The best way to understand Indian spices begins with the idea that India is the land where most spices originally came from. In olden times, India traded with every ancient civilization, be they Babylon, Persia, Egypt or China, in masala (spices).
The tradition continued with the Europeans, such as the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English – who were in fact lured to India for its spices. Indian food culture is almost 4000 years old. Over time, the use of spices has gotten more and more extensive, possibly hotter to taste.
Let’s see some of the common spices, herbs, seasonings and oils used in Indian cooking. But first we should take a look at the origins and influences of popular Indian spices to better understand how they evolved the way we cook and found their way into kitchens around the world.
Indian Spices – Origins, Influences and Traditions
Indian cuisine, as currently known, has evolved for close to 4000 years. Spices that make up the popular Curry Powder, a mixture with turmeric, garlic and ginger, have been used since the middle period of the Indus Valley Civilization – traces of use have been known in sites such as Mohenjodaro, Harappa and Lothal in modern day India and Pakistan.
Due to a thriving trade in spices with all the major world civilizations, Indian cuisine continued to evolve in distinctive ways.
The use of spices and herbs grew with the introduction of dishes and cuisine from different cultures, perhaps the most influential among which were at least three major waves of migrations from the Persian region to India.
The Indo-Aryans arrived some 3000 years back, driving out the remnants of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization from the Indo=Gangetic Plain spanning present day Pakistan and Northern India.
The Parsi community, Zoroastrian fire worshippers from Iran, arrived 1200 years ago. The greatest influence, perhaps, was exerted by the ascent of the Great Mughal Dynasty in 1526 AD.
The Parsis and the Mughals, especially, have made their niche in terms of Indian cuisine, with the Moghlai (North Indian) cooking being a prime example of how Indians have blended the spicy cooking of the subcontinent with the milder flavored dishes from Iran.
The result is a plethora of kebabs, curries and stews that are presented as Indian – though many of those dishes have Iranian origins. The distinction can be stark at times. For example, using heavy cream sauce has become a staple of many curries prepared in Indian restaurants, a practice which is rare in the original Iranian dishes.
Later influences, such as during the 200 year plus British occupation of India from the mid 18th century to 1947, also added their distinct flavors and taste preferences.
Portuguese cuisine has left its mark on Western India, especially Mumbai and Goa.
The North Eastern States, such as West Bengal, Bihar and Assam, have been strongly influenced by Chinese and Mongolian cuisine, a legacy of major incursions over the past millennia.
Southern India, including the world-famous Malabar Spice Coast in Kerala, have probably retained the most authenticity in terms of cuisine that evolved domestically on the Indian subcontinent.
Pakistani and Bangladeshi cuisine are clones of Northern Indian and Eastern Indian cuisine, respectively, since the two countries were part of India prior to partition in 1947.
The names of the spices and seasonings mentioned below are presented with their Hindi translations. Every region in India has slightly (sometimes largely) different names, as is to be expected in a vast country with 22 major languages and 400+ dialects.
Indian Food Styles and the Use of Spices
Indian food styles have evolved over some 4000 years. Indian cuisine can involve the preparation of almost every dish known to humankind.
Indian cooking spans thousands of dishes that uses some basic spices, plus smaller proportions of special applications to enhance flavor. There are also differences in how dishes are prepared from one region to the other.
The main types of cuisine where spices are used abundantly are grilled dishes (kebabs which came from Persia), Curries (a tradition discovered during the days of the Indus Valley Civilization), Lentils and Other Legumes (wide array of lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans and others), Pulao and Biryani (exotic rice dishes whose modern forms were developed during Mughal times), Stews and Soups (more of a legacy of British influences).
Spices are also used in drinks such as Masala Chai (Spiced Tea), Jeera Paani (Cumin Water) and a variety of sweet dishes such as ladoos and firni.
Spices that Originated in India
India has introduced many prominent spices to the world. Principal examples were Black Peppercorn (and Black Pepper), traded with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia thousands of years back and dubbed the “King of Spices” during the days of the trade between England and India during the days of the British East India company. Cardamom, Cinnamon, Turmeric and (Brown) Mustard all originated in India.
Other herbs and spices, such as Ginger and Garlic, were developed in South Asia and Central Asia respectively and have been used extensively in India since ancient times. Yet others, such as Kashmiri Red Chilies, are also indigenous to India but may not be as well-known internationally.
The Types of Indian Spices Used are Driven by Strong Regional Influences
Every region and subregion of India has local cuisines that are different variations of staple and unusual dishes. Without delving into details, we can say that the distinctive styles include North Indian (heavily influenced by Persian and Mughal cuisine), West India (influenced by local customs as well as Portuguese and British influences), East Indian (influenced by Chinese, Persian and British cuisine, some French) and South Indian (possibly the most authentically preserved domestic cooking traditions).
