She Who Controls The Spice, Controls The Universe
September 17, 2009 10:52 AM   Subscribe

Indian spice recipe -- please give me your tastiest! Following up on my Chicken Tikka Masala recipe question, I'm stumped by what spice combination will give me the flavor I desire....

Last week I asked this question about making Chicken Tikka Masala at home. Because there is no "set" recipe for Tikka Masala, I found it difficult to implement your advice. I couldn't decide what spices to use.

Please help me decide what flavors and spices I want on hand in my home kitchen to replicate that Indian restaurant flavor.

I realize I am probably looking for a curry combination informed by Mughlai cuisine. When you cook Indian food at home, what spice combinations do you reach for most often?

Thanks in advance for your input!!
posted by jbenben to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
I make Chana Masala (chickpeas and potatoes in a tomato-based sauce) and I use ginger, onion, garlic, cumin, coriander, garam masala, tumeric (sometimes -- I don't love it), salt.

Garam masala itself contains a bunch of spices and you could use some or all, experimenting to get the flavour you most prefer: black pepper, cloves, bay leaves, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, star anise, coriander.
posted by mmw at 10:58 AM on September 17, 2009

I make very amateur curries often, and my Indian neighbor approves so I must not be too far off.

Garam masala is the essential part, and if I have none I can't make a curry. Other things I actually use: green cardamon, black cardamon (whole, crush when needed or stew whole), cumin, coriander seed and turmeric. I'm told I should try fenugreek, but I haven't yet.

A hot red pepper (I use ancho, szechuan will work) is also useful when sharp heat is needed. Most curries are a "slow and warm" sort of heat otherwise.
posted by rokusan at 11:02 AM on September 17, 2009

Oh, and mmw reminds me: I do add more cloves to the gm sometimes.
posted by rokusan at 11:17 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I started using fresh tumeric, available in Asian and Caribbean markets. Wear gloves to chop. There are different colored mustard seeds as well as different colored cumin seeds which have different flavors. I have found interesting and delicious and exotic spice mixes in local Pakistani stores as well.
posted by Jode at 11:53 AM on September 17, 2009

You have to put a little turmeric in everything because it's good luck.
posted by goethean at 12:01 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't like fenugreek, so I started making my own curry powder. The recipe is buried right now, but it uses these, in somewhere near this order, from most to least amounts:.
dry mustard

Other typical additions: star anise, cinnamon, black pepper, nutmeg, fennel seed, curry leaf, sweet paprika (not smoked), Hungarian paprika(smoked), fenugreek.

Buy spices, put in jars, then create your own version by smell.

Cardamom smell so good to me that I often keep it on hand for homemade aromatherapy.
posted by theora55 at 12:17 PM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

One of the many keys to a good Indian (or most cuisines for that matter) curry is fresh spices. Always buy whole, never ground. Also make sure you store them in air tight jars (mason/bell screw top jars work great).

I toast whole cumin and coriander before grinding them up in a spice grinder (a repurposed coffee grinder). Doing this over using preground spices can be the difference between a good and a spectacular meal.

When you cook Indian food at home, what spice combinations do you reach for most often?

Cumin, Coriander (usually 1/2 the cumin), ground red chillies, and a dash of turmeric (too much will ruin it; Always use less than you think). Sometimes I will add a bit of Amchur (dried mango powder) if I want a bit of tartness.

This is pretty much the basic spice set that goes in any Indian curry.
posted by special-k at 12:23 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A lot of tikka masala sauces that you get in restaurants (at least here in the US) have a hard-to-place flavor that tastes sort of like butterscotch to me. That's the fenugreek.

I find that the seeds (or powdered seeds) can be a little bitter, so I like the dried leaves. Be mindful, though -- the package I buy from my Indian grocer always has a lot of non-edible stems. Pick through the leaves before adding them to a dish.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:44 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: At the most basic level, you could make something that people would recognise as being "a curry" just by using garam masala - which is in effect just a blend of various curry spices.

