What Indian Spices Do You Really Need?

August 23, 2010

I’m sure there’s a rule against this somewhere in the food blogging universe, but I’m going to do it anyways.  A little over a year ago, I posted The Top Ten Essential Indian Spices for North and South Indian cooking.  Yet, I continue to read about how Indian food requires so many (so many) spices.  Some things just bear repeating.

What do you think – did I miss any Indian spices that you can’t live without?  Are there any on this list that you never use?

Top Ten Essential Indian Spices


1. Red Chilies – 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.

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 – coriander 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 – 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 also commonly used in the South Indian tadka 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.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Pavani August 24, 2010 at 9:58 am

I’ll have to add Cumin seeds & Hing to make my Top Dozen Indian Spices I can’t live without.

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nithya August 24, 2010 at 11:41 pm

@Pavani – Hing – good add although I have to admit I’ve never made my way through a bottle. It must mean I haven’t experimented with it enough!

@Prerna – all a good add with the fenugreek seeds. I didn’t put tood daal on the list since it seemed to go more into the pantry items category than spice category. That’s terrible about Aashvi (lovely name). I’m hoping Surya stays a good eater, but I think as with everything about kids, it’s subject to change at her desire 🙂

@Shirin – I hope the list helps. When I did my cooking class back in June, a few students mentioned that the Indian grocery store is intimidating. That had never occurred to me before. I practically grew up in them between shopping trips and my parents owning one for a short period when I was middle school. But after hearing that, it makes complete sense!

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Shirin August 24, 2010 at 10:58 am

Thanks for posting this. I need to hit up my local Indian store and stock up so I can actually fix some of your recipes!

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Prerna@IndianSimmer August 24, 2010 at 12:05 pm

I also can’t live without fenugreek seeds & tuar daal.
Thanks for visiting my space Nithya! Yes my little one (Aashvi) does eat cantaloupe although it depends on her mood mostly. These days she’s going through some growth spurt I guess because she’s rejecting everything and feeding her anything is such a pain 🙁 Hope Surya is doing gr8.

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fresh365 August 25, 2010 at 9:30 am

Thanks for the list! I just went on a huge spice buying binge & added sambar powder & fenugreek seeds to my stash. I can’t wait to experiment with them!

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tania August 29, 2010 at 3:44 pm

maybe its because I’m southeast asian indian but my spice cupboard also always has a big salty block of prawn paste – belachan – which we use in curries to add depth. I also cheat nowadays and use smoked paprika with many dals because I loved the smokiness it adds along with the bright color!

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Kulsum@JourneyKitchen September 4, 2010 at 3:45 pm

This probably won’t be on top 10 list but should make it to the 11th place – chat masala. Or may its just me ? I love me some chat masala. I also can’t do without cardamom pod. Basically I’m a spicoholic and am obsessed with collecting spices. Nothing makes me feel more horrible then to read about a spice and not have it in my spice rack. Yes! Help! need a psychiatric:)

Lovely blog!

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