Indian food is a delicious mix for the senses: tantalizing aromas, vibrant colors, and of course those spicy, sweet, tangy flavors. But for the home cook, this cuisine can be daunting. When you look at what’s needed to cook most Indian recipes, it’s easy to be put off by the long list of spices required.
That’s one of the reasons Plated ships all the spices needed in our dishes (like our customer favorite, Sea Bass with Coconut Broth and Indian Rice). But if you’re looking to cook an Indian meal on your own, you may be wondering where to start.
According to Plated’s Head Chef Elana Karp, the key to successful Indian dishes is using the right spices. And the most important step is “blooming” them. She says that home cooks shouldn’t be intimidated by that process: “Blooming just means cooking them in some oil or butter (or if you’re trying to be really authentic, ghee, which is Indian clarified butter). This brings out the flavor of the spices and then enhances anything you add to them.”
And once you’ve stocked up on the essentials, you’re ready to jump right in and cook fragrant, aromatic dishes with all the subtle, lingering, deep flavors of great Indian food.
Here are the nine essential Indian spices you’ll need:
Many Indian curries call for this strong, aromatic spice. You can find it as seeds or toasted and ground. As for its flavor, people often describe it as “warm and earthy” as well as “slightly bitter.” Like most Indian spices, it plays well with others.
The plant’s seeds and leaves feature in Indian cooking as a spice and also a garnish. Described by some as “nutty” and “fruity,” coriander seed is a key element in garam masala. It’s believed to settle an upset stomach and be good for digestion, too.
3. Mustard seeds
(Image: Farm Products Supply)
Mustard flavoring appears in cuisines around the world. Black mustard seeds are stronger in flavor than the yellow or white ones, which are used to make the yellow mustard that’s stocked in many American fridges. There’s also a brown mustard seed. For Indian meals, toss the seeds in a little hot oil until they pop and split, releasing their peppery, rich flavor. Use the oil, with the popped seeds, to flavor soups and vegetables. Put mustard seeds in a tightly sealed container and store them in a dark, cool, dry place.
Fresh ginger gives delicious, peppery flavor to recipes. If you leave it exposed to room temperature, ginger spoils pretty quickly, so try this trick: Wrap a chunk of peeled ginger root tightly and store it in the freezer; you can grate what you need right into the pot.
5. Garam masala
(Image: Kitchen Kemistry)
This is a blend of spices that varies according to cook and region of India, but it is a staple of Indian cooking the way that herbs de Provence functions in French cuisine. You’ll want to add this to the pan when the recipe is almost finished so the fragrant flavor doesn’t cook off or turn bitter.
This vivid yellow spice gives many Indian dishes their characteristic color. A relative of ginger, the spice is known for its anti-inflammatory properties as well as its valuable work as a flavor and color additive in curries.
It’s not just for apple pie. The spice adds a delicate sweetness to savory recipes as well as desserts. Ceylon cinnamon (or “true cinnamon,” seen above) is the real deal, and you pay more for it than for cassia, which is a cheaper relative also known as cinnamon. If you buy supermarket ground cinnamon, you can’t tell which type you’re getting, so it’s good to order from a company that distinguishes between the two.
Cassia has a stronger, spicier flavor. Ceylon cinnamon is credited with being antioxidant-rich and good for reducing cholesterol and stabilizing blood-sugar levels—all that and great taste? It’s a win-win.
Cardamom is a “less is more” spice: Use with caution, or it can mask milder flavors in your dish. This is one spice you should keep in the freezer—it loses freshness quickly. Alternatively, you can buy whole pods (as above) and grind them when a recipe calls for cardamom. Chai, curries, and rice dishes all get a flavor boost from cardamom.
9. Spicy red chile pepper
Various chile peppers rack up the heat in curries; you can adjust quantities to taste. Cayenne pepper (pictured above) is one type of chile pepper that’s easily sourced in supermarkets, but you can also use fresh red chile peppers if you prefer.
If you’re looking for some Indian recipes to check out, try out two of our favorite dishes: