve started using them myself as they give a lovely, mild, aromatic addition to my curries – they’re also edible, unlike bay leaves.
Coriander seeds have a slightly earthy flavour, but also still very aromatic – roast some with cumin in a dry pan to get a really powerful flavour base for a marinade.
Cumin seeds – so popular in most of my curries.
Green cardamoms are quite strong in flavour – crack one open and they have little black seeds inside – this is where the flavours come from. Trust me, you don’t need too many of these! The shells are inedible.
Chillies! Good for adding both flavour and heat – I usually only have dried, due to cost and availability, but having some fresh is great. But, if you’re only an occasional Indian cook, then stick with dried.
Cinnamon sticks has that balance between aromatic and earthiness that is great for mild and rich dishes alike.
Cloves are a great, rich flavour, but also include a numbing agent – if you have a sore tooth, grind up a few cloves and chew on it – numbs you completely!
Peppercorns – great for seasoning but also adding a richness to your dishes
The deadly black cardamom – you know you’ve bitten in to one of these instantly – such a powerful and rich flavour that it’s reserved mostly for the red meat dishes. Only eat for a dare!
Bay leaves are great for bringing both aromatic flavour and earthiness to your dish
And, ginger – I love the stuff – not just for foods, but also to make Chai (Indian spiced tea).
Finally, this is my spice box – I use this to house my most used spices and put them in quickly. I keep this on my counter top and grab it out whenever I’m cooking a meat curry – I can quickly go around the spice box and chuck it in. So handy and available in most Indian grocers.
One notable omission: I don’t carry aestofida (hing) – it’s used as an anti-flatulent in Indian dishes and has a distinctive smell and taste. So distinctive that I can’t keep it in my house – it’s just too overpowering. If you like the smell, get some, but I can’t do it! I also didn’t talk much about garlic – this, to me, is not something reserved primarily for Indian dishes, so every kitchen should stock it as a staple, but perhaps I’m over-optimistic.
So, I hope this has been helpful! Give me a yell if you have any questions!