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�EUR(TM)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 these and print out labels using your computer.
Top Ten Essential Indian Spices
1. Lal Mirchand Dried Red Chilis �EUR” 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 �EUR” 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) �EUR” 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) �EUR” 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 �EUR” 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) �EUR” 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 �EUR” 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 �EUR” 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�EUR(TM)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 paste, 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.