List of 25 Indian Herbs and Spices
Indian food uses condiments and sides that have been popularized around the world. There are literally a hundred plus spices and spice combinations used in the Indian Subcontinent.
We list 25 of the most common herbs and spices below. Many of these are used across the board in almost every Indian recipe, in varying proportions. Some are specialty spices that are used sparingly to add taste, such as heeng.
The standard Indian kitchen will feature a large Masala Dabba (Spice Container) with small bowls inside to carry a mix of the standard spices.
1. Cassia Bark (Daalchinee)
Cassia bark is a dark brown twig-like with a delicately sweet flavor, similar to cinnamon sticks. It adds an earthy flavor to meat and curries and is used in spice mixes such as garam masala. It is used as a flavor in tea and hot chocolate as well.
2. Green Cardamom Pods (Elaichi)
Green Cardamom pods, with their heavenly sweetness and fragrance, are used to flavor a host of dishes, for example, curries, Pulao, desserts and Masala Chai.
3. Green Cardamom Seeds (Elaichi Dana)
Green Cardamom can be used after removing the husk of the whole pod or be ground into a dust and used as Elaichi Powder. This is one of the main ingredients of garam masala.
4. Clove (Laung)
These aromatic flower buds are tiny black sticks with a knob-like head, releasing a lingeringly sweet yet pungent flavor. Cloves are used in garam masala.
5. Bay Leaves (Tejpatta)
These bay leaves are distinctly different from the Laurel Bay Leaves found in Europe. Grown on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, the olive-green leaves are larger, with three veins running through them, and have a milder flavor closer to cinnamon bark. They are essential ingredients in North Indian cuisine and a part of the garam masala spice combination.
6. Cumin (Jeera)
Jeera refers to regular or white cumin seeds, which are usually ground into powder before being used in Indian cuisine. The seeds grow on trees found in a wide range from the Middle East to India. Typically used together with dhania (see dhania-jeera below), individual uses of Jeera include a variety of curries, as well as to make flavored cold drinks in the summer. Sometimes confused with caraway seeds, Cumin is larger, lighter and stronger in flavor with a hot aftertaste.
7. Black Cumin Seeds (Kala Jeera)
Milder than regular cumin seeds, Shah Jeera is often confused with Nigella or Caraway Seeds. Its smoky, earthy taste makes it a good spice to be used with the spices in garam masala and a number of Eastern Indian dishes (e.g. Fish Curries) where it adds a distinctive flavor.
8. Coriander (Dhaniya)
Also known as Chinese Parsley or Cilantro, this herb is an essential part of cooking all over India, especially the North and East. All parts of the green plant are edible, but the dried leaves are used frequently. Dhaniya powder is used as a principal ingredient in many Indian dishes.
9. Turmeric (Haldi)
Turmeric is ubiquitous in Indian cuisine, practically no dish is complete without the ground golden yellow powder made from the original root vegetable.
10. Mustard Greens (Sarson)
Fresh mustard leaves are green, broad leaves with toothed, frilled or lacy edges. They are indigenous to Northern India, where they only grow in the winter. They have a pepper like taste when raw, and a spinach like texture and flavor when cooked, though with more body.
11. Black Mustard Seeds (Mohri or Rai)
The small round seeds of various mustard plants, they are small and yellow brown or white in color. They can come from the Black Mustard, Indian Brown Mustard or the White/Yellow Mustard Plant. Ground seeds mixed with oil, water or vinegar will produce the yellow mustard sauce we know.
12. Garlic (Rasoon or Lasoon)
Garlic is used in almost every meat and fish dish in India, along with gingers and onions. Garlic was introduced to India from Central Asia, possibly during trade with Mesopotamia, almost 4000 years ago.
13. Ginger (Ada)
Ginger originated in South Asia. It has been used in India for many thousands of years, for cooking and medicinal purposes. This root vegetable is widely used in meat and fish dishes along with garlic and onions.
14. Onion (Pyaaj)
Onions are used extensively in cooking, as well as garnish on the side or on top of dishes in minced form.
15. Saffron (Kesar)
This distinctive crimson stigma from the Saffron Crocus flower is highly prized in India, high grade saffron is mainly grown in the cold Kashmir Valley. It is the most expensive spice in the world. It adds a floral flavor and an intense, rich aroma, along with a gorgeous golden color to Biryani, curries and desserts.
