Updated: Dec 26, 2020
How such a tiny body can contain the most extraordinary aromas and flavors is fascinating! I believe that spices captivate us with their enormous power, their ability to make us travel and dream, to evoke memories of places we have visited long ago, and those we have never been to. Spices work their power in our senses and our imagination.
Not many kitchens contain such an extensive array of essential Indian spices as Indian cuisine. All of them are essential. The spices of India are the great symbol of indigenous gastronomy. Let's meet a handful of its protagonists.
Opening this list is the least known of all the spices that I’m going to mention. Besides curry leaves, it is the only one that is used almost exclusively in Indian cuisine.
And what is the amchoor? Well, it is nothing other than mango powder. The fruit is harvested while it is still green, then dried and ground. Thus, an aromatic powder condiment with an intense, bittersweet, and fruity flavor is obtained, perfect for flavoring curries, soups, chutneys, and marinades, among many other preparations.
We all know cinnamon as that sprig or powder that is used in some sweets. In India (as in other countries), they use this sweet, delicate, and warm flavor in savory dishes, such as curries, rice dishes, stews, and chicken recipes. This creates a unique taste with contrast.
The most appreciated cinnamon is Ceylon, softer and without the bitterness that cassia or Chinese cinnamon generally presents.
3. Coriander Seeds
Cilantro has finally started to become popular in many countries. At least its leaves are used, like aromatic grass. I have a feeling that it will still be a while until its roots and seeds are also seen in many homes' cupboards around the world.
India is "a few" years ahead of the world, as they use the entire plant. The seeds are especially important: they are used for flavoring and thickening, as they absorb liquids very well. They have a delicate aroma and a slightly earthy flavor with a citrus note.
The seeds are usually ground and mixed with other spices. They serve as a condiment in all kinds of Indian cuisine but go incredibly well with lamb, pork, beef, and fish.
Cumin is one of the essential Indian spices, as it is used in many other cuisines worldwide. In other countries, people usually buy it in powder form, however, the common thing is to take the seeds and toast them or grind them if the recipe requires it. It has an unmistakable taste: earthy, musky, bitter, and slightly spicy. I love cumin!
It combines incredibly well with chili, meat, beans, and legumes in general, and is a staple in Indian curries.
If there is something that turmeric draws attention to, it is its color: whatever it touches, it leaves its intense and vibrant pigment. Its footprint is unmistakable. Many people don't know that this orange powder comes from a root very similar to that of ginger.
It was known as "Indian saffron" for its similar color in medieval Europe. This story reminds me of the achiote (a spice that turns food yellow).
There are more than 30 varieties of turmeric in India. Its sweet, warm, earthy, and slightly spicy flavor is used to flavor curries and fried dough, poultry, legumes, and rice. It combines very well with black pepper, chili, cumin, coriander, and mustard seeds.
6. Curry leaves
There are small trees, known as "curry trees," that produce leaves highly valued in Indian cuisine. Go ahead; curry leaves have nothing to do with curry powder (British invention).
They are not as raw a species as others that we mention in this list, but they cannot be missing in your kitchen if you face an Indian recipe book.
The fresh leaves have a strong aroma, with citrus and herbal notes. These qualities are much more subtle in the case of dry leaves. Curry leaves are used as a base seasoning in (oh, surprise) curries and legume-based preparations.
According to an expert chef friend of mine, the correct way to use them is as follows: the leaves are crushed a little in your hand and added to the hot oil, where they are lightly sautéed with the rest of the spices. Thus, all the oil is soaked in flavor, ready to receive the vegetables and other raw materials that will star in the dish.
7. Nutmeg and Mace
I’m going in with a 2 in 1: two Indian cooking spices obtained from the same fruit (nutmeg). On the one hand, I have the nutmeg, a hard and rounded seed that I saw when I was little in the cupboard without knowing very well the uses that my mother had for it.
The other, less known, is mace. It is about the aril that surrounds the seed, that orange and rubbery network. The two share a fresh, woody, warm aroma and flavor, with a sweet and spicy note. They are used in sweet and savory preparations, alone or combined in mixes of spices. I use them in stews, soups, and creams, and as a condiment in egg, chicken, lamb, and pork dishes. Also, they are widely used in spicy cookies and cakes.
8. Mustard Seeds
Although there are almost forty mustard varieties, the three main ones are black, yellow, and brown mustard. All three types are used in Indian cuisine, although the most important is black mustard.
Black mustard seeds have a strong, bitter, and spicy taste. They are used in curries, stir-fries, soups, and creams. It is advisable to sauté them in hot oil so that they release their full potential. Sometimes the seeds are crushed into a paste to flavor fish and vegetables.
This is one of the tastiest of Indian cooking spices, known for its anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial qualities, and has been used in many forms in ancient medicines. Cloves contain nutrients that aid digestion and reduce inflammation. It is a primary ingredient and one of the essential Indian spices, but it does not originate from it. It would have been brought in the 13th or 14th century.
In powder or grain, black pepper can be used by default to season your dishes because it goes well with almost anything. Be careful though, it is the spiciest and most aromatic of peppers; a pinch is enough to spice up a dish.
Indian cuisine differs by region and, in particular, according to the spices used. The basis of all dishes, regardless of their origin, is masala (which means spice in Hindi). The richness and power of Indian dishes' flavors derive from the quantity and diversity of the spices used. The proportions of each spice are generally adapted to the tastes of the individual. Thus, by varying the quantities used in the "masala mix," we obtain a very different final flavor.