Indian dishes are incomplete without their spices. Along with salt and a variety of peppers, each spice adds its own unique flavor and aroma the dish. Different combinations and quantity of spices add to the overall experience of cooking.
Here is a short-list of spices that I often use in my dishes and like to experiment with. I will keep updating this list with new information.
While words can’t do justice to describing spices totally, I hope this list will serve you as a ready reckoner when you are in the mood for experimentation with Indian food. This should help you make a dish with your own unique flavor or guide you when you are confused about which spice to use or substitute.
Cumin Seeds (Jeera)
Cumin seeds are popular for their flavor and aroma and are believed to help with digestion. In many dishes, cumin seeds are used by first frying them in ghee on a pan, until they turn golden and start crackling. The aroma of cooked cumin makes dishes more inviting. You may also boil cumin seeds in water and drink it to aid digestion.
Indian Bay Leaves (Tej Patta)
Indian Bay Leaves are very versatile. They are used not only in popular rice dishes such as biryani but also in vegetables (such as Achari Aloo), dals (such as Dal Makhani) and curries (like Palak Chicken). Bay leaves can be used either crushed or as whole leaves. When crushed they tend to have a stronger flavor. Although the flavors of Bay Leaves vary depending on their origin, they are all wonderful to use, and may be used interchangeably in Indian dishes.
Black Cardamoms (Kaali Elaichi)
Black cardamoms are dark brown or blackish in color. They add a smoky aroma and flavor and are often used in rice and other dishes. They are used as whole or slightly grounded with a mortar and pestle, most of the time.
Green Cardamoms (Hari Elaichi)
Green cardamoms are smaller that black cardamoms and have a thinner outer skin. In addition to using them in rice, vegetables, dals and curries, cardamom is also used in Indian desserts. Green cardamoms also find their place in home remedies for relieving cough and cold, often used by crushing them and then using with ginger and pepper while making chai (black tea with milk).
Cinnamon Sticks (Daal Chini)
Cinnamon is unique because it comes from the bark of a tree. As the bark has a kind of sweet but neutralizing flavor, so Cinnamon is used to balance the rest of the spices that can sometimes be too hot when used alone. Cinnamon is used both in powered form as well as in sticks form. Just like Cardamom, Cinnamon can be used in a variety of Indian savory dishes, desserts and tea.
Cloves are unopened flower buds of the evergreen clove tree. They are uniquely warm, sweet and aromatic. Cloves are often paired with Cinnamon and / or Cumin Seeds in Indian cooking. They are used in both ground and whole forms. When using ground cloves, usually a small quantity is sufficient. They have been used in Indian home remedies for problems like toothaches and indigestion.
Coriander Seeds (Dhaniya Seeds)
Coriander Seeds have a warm citrus flavor, with a nutty aroma. When used whole, they add an extra crunch and bursts of flavor in to the dishes. On the other hand, the flavor blends into the dish when you use ground coriander seeds in your dishes. For an in-between experience, you may use slightly pounded coriander seeds. You can add variety to dishes where it is used (like Achari Aloo) by simply deciding which variety of seeds to use.
Dry Amla (Indian Gooseberry)
Dry Amla is a spice obtained by completely drying the Indian Gooseberry or Amla fruit. It adds color as well as sweet and sour flavor and a hint of tanginess to dishes like Chickpea Potato (or Chana Aloo) Curry.
Dried Fenugreek Leaves (Kasoori Methi)
Dried Fenugreek Leaves are dried leaves of the fenugreek plant. The dried leaves have a deeper flavor than fresh ones. They have a somewhat bitter flavor and can make the dishes very interesting. They are essential to certain recipes such as Dal Makhani, Chicken Tikka Masala and Almond Chicken Curry. Without these leaves, some dishes would not be the same. Also be careful as they can overpower the dish, when added excessively.
Image credits: 1. Cumin – By Sanjay Acharya (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 2. Indian Bay Leaves – By Sonja Pauen (own camera) [CC BY 2.0 de or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3. Black Cardamom – By Brian Arthur (en:file:BlackCardamom.jpg) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 4. Green Cardamom – I, Luc Viatour [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons 5. Cinnamon Sticks – www.aziatische-ingredienten.nl [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 6. Cloves – By Jorge Barrios (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 7. Coriander Seeds – By Bierfaß (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 8. Kasoori Methi – By Miansari66 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons