Spices box

A guide to Indian spices

By BBC Maestro

Spices have long been a defining feature of Indian cuisine. Think about the earthy undertone of cumin seeds, the powerful kick of red chilli powder or the warming, aromatic tones of cinnamon.

Each spice gives a dish that extra something – elevating the senses and making eating the food that bit more memorable. In this guide to Indian spices, we’ll cover the spectrum of spices used in Indian cooking and how to use them in your very own kitchen.

A brief history of spice

The use of spices can be traced back to 2000 BCE throughout the Indian subcontinent. In Indian cuisine, cinnamon and black pepper were the most prominent spices used. In East Asia, however, it was herbs and pepper that were popular.

In Egypt, spices were heavily used in the mummification process to preserve the bodies of those who died. It was the Egyptians’ desire for new and exotic spices for these processes that prompted the world trade of spices. In time, people began understanding spices for their medicinal properties too, and soon after new medical systems were adopted in India, China and Korea, each revolving around the health and healing benefits of spices.

But spices have long been used in cooking too. You can find spices in a few different formats usually as plants, roots, barks, seeds or powders. The first four are known as ‘whole’ spices, whilst the latter is known as ‘ground’ spice. You can use these in your cooking to add new flavours or to elevate the flavours of other ingredients in dishes – such as meat. You can cook them with dry heat, in oil or liquid and can also combine them in creative ways to make spice pastes for your cooking too.

“People think Indian food is very spicy. There is a difference between spices and spiced,” says Vineet Bhatia in his BBC Maestro Indian cooking course. Keen to set the common myth straight, he says, “Indian food has got flavour. It’s got spices – so it’s got a lot of flavours in it. Spiced food is when you use red chilli, or green chilli and you’re making it very piquant. That only hits your palate… and it makes you sweat. Now, that is chilli hot. That is not actually how Indians eat in most homes.”

A box of spices

Spices used in Indian cooking

From turmeric and cardamom to cloves and cassia bark, the realm of Indian spices can be a little overwhelming for us all. “Spices are like a mystery box. You open them and you get lost in them, you don’t know what there is, and it is very confusing,” says Vineet Bhatia, so a little guidance for us all is useful at times. But how do you use spice in Indian cooking?

Generally, whole spices (such as seeds) should be cooked on dry heat or in hot oil at the start of cooking. Then you will need to add your absorbers (potatoes, tomatoes, garlic or onions) shortly after to capture the flavours being released. For ground spices (powders), it’s usually best to add these at the midpoint of cooking. This allows the flavours to spread throughout the dish as it cooks, improving the overall flavour.

Now we’ll delve into some of the cuisine’s favourite spices, and what dishes they work best in.

Cumin

This spice comes in seed and powder form and is a vital spice in Indian cooking. It’s simple, with an earthy and slightly nutty flavour, and is a great tool for complementing the flavours in meats, such as beef and pork. It can add a well-rounded flavour to a vegetarian dish too. Cumin seeds are often used in rice dishes, chutneys, dips and breads. You can also find ground cumin in these dishes, as well as in stews, curries and dahls.

Cumin

Turmeric 

Vibrant in colour and believed to be good for your health, this spice has a subtle flavour that will lift a dish. Its taste is softly nutty and well-rounded and will add a light-yellow tinge to the colour of your dish. Turmeric comes from the flowering plant called Curcuma longa, which is part of the ginger family and is native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. It’s used widely across Indian cooking, appearing frequently in curries, marinades, sauces and dressings, for both its flavour and colouring.

Turmeric

Coriander

This plant comes in herb, seed and powder form and is another key spice in Indian cooking. Coriander seeds are very light and aromatic and are usually toasted at the start of a dish – so they can release their captivating aroma. They go particularly well in lamb dishes, drawing out its flavour. Ground coriander is lightly floral and high-noted, and is often used in the middle of cooking to enhance the flavour of the whole dish. It’s used across Indian cooking, in meat dishes, stews, marinades, curries, rice dishes and sauces.

Coriander seeds

Chilli 

Chilli is a popular spice used to add a kick to your dish. It can come in plant form, seed form, powder form and dried form – all of which are used in Indian cooking. Adding a slice of fresh chilli (red or green), dried chilli or chilli seeds will add heat to your dish and, depending on the quantities used, give eaters a slight pang to the back of the throat that may see them beginning to sweat. Some people love this, others do not. You can adjust the heat of your dish purely by adjusting your quantities.

