Indian spices in your pantry
With Indian food being as yummy as it is, it is not surprising that many people cook Indian meals occasionally. But if you are starting out, the spice isle at the local Indian store can be hugely confusing. There are at least fifty different spices and hundreds of variations with powders and mixes. Fortunately, a well chosen few will get you most of the way.
Minimalist set: Most Indian households, store their spices in a box, Masaala dabba, which can typically hold seven spices including salt. The following combination of spices is from my mother-in-law’s masaala dabba.
- Cumin (Jeera) seeds
- Coriander (Dhania) seeds
- Mustard seeds (Rai)
- Turmeric powder (Haldi)
- Black peppercorn (Kali Mirch)
- Kashmiri Red Chilli powder, non-spicy but gets a great curry color
Cumin/coriander is often used in multiple ways – roasted or not and/or finely ground or crushed or whole. Mustard seeds are often used whole or in paste. Peppercorn uses are similar to elsewhere in the world – whole, crushed or finely ground. So, even with this minimalist set, a very large variety of tastes can be achieved.
An enthusiastic cook’s set: These days, cooking shows and cookbooks have made cooking non-regional dishes popular among young Indians. Following spices are regional – mostly northern Indian – and recipes ask for one over other.
- Methi (Fenugreek) seeds
- Asfoetida (Hing) powder
- Kasoori Methi (Dry fenugreek leaves)
- Fennel (saunf) seeds, the smaller ones called the “Lucknow” variety are sweeter
- Black onion seeds (Kalonji)
- White sesame seeds (Til)
- Carom seeds (Ajwain or Radhuni, two distinct variations)
- Poppy seeds (Khas Khas)
- Pomegranate seeds
- Jaggery (Gur), date palm is preferred over sugar cane
- Black salt (Kala Namak)
- Mango powder (Amchoor)
- Tamarind (Imli)
- Fiery red pepper in pods
Aromatics: The aromatics in Indian kitchen are surprisingly similar to aromatics elsewhere. They are quite expensive in India and are usually bought in small quantities before some festive occasion:
- Green cardamom (Choti Elaichi) seeds in pods
- Black cardamom (Badi Elaichi) seeds in pods, this may be the most unique of all
- Cinnamon stick (Dalchini)
- Clove (Lavang)
- Bay Leaves (Tej patti)
- Star Anise
- Nutmeg (Jaiphal)
- Mace (Javitri)
- Saffron (Kesar)
Garnishes: Typical garnishes are same as in Mexican cuisine – coriander leaves, mint leaves and lime.
A few of the aromatics you commonly bake with, some of the common salsa ingredients and half a dozen Indian spices will take you most of the way to making excellent Indian curries.