Spices are the first thing that come up when we talk about Indian food. In my teaching experience, it is one of the most intimidating aspects of India cooking. Often I am asked how to build an Indian pantry, how to use various esoteric spices, how to store them and where to buy them.
As the conversation starts, walks in the omnipresent spice box. Its versatility and practicality is what attracts most. Even though Indian food is regionally very varied, the spice box is a constant, regardless of region. The contents of the spice box, however, change as per the region and even across individual households within a region. For instance, a typical southern household will have mustard seeds in their box which might not be an essential spice in a north Indian home.
The purpose of the spice box is to house everything that one uses most often, in one place. The most common spice box is round, deep, stainless steel and sometimes a precious heirloom handed down across generations. The stainless steel makes it indestructible, easy to clean and all the marks and stains are prized wounds of war from the years of use. The thought is to have it next to you with all your basics when you cook an Indian meal. I have a spice box fetish among other kitchen fetishes so I have collected quite a few along with the standard round stainless steel one. You can buy a basic spice box online, which will have 7 compartments, a glass or opaque stainless-steel lid, with a tiny metallic spoon.
Once you have decided on the box, you then need to pick the spices to put in the box. As mentioned earlier, each box is customized to one's needs and so the spices need to reflect your preferences and frequency of use. My spice box has whole cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, coriander powder, turmeric powder, chili powder, carom seeds (ajwain) and amchur (mango powder). These are the 7 that I use most often.
There is a difference between whole and ground cumin and they are not interchangeable. Even though they are exactly the same ingredient, once processed or ground it has a completely different flavor profile. It is a staple ingredient in most Indian households regardless of region. It is used extensively both whole and ground and many a times as a part of spice blends. Generally, cumin is toasted before grinding. The whole spice is used as a base for a lot of vegetable dishes and as a tarka (blooming of spices in oil) in dal. Cumin also has a lot of health benefits such weight loss and IBS. Often cumin is confused with caraway. Even though they look similar cumin seeds are larger and darker and each has a distinct flavor.
Fun fact- 63% of the worlds cumin is consumed by India.
This is the most trending spice. There is so much awareness about it that I feel I don’t need to say much. Its biggest claim to fame is its role as an anti inflammatory agent, but it is also an antiseptic and antibacterial. This is the reason you see it in face packs and beauty products. In India when you get married there is an entire ceremony that is called “haldi” (hindi name for turmeric) where friends and relatives smear turmeric on the bride and groom a few days before the wedding. The turmeric paste is considered auspicious and adds a glow to the skin. Turmeric does stain, however, so keep it away from fabric. In the olden days it was used to dye the robes of the priests.
Fun fact: it does not get absorbed unless used with black pepper or cayenne which increases the absorption by 2000%!
Coriander comes from a plant, which is also known as cilantro. Every part of this plant is edible; seeds, roots and leaves. The seeds are what is ground up to make coriander powder. It is used a lot in Indian food both in the north and the south and as a key ingredient in spice mixes. Toasting the seed, heightens the flavors.
In India, cilantro is called coriander leaves. So any time a recipe asks to garnish with coriander, it is referring to the leaves. The seeds and the leaves have very different flavors and cannot be used interchangeably.
Fun Fact: 4-14% of people think that cilantro tastes like soap water because of a gene present.
Fun Fact: When freshly ground it smells like froot loops/earl grey. It is listed as one of the original ingredients in the secret recipe for Coca- Cola.
Carom Seeds (Ajwain)
Carom seed or ajwain is also known as bishop's weed. It has a strong flavor that reminds people of oregano. It smells like thyme because it contains a common phenol called thymol, however, it cannot be substituted for thyme. It is often used with ingredients / recipes that are deep fried such as pakoras and samosas since ajwain helps with digestion. In fact, it is a common ingredient in many Ayurvedic herbal medicines that help with indigestion and bloating.
Fun Fact: After child birth women in India are only allowed to drink water that has been boiled with ajwain for 40 days. It is supposed to help with water retention.
Amchur (Mango Powder)
Amchoor is quite literally the powder of green, unripe mangoes thus lending to it the sour taste. Raw, unripe mangoes are peeled and dried till all the moisture is removed and then ground up. You can buy just dried mango pieces as well. It is primarily used in the north but has made its way to some southern dishes. It is used in dishes where acidity is required but not the moisture. Having said that, I have used lemons on occasion as a substitute.
Fun Fact: Amchoor is made only in India.
Chili powder in an Indian kitchen is one of the most confusing spices. Indian chili powder is ground-up dried chillies mostly of the cayenne variety but can vary quite a bit with the region. It is an umbrella term for different chillies which can vary in heat and size. Even though you might find a range of Indian chili powders from mild to very hot, they are never blended together or with any other spice. A non-spicy varietal is the Kashmiri powder or degi mirch. It is made from Kashmiri chilies which are small and less spicy, but add a bright red color to dishes.
Mexican chili powder is a mix of cayenne, cumin, coriander and oregano. It has a lot more flavor and not just heat. So please do not use this interchangeably with Indian chili powder.
Fun Fact: Chilis did not originate in India. They were brought to India by the Portuguese. Before the introduction of chilies, black pepper was used to add heat and spiciness to Indian dishes.
Fun Fact: Red chilies help cool the body down and thin the blood which is why they are eaten more in the hottest parts of the country like Rajasthan.
This spice is used extensively in India both the leaves and the seed. The leaves can be used fresh or dried, and the seeds are used as is or sometimes as sprouts and microgreens. It has an array of therapeutic qualities and is used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine. It is given to women when they are nursing to help with their milk supply.
In terms of flavor, it has a bitter taste. Once toasted the bitterness is reduced. The fresh leaves taste very different from the seeds and cannot be substituted.
Fun Fact: Fenugreek seeds is supposed to smell like maple syrup and is used as flavoring in imitation maple syrup.