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Essential Indian Spices List

Essential Indian Spices List
The cuisine and flavors of India are varied and multidimensional. It is a spice rich World Flavor but not always spicy. 

The spices of India include sweet Chai, aromatic Madras Curry, earthy Garam Masala, and tomato-y Tikka. With so many options, it can be hard to know where to start. Don’t worry, we’re going to start with the basics to introduce the spices of India and give you some easy recipes to try your hand at this flavorful and enjoyable cuisine.

What Are The 7 Indian Spices?

This question is a bit challenging to answer. Indian cuisine, like many culinary traditions, can vary from region to region. So too, can the main Indian spices. That said, there are some spices that are heavy hitters when preparing Indian recipes. Some are not commonly found in American spice racks, while others are gaining popularity, and some are frequently used in other cuisines and are spices you probably already have.

Turmeric – This bright yellow spice has become more popular. Yes, it is used in Ayurveda and other traditional medicinal practices. But here at Savory Spice, we’ll stick to the one-of-a-kind earthy flavor turmeric imparts in culinary applications.

Cardamom – In the Cardamom Hills of southern India, wild cardamom bushes have grown for some 2000 years. One of the most expensive spices in the world, cardamom has a unique flavor with floral and eucalyptus-like notes. It’s equally good in sweet mango lassi or savory Halloumi Tikka Masala.

Asafetida – While you’ve probably heard of the previous two spices, even if you haven’t used them,  you might not be familiar with Asafetida. This pungent spice comes from a variety of fennel but mellows when cooked to impart an almost onion or garlicky flavor. For those who can’t consume onion or garlic, it can be used in dishes to add a similar flavor.

Honorable Mention to spices that you probably already have in your pantry:

Ginger – This sharp, spicy flavor lends itself to both sweet and savory applications, pairing equally well with cinnamon and black pepper.

Cinnamon – It’s most frequently used in American kitchens for baking and desserts, so you might be surprised to know that cinnamon can balance more pungent and spicy flavors, creating depth and a subtle sweetness that adds complexity to savory dishes.

Cumin – The strong bold flavor of cumin also has earthy notes, which make it the perfect base ingredient for savory blends and dishes (like Garam Masala and many curries.)

Coriander – This spice comes from the cilantro plant but isn’t quite as divisive as the herb. The seed imparts a bright, slightly citrusy note and is an ideal balance for cumin.

What Are The Most Used Spices In Indian Food?

In addition to the aforementioned spices, there’s one particular spice blend that deserves an honorable mention. Garam Masala. It’s simple but flavorful, rich and earthy. But before we introduce you to the most popular spice blend in India, let’s have a quick vocabulary lesson.

What Does Masala Mean?

Masala means a blend of spices. (Garam means warm, so Garam Masala translates to a warm spice mix.) You might also hear it used to refer to a dish seasoned with a mix of spices. (Chana is a type of chickpea, so Chana Masala is a dish of chickpeas seasoned with a mix of spices.)

Photo of channa masala in a dish with a spoon on the left and naan on the right.

Ok, now that we have that cleared up, let’s talk about Garam Masala. This traditional blend of spices is mild, when we talk about it being “warm” we’re referring to aromatic spices not heat level (although it’s also not ‘spicy hot’.) This blend of spices typically includes cinnamon, cloves, cardamom as well as black pepper, cumin, and coriander. Each spice adds a specific element of flavor and they are perfectly balanced so that no one spice overpowers the others.

Traditionally, each cook will have their own unique mix that is perfectly suited to their own taste. (For a great read and a recipe if you want to try your hand at making your own Garam Masala, check out Monica Bhide’s article Garam Masala: A Taste Worth Acquiring.) 

But if you’re not ready to DIY this particular spice blend, our Garam Masala includes the traditional spices in a flavorful blend that’s ready to use.

What Spices Are Needed For Indian Curry?

