Indian Herbs and Spices: The Essential Indian Spice Rack

Welcome to the world of Indian herbs and spices, where each ingredient has unique flavor, aroma, and health benefits. From the sharpness of ginger to the sweet tang of cardamom, these spices help make Indian cuisine so flavorful and delicious.

Indian spices were historically used for medicinal purposes as well as culinary uses. For example, cumin is thought to aid digestion, and black pepper helps boost metabolism. Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory agent that contains curcumin which has antioxidant properties. Fenugreek seed extract can lower blood cholesterol levels, while coriander has antifungal and antibacterial properties.

In addition to their medicinal values, Indian herbs, and spices are also used in many beauty products, such as face masks or hair oils. For example, cardamom can reduce skin blemishes and scars, while turmeric is used to even out skin tone.

Indian herbs and spices offer countless health benefits for you to enjoy. Whether added to food or applied externally, these ingredients will not only add flavor but also benefit your well-being. With proper care and use, these spices are sure to make any meal tasty!

If you want to start cooking savory Indian food, here is a description of the essential Indian spices every household must have in its spice cabinet. They also make an excellent and original wedding gift.

A Story of Spices

For at least 5000 years, spices have carried significant commercial value. They were transported through the Middle East along caravan routes to the eastern Mediterranean and Europe.

Aromatic spices’ origin could be traced to a region from China to Indonesia, southern India, or Ceylon. However, people who received spices mistook them for being from Arabia, as the trade routes used to pass through the Arab and Persian worlds.

European countries searched for alternative shipping routes to the East to acquire essential spices more efficiently, leading to intense competition between the English, Dutch, French, and Portuguese. As a result, the spice trade played a significant role in shaping Western history.

Spices used in Indian cooking

Some Indian spices like pepper, garlic, cinnamon, and ginger are familiar to us. However, some unique flavors, like fenugreek and nigella, may take time for us to appreciate. Thankfully, these spices are more widely available now in grocery stores and online.

Indian cuisine varies depending on the region. For example, cooking styles in the Northern part are distinct from those in the South Indian or East Indian cuisine.

Indian Herbs and Spices


Seeds are used as spices when cooking Indian food because they add flavor, aroma, and depth to various dishes.

Mustard Seeds

Mustard seeds, also known as rai, are popular in South Indian cuisine due to their smoky, nutty flavor.

Mustard seeds are commonly used in rice dishes and curries. In many South Indian recipes, the seeds are simmered in hot oil and pop, releasing their flavor.

Fenugreek seeds

Fenugreek seeds resemble tiny wheat kernels but should be used in moderation, much like cloves. They are also utilized in alternative medicine and, oddly enough, in producing artificial maple syrup.

Poppy seeds

Ground white poppy seeds are a popular ingredient in India. They are often ground with other spices and used in South Indian curries, such as korma. In addition, poppy seed paste is used in the famous Bengali dish posto. The ground paste is also used to flavor beverages like thandai.

Coriander seeds

Coriander is a strong spice commonly used in various dishes like Madras and Vindaloo. It is the seed of cilantro and has a unique fragrance that blends citrus and woody notes. To get the best flavor, it’s recommended to grind the coriander seeds when used in Indian cooking.

Fennel seeds

Fennel, also known as saumph, is a popular spice prized for its sweet aroma. Fennel seeds pair exceptionally well with fish and meat dishes and can be a refreshing sweet treat after a meal.

Despite their small size, fennel seeds contain high amounts of iron and calcium, making them a good source of fiber.

Nigella seeds

People often mistake nigella seeds, known as kalonji in Hindi, for black sesame seeds. While they may appear similar, their flavor profiles are entirely different. Nigella seeds have a slight onion flavor, and when roasted, they add an extra layer of taste to curries and gravies.

Carom seeds

Carom seeds, also called bishop’s weed or ajwain, are distinct from celery and Radhuni seeds. These tiny seeds have medicinal benefits and are especially effective in treating digestive ailments.

In Indian food, carom seeds are a popular ingredient in various medicinal formulations. Additionally, they can be included in small amounts as a seasoning while making dough for Indian flatbreads such as poori and layered flatbread paratha.

Nutmeg seeds

Nutmeg seeds have a sweet and nutty flavor and are primarily used in small quantities to enrich the taste of sweet dishes. To use fresh nutmeg, buy a whole nutmeg seed and grind or grate it as needed.

Cumin seeds

Cumin, or Jira, is commonly used in Indian cuisine and curries. It has a flavor similar to caraway or dill. It is recommended to use whole cumin seeds and fry them in oil at the beginning of a dish, a process called taarka.

