11 Essential Spices for Indian Cooking

Indian cooking can be intimidating due to the extensive use of spices. These spices flavor each dish, making it distinct and aromatic. Each Indian spice adds a specific taste and flavor, but a combination of different spices can transform the individual characteristics of each spice.

Here is a list of 11 essential spices for Indian cooking.


There are two types of cardamom used in Indian dishes: black and green. Green cardamom is the more common type and can be used in everything from Indian desserts to lassis and spice mixes. It has a light but sweet taste. Green cardamom can be either blended to make spice mixes or lightly crushed to make sweets or dessert.

Black cardamom, on the other hand, is more powerful and smoky and should be used with caution. Usually, only the seeds are used, but when the whole pod is used, it should be pulled out before serving the dish.


Cloves are used extensively in Indian dishes, adding a warm and strong flavor. Cloves are dried flower buds packed with essential oils, which are pressed out before they are dried and used in cooking.

Cloves can be either blended or used whole, but a lot of caution should be taken as they can overpower other spices in the dish.

Cassia Bark

Also known as Chinese cinnamon, cassia bark has a rough texture reminiscent of tree bark. Though it can sometimes be substituted for cinnamon, it is a bit different with a milder flavor; therefore, one should use less cinnamon when substituting as it has a more intense flavor.

To check for freshness, rub a little on the fingers; if you can smell a cinnamon fragrance, then it is fresh.

Black Pepper

Black pepper is native to India and is quite difficult to grow, which explains the varying price of fresh pepper.

Similar to other spices, black pepper should be toasted before blending and, for the best flavor, ground directly into the dishes.


Cumin adds a smoky flavor to Indian dishes. For a more intense flavor, it should be freshly ground. When dry roasting cumin, keep in mind that it burns easily, which will give the food a bitter taste. Therefore, only toast this spice until you can smell its fragrance, which takes about 30 seconds, then allow it to cool before blending.


This is an indispensable spice in Indian dishes. It adds an aromatic touch and enhances the overall taste of Indian dishes.

Coriander powder is made from ground coriander seeds, but you should avoid buying packaged coriander powder as it can lose its freshness if it sits on the shelf for too long. Instead, use a coffee grinder to grind coriander seeds, and store the powder in an airtight container for a couple of months.

Nutmeg & Mace

These two spices are a favorite to food lovers in India. Mace is the dark red outer cover of the nutmeg fruit. When dried, mace turns orange and gives a warm flavor to dishes.

When nutmeg is dried, it can last for a long time; therefore, buy it whole, and grate it into dishes. Avoid grinding nutmeg as this degrades its flavor very quickly.

Mustard Seeds

Mustard seeds can be either brown, black or yellow and are common in Indian dishes. The flavor of this spice is best released when cooked or crushed in oil.


Fenugreek seeds are yellowish in color. They have a very strong flavor and should be used with caution. They are also used in traditional medicine.

Fenugreek leaves are also used as a spice. They are often the secret spice that makes butter chicken unique.


This is another popular Indian spice. It can be used fresh or dried and then crushed. Turmeric is packed with numerous health benefits and is used in a lot of curries and spice mixes. However, you should be careful when using it with the utensils and clothes as it has a strong flavor and stains easily.


Saffron is the stigma of crocus flowers and is one of the most expensive spices in the world. This is because it is quite labor intensive to produce.

The fresher the saffron, the deeper the color; therefore, the best saffron is deep red in color. It has a very unique and intense flavor and so should be used in small quantities. Add it first to milk or warm water before adding it in dishes.

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