The ones that I use the most are cumin and coriander - either pre-ground, or as seeds that I'll dry-roast and crush in a mortar-and-pestle. Usually I'm much too lazy (or time-pressured) to do the spices properly, so once every blue moon I'll prepare a whole batch and save them for later. More often than not, though, I'll just use the pre-ground spices for that genuine lack of authenticity.

In addition to these two, our kitchen pretty much always has the following available, many of which will be used in any given meal:
Black pepper and salt, paprika (powder), cayenne (powder), cinnamon (powder or bark), cloves (whole), nutmeg (powder).
Cardamom pods are great (either use the seeds, or throw whole pods in - particularly in your rice).
Fenugreek (powder, or seeds home roasted and ground) sometimes makes an appearance if I want a bitter bite, as does - rarely - asafoetida.
Sometimes I'll also use Five Star Anise (whole) and soy sauce to add a different twist.
Fresh garlic, onions, sweet ("bell") peppers and chilis are all pretty essential - and tomato puree, sieved tomato ("pasata") or tinned chopped tomatoes are frequently useful.
Frozen leaf spinach can be dropped in easily, as could new/baby potatoes, to add different flavours and textures - both handy to have at hand.
In the fridge there's often (although usually only for a short while after we've been shopping!) single cream and plain yoghurt - both of which work well in making tasty creamy curries (korma, makhani, etc.).
Chocolate can often make a big difference to a dish, as can a spoonful of sugar; they can add an extra element to the flavours, providing a nice and unexpected counterpoint to the usual expectations.

One of the other important factors is what oil - if any - you use. Some people swear by ghee, but I'll often just use a combination of standard sunflower oil and a healthy (!) lump of butter.
posted by Chunder at 1:19 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all! And please keep the spice information flowing;)

This is exactly the type of experiential knowledge I was looking for!! Based on all of your answers so far, I can't tell where I've gone wrong in the past, but I am sure to make better curry spice mixtures from now on.

I'll post back to this thread with details of my success.

In the meantime, keep those spice secrets coming...

posted by jbenben at 1:53 PM on September 17, 2009

Best answer: (This is closer to South Indian, than Mughal but South Indian cooking beats the pants off other styles)

Before cooking:
Dry roast Whole Coriander, Fennel, + Fenugreek seeds in a ratio in a raio of 2/3:1:1(/2)
I also add black pepper/cinnamon etc here for variation.
If you are using dried red chillies add them here too along with Curry Leaf if you can get it.
Start your cooking by frying whole cumin and black mustard seeds in the oil/ghee then add onions. When the onions are almost done add chopped fresh garlic and ginger (and fresh (green) chillies if you are using them).
Carry on frying for another couple of minutes.
Add the spice mix and fry off. Tumeric and Asfoetida are other good things to add at this point.
Add your other veg (and meat) for frying.
Add any liquid ingredients.
Just before serving add freshly chopped cilantro(coriander leaf) and Garam Masala.

Fresh spices make a lot of difference. Make sure to use plenty of them. Another mistake sometimes made is to confuse the roles of chillies and garlic. Chillies add heat, garlic adds strength. Often people need the latter but add the former.
posted by tallus at 2:43 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hmmm, garam masala in the tradtional sense should not be used as a stand-in curry powder.

It a powder that should be stirred in at the end of cooking - not frying or in with the onion etc. The reason why most people do this is because cheap, purchased garam masalas are padded out with all kinds of shit that makes them closer to "real" curry powders. Make your own garam masala with a coffee grinder, stir through your dhal or what-have-you at the end of cooking, just before serving.

Garam Masala should only be spices that are considered "warming" or "hot" in hindi culture. Thus a very traditional mix would be along the lines of the five C's:

Cumin, (preferably black, 1 tsp)
Cardamon (1 tsp)
Cinnamon ( 1 tsp)
Cloves (.5 tsp)
pepperCorn (.5 tsp).

