An Indian Spice Pantry


People often tell me they love to cook but have no idea where to start when it comes to Indian dishes. They are also put off by not wanting to buy a million different ingredients. And this is really why I started Veena’s Market. The whole process of trying a new cuisine and getting familiar with a few recipes is such a thrill. For those of you interested in cooking Indian recipes on your own, I want to help!

It’s no secret that the symphony of spices is what gives Indian food its complex and mysterious flavor. If the spices are the musicians, you are the conductor. Spices impart different flavors based on when they are added to the cooking process, if they are added whole or ground, and in what proportions. Today, I’ll leave you with a primer on basic spices and practical suggestions for buying and storing spices.

Buy whole rather than powdered spices and avoid pre-made mixtures. And please please please never buy anything called Curry Powder! As you learn to make the blends for different recipes, you can adjust the relative quantities of the ingredients to suit your taste. And then you don’t need to stock up on a different blend for a different curry.  Most commercial blends have too much of the cheaper ingredients anyway.

Store your spices in airtight jars and they will last a good two to three years. To make spice blends, I generally roast whole spices in a non-stick skillet on medium-low heat for 5 minutes and then grind them in a coffee grinder. I don’t use this grinder for anything else. I’ve tried a few grinders and read many reviews. The one I like is a Delonghi coffee grinder that I bought at Crate & Barrel.

The following list of spices is what I consider essential to have in your pantry if you are serious about cooking Indian food. There are many more spices but you can add them to your collection later as you need them. These you will likely need in every other recipe. This list also includes spices common to South Indian cooking.

Cumin

An ancient spice native to Egypt, cumin is widely used in Mexican and Indian cuisines. It is said to aid in digestion and be a rich source of iron.  If you like yoghurt, spice up plain yoghurt with a bit of salt and whole cumin that has been roasted over medium heat on a skillet for a few minutes.

Coriander

An herb and a spice, this versatile plant has antibacterial properties[1].  The herb and the spice are referred to as coriander though in the Americas, the term cilantro is often used for the herb. Add a pinch of coriander powder to mashed potatoes for flavor and you’ll get a good sense of its taste profile.

Black mustard seed

These seeds are added whole to hot cooking oil and will ‘split’ or crackle when cooked. This process is called tempering the oil and is a very common first step or last step in cooking Indian recipes. The Divine Dosa and the Delicious Daal kits from Veena’s Market both use this process. You can substitute brown (but not yellow) mustard seeds.

Green cardamom

These wonderfully aromatic seeds are contained in pods that are typically sold dried. The blend in Veena’s masala used in many kits contain both the green and black varieties for extra aroma and flavor. Cardamom is a must have ingredient for making Indian chai and adds great flavor in many desserts. If you make milk shakes or lassi (a yoghurt drink that can be sweet or savory) at home, add a big pinch of freshly powdered cardamom.

Red Chilies

Chilies are originally from South America and only made their way into India in the 16th century thanks to the Portuguese. The Guinness Book of World records named a chili called the Bhut Jolokia from the Assam region of India as the hottest chili in the world in 2007.  This is the one spice where I will sometimes use the powdered version vs. the whole. Some chilies are OK, but the hotter ones do burn your skin. Another reason is that many Indian recipes call for Kashmiri chilies which can be hard to find in the US.

Cinnamon

True cinnamon grows only in Sri Lanka and is also called Ceylon Cinnamon. What is typically sold as cinnamon in the US is actually Cassia. Cinnamon is lighter in color, flakier and easier to break. Its taste is more complex and sweeter than that of cassia. You’ll notice the aroma is different as well. It’s also more difficult to find. If you do make that cup of chai using cardamom, add some cinnamon as well. It’s just perfect for a rainy day!

Cloves

Cloves are strongly aromatic and help add wonderful heat to a dish. While often added whole to a dish, they are not really meant to be eaten as the flavor is too strong. But it precisely because of their strong flavor that some people will chew on them to freshen their breath. My grandmother would always have a few cloves handy in her purse!

