Basic Spices for Making Indian food

In my spare time, apart from blogging, I teach vegetarian Indian Cookery to adults either in a class or one to one in their home.  A lot of time in my classes is spent discussing various styles of cooking and how to make  tasty curries, Onion bhajis, samosas. etc.   A fair bit of time is also spent on discussing spices, herbs and Indian ingredients, the utensils needed but the most frequently asked question is about which spices they should buy and how they should use them.

So in answer to this frequently asked question I will share a bit about  the most commonly used spices in my kitchen and the ones I keep in my spice box which I call my masala dhaba or masalyu. I buy these freshly milled spices from the Indian stores as they can be bought cheaper and in bulk. All spices are checked and poured into airtight bottles and kept in a cool place.



What is my routine for keeping my spices fresh?

Every week, I clean my Spice Box and take out the old spices, refill with fresh spices and then top up with last weeks spices so that they get used first. The spices in my spice box are used for flavouring and tempering curries, dalls and soups etc. However when making pakoras, pickles or other savouries, I may need different spices which are not in my usual Spice Box. Some need to be kept in sealed bottles and some need to be kept in a cool area.

What are my basic spices that I use regularly?

Don’t let the long list of ingredients in a curry recipe put you off cooking. The following are the some basic ingredients and spices I would advice you to get to keep in your spice box if you have just started Indian Cookery. Most of these are easily available in Supermarkets.

1. Salt: Although salt is often referred to as seasoning – it’s one of those ingredients which has been used for centuries to preserve and flavour food. My advice would be to add just enough salt to season your dish but also try and balance it with some flavours and spices. In some foods adding salt helps to speed up the cooking too.


2. Chili Powder: Chili powder is made from dried red chilies and can be hot or mild depending on the chilies used. Always experiment and see how hot a dish you like and add the chili powder accordingly. If you are worried about the hotness, you can use pepper or cayenne pepper as a substitute. Remember it’s better to add less then more. And a curry doesn’t have to be hot to be a tasty curry.


3. Turmeric Powder: Turmeric is rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae. Fresh turmeric can be pickled and eaten just like ginger pickle or it can be grated and added to curries to add flavour. Generally we use the powdered version which gives the yellow colour to the curry. Turmeric has been used for centuries in India as a spices as well as medicinal purposes. Again if you have a good quality turmeric, you only need to add half a teaspoon to your curry. (watch out for my future Posts on the medicinal uses of turmeric).


4. Dhana jeeru (coriander/cumin powder): This is a powered mixture of coriander and cumin seeds. It has a milder taste and smell to garam masala. It’s aroma is also a lot milder and pleasant when added to a curry. I use this for my everyday curry and only add garam masala to get the restaurant style flavour and scent when I am entertaining.

5. The following ingredients are mostly used for tempering a curry:


What do I use for tempering (Vaghar/Tadka)

The most common are  mustard and cumin both in their raw seed state. Both are used for tempering a curry.  When making a curry, these ingredients are added to a couple of teaspoons of hot oil, to release their  flavours before adding it the curry.  Tempering of curries especially dalls is an art one only manages to learn over the years.  Indian chefs will spend hours telling  you which vegetables or lentils can be tempered with mustard or cumin, or with carom seeds or panch poran (which literally is made of 5 seeds such as Cumin, Mustard, Fenugreek, Nigella and Fennel and in Gujarat they include whole coriander seeds) but I don’t wish to complicate my students and let them use mustard or cumin seeds. .  Some curries and dalls are tempered with cinnamon, cloves, dry red chilies so I keep these as a mixture in my spice box .

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What is the mystery of Garam masala?

6.  Every Family likes to keep their recipe and ingredients for garam masala a mystery.   In India each Region will have variations of traditionally made garam masala.  Garam masala is made from a blend of different spices (cinnamon, gloves, pepper, cardamom, nutmeg may form the base of the masala blended with star anise, nutmeg etc) and it is not usually kept in the Spice box as you don’t want to  dilute the flavour of garam masala. Garam masala recipes are often family kept secret as they really add the umami to the dish. It’s a spice which you either  love or hate.  Garam masala is usually added at the end of the cooking.

These are some of the adults who came to my Indian vegetarian and vegan  Cookery Class and you can see the kind of spices they manage to buy from the supermarkets. The bottles are small with narrow tops which is ideal to use for cooking.P1170017-001

If you were thinking of Indian cooking, would you be asking the same questions?   Do any of you have a favourite spice?

If you have just decided to become vegetarian, you may find this article helpful. 

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