Indian food is known for its spices. You can’t imagine it without spices, it’s like a body without a soul.
But some people are hesitant to cook Indian food. Mainly because of the vast array of spices used. No one wants to get it wrong, especially beginners.
They can feel like a deer caught in the headlights. “Shall I use this spice? How much of it should I put in?”.
Each spice has its unique taste, trying to remember the taste and how much to use can be intimidating. But if you understand the quality of the spices you’ll realise it’s not hard at all.
Become familiar with the spices by using them in your food regularly. Soon you’ll find yourself adding spices to your food without needing to measure.
So carry on reading to take your first step in becoming an expert chef.
Types of spices
Spices used in Indian cooking come in different forms, types and for different purposes.
Some spices are used whole. Not ground nor blended. While others will be used after being pounded by a traditional pestle and mortar or finely blended using a modern blender.
Roasting whole spices is also quite common as it releases more essential oils and flavours when blending into a spice mix.
Certain spices come from the root of the plant like ginger and turmeric while others will come from the bark of the plant like cinnamon. Seeds are also used as spices.
Some spices are used to infuse colour in the dish. While some will be used for tenderising and others to add flavour to the food.
Knowing which one is used for which job is key to cooking Indian food. Otherwise you risk smothering the food with too many flavours rather than improve the dish with subtle flavours
5 of the Essential Indian Spices
There are many herbs and spices but the following are 5 common spices to make Indian cuisine flavourful and fun.
Tiny, brown seeds used in a variety of ways.
Use them whole, ground or roasted to add a fabulous smokey zing to the food.
Cumins are mainly used in the base sauce and the fragrance of the cumin sizzling in the pan is often a key part of the curry. This spice gives a nutty, earthy flavour to the food.
A word of warning: this spice can easily burn, spoiling your dish, so take care when tempering.
Also known as turmeric.
This spice can be used fresh or dry.
Ground turmeric is mainly used in gravies and lentils. It gives the food an earthy consistency as well as a warm aroma and taste.
It’s often used to give the food a vibrant yellow colour. And that’s not all. Its medicinal properties also make it a popular spice to use in food.
It’s important to note fresh haldi is stronger than dried.
Oh yeah, a word of warning, turmeric stains very easily, so be very careful with your clothes and utensils otherwise you will end up with yellow marks on your clothes and utensils.
Cardamoms come in 2 different varieties, black and green.
Green is more common in Indian dishes than black.
Cardamom can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Usually fried in hot oil at the beginning of the cooking process to release the light sweet eucalyptus note.
Sometimes cardamoms are used by popping open the pod and lightly crushing the seeds over the food.
Cloves are an important part of curry pastes, biryanis and desserts. Even the legendary Masala tea is incomplete without it.
The flower, which the clove originates from, has a concentration of essential oils which are pressed out and drained before drying.
It offers an intense flavour and aroma with sweet and bitter tones.
But use it with caution as it can overpower the other delicate spices. Cloves are often paired with cinnamon, adding warmth to curries. Other uses of cloves involve it being used as a home remedy for toothaches.
Ginger and garlic paste
Ginger and garlic are a staple part of Indian cooking.
Lots of recipes call for ginger and garlic to be added with the onions or after frying the onions.
But trying to peel ginger, with all its nooks and crannies, and removing the outer layers of the garlic, then chopping them for each dish, every day, is not an easy job. There are a number of lifehacks out there to make this job easier, but, unfortunately, they don’t always work.
That’s why ginger and garlic paste is the perfect solution. The garlic and ginger are pulsed into a paste once and you’re good to go for weeks. Simply add a spoon of the ready-made paste to the pan.
The ginger and garlic gives off a strong aroma and is useful in tenderising the meat.