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Basic Indian Spices and Ingredients

Spices play a very important role in Indian Cooking.  Spices were originally used in Indian cooking to not only season, but to preserve the food as refrigeration was not around.  Many spices also have medicinal uses and are used for many home remedies. Let us understand the word "Masala" which is commonly used in Indian cooking. 

"Masala" is the Hindi word for "spice". When a combination of spices, herbs and other condiments are ground together, it is also called "masala".  

"Wet Masala" : Water, vinegar, yogurt or other liquids are sometimes added to the ground spices. This wet mixture is called "wet masala" and is used as a marinade or sautéed in oil before adding the main vegetable or meat so that the delicate flavors of the spices are released in the recipe.


Spice Grinder : Either use a mortar & pestle or a small electric coffee grinder. A good coffee grinder is excellent for grinding dry spices. Keep one just for this purpose. If not, make sure you clean it thoroughly before grinding coffee beans, or you'll have wierd-tasting coffee. We will learn more about "Dry Roasting Spices". Once the whole spices have been dry-roasted and cooled down, they need to be ground to fully release their flavors.   

To keep your coffee grinder lid from discoloring, stretch a piece of plastic wrap over the grinder, then put the lid and use.

Storing Spices : Spices degrade quickly if they are exposed to either light or air.   Light has a detrimental ‘leaching’ effect whilst exposure allows the essential oils to escape.   Therefore, many Indians often use a special spice storage box.



An Indian Spice Box is called a Masala Dabba  or Masala Dani. Almost every Indian household will have a spice box.

Masala Dabba - Win a free Spice Box - Enter our Contest !

 It is a round stainless steel box with seven round compartments along with a small teaspoon measure which fits in the box. A good masala dabba will have a tight fitting lid in between the lid and the compartments of the box to ensure that the spices do not mix. 

The Indian cook will then fill these compartments with his/ her seven favorite and regularly used spices. You can fill the spices that you use frequently and personalize your "masala dabba". Cooking will become a breeze and you will not have to look for the spices, which get lost in the cabinets sometimes !

Here are the  basic spices that will help you get started. 


Red Chili and Red Chili powder

Red Chilies   or Lal Mirch (Hindi)Red chilies come in different varieties. Red Pepper is commonly known as "chilies" or "chili peppers," are fiery red or orange pods which rarely grow to more than 4 inches in length. Dried red chilies can be found in many Indian grocery stores. Also, a great alternative is to use the crushed red pepper from the pepper packets when you get your pizza.  

  • Goan Red Chilies : A large, very dark red chili which looks almost black when dried. It gives good color to dishes in which it is used and is not as pungent as some of the smaller varieties of chili

  • Kashmiri or "Degchi Mirchi" : These chilies are smaller and rounder and less pungent but give a very vibrant red color to a dish. 

Red Chili Powder  or Lal Mirch (Hindi) Indian chili powder is made from ground chilies. It is much hotter than the chili powder commonly found in most stores here in the US which is mostly a blend of red peppers and cumin, coriander etc. The ground product ranges from orange-red, to deep, dark red. Red pepper is a pungent, hot powder with a strong bite. Paprika is a mild form of the red chili powder. 

Turmeric Roots and Turmeric powder

Turmeric Powder or Haldi (Hindi) This smooth bright yellow powder is mildly aromatic and has scents of ginger. It has a pungent, bitter flavor.  Ground Turmeric comes from the dried, ground fingers which extend from the root, as shown above.  Though often called Indian saffron, it should never be confused with true saffron and the two may not be used interchangeably. Be careful while handling Turmeric powder as it can stain plastic and wooden utensils. Therefore, it is wise to keep special wooden spoons for making Indian food. 

Turmeric has been used medicinally throughout Asia to treat stomach and liver ailments. It also was used externally, to heal sores, and as a cosmetic. It is an excellent preservative and is therefore used extensively in pickles.

Cumin seeds and Cumin powder

Cumin Seeds  or Jeera (Hindi) Cumin has a distinctive, slightly bitter flavor yet flavors any dish with a sweet aroma. These brown aromatic small seeds give out more aroma when roasted or added to hot oil.  Cumin seeds do look a lot like caraway seeds, but but the flavors are completely different.

