Which Indian spices should I get to be able to cook Indian food?
August 3, 2013 5:25 PM   Subscribe

I have a gift card for a fancy spice store, and the only spices that are missing from my kitchen are Indian food spices, which is a shame because I LOVE Indian food. What spices/herbs/seeds/nuts should I get to be able to cook complete Indian dishes? And what should I make with them?

I searched some recipes, and I want to get everything I would need at once, instead of getting spices for only one or two recipes now. So if you cook Indian food (from any part of India), please tell me what is in your pantry! Any tips, tricks, and recipes to start with are welcome too. If you say "don't buy garam masala but make your own" then please tell me what I need to get to make my own.

(I am aware that going to ethnic stores is cheaper, but I have this gift card to spend and don't need any other spices right now.)
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Cumin, turmeric, coriander, garam masala (I buy pre-made) are the major spices I see a lot in Indian recipes. Others would be curry powder (various kinds), cayenne, cardamom (usually pods, but I have seen recipes call for ground also), sometimes cinnamon sticks, anise, asafoetida. Also if the spice store Carrie tamarind paste, get that too. Cumin seeds come up sometimes as well. That's what I can think of off the top of my head.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 5:32 PM on August 3, 2013

coriander (whole and ground), cumin (whole and ground), fenugreek, asafoetida, garam masala, black mustard seeds, cardamom (black and/or green), mango powder (amchur), dried pomegranate seeds (I think I've only used them once, though), star anise, tamarind, turmeric!

Other stuff you likely already have: ginger, cinnamon, cloves, saffron, nutmeg, cayenne, paprika
posted by little cow make small moo at 5:34 PM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think these are the biggies. You can make your own garam masala, but the prepackaged is fine.
Also, bay leaves and curry leaves.
If they sell lentils, you might want to get those too. Moong dal and toor dal are easy and don't require a ton of soaking.

If you get asafoetida, try to get the Cobra brand, or else cut way back on what recipes call for. It can be pretty overpowering.

As for what you make, Manjula's kitchen is a good place to start.
posted by chbrooks at 5:44 PM on August 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

In addition to those already mentioned, perhaps panch phoron.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:47 PM on August 3, 2013

Oh, and I get all my best Indian recipes from Madhur Jaffrey.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:59 PM on August 3, 2013

I think Indian food is the only thing I use cumin seeds for, so you may not have those already. Also fenugreek and turmeric.

Asafoetida (which is also called hing) was hard for me to find in grocery stores, so buy some if they stock it. (Though I've left it out to no ill effect loads of times.)

I have some recipes that call for amchoor powder (which I've never found, but I've never looked for it in an Indian shop), but you can apparently replace it with twice the amount of lemon juice. I usually forget that fact and leave it out entirely.

Given that you have a gift card, you should buy some saffron and some cardamon pods, as they're often expensive, just to have some. (I suppose cardamon pods are light, so if they're priced by weight, you don't spend that much. Saffron's just always expensive.)
posted by hoyland at 6:23 PM on August 3, 2013

Fresh cilantro to put on top.

Saffron is only necessary in biryani.
posted by goethean at 6:40 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

If the store sells utensils, get a microplane. You will be grating ginger, and microplanes make that almost enjoyable.

Black salt's another useful ingredient. It's pink, incidentally.

A wee note about asafoetida/hing/perungayam: it smells really farty in its powdered form. Be prepared to triple-wrap the container, or be left wondering who let the invisible cows into the kitchen. For all that, it's got an amazing flavour when cooked.

Turmeric is also the stainiest substance in the universe, so be careful with containing it. A mild bleach solution will lift it out of work surfaces, but if it gets on clothing, you've got permanent orange dots.
posted by scruss at 6:46 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Everyone seems to have the major spices covered but don't forget curry leaves! Curry powder isn't a substitute, they're hard to find and add a unