Indian Spices Guide
How to shop for, store and cook with aromatic Indian spices.
Spices form the backbone of Indian cooking. Although the spice techniques used by Indian cooks may seem intimidating at first glance, they provide tantalizing layers of flavors in a matter of seconds. Arm yourself with the following pointers, and you will be well prepared to cook the Indian way.
Shopping Tip: Whenever possible, purchase spices in small quantities in their seed or whole form. Because multiple flavors can be extracted from any given spice (up to six, depending on whether they are left whole, ground, toasted, toasted and ground, stir-fried, or stir-fried and ground), whole spices play a prominent role in Indian cooking.
Storage Tip: Once you have purchased the spices, keep them stored in an airtight jar at room temperature in a cool, dry spot. That convenient shelf above the stovetop is not a good place as the moisture and heat will ruin spices quickly. Refrigeration is also not recommended because dampness will alter the spices’ qualities and flavors.
Cooking Tip: In Southern Indian home kitchens, whole spices are often toasted or stir-fried in a little oil to unveil complex flavors. To toast spices, we cook them in a preheated skillet (not nonstick or Teflon) over medium heat, 10 to 20 seconds, until golden brown and nutty-smelling, shaking the pan occasionally to prevent burning. When stir-frying the whole spices in oil, we preheat the oil over medium-high heat, then add the spices and stir for 10 to 20 seconds until they sizzle and acquire nutlike aromas. When recipes call for ground spices, grind them yourself in either a clean coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle just before adding to the recipe. The inherent oils in the spice are released with optimum aroma and flavor.
Use our spice descriptions below to get started.
Coriander: When cilantro is allowed to seed, it produces tiny yellowish brown seeds that smell slightly citric. Their flavor does not resemble, in any way, that of cilantro.
Cumin: These seeds have a deep "earthy" flavor, robust and slightly citrusy. The seeds are thin and grayish-brown, similar in appearance to caraway. The seeds are nutty and highly aromatic.
Kari Leaves: Olive-green kari leaves (also called curry leaves), a distant cousin of the citrus family, have a delicate aroma and flavor and are available in the produce section of Indian grocery stores. They last up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator or in the freezer for up to a month. Do not use the dried (and highly insipid) version of these leaves. If unavailable, omit from recipe.
Mustard Seed: The black variety is slightly stronger than the more commonly available yellow kind, the source of ground mustard used in American kitchens. South Indian cooks pop them in hot oil, like popcorn, to extract an unusually sweet and nutty flavor that is crucial to this region’s foods.