Cumin Seed Powder  or Jeera powder (Hindi) Cumin seeds powder is very commonly used in Indian cooking. It lends a sweet and mild flavor to a dish. It is one of the main ingredients in preparing "garam masala" This spice is used more extensively in the cuisine of North India. 


Coriander Seeds and Coriander powder

Coriander Seeds  or Dhania (Hindi) Coriander seeds are not inter-changeable with cilantro, although they are from the same plant. These seeds are very light weight and mildly flavored. Used in many spice mixtures, curries, vegetable dishes and pickles. 

Coriander Seed Powder  or Dhania powder (Hindi) Roasted coriander powder is an indispensable item in the Indian spice box. The aromatic fragrance enhances the taste of the dish. Coriander powder is used a lot in South Indian cooking. Make your own coriander powder in a mortar or food processor after dry roasting them. 

Dhania Jeera Powder is the mixture of "equal parts of Cumin and Coriander powder". this mixture is commonly used in Indian curries and masalas. You can make a mixture of this in your own kitchen using the freshly ground spices. 

Garam Masala - a combination of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and black pepper that can be used whole or in powdered form. Learn "All About Garam Masala" here.

Bay leaf

Bay Leaf-dried  or Tej Patta (Hindi) Bay Leaves come from the sweet bay or laurel tree. The dry light green colored long aromatic leaves and have a sharp, bitter taste. Mostly used in flavoring pulaos and some curries.   The whole leaves are used to impart a wonderful flavor only and are bitter and hard to chew. Removed at the time of eating.


Green Cardamom

Green Cardamom  or "Choti Elaichi" (Hindi)  Cardamom is sold whole or ground by Indian grocers. Ground cardamom is often used in Indian sweets. It is best to grind small quantities at home using a coffee mill. Ready-ground cardamom is not only expensive but because cardamom loses its natural oils quickly, it also loses its flavor. When a recipe calls for whole cardamom, the pods should always be opened up slightly to extract the full flavor of the cardamom, for it is the seeds that have the maximum flavor.

Black Cardamom

Black Cardamom  or "Badi Elaichi" (Hindi) This larger dark brown variety is used flavoring meat, poultry and rice dishes. The inner seeds are often used for making Garam masala. This spice is coarser in flavor and larger in size than the green cardamom. 

Cinnamon Stick

Cinnamon-sticks The bark of the Cassia tree is used mostly in India. The real cinnamon stick  which is found in the form of a scroll, are available in most supermarkets and have a more delicate flavor than the Cassia bark. Cinnamon sticks lend a sweet and mellow flavor to a dish. Although it is generally used in many desserts in many of the World cuisines it is mostly used in many curries and Puloas in Indian cooking. It gives a dish a very rich flavor.


Cloves-whole : Cloves are the dried flower buds of the clove tree. Cloves are strong, pungent, and sweet. Cloves are used in many meat dishes, marinades, pickles and in many "garam masalas". It is used whole or in powder form. 

When making your own clove powder take caution, clove oil can cloud some plastics. Clove oil can be has a lot of medicinal value. Many Indians chew on cloves to relieve toothaches and it is used also as a mouth freshener after a meal. Oil of cloves contains phenol, a powerful antiseptic that discourages putrefaction, and the clove is hence one of the spices that helps preserve food.

Saffron threads

Saffron : Saffron is the most expensive spice. Saffron threads as they are also called are orange-red dried stigmas of a small purple flower called the Crocus Sativus.  It imparts a very pleasing flavor as well as a golden yellow color. Saffron's aroma is unique and there is no substitute for it.  It is used for coloring and flavoring Indian curries, Pulaos and  Indian sweets. 

In Indian cooking it is highly prized and added to many Indian sweets and "special occasion" savory dishes like Biryani, Pulaos  and even some curries. Saffron is available in powdered form also. Saffron should always be bought as a whole and not in the powdered from. The threads should be crushed just before using. Store saffron airtight in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months or in the refrigerator.


A little pinch of the threads goes a long way. 

There are two techniques for getting every bit of flavor out of the saffron: 

  1. toasting and powdering the threads
  2. steeping the saffron ahead of time in hot water or broth. 

Now you are ready to know about 




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