To prevent burning, be careful when heating cumin seeds at high temperatures. They will turn brown in about 15 seconds and begin to pop when ready. Ground cumin powder is a strong spice in Indian cuisine and a vital component of the garam masala mix.

Star anise pods

Star anise is a visually appealing pod spice with a star shape from the Far East and is becoming increasingly important in Indian cuisine. It tastes like fennel but sharper and less floral. It is used in some preparations of garam masala and is terrific for frying.

On average, a star anise pod has eight points, and each point contains a single seed.

Many Indian restaurants serve tamarind chutney as a side dipping sauce for chapatis, samosas, and other Indian street foods. The key ingredient used in this great chutney is star anise.

Cardamom pods and seeds

Cardamom, also known as the “Queen of Spices,” is one of the world’s most highly prized and exotic spices, second only to saffron. It originated in the Western Ghats of South India as one of the most valuable spices. 

The term “cardamom” refers to herbs in two different genera of the ginger family: Elettaria (also known as small cardamom) and Amomum (also known as large cardamom). There are two types of small seedpods with thin papery outer shells and tiny black seeds. Elettaria pods are light green, and Amomum pods are larger and dark brown. They both have a triangular cross-section and a spindle shape.

The whole pods are added to sweet and savory dishes for flavor, while the ground form is commonly used in curry powder and sweet puddings. Crush the entire pods first because the taste is in the tiny seeds.

There are two types of pods: green cardamom and black cardamom.

Green cardamom

The flavor of the tiny pale green cardamom pods is robust. They are commonly used in Indian cuisine as an essential ingredient in many dishes like curry, dhal, and rice. Cardamom powder is also used in a spice mixture like garam masala. It can be found in sweet and savory chutney recipes as well.

Green cardamom is a popular ingredient in coffee and is combined with other spices to make masala tea.

Black cardamom

These large brown pods are sometimes called cardamom from China, Nepal, or fake cardamom. The coarse shell of black cardamom contains seeds and is smoked over a wood fire, resulting in a solid smoky scent and a noticeable camphor taste. To fully experience the smoky aroma, it’s best to keep the whole pod, including its bark, when using it in the kitchen.

Black cardamom is primarily used for cooking Indian curries and other savory dishes from India that require long simmering periods.

Powdered Spices

We use ground spices to release their essential oils and flavors, as well as to make them easier to mix into food recipes. Grinding spices also help their freshness and taste for longer, as airtight containers protect the volatile compounds that give these spices their potent aromas.

Ground spices can also be added in smaller doses than when used whole, allowing for more precise dish seasoning.

Turmeric powder

Turmeric powder, commonly known as Haldi Haldi, has a distinct yellow color and earthy taste. Ground turmeric is made by grinding turmeric root and is used in traditional Indian dishes such as roasted tomato curry, chicken vindaloo, and lemon rice.

Dry mango powder

Amchur is a ground spice made from dried unripe green mangos. Amchur has a sharp, tangy, and citrusy flavor and is mainly used in North Indian cuisine. It is a crucial ingredient in chaat masala, a finishing spice in many Indian street foods.

Red chili powder

Red chili powder adds a vibrant, peppery flavor and gives a distinct red hue to any dish. Kashmiri red chili is the most common type of red chili powder used.

Ground cayenne spice is made by drying and grinding the chili pepper. Many dishes require spice powders instead of the complete or chopped pepper because it is easier to mix into the food. In addition, cayenne powder is inexpensive and adds heat and flavor to any dish.

Tamarind powder

Tamarind powder is a souring agent in southern India. It is widely used in preparing legumes, vegetable dishes, and chutneys. It has a cooling effect on the body and can act as a mild laxative.

Coriander powder

The spice rack of any Indian household typically contains coriander, also known as dry dhania powder. The plant Coriandrum sativum is used to make both coriander and cilantro.

Black pepper powder

The spice called black pepper originally comes from India, specifically the Western Ghats and Malabar region. Although it is a problematic spice to cultivate, this is due to its dependence on natural elements, such as a specific amount of rainfall.

Black pepper spiciness and pungency come from piperine, a chemical compound. Peppercorns are sold whole or pre-ground, commonly found on restaurant tables beside the salt.


Tree barks are used as spices because of their robust and aromatic flavor. The bark from certain trees can be harvested and dried to be used as a spice or seasoning for food.

