The use of spices makes Indian food one of the most fragrant and exciting in the world. Many of these spices are used not just for cooking but also in the Temples of the country and for the treatment of common ailments. When you first begin to cook Indian style foods, one thing that makes an impression is the number of spices in some recipes. Whether you are using indigenous spices like black pepper and cardamom or those introduced by traders and invaders like chile or fennel, each has been studied and cataloged by Indian cooks.
There is an ancient science called Ayurveda, a holistic approach to health, in which some spices are known to heat the body ( cinnamon) , some to cool (garlic), some as digestive (asafetida), and some as antiseptics ( turmeric) , and so on. Indian cooks are known intuitively to regulate their diets with spices for optimum health.
Specific ground spice blends are popular in different regions of India. Garam masala, meaning “hot spices,” is thought to warm the body and is most popular in North India. Sambar masala is used throughout South India. This contains lots of chiles to make the body sweat and cool. As you begin to cook Indian recipes you will learn more and more about spices. You will note that different spices take on diverse flavors when handled in different ways. Combining different spices and cooking methods, make for different possibilities. The cook begins to see that layering of flavors is one of the joys of Indian cooking.
You can also go shopping for Indian breads and spices on the Net. Just search under ‘Indian spices’ and you’ll come up with a dozen or so possibilities. In gourmet shops, Madhur Jaffrey, star cookbook author of the Indian kitchen, sells kits of essential Indian spices and herbs at reasonable prices.
Ajwain Seeds: Popular in northwestern Indian cuisines, these tiny, grayish-green seeds are peppery when raw and more mild when cooked. They are thought to help with digestion.
Amchoor (mango powder): Made from unripe green mango slices that are dried in the sun, this is added to North Indian dishes. This powder is used in favor of dried mango slices.
Anardana (dried pomegranate seeds): Used to flavor foods and to act as a preservative (similar to the properties of lemon juice) and also as a thickening agent.
Asafetida: This is grown in Afghanistan and Western Kashmir and acts as a digestive in dals (dried lentils, peas, mung beans, etc) . Generally a pinch is added to very hot oil before other foods are added. Buy in the smallest amounts possible for freshness.
Bay Leaves: Introduced by the Mongols to India, bay leaves are used in rice and beef dishes. Western bay leaves are similar and can be substituted. Remove from dish before serving as a bay leaf can easily cut the mouth.
Cardamom: This expensive spice is the dried fruit of the ginger family. The pods, either green or white contain brown aromatic seeds. Whole pods are used to flavor rice and meat dishes but are not meant to be eaten. The seeds are ground for garam masala.
Fresh Chiles: India is the largest producer and exporter of chilies in the world and many Indian dishes contain them. Chilies range in color from bright green to deep red, depending on their ripeness. Mexican serrano or jalapeño as well as Thai chilies can be substituted for hot Indian chilies.
Chili Powder: The heat of ground dried chilies depends on the type of chile used. Indian dried chili powder is bright red and is mildly hot. In many recipes, New Mexican chili powder and paprika are combined for similar color and taste. Do not confuse Indian chili powder with the brown American south-western blend sold in supermarkets.
Cinnamon: Whole-stick cinnamon is often used in Indian rice and meat dishes for warm, sweet flavor and aroma. You can break sticks into small pieces and grind them in an electric grinder or use ground cinnamon available in supermarkets.
Cloves: The dried, unopened flower buds of clove trees, cloves are often used whole in rice and meat dishes. They are also ground for marsalas.
Fresh Coriander: Also known as cilantro, fresh coriander adds a lemony astringency to fresh chutneys, salads, and cooked dishes. To store fresh coriander with roots attached, remove any rubber bands, and submerge roots in water, covering the leafy tops with a plastic bag. It keeps in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Coriander Seeds: These beige seeds from the coriander plant offer sweet flavor and a pine-like aroma. Both seeds and plant are used in Indian cooking.
Cumin Seeds: These are used in all areas of India, both ground and whole and have a warm, bitter taste.
Curry Leaves: These slightly bitter, almond-shaped, dark green leaves are available fresh and dried. They are used in savories in South India and in Gujaret to embellish vegetarian dishes.
Curry Powder: A pulverized blend of up to 20 spices, herbs, and seeds, curry powder is freshly ground each day in India. Commercial curry powder (which bears little resemblance to freshly ground) is imported from India in two grades — standard and Madras (the hotter of the two). Store airtight and use within 2 months.
Fennel Seeds: Known for their sweet licorice flavor, these seeds are green when fresh, and yellow when dried. A mix of sugar-coated and plain fennel seeds is often served at the end of meals as a mouth freshener and digestive.
Fenugreek Seeds: These ochre-colored seeds give curry powders their musky aroma. They are used in pickles, chutneys and vegetarian dishes in North India and elsewhere in meat and fish dishes.
Ginger: Most Indian meat and vegetable dishes include fresh ginger. Look for taut, unwrinkled skin, and store in the refrigerator.
Fresh Mint: Native to Europe, this is used in chutneys, raitas, and drinks for its refreshing flavor — also used in rich curries in the North.
Mustard Seeds: Three varieties of mustard seed — white, reddish brown, and black are grown in India, but the reddish-brown is most often used. When crushed they are pungent and when cooked in oil they become nutty and sweet with a earthy aroma.
Nigella Seeds: Also known as kalonji, these are dried, unopened, flower buds of a small herb. They are used in North Indian naan bread, fish, and salads.
Sesame Seeds: These small seeds are sweet and nutty when cooked and are used to make chutneys, sweets, and are sprinkled over breads before baking.
Tamarind: The pulp of the tamarind tree pod is added to South Indian and Gujaret lentil dishes, chutneys, and curries. Tamarind is available as a block of fruit paste. Once soaked, it is slightly mashed and the pulp and juices are sieved, leaving husk, fibers, and any seeds behind.
Turmeric: India is the largest producer and exporter of this spice. It adds a bright yellow coloring and musky flavor to dishes. It is considered an antiseptic and preservative.