When it comes to red chilli powder, it’s important to note that there is a huge variety when it comes to the severity of spiciness. In traditional Indian cooking, many opt for a milder powder because the other flavours of the dish can sometimes get lost in the heat. If you find yourself adding too much heat to a dish, creamy accompaniments may work best, such as yoghurt.

chilli spice

Green cardamom

This aromatic spice comes in seed and powder form. You can find the seeds in three different varieties – green cardamom, black cardamom and white cardamom.

Green cardamom seeds are used commonly in dishes for their light perfume-like flavour. You’ll  find them in rice dishes and stews. If you break open the outer layer of a green cardamom seed, you’ll find the black cardamom pod which imparts most of the flavour. This pod is incredibly intense and very hard in texture and can’t be eaten. You can find these pods used to flavour something strongly – like a rogan josh or pilau rice. White cardamom seeds are in fact green cardamom pods that have been bleached for aesthetic purposes. They are often wrapped in silver leaf or gold leaf and are served after a meal to cleanse the palette.

Green cardamom powder is a great elevator to a dish and should be sprinkled towards the end of cooking. It gives a truly well-rounded flavour and it can also be used in desserts like a lassi or in dressings, soups and yoghurts.

green cardamom

Garam masala

Garam masala is a spice blend formed of several spices, lightly toasted in a pan and then ground together to form a powder. The exact recipe of this varies, as most families will have their own specific one they follow. In his BBC Maestro Indian cooking course, Vineet Bhatia’s recipe uses:

  • coriander seeds
  • cumin seeds
  • green cardamom pods
  • peppercorns
  • cloves
  • star anise
  • mace
  • nutmeg
  • fennel seeds
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cinnamon stick

You can imagine the aromas lifting from the pan as you read that list of ingredients. Garam masala powder is used in curries, sauces, dressing, marinades and more. If you add this powder within the last few minutes of cooking it will transform your dish entirely.

Garam masala

Cloves

A true favourite in Indian cuisine and packed with intense flavour. Cloves are soothing, relaxing and cooling, and when you add them to a meat or rice dish, they can draw out flavours particularly well. They are used in soups and marinades frequently for the same reason.  

Nutmeg

This warming spice is a great tenderiser for dishes that need a bit of balance. Its flavour is strong, so you should use it sparingly. It goes particularly well in meat dishes, or wintry dishes. You can also grate nutmeg into a soup, rice dish, ice creams or Kulfi too.

mixture of spices

Cinnamon

Another warming spice, cinnamon is extremely aromatic. It’s found in bark or powder form and can be used to add a warm twist to a dish, sauce or even a drink. It has a gentleness to it that can feel soothing and can also warm up the body when it’s consumed. That’s why you often find it in herbal tea blends. It is also used in marinades, curries, rice dishes or red meat dishes. You can use cassia bark as a cinnamon replacement if needed – although the flavour is slightly sweeter.

indian spices infographic image 1
indian spice infographic article image 2
indian spice infographic article image 3
indian spice infographic article image 4

How to store spices

Spices should be stored in a concealed container in cool, dark spaces. You can have a spice box, also known as ‘masala dani’, like Vineet Bhatia, or you may prefer to have them in separate containers so you can easily identify which is which.

Remember, heat activates spices, so, if sunlight touches them and they become warm, they will begin to release their flavour. By the time you begin cooking them, their flavour will be dampened. So it’s best to find a shaded space on a shelf or store them away in a cupboard.

When choosing spices to buy or cook with, they should be vibrant in colour. Spices that appear drained or darker in colour than expected, have most likely been oxidised or have sat on a shelf for too long. So, avoid these where possible.

Spice box

Now you’re ready to put your new spice knowledge to the test. Whether you’re hoping to feel more confident in your cooking or are prepping for a dinner party, understanding the foundations of spice will help you understand flavour in new ways. Why not try Vineet’s delicious butter chicken or opt for a cauliflower pulao? Or you could experiment with your own spice blends and dishes. If you’re keen to explore other cuisines, see our online cooking courses for more inspiration.

Thanks for signing up

Your unique discount code is on it's way to your inbox

Oops! Something went wrong

Please try again later

FREE video lesson: Cook the perfect onion bhaji

With chef, Vineet Bhatia

Learn more about Indian cooking

Join Vineet as he takes you on a journey through the streets of India with his aromatic dishes. Along the way, you’ll learn the foundations of Indian cooking - understanding the realms of spice and an introduction to the tools and techniques that have been creating delicious food in Indian homes for years.

Give the gift of knowledge

Surprise a special someone with a year's access to BBC Maestro or gift them a single course.

Thanks for signing up to receive your free lessons

Check your inbox - they’re on the way!

Oops! Something went wrong

Please try again later

Get started with free lessons

Unlock your passion, sign up today