I'm not saying this is the only way to make garam masala, or the 'proper' way. But this is how it was traditionally, typically intended. Whole garam masala (not ground), by contrast, can and shoudl go in near the start.

Spices that should Go in at the start of cooking:
Coriander seeds
Asafoetida (often neglected, provides a certain something to Indian curries)
Curry leaves (ditto, really will elevate your curries to another level of authenticity, can be bought dried, but fresh ones freeze brilliantly well).
Mustard seeds (along with onion, fresh ginger and coriander seeds, I would say mustard seeds form one of the pillars of indian cuisine. They are in nearly every curry, in nearly every region. They come in every shade between black and yellow, but yellow are the most common).

Amchar or Amchoor powder (dried mango) is another one of of things that aren't usually added but will help your dish taste more authentic, especially with the less northern cuisines. It should be added midway - you don't need to fry it off.

Don't underestimate the importance of ghee in imparting flavour, esp with your dhal.

Finally: salt. People don't realise how heavily Indian (esp Indian restaurant food) is salted. Don't be afraid to brown the fuck out of your onions and give them the salty, salty love they deserve.

Hope this helps. I'm not Indian but it is my cuisine of speciality.
posted by smoke at 5:25 PM on September 17, 2009 [8 favorites]

My favorite spice mix is panchphoran, a mix of (whole) cumin, fennel, fenugreek, nigella, and mustard seeds. It's a Bengali spice mixture that I learned about from one of Madhur Jaffrey's books (I highly recommend her cookbooks, btw). Basically, you heat oil/ghee, add the panchphoran, add onions, and then use that as a base for your curry. Or, you could add the oil/panchphoran to a dal. I absolutely love panchphoran with just about every vegetable, and you can find lots of recipes online.

I also second smoke that asadetida is an often overlooked but important spice - it smells odd in the jar, but it really adds something to the finished dish. I learned about it from a Jaffrey book as well, I think.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:43 PM on September 17, 2009

Response by poster: RESULTS #1:

OK. I tried making the Chicken Tikka Masala. Also, I made a Masoor Dal recipe.

Everything was super yummy and BY FAR the best total Indian meal I have ever made. My Husband and I thank you.

Naturally, I totally went off-book. I did follow everyone's tips and used recipes from the site as a loose outline.

I got 2 spice mixes from the grocery. I will get the better stuff tomorrow from the Indian Market. The tandoori/masala spice mix has: paprika, coriander, tumeric, fenugreek, mustard, cumin, cayenne, and ginger. The garam masala has: black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander.

I doctored these basic mixes when appropriate with some stuff I had on hand (extra cumin, coriander, cardamom, etc.) and I used fresh ginger and garlic smashed in the mortar and pestle.

First, I made tandoori chicken - chunks of chicken marinated in yogurt, lemon juice, fresh garlic and ginger, a little extra paprika, some of the tandoori masala spice, and saffron strands. Baked the marinated chicken chunks in a hot oven. I saved the uncooked left over marinade to add into the masala sauce at the end. This tandoori recipe is mine, remembered from ages ago.

I cooked the Masoor Dal more or less as per this recipe. I super caramelized the onions, ginger & garlic. I added extra salt to help the caramelization. As per the advice, I added the garam masala to the cooking dal closer towards the end. I left out the jalepeno & added a touch of cayenne when the onions were cooking down. I sauteed the tomatoes and fresh chopped cilantro in the onion mixture before adding it to the dal. It was almost perfect by the time I finished, just like a restaurant!

Lastly, I made the Masala sauce. Without ghee, I did the onions in canola w/ some butter. I caramelized the onions, ginger, garlic, and some of the tandoori masala spice, some extra spices from the cupboard, and salt. Then I cooked those onions some more! Then I put in a few tablespoons of tomato paste, I further cooked down the onions & let the toms paste develop some flavor. Then I added in some half-n-half, the left over yogurt marinade, plus the cooked chicken and let that simmer a minute or two before serving over basmati rice. Fresh cilantro at the end.

Basmati rice was maybe not so good. OK, I make crap rice. Perhaps we'll get to that in another post?