Traditionally, “curry powder” isn’t used in most Indian kitchens. Instead, the artful mixing of spices is part of the process of creating a flavorful curry. We encourage you to experiment with this authentic process for cooking curry. But if you’re looking for a bit of a shortcut, we have a few “must have” Indian spice mixes.

Yellow Curry Powder - Originating in India and Pakistan, many cultures now have a version of yellow curry. Recipes are usually handed down through families, and the ingredients vary. It can also serve as a base to create a new or different spice mix. To ensure the best flavors are reached we recommend that customers cook with a curry paste (using equal parts spice, water, and a neutral flavored oil‑like canola or vegetable). The reason behind this is some volatile oils are fat soluble and some are water soluble, so combining these ingredients will allow all flavors to shine.

Madras Curry Powder – While the style of Madras Curry adopted by British colonizers tends to have more chile heat, our version actually doesn’t have any chiles, so you can easily customize the spiciness to suit your liking.

Tikka Masala – Whether you’re making a traditional Bengali grilled tikka or the saucy British fusion dish that’s internationally popular, this flavor is a crowd-pleaser. It’s mild and balanced enough to be used as-is when grilling or roasting for Chicken Tikka but can be combined with coconut milk and tomato powder (or paste) for a saucy Tikka Masala.

Chai Spices – Ok, we know this one isn't a curry but it's so incredibly popular that we simply have to mention it in the same breath as other traditional Indian spice blends. We craft our Masala influenced Chai Spice by mixing crystalized ginger, cinnamon chips, cardamom pods, star anise, cloves, black peppercorns and bay leaves. When combined with a black tea, sweetener, and milk, the results are delectable. Most popularly used in Masala Chai (aka Spiced Tea because, yes, Chai means tea), Chai Spices are actually not just for tea. They can infuse flavor into sauces, broths, and more.

Close up spoon with chai spice mix

What Are Popular Indian Dishes?

Whether you’re vegetarian or a meat lover, crave spicy foods or can’t stand heat, there’s a recipe and Indian dish for you.

Channa Masala – We’ve mentioned above that Channa means chickpeas and Masala means spice, so this is a warm, mild, comforting, classic Indian dish that uses Garam Masala and tomatoes to make chickpeas the star of any mealtime show.

Matar PaneerFreshly made paneer cheese is easier than you think. The savory cheese and peas add delicious textural and flavor contrasts to a rich curry sauce. Serve with basmati rice, naan, and chopped cilantro.

Tandoori Marinated Grilled Chicken & Sauce - This is a tasty, family-friendly recipe. Serve skewers over rice, topped with sauce and fresh cilantro. The longer you can let the chicken marinate, the better. For a fresh, summery flavor, mix in diced tomatoes and/or cucumbers into the sauce.

Tikka masala with naan and rice

More Indian-Inspired Dishes?

Some of these are inspired by traditional Indian dishes or snacks, others feature Indian seasonings in new and different dishes. Enjoy!

Tikka MasalaChicken Tikka Masala is a British favorite that is attributed to and was popularized by the South Asian community. It's traditionally a creamy tomato sauce loaded with bold spice flavor and mild heat. This one-pot meal is also a customer favorite!

Curry Cauliflower with Crispy Chile Tofu - Pictured at the top of the page, this cauliflower curry recipe features citrusy warmth from Tandoori Seasoning, and is paired with spicy Aleppo tofu. This recipe is already vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free. If you want to try a different protein, tempeh, shrimp, or chicken all work in place of tofu.

Chai Spice Infused Sweet Potato Bisque – The sweet flavor of Chai Spices and sweet potatoes are a match made in heaven for this comforting, autumn-y soup. You can use any type of sweet potato in this recipe. For a bright orange color and slightly sweeter flavor, use garnet yams.

Garam Masala Spiced CashewsWarm spiced cashews with a hint of cayenne spice make the perfect trail mix, midday snack, or party nibble!

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