10 Essential Indian Spices

December 25, 2008

One of the best care packages I ever received was a full set of basic Indian spices that my sister put together in labeled jars.  Having the right spice on hand or not can take a great recipe and destine it either to a long, sad life in your junk drawer or earn it a spot in the line up of your regular favorites.  

I’ve put together a list of the ten essential Indian spices for North and South Indian cooking – a recipe here or there may call for a spice more off the beaten path but the spices below are the common spices called for in most Indian recipes.  If you’re looking for a last minute holiday present, you could follow my sister’s lead and make this into a gift for a beginner cook exploring Indian cooking or one looking to just get more organized. Just buy some cute mason jars like theseir.gif and print out labels using your computer.

Top Ten Essential Indian Spices


1. Lal Mirchand Dried Red Chilis – red chili powder or cayenne pepper, commonly used in North and South Indian cooking for a spicy kick and made of powdered, dried red chilis.  Dried chili powders are also a main part of a South Indian tadka.  Dried red chilis give off less heat than the powdered form.   

2. Turmeric – bright yellow in color, turmeric is known for its many medicinal properties and gives a yellow tinge to dishes.  It’s used in both South and North Indian cooking.     

3. Garam Masala – a mix of cinnamon, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cardamom seeds, black peppercorns, cloves and nutmeg – a North Indian all spice of sorts.

4. Coriander Powder (Dhaniya) – coriander, also referred to as cilantro, can be purchased as whole seeds or a powder and is used in both South and North Indian cooking. In a pinch, you can substitute coriander seeds for the powder and vice versa.

5. Cumin Powder (Jeera) – cumin can also be purchased as whole seeds or a powder, which are also interchangeable, and is used in both South and North Indian cooking.

6. Split Urad Dhal – although this is actually a lentil with a black exterior covering a white interior, the skinned, split version is commonly used in the South Indian tadka (tempering). Whole urad dhal is the lentil used in North Indian curries.

7. Split Channa Dhal (also known as Bengal gram) – also a lentil, this yellow split dhal is commonly used in the South Indian tadka (tempering) for preparing, among other items, upama, sambar and yogurt rice. A good substitute are yellow split peas.  The whole lentil is used in North Indian curries.

8. Mustard Seeds – these little black balls are commonly used in South Indian cooking as part of the tadka and are known for their digestive properties.  They release their full flavor when popped.  

9. Curry Leaves – these are leaves of the kari plant, and the fragrance and flavor that these leaves add to the South Indian tadka is spicy, fresh and comforting. You can purchase these fresh at an Indian grocery and, although not ideal, you can freeze them or dry them. I broke down and bought a curry leaf plant, which I’ve been cultivating in a pot indoors.  

10. Tamarind Paste – tamarind is actually a fruit which has a sour and acidic taste.  It’s commonly used in South Indian dishes to gives this taste.  The easiest to use form is a concentrated pasteir1.gif, which you dilute by mixing in a little water before using.

A few that were in close contention for the top ten and likely warrant a spot in your masala rack were sambar powder, rasam powder and fenugreek seeds (methi).  Also, for those interested to read more about the South Indian tadka mentioned above, Indira at Mahanandi has a great post describing it, which you can find here.

I would love to hear from anyone else about what spices they think are essentials for Indian cooking.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

rachey December 26, 2008 at 12:18 pm

I’m always confused when to use seeds vs. powders (coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard). And then there’s the option of turmeric root or turmeric powder… Is there a rule of thumb you use when deciding which form of a spice to add to a dish?

Reply

nithya December 27, 2008 at 6:15 pm

Rachey, agreed, the cooking time when using seeds is longer b/c seeds have to be cooked longer in order to release the oils which gives off the spice’s flavor whereas a powdered spice and the accompanying flavor becomes more quickly absorbed into the dish. Some people recommend always purchasing the seed form of a spice when possible b/c seeds retain their flavor longer than a ground powder (which has likely already been sitting on a shelf for sometime before you buy it). You can grind seeds either in a mortar and pestle or using a coffee bean grinder (a staple appliance in many desi kitchens) or you could crush them using a knife or the back of a spoon. Kind of cumbersome IMO. Sometimes you may want to use the seeds versus or in addition to the powder b/c as mentioned the seeds do impart a slighly different flavor and – not to be vain- but they are also a pretty garnish. Hope that helps! Any other thoughts would be greatly appreciated in the comments!

Also, I’ve never used turmeric root and have only ever seen South Indian recipes call for mustard seeds not mustard powder.

Reply

B.V December 27, 2008 at 2:23 pm

No rules. People were using whole spices until grinders were invented. Using powderded spices makes cooking easier and quicker. Even if you use the whole, you end up grinding them. I have not seen any one using turmeric root.

Reply

Raj December 29, 2008 at 10:36 am
Veena Sharma December 29, 2008 at 7:38 pm

In dishes where you want the flavor as well as the decoration we put the seeds and also want the crunchiness of the spices we roast the seeds and use it. Powdered spices are preferable in making curries as they help in thickening the curries. I am not aware anyone uses turmeric root instead of turmeric powder.

Reply

monique Baldew February 22, 2009 at 10:16 am

Please give advise how to make vindaloopasta

Reply

nithya February 22, 2009 at 1:22 pm

Monique, here’s a recipe that I posted awhile back for Vindaloo pasta http://www.hungrydesi.com/2008/10/22/roasted-tomato-vindaloo-sauce/.

Reply

Mikyhelli October 30, 2010 at 2:37 am

Indian Masala is used in large scale to make food tastier
Major indian spices

Reply

M October 18, 2012 at 8:51 am

Hi i love your blog. But i need a suggestion. I am from India as well. Where could i purchase mason jars from? what’s the indian name.. hope it’s not too dumb a question. thank you

Reply

JANE FORKER March 3, 2013 at 10:38 am

GREAT WEBSITE!!

Reply

lalji kamaliya October 7, 2014 at 8:20 am

Asian Food Export. Manufacturer & Exporter of dehydrated onion & garlic.

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lalji kamaliya October 7, 2014 at 8:21 am

Asian Food Export. Manufacturer & Exporter of dehydrated onion & garlic.
http://www.asianfoodexport.com

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Virdhara International July 4, 2015 at 1:09 am

Virdhara International is manufacturer producer exporter supplier of Indian Whole Spices, Ground Spices, Oil Seeds, Cumin Seeds, Sesame Seeds from Unjha Gujarat India

Reply

Indian Whole Spices Manufacturer July 8, 2015 at 7:36 am

Welcome to Adya Global best quality product of Red Chilli Powder, Tamarind Block, Black Pepper, Cumin Seeds, Fenugreek Seed, and all Indian spices available at adyagroup.

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