Black pepper

The rounded pepper we consume today is a variation of the long pepper that is native to India. Long pepper was the primary method of adding heat to a dish before the introduction of chilies into India. The best peppercorn still comes from the Malabar Coast of India.

Indian Bay leaves

The Indian bay leaf is not of the same species as the bay laurel but is closely related to the cinnamon tree. While you can often do without bay leaves in a dish, I’ve added it here as I think it adds a wonderful fragrance. The dried leaves are commonly used in the Mughal cuisine of North India. It is usually OK to substitute bay laurel for Indian bay leaves.

Curry Leaves

These aromatic leaves are used in South Indian cooking mostly and impart a heady aroma. The fresh leaves are added to hot oil right after the tempering process. It is often difficult to find fresh leaves. When I do, I buy a lot, dry them at home and store them whole. Before I cook, I crush the leaves in my palm to release the flavor. Often dried and crushed curry leaves are sold. Don’t bother buying this as there is no flavor left.

Turmeric

This rhizome which is also a powerful natural dye (so be careful when cooking with it!) is a key ingredient in South Indian curries. It has a lovely earthy smell and a distinct flavor. Many commercial curry blends add too much turmeric causing a slightly bitter aftertaste especially when the spice blend is not fully “cooked”.

Asafetida

Due to its strongly pungent odor, the name for asafetida in many languages translates to “devil’s dung”[2]. Indeed, if you don’t store this spice in an airtight container, it will contaminate the flavors of other spices stored close by! But don’t be put off by this description! This is really an amazing spice. Amazing flavors are released when it is cooked in oil. Asafetida is an ingredient in many curries due to its flavor and um, how shall I say it, its very useful property of helping to digest food! If you are gluten intolerant or celiac, please note that commercial asafetida is often stabilized with wheat. Please check the ingredients or ask.

So that’s it. That is the basic list of spices for Indian cuisines. There are of course many more but I’m TRYING to keep this list short! Do you have a favorite spice? If you could add one more spice to this list, what would it be?

I hope you enjoy stocking up on these spices, cooking and experimenting with them! And if you’re looking for one of our recipe kits that already includes all the spices you need, you’ll find them here.


[1] The World’s Healthiest Foodshttp://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=70

[2] Gernod Katzer’s Spice Pages, http://www.uni-graz.at/~katzer/engl/Feru_ass.html

7 Comments

Filed under India, Spices

7 responses to “An Indian Spice Pantry

  1. Florian Hanke

    Thanks for this enticing and fun-to-read entry, Veena!

    My favorite spice is already on the list: The versatile and meal-freshening Bay Leaf. It’s hard to get fresh here, I’m afraid. I tried it in a caribbean version of a tomato sauce, with lots of old and soft tomatoes, coconut milk, butter, celery, onions, a bit of potato and carrot, crushed bay leaves (of course) – let it simmer for hours, then a lemon, cut into eight pieces, thrown in whole. Finally a few drops of my special Barack Obama fiery sauce (available only on Antigua) ;) Refreshing, with Oomph!

    The Asafetida sounds very intriguing! I looked it up here: http://books.google.ch/books?id=fhN0VK2608QC&pg=PA156&lpg=PA156&dq=portuguese+fetida&source=bl&ots=LMLmmpBskI&sig=6AmMXTWNKDgFPRysgKx_mVj8BRY&hl=de&ei=rS2QS7v5IIW5_QbSqdmCDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CBcQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=portuguese%20fetida&f=false
    In German it’s called “Teufelsdreck”, devil’s dirt :) You omitted (intentionally?) that it’s also called “food of gods”. Quite promising.
    Anyway, thanks for the pointer to this spice – I hope to hunt it down here somewhere.

    Have fun and keep writing!

    • I’m out of coconut milk and coconut otherwise, I’d be making your Caribbean dish for lunch!
      You should be able to find asafetida (or ask for Hing) in an Indian grocery store. I think there is one on the same street as your Kottu Rotti restaurant.

  2. Florian Hanke

    Thanks! I’ll try finding it there.

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