Building Blocks of Indian Cooking, Part I: Spices and Flavorings

Cooking an Indian meal or recipe conjures up this image of drowning in an array of spices and exotic ingredients that is hard to find. Plus all the steps seem so overwhelming and confusing, that you are ready to pick up the phone and order your take-out instead. My mission has always been to break down that barrier and give my customers ease and confidence to go ahead and dip their foot into the world of Indian cooking. Whether you are a beginner cook or an advanced practitioner, my hope is that you will find some tips in these blog posts that help you in your journey of exploring Indian cuisine - a little or a lot.

In my opinion, if you know some of the key spices that are repeatedly used in Indian recipes and some of the key techniques that are used in the process, you will feel confident to tackle most recipes.

Here are a list of spices that are helpful to have handy. You don't need to go and get them all at once, you might already some in your pantry. If you have a South asian grocery store near you, I highly recommend a trip, because you are likely to find all of these in one go, and they will probably me much more economical than going to your regular grocery store. 

Seed and whole  spices have a different use than powdered spices in the process. I am going to list them as such so your learning and shopping can be more structured. Please remember, this is not an exhaustive list of ALL spices in Indian cooking. I am keeping it simple here and you can tackle 95% of Indian recipes with these key ingredients

Seed/Whole spices for your pantry

  • Cumin seeds - Jeera
  • Mustard seeds - Sarson
  • Coriander Seeds - Dhania
  • Fenugreek Seeds - Methi
  • Onion Seeds - kalajeera, kalonji
  • Green cardamom - Elaichi
  • Cloves - Lavang
  • Cinnamom - Dalchini
  • Whole black pepper
  • Bayleaf - Tejpatta
  • Whole red chilli pepper

Powdered spices for your pantry

  • Cumin powder

  • Coriander powder

  • Turmeric powder
  • Chilli powder
  • Garam Masala ( a blend of several spices - cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg etc)
  • Black pepper
  • Amchoor
  • Asafoetida

Other flavoring ingredients

  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Cilantro 
  • Curry Leaves

And lastly, a the most important practice to keep in mind when using spices - LESS IS MORE. You can always add and adjust.

The biggest characteristic of Indian home cooking is the masterful balance of spices. It's an art passed down for generations, grandmother to mother to daughter. Rarely have I seen my mother and grandmother use a recipe book. Much of the knowledge, like ethnic cooking worldwide, is anecdotal. Spices were always meant to impart the food a nourishing, healing quality, AND enhance taste. This philosophy was based on the ancient science of Ayurveda. On that foundation was added many layers of influences by conquerers and invaders who brought flavors from around the world, most importantly, Persian. Never was the intention to overwhelm the food you are cooking and cover up it's natural flavors. If you are used to Indian takeout as your only source of Indian food, this might surprise you. While tasty, it still plays to a formula and an exaggeration much like Chinese food in America.