Tonight I learned what spices go together, and I learned proper "spice technique" - basically when to add what during the process. The flavors were blended, balanced and better developed than I've ever thought possible (by my own hand.)

Tomorrow afternoon I will pick up asafoetida, curry leaves, and fenugreek leaves. I already have fennel seeds, black mustard seed, cardamom, etc.

Tomorrow night I attempt Vegetable Korma. I will be doing the spice mixtures from scratch. I will report back!

posted by jbenben at 12:21 AM on September 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

So glad to hear it worked out well for you, Jbenben. There is truly a wealth of Indian cooking sites out there.

quick indian cooking is a good place for ideas.

Manjula's Kitchen is brilliant - but be aware that her religion (Jainist) doesn't eat onions or garlic, which is missing out on some great stuff in my opinion.

When you're at the Indian grocer, don't be afraid to experiment with the many different types of dal (just check cooking/soaking times). I recommend Urad Dal and Moth dal. Urad is very smooth, almost gelatinous like okra, and you can make a delicious Dal Makhani with it. Moth dal (also called mat dal, mot dal, matki dal etc. etc.) is quite different, a little bit crunchy, a little bit nutty, cooks relatively quickly and can also be sprouted and then cooked.

If you end up making dal Makhani, I recommend doing a 'dry' style curry with the mot dal, some crushed tomato, but not much, and lemon with the usual suspects. The nutty, fresh acidity contrasts delightfully with the unctuous makhani dal.

Don't forget sides! Making your own raita is a snap - natural yoghurt, salt, tiny bit of pepper, cucumber, some mint, teensy bit of crushed garlic and a splash of water if it's thick yoghurt.

lime pickle is easy and delicious. But you have to wait.

chapatis (cf Madhur Jaffrey) are surprisingly easy. Not sure if it's in that recipe, but pro tip - microwave for 40 secs - 1 min after the quick pan fry. It will really help with the puff (they are a flat bread, don't expect miracles). Mix equal parts wholemeal flour and white flour/plain flour for a reasonable analogue. People get very impressed when you make your own breads.

God I love Indian food. Except the desserts (shudder). Doesn't matter what they look like, they all taste of one of three things: rosewater, sugar, or condensed milk!

Looking forward to your report. :)
posted by smoke at 7:18 AM on September 18, 2009

Surprised no one has mentioned tamarind (for things like imli chatni) as an essential ingredient and, if you do buy some get the blocks from Thailand, they're softer, don't have the outer skin and, very few seeds.

If you can get it I'd add black cumin (sometimes called royal cumin) and, deggi mirch (a type of hot pepper) to the cupboard.

Mentioning tandoori, this is hands down this is the best tandoori recipe I've found on the net thus far.
posted by squeak at 11:50 AM on September 18, 2009

Response by poster: Hi all!

According to tallus, Southern Indian cooking "beats the pants off other styles." I think I may have to agree.

My friend Paul (who is originally from Delhi) prefers Southern cuisine - he recommends MDH Brand spice combinations.

I think above I reference a sweet/hot sauce someone made for me? Turns out that was my favorite tamarind-based condiment at restaurants, homemade by Paul! He kinda swears by MDH Brand, and his version of the tamarind sauce was sublime. I'm passing that on, FWIW.

(Sadly, he refuses to give up the family recipe for this particular condiment. He claims, "It's easy to make!" As a former professional chef, I know this means he won't give up the secret technique or key ingredients to the recipe unless threatened with bodily harm. Sigh.)

I won't be checking in on the Korma experiment for a while because I'm testing out a seitan recipe here on the But I do not plan to abandon this thread.

In the past week, I've had GREAT success stirring garam masala into lentils/dal towards the end of cooking. As a non-Indian, I've been using this spice combination incorrectly for decades. Just want to confirm for the Hive that mastery of Indian Cuisine has a lot to do with when and how you add your spices.

posted by jbenben at 5:22 PM on September 25, 2009

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