Barks contain essential oils and volatile compounds that give them their distinct aroma and taste, making them ideal for adding flavor to dishes.

Cassia bark

The cassia bark, which has a rough texture and bark-like appearance, is slightly less potent than true cinnamon. It is commonly used in savory dishes in India, such as biryani.

You can find cassia bark, a relative of cinnamon, in most Indian grocery stores. It can be used in the same way as cinnamon. Typically, cinnamon and cassia bark are fried whole at the beginning of cooking an Indian dish and left in.

Cinnamon bark

Cinnamon bark is available in ground or stick form and has a sweet and aromatic flavor. The sticks are added for flavor but should be taken out before consumption.

Cinnamon is a significant seasoning in numerous dishes and is crucial in creating curry powder and garam masala. It has a potent flavor, so it is used in small amounts.

Stone flower

Stone flower, also referred to as kalpasi or dagad phool, is a distinctive spice that gives off a strong fragrance when tempered. To prepare it, the spices are dry roasted in a specific sequence, followed by cooling and pounding in a mortar and pestle.


Leaves provide an aromatic and flavorful addition to various dishes, such as curries and soups. Leaves can be fresh or dried to impart flavor, texture, and color. In addition, they possess a range of volatile compounds that contribute to their unique characteristics.


Mint is a herb used for flavoring and to keep breath fresh, whether in fresh or dried form. It is commonly added to curries, biryanis, kormas, and chutneys.



Cloves are the unopened flower buds of a tropical tree picked when still immature. They are pink when fresh and turn to a rust-brown color when dried. They are often used to flavor meat dishes.

Clove is a common ingredient in garam masala, a spice mix used in many rich or spicy dishes in North Indian cuisine.

Cloves are not commonly used in everyday cuisine in the Maharashtra region of India but sparingly in sweet or spicy dishes. They are, however, a significant component in Indian masala chai, a famous tea variation in certain regions such as Gujarat.

Popular spice blends

Indian cooking relies on skillfully mixing different spices to create nuanced flavors that enhance various types of food. The blends of spices used in Indian cuisine are called “masala,” which can be in powder or paste form.

When storing dry masala blends, use airtight jars for up to six months to maintain their flavor. For pastes spice mixes, keep them in airtight containers and store them in the refrigerator. This will help them retain their flavor for approximately one month.

Garam Masala

The famous spice blend in many Indian dishes is called garam masala, which combines essential spices. The term “garam” translates to “hot” in English.

The combination of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom seeds, dried bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and dried red chili in garam masala gives a unique and robust aroma and flavor to food.

Each household has its mix of ground spices, so no specific recipe lists the exact amount of each spice to use.

Paanch Phoran

Paanch Phoran is a combination of five aromatic spices used in Bengali cuisine. Essential spices used are black mustard seeds, black cumin seeds, nigella, fenugreek seeds, and fennel seeds. It is commonly used to add flavor to legume and vegetable dishes.

Kari Masala

Curry masala is a mixture of spices ground into a powder or paste with onion, garlic, and ginger root. The flavor and color of curry masala can vary depending on the specific spices used. These are the spices that could be used in curries:

  • ground turmeric
  • cumin seeds
  • cloves
  • mustard seeds
  • ground dried red chilies
  • ground coriander
  • bay leaves
  • fenugreek seeds
  • black pepper
  • curry leaves
  • cinnamon
  • cardamom
  • nutmeg

How to use spices in Indian cooking

Getting the most flavor possible from spices is essential in Indian cooking. Here is some advice to help you extract maximum flavor from spices when cooking.

Toast spices

Toast Indian spices to get the best flavor. Put whole spices in a pan without oil. Turn on the heat and stir often so they don’t burn. After 3-5 minutes, they should smell good and be darker than before.

Before grinding, it is advisable to let the spice mixes cool down. It is also possible to toast ground spices, but it is crucial to keep a close eye on them to avoid burning.

Bloom spices

To make spices taste better, cook them in a bit of butter or oil for 1-2 minutes before adding any liquid to the recipe. This is called blooming.

If a recipe asks you to cook onions or other vegetables, add the spices when they are almost finished. This is important for spice mixtures because it helps make different flavors.

Before serving the dish, please remove all the whole spices, such as a bay leaf, cinnamon stick, cardamom pod, and cloves.

Grind spices

To make fresh spice mixtures for Indian cooking, it’s best to use a tool that can grind whole spices into a fine powder. While many gadgets are available, a coffee grinder is the most effective option. This way, you can truly appreciate the flavor of the whole spices.


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