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As a spice lover, I’m often asked what spices are indispensable in Indian cooking. Condensing my Indian spice list is challenging because Indian cuisine varies greatly by state and region. Nonetheless, there are a handful of spices that pop up everywhere - from the rich dishes of Punjab to the coconut-infused curries of Kerala.
If you are new to Indian cooking, consider stocking your pantry with these seven basic spices. They’ll help you prepare a wide array of things - from an aromatic masala chai to basic stews like dal and meat dishes. Here's what you should add to your Indian spice list:
Indispensable in Indian dishes, this is a must-have spice. Turmeric is valued for its antiseptic, anti-cancerous and antiviral properties and adds a luscious brightness to curries. Use it at the beginning of the cooking process so the flavor mellows.
The Queen of Indian spices is used in everything from masala chai and garam masala to butter chicken. Choose between green (which has a more delicate flavor) and brown (which has a heartier flavor profile). Buy whole cardamom pods and grind them yourself.
Used mainly for baking in the West, cloves make a great addition to meat dishes, stews and basmati rice. They are used extensively in North Indian cuisine and are essential in chai and garam masala. Another bonus? Cloves are a great home remedy for toothaches.
Known in Hindi as rai, mustard seeds are used extensively throughout India. They pop up in rice dishes, the famous South Indian sambar and make an appearance in coconut chutneys. Cook the seeds in a small amount of oil and add them to your favorite dishes.
Ground cumin has an earthy flavor that you would recognize from Mexican food. However, in India the spice is used whole and toasted in oil when making rice and stews - which highlights its nuttiness. Due to its cooling properties, it is also added to drinks in the hot summer months.
Prized for its digestive properties and licorice-like flavor, fennel seeds feature in a wide array of spice blends. They are essential in masala chai and are commonly enjoyed with rock sugar after meals.
Dry red chilies
These dry chilies feature have a pleasant heat and are used extensively throughout central and southern India. They are sizzled in oil and added whole to rice, vegetables, meats and yogurt sauces.