Spice Box

Country of origin: all over the show, with the spice trade beginning in the Middle East/East Asia

This post runs through some of the main spices used in North Indian – specifically, Gujarati – cooking; however, these spices will make a useful addition to any kitchen. The steps for many curry, or sauce-based dishes (such as biriyani) go as follows:

-Start with a fat (usually oil, but sometimes ghee/clarified butter or butter) in the pan.

– Cumin or mustard seeds may be added to the hot oil. When they release their aroma and are spluttering gently, move on to the next step.

-Chopped onions may then be added. For some dishes, the onions will only be cooked lightly, until translucent, but for biriyani, for example, the onions will be cooked for a good twenty to thirty minutes, until they are caramelizing. For rich, aromatic dishes, cinnamon sticks, cardamon pods and cloves may be added at the onion stage to give them fragrance and flavor.

-Next, add ground spices such as turmeric, red chilli, cumin and coriander and minced garlic, ginger and fresh chilli.

-Tomato (puréed, tinned or fresh) may then be added, and/or water.

-The curries are then be left to simmer or if dry, ingredients are allowed to cook through. At this stage add ground garam masala in some dishes, and also sprinkle on fresh coriander leaves as a fragrant garnish.

These are the ten spices most frequently used, but there are many others used in Indian cuisine:

1 Cumin seeds: A seed from the parsley family and might I add one of my favorite flavors, warm and almost nutty, it appears in cuisine ranging from Indian, to Mexican to Dutch… As mentioned above, the seeds are often used at towards the beginning of a dish, added to the hot oil.

2 Cumin powder: Cumin seeds are lightly roasted in a dry pan and then whizzed in a spice grinder. The grinding-your-own-spice movement is preferable as you have freshest powder each time. The whole spice also lasts longer  and holds its flavor for longer than it’s ground counterpart.


3 Coriander/Cilantro powder: Also another member of the parsley clan, this herb is extremely popular in Indian food, used in all its glorious forms: fresh leaves, the lemony dried berries and powder. In its powder form, it’s used in numerous curries and dry dishes. Fresh, it’s used in delicious marinades and sprinkled over practically everything as a garnish.

4 Red chilli: This striking powder, that comes in beautiful shades of red, is from the dried and powdered red chilli pepper. I’m not sure which chilli this powder comes from, or even if it comes from just one kind. The best test of strength is just to taste it yourself, and use sparingly, you can always add more! I often use this as well as fresh, chopped green chillies, but if you don’t have one or the other you can always substitute.

5 Tumeric powder: I’ve never had it fresh (looks like a cousin of ginger to me), but rather in deep-yellow powder form which is made from the boiled and dried roots of the plant. It has an earthy flavor and gives a brilliant and almost unnatural color to food. With alleged health benefits, what’s not to love?

6 Mustard seed: I use the small dark seeds, rather than the yellow ones. These are used in Gujarati cooking in their whole form, either being put in the hot oil at the beginning of a recipe (e.g. Spiced Dry Potatoes) or used in the tempering stage of a dish, flavoring an oil towards the end of a recipe like Dal Bhat.

7 Fenugreek seeds: these guys come from the same family as soybeans and alfafa. They lend a deep, almost bitter taste to dishes which is delicious. In their seed form, just like mustard seeds, they are used both a flavoring at the beginning of some recipes and as in the tempering stage at the end of others.

I must also mention the delicious fenugreek plant, “methi.” Easy as pie to grow at home, simply soak the seeds and plant; you’ll soon get bright green shoots with a lovely pungent, slightly bitter flavor. These leaves – fresh or frozen – are used in dishes such as Methi chicken or Methi paneer, and also in snacks such as Dhebra.

8 Aesfotida: This little spice which comes from the dried resin of a plant has some unfortunate nicknames, “Devil’s Dung and Stinking Gum,” doesn’t smell great in it’s powdered form, but is used in many dishes, for its digestive and flavor enhancing properties.

9 Cardamon: Also another member of the ginger family! Pretty to look at, and coming in its own jacket, green cardamon is used widely used in Indian cooking, both in savory and sweet dishes. In the former, you can use it at the beginning of a dish, as mentioned, adding it to the oil and onions for biriyani. In sweet dishes such as kheer (a fragrant rice pudding), it’s put in with the milk, to flavor the rice while it’s cooking.

10 Cinnamon sticks: Warm, cozy cinnamon, it makes me think of spiced buns and apple pie, but it’s used in many savory dishes too. Coming from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree, it’s from the same family as avocado! The intense spicy, warm flavor comes from an essential oil.

Finally, let’s talk about garam masala, a blend of fragrant spices, whose components varies hugely. It commonly includes ground cumin, cloves, black peppercorns, cinnamon and cardamon. Mine is store-bought, and therefore probably of inferior quality compared to what you could make yourself at home. This is often added at the end of the dish, to retain as much of its lovely aroma as possible.

Happy spicing!