Get a breakdown on the dozen spices that are the backbone of Indian cooking. From black pepper to black mustard seeds, learn how and why each is used.
Common Indian herbs and spice ingriedients for preparation of Indian Cuisine in wooden trays on an old rough teak board table.
enviromantic / Getty Images
| Credit: enviromantic / Getty Images

Looking at even the most basic of Indian recipes can sometimes be overwhelming to those of us unfamiliar with the family of Indian spices. Sure, you probably already have cumin and nutmeg in your pantry, but mace and cardamom pods might require a special trip to a large, well-stocked grocery store or your local Indian or Asian market.

The good news is that once you've purchased just a few of these basic spices, you'll have a wealth of Indian recipes at your disposal since most rely on similar sets of flavors. The real key to making delicious dishes is buying the spices whole, if you can, then dry roasting them briefly before grinding, if the recipe calls for it. This will keep the flavors vibrant and blow any store-bought curry powder (that has undoubtedly been sitting on a shelf for months) out of the water.

Read below to learn about the pillar spices of Indian cuisine and how to use them in your cooking at home:

Black Pepper

Black pepper is a native plant to southern India, the present-day Malabar coast. It has a sharp and pungent scent with a subtle heat. Black pepper is often applied directly to dishes at the end of cooking, but also makes a key component in garam masala, the popular spice mix. Black pepper helps balance out the mix's sweeter spices like cinnamon and cardamom.

Black Pepper
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Cardamom requires a cautious hand when doling out the spice, because its intense flavor can end up overwhelming your dish. It's available in two varieties, green or black, and is a member of the ginger family. Green cardamom has a mild, sweet flavor and is a common ingredient in curries, rice dishes, chai, and desserts. The pods can be cooked or blended whole, or they can be popped open and the black seeds inside can be used in dishes. Black cardamom is dried over an open fire, which gives it a spicy and smoky flavor profile. Due to its intensity, the seeds are generally the only part that is used.

Cook with it: Indian Chicken Curry

Green Cardamom
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Cinnamon is often the backbone spice of rice and chutney dishes. It has a warm, slightly woody aroma and sweet taste. You can often find a whole stick of cinnamon hanging out in your plate of biryani or even steeping in chai. If you visit an Indian or Asian grocery store, you may notice something that looks like cinnamon called cassia bark, also sometimes known as Chinese cinnamon. Cassia bark is just a different type of bark from the cinnamon family, touting a milder taste and significantly cheaper production cost. It's actually commonly used interchangeably with cinnamon in Indian cooking, due to the cost-effectiveness. If a recipe you're following calls for cassia bark, you can substitute cinnamon but just reduce the amount you're using.

Cinnamon Quills
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Cloves make a regular appearance in Indian cooking. They're actually a flower that has been pressed and dried. Cloves have an anise-like flavor that packs a real punch, meaning it's important to count out cloves for your dishes instead of tossing in a handful. They are regularly cooked whole in rice dishes, or blended and added to curry powders to balance out more savory spices like coriander and cumin.

Cook with it: Chickpea Curry

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Coriander is a small, yellow seed from the parsley family that is widely used in Indian cooking. It has a lemony scent with a taste that includes sweet and tangy notes of citrus. Coriander seeds are a common ingredient for vegetarian soups like rasam and sambar. When ground, coriander is a key component for many spice blends, including garam masala. Fresh coriander leaves (known as cilantro in North America) are often chopped and served atop curry or rice dishes.

Cook with it: Aloo Gobi

Coriander Seed
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Cumin is a spice often used to add delicious aroma and earthy notes to dishes. It looks similar to other seeds used in Indian cooking, like fennel or anise, but can be differentiated through its brown color and smoky taste. Cumin is common in everything from rice to curry dishes and even savory lassi (yogurt) drinks.  It's a good idea to toast cumin seeds alone, as opposed to with other spices, because they cook quickly and when burnt have a bitter taste that will permeate your dish.

Cook with it: Red Lentil Curry

Cumin seeds
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Fennel Seeds

Fennel seeds have a distinctive licorice flavor and are used sparingly in Indian dishes. Added to curry blends, particularly in northwestern India, fennel seeds are also featured in side dishes like pickles and chutneys. You'll often find fennel served after meals, as an "after dinner mint" if you will, to aid with digestion. You can eat fennel seeds simply toasted, or buy them sugar coated at Indian grocery stores.

Fennel seeds
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Fenugreek Seeds

Fenugreek seeds are small yellow seeds that serve as the base for many store-bought curry mixes, contributing the characteristic earthy flavor and fragrance most of us have come to expect. Fenugreek seeds are also the key ingredient to homemade blends like Madras curry powder, a popular south Indian spice combination. Fenugreek leaves are used in Indian cooking as well, they're often dried (sold under the name kasuri methi) and used to flavor butter chicken.

Fenugreek seeds in a ceramic spoon
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Mace, not to be confused with the self-defense spray, is the outer covering of nutmeg. Once it's removed and dried, mace turns a light golden color and has a sweet and spicy flavor that's often compared to a combination of cinnamon and black pepper. It's a key component for bisi bele bath, a spicy dish of rice and lentils, and can be found in other spices mixes too.

Colorful Mace and Nutmeg Spices
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Mustard Seeds

Mustard seeds come in a trio of colors, all of which can be found in Indian cooking. Yellow, black, and brown seeds are available, with brown being the most commonly used in recipes. They have a rich and peppery flavor which lends itself to curries and spice blends. Mustard seeds are often used in tempering, an Indian technique of heating up oil or ghee and briefly roasting whole spices to let their natural oils release. The tempered oil or ghee is then poured over curries just before serving.

Cook with it: Bengali 5-Spice

Mustard grains
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Nutmeg is actually a large seed that's easily grated over dishes or blended with a spice mill. It has a pungent and pleasant flavor that works in both sweet and savory applications. Nutmeg adds depth to dishes like curries and desserts, plus a pinch or two can jazz up masala chai mixes. Never toast nutmeg before grating or grinding, this destroys the delicate flavor.

Cook with it: Indian Tomato Chicken

Nutmegs with grater
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Turmeric is a member of the ginger family and is available fresh or dried, but dried turmeric is more commonly used in Indian cooking. It has an earthy and slightly bitter taste that provides balance to curry and rice dishes. Turmeric is also known for its potential anti-inflammatory and healing properties, which is why a common drink for illness in India is haldi ka doodh, milk steeped with turmeric and black pepper. Turmeric adds a lovely golden hue to recipes but is notorious for staining everything from hands to countertops, so be careful when dishing it out.

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Check out our complete collection of Indian Recipes.

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