Indian food often seems intimidating to cook because of the unique spices and ingredients. Walking into a South Asian grocery store can not only be disorienting - all those smells and colors! - but also confusing. In actuality, it's very easy to make Indian food if you just know how the language, so to speak. How do you learn a language? By starting with the basics.
Here’s a short introduction to the most essential spices used in Indian cooking. I’ve included the name of the spice in English and Hindi for reference.
Coriander seeds (Dhania) : An essential part of Indian cooking Coriander seeds are used as whole seeds and as a ground powder. Coriander seeds are dry-roasted or fried in oil in its whole form adding a lemony, warm flavor to dishes. The powder form is a constant in the Indian spice box.
Cumin seeds (Jeera) : Cumin seeds are small brown oval shaped seeds that are also essential to Indian cooking. Cumin seeds are used whole or ground and add a strong smoky flavor to dishes. Like coriander, it is either dry roasted or fried in oil as seeds. Often you’ll find packaged mixes of Dhana-Jeera powder, which is basically a mix of ground Coriander and Cumin seeds as it is a popular flavor combination.
Curry leaves (Kari Patta): These leaves are tossed into most everything, particularly in South Indian cuisine. The good thing is that they’re perfectly edible. They’re best when used fresh and are often used as seasoning to dishes. After buying, you should wrap them in paper towels and store them in the fridge. I have the luxury of having a Kari tree in my backyard but curry leaves are often only found in Indian stores so they’re optional ingredients for the home chef who doesn’t have access of that sort.
Garam Masala : In Hindi, Garam Masala translates to hot spices. In this case, the idea of heat is less about "set your mouth on fire" spicy and more about how the blend of spices will add warmth to the food. It’s a very common masala that is used throughout India but its made differently in every house, kind of like marinara sauce with Italians. It usually involves grinding together a specific combination of spices, generally a mix of cardamom seeds, coriander seeds, cloves, cumin seeds, cinnamon, black peppercorns and bay leaves. You can easily find Garam Masala in grocery stores but each brand will have a slight difference in how they make it.
Fenugreek seeds (Methi) : These small red-brown seeds are incredibly aromatic and have strong bitter flavor. Because of its strong bitterness a little bit goes a long way. It is often used in curries and pickles and as medicine for a number of ailments.
Mustard seeds (Rai) : Mustard seeds are a important part of South Indian cooking as they are used in many dishes, adding a pungent flavor. The actual small round seeds are used which are black in color. The seeds are usually lightly sautéed in oil with other flavors before being added to a dish. Don’t get mustard seeds confused with actual mustard!
Red Chili Powder : Red Chili Powder is used a lot in Indian cooking and is what gives Indian dishes most of their spiciness. This powder can be found in any Indian aisle in a grocery story but in a pinch, Cayenne Pepper also works as well.
Dried Red Chilies (Sabut Laal Mirchi, Merapakayalu) : Dried red chiles are essential to Indian cooking as they add the heat and spiciness that many associate with Indian food. They are dark red and usually about finger length. Most recipes just call for one or two chiles broken into pieces. They are sold in packages and as I’ve noticed over the years, each package you buy will differ in the amount of heat the chiles give off.
Turmeric (Haldi) : Turmeric is the starting point for many Indian dishes. It has great medicinal properties being not only an antiseptic but also acting as an anti-inflammatory agent. A pinch is enough to add benefits and a nice yellow tint to your food. Be careful where you throw that pinch though as it stains quite easily.
Hopefully this helps in clarifying some of the basic spices of Indian food. It's really not hard to master. Just think of it this way. We know so many Italian and French words for foods which wouldn't typically be familiar to us otherwise. Like our familiarity with gnocchi and macaroons, learning about and identifying these spcies becomes easier and easier the more you use them.
This post is just the beginning of a series of posts about Indian Cooking Basics. Next time I'll fill you in on lentils (dhaal), the other key component of Indian cuisine.