16. Fenugreek Seeds (Methi Dana)
Methi is a very common spice used in Northern and Western Indian vegetarian cuisine. The small yellow seeds are usually dry roasted, or fried in butter or oil, to reduce the slightly bitter flavor. This bittersweet herb, with faint overtones of maple syrup, works very well with dhanya, jeera and Red Chili Powder. They add distinctive flavor to North Indian lentils and South or West Indian tamarind fish curry.
17. Fenugreek Leaves (Kasoori Methi)
Kasoori Methi is a slightly bitter tasting herb which adds complex sweet and rich flavors to many North Indian dishes. Fenugreek Seeds are not a substitute for these leaves, which should be broken by hand to release the flavors prior to using.
18. Fennel Seeds (Badi Shep)
These small seeds have a sweet, anise-like flavor which are used for cooking as well as an after-dinner digestive.
19. Asafetida (Hing)
This ground spice acts as a natural form of an MSG type of salt for vegetarian cuisines, especially in South and West Indian cuisines. A pinch of hing releases garlic and onion kinds of flavor along with saltiness.
20. Black Peppercorn (Kali Mirch)
India introduced the world to Black Peppercorn, berries that grow on climbing vines native to South India. Harvested green, they turn red and then are dried before getting to retail stores. Black Peppercorn adds an intense aroma, heat and flavor to any dish and is a seasonal blend often added to garam masala. Ground Black Pepper, once known as the king of spices, comes from Black Peppercorn.
21. Green and Red Chilis (Hara and Laal Mirchi)
Red Chili Powder is used in all standard cuisine rich in turmeric, Garam Masala, garlic, ginger and onions. Green chilies are frequently used raw, minced or sliced, to add delicious heat to the flavor. India has some of the hottest chili peppers in the world, including the Bhoot (Ghost) Peppers found in Assam.
22. Red Kashmiri Chili (Sukhi Laal Kashmiri Mirch)
Red Kashmiri Chilis have a special flavor, with less spice/heat overtones. They are sometimes used in cuisine meant to be milder but equally flavorful, similar to how paprika is used in Mediterranean cuisine.
23. Curry Leaves (Neem Leaves)
Curry leaves, also called sweet neem leaves, are pinnate, small leaflets frequently used in Indian cooking to add a sweet flavor and aftertaste.
24. Nutmeg (Jaiphal)
These are similar to European nutmeg, the inner fruit of the mace plant. Sweet and aromatic, a pinch of nutmeg adds flavor to selected dishes. Their wider use is in a number of Indian sweets, such as Besan Laddu, Puran Poli and Tilachi Poli.
25. Tamarind (Imli)
The Tamarind fruit is used as a base ingredient for a number of curries and chutneys in South India. It is also used as a condiment to accompany certain Eastern and Northern Indian dishes such as Chana Masala.
Most of the spices named above are staple additions to a wide mix of Indian dishes (see some examples below). They are also used in combination as seasoning blends as outlined next.
List of 20 Indian Seasoning Blends and Cooking Oils
A number of the herbs and spices mentioned above are used in combinations similar to the spice mixes that are common in China, Iran and elsewhere. In addition, there are a number of types of oils and butter like cooking mediums that are commonly used in India – often as a flavoring mechanism.
Some of the more common Seasoning Blends and Cooking Oils are mentioned below. All of the ingredients above are condiments to be used in the preparation of, or used as garnishes, or served mixed in with the base of the main dish.
1. Garam Masala
Garam Masala is commonly used all over India as a spice that adds the “spicy hot” taste to meat and poultry dishes. It is predominantly a mix of four spices, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, black peppercorn and bay leaves, with other spices such as Shah Jeera added in according to regional influences. Here’s a recipe.
2. Five Spice Blend (Paanch Phoron)
This blend of seeds from five herbs – fenugreek, nigella, cumin, black mustard and fennel is similar to Chinese Five-Spice Powder and may have been influenced by them. It is primarily used in fish and vegetable dishes in North Eastern India (Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam), Bangladesh and also Nepal.
3. Cumin and Coriander Seed Mix (Dhaniya-Jeera)
A staple of Western Indian cuisine, pre-mixed cumin and coriander powder is a popular addition to vegetarian dishes such as Aloo Gobi, Saag Paneer and Chana Masala.
4. Curry Powder
Curry powder is usually a potent mix of any number of spices, the use of which is known as far back as the Indus Valley Civilization nearly 4000 years back. Typical spices used in the original base include Ginger, Garlic, Turmeric and Chili Powder, though other ingredients such as Cumin and Coriander may also be mixed in.
