How to Use Indian Spices (for Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced Cooks)
I come from an Italian background with lots oregano in my spice cabinet but little experience with other spices. Recently, my daughter came home from her best friend's house describing wonderful Indian meals and snacks the mom made for her.
I asked the mom for recipes and spice ideas that might work for beginning, intermediate, and more advanced cooks. I assumed I would need to shop at the Indian market to produce the warmly-spiced meals but found many spices used in Indian cooking are available at my grocery stores.
To bring the wonderful aromas and tastes of India to your own cooking, start with easy spices available at your grocery store and graduate to spices from the Indian market. Along the way, you may just find new friends to cook with and new spice friends to add to your pantry.
Begin at the Spice Beginning
There are two main regional types of Indian cooking: North and South. My friend is from Southern India and shared her recipe for family favorite South Indian Chicken 65, including accessible cumin and ginger.
My friend's first suggestion was vibrantly-colored paprika because it is easy to purchase in grocery stores, not difficult to measure and use, and adds spice and color to recipes. I was familiar with paprika but was eager to use the red-hued spice in Indian recipes as well.
Friend Tip: Adjust how much paprika you use like you would salt and pepper. Use more for a higher spice level.
Cook with it! Lamb Shank Vindaloo
Ground Cumin Seeds
The next beginning level spice my friend recommended is cumin (jeera). It's readily available at your local grocery store and a smoky-flavor staple in many Indian recipes.
Friend Tip: If you don't know how much cumin to use, be cautious. Too much cumin can make a dish taste like only the cumin spice, overpowering the other flavors.
Cook with it! Alicia's Aloo Gobi
Another accessible and widely-used ingredient is garam masala, which is actually a combination of spices including: fennel, black and white peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, mace, black and green cardamom pods, cumin, and coriander. This spice blend should be locally available, and it doesn't take an experienced cook to learn the effects of garam masala on dishes.
Friend tip: While you can purchase garam masala in grocery stores and markets, also consider making it according to your own flavor preferences.
Cook with it! Easy Chicken Korma
Indian Tellicherry Black Peppercorns
A pepper option, Indian Telicherry or Thalaserry Black Peppercorns add a great hit of spiciness but also can have positive health effects on colds and chest congestion.
Cook with it! Add Tellicherry Pepper to Tomato Rasam soup to up balance the recipe's tomato tanginess.
Step Up Your Spice Level!
My friend gave me a list of her three favorite intermediate spices. If you've been cooking Indian food and have mastered some of the easier spices, she suggested moving on to these flavor-adding favorites. As you add spices, you'll be building layers of flavor with multiple warm spices like paprika, fennel, fenugreek, and turmeric. Her personal recommendations for recipe options using intermediate level spices include Kadai Paneer and Chicken Tikka Masala.
Fenugreek (kasuri methi) may not be found in your local grocery store; a trip to your local Asian or Indian market could be necessary. Used in the right quantity, it adds a very rich flavor and aroma to a dish.
Friend tip: With its distinctive licorice flavor, a little fenugreek goes a long way; the more you add, the more bitter the dish can get.
Cook with it! Makhani Chicken (Indian Butter Chicken)
Cardamom (badi elaichi) is a staple in many Indian kitchens. However, it can be hard to use in the right quantity — too much and the dish doesn't taste great. Used correctly, cardamom adds an amazing aroma to any recipe, and the tang it adds to a dish is so special.
Friend tip: Try cardamom in a sweet application with sweet rose-water and pistachio dessert, Gulab Jamun.
Cook with it! Indian Style Basmati Rice
Another intermediate level spice is turmeric (mangal or haldi). Even though turmeric can get a little too bitter if you add too much, the right amount of turmeric adds a vibrant color and taste that no other spice delivers. The brilliant color of turmeric will stain everything from your fingers to kitchen counters; be cautious when using it.
Friend tip: Take note of the potential health benefits of turmeric: anti-inflammatory and healing.
Cook with it! Curry Stand Chicken Tikka Masala Sauce
Layering in More Advanced Spices and Flavors
Once you've explored some of the more familiar and accessible spices, my friend suggests moving on to star anise (chakri phool), fennel seeds (saunf), and brilliantly-colored saffron (kesar). Creating recipes like Chicken Biryani with saffron and fennel is a way to deepen flavors and colors of traditional Indian foods.
Friend tip: Fennel seeds are also used for their digestive health benefits and breath freshening qualities.
I asked what spice she would bring back from India that might be inaccessible in the States, and she mentioned black stone flower (kalpasi). Adding a small piece of stone flower to a familiar Chicken Biryani recipes adds yet another depth of spice.
To cool down a spice-filled meal, my friend suggests adding a hint of saffron to a favorite, ice cream-like dessert, Kulfi. As my friend and I cook our way through spices in her kitchen and mine, a cool, sweet treat sounds like the perfect way to celebrate friendship and spices!
All of the spices listed here are available at either Target or Amazon online or your local Indian or Asian markets with most costing under $10. For a small investment, you can integrate new spices and Indian recipes into your cooking line-up.
Check out our collection of Indian Recipes.