5. Black Spice (Kaala Masala)
Kaala Masala is a spice mix from the Maharashtra region of Western India. It includes cumin and coriander seeds, cloves, cinnamon sticks, kalpasi, coconut, sesame seeds and chilies. The base is started with dark spices such as cloves and cinnamon – the mix is roasted till they turn black in color, hence the name. It is used in local dishes such as usal, varan (a style of lentil) and masala bhat (spicy rice).
6. Tandoori Masala
Used for a variety of dishes cooked in hot clay (tandoori) ovens, this masala typically contains turmeric, ginger, garlic, onion, garam masala, cayenne pepper and occasionally other spices, ground together with a mortar and pestle. The preparations in the oven are prepared by marinating in the tandoori masala and brushing with ghee.
7. Tikka Masala
Tikka Masala is made of a mix of coriander and cumin seeds, amchoor, turmeric, green cardamom, cinnamon stick, black peppers and Kashmiri chili. Used as seasoning for a wide variety of tikkas (usually with meat but also used with paneer or cottage dish), it is one of the signature spices from India.
8. Sambar Powder
Sambar Powder is a mix of multiple lentils (chana dal, urad dal) and whole spices, dry roasted to make a powder. The spices used include cumin, coriander, fenugreek and mustard seeds, along with black peppercorn, dry red chilis and a few curry leaves. This mix is used to prepare lentil dishes familiar in South Indian cuisine.
9. Upama Masala
This is the Indian spice blend used with Semolina. Upama masala includes turmeric, heeng, red chili powder, sambar powder, mustard seeds, tamarind extract, jaggery and salts. Fresh coconut is usually grated in while preparing upma with ghee and oil.
10. Vindaloo Masala
Vindaloo masala is made from caramelized onions, curry paste, ginger, chilies (including jalapenos), garlic, chickpeas, lentils, garam masala, salt, pepper, paprika and turmeric. This is the Indian spice blend used for the Goan dish Vindaloo.
This spice, often homemade, is used to make hot (temperature wise) and spicy masala chai. The main ingredients include ground ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, mixed in with green cardamom, whole cloves, anise, black peppercorn, fennel seeds and allspice. The spices are toasted till fragrant then mixed in a grinder till fine.
12. Mustard Oil (Sarson Ka Tel)
Mustard oil, made from pressing mustard seeds, is a spicy oil with a distinctive taste which is used in multiple dishes, especially in Eastern India and Bangladesh. Varieties of fish curries are made with Mustard Oil. It is also used as extra garnishing on a regular dish for taste.
13. Coconut Oil (Nariyal Tel)
The oil from mature coconuts is extensively used in South Indian cuisine, to make South Indian dishes such as Masala Dosa (see below) and other curries and chutneys made principally in Kerala.
14. Palm Oil
Oil extracted from the fruit of the palm tree is mainly produced in Southeast Asia, but also found in South India. It is an extender used with Coconut Oil.
15. Olive Oil (Jaitun Tel)
Olive oil is used to make dressings or bases for curry dishes.
16. Sesame Oil (Teel ke Tel)
Sesame Oil has very little taste and is commonly used as a base to balance and lubricate when cooking many Indian dishes.
17. Niger Seed Oil (Ramtil Tel)
This oil is made from Niger seeds or blackseeds that are grown in India. The seeds are similar to sunflower seeds, but smaller and black. It is used as an extender for Sesame Oil.
18. Peanut Oil
Peanut oil is one of the most expensive oils used in India. It is produced in the states of Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and mainly used for vegetarian dishes.
19. Other Oils Commonly Used
Other oils that are commonly used in India include Canola Oil, Sunflower Oil, Vegetable Oil, Soybean Oil, Corn/Maize Oil, Cottonseed Oil, Flaxseed/Linseed Oil, Rice Bran Oil and Safflower Oil. The first 4-5 oils are often used as neutral oils in various Indian dishes where the oil itself is not meant to impart a flavor.
20. Clarified Butter (Ghee)
Ghee or regular butter is often used in rice and other dishes for flavor or slathered onto hot bread, especially to enrich vegetarian dishes. Ghee is also used in Biryani, Kaali Daal or Dal Makhani and Butter Chicken and a whole host of other dishes.
Our Verdict … Indian Spices Are Legendary
The foods described above and even the spices will be familiar to anyone who knows their way around a kitchen or have visited Indian restaurants. But perhaps the next time you visit an Indian joint, take a deep sniff and try to catch the aromas before you take the first bite. Roll the food around your tongue for a minute and think about 4000 years of history coming together to present the savory morsels interacting with your palate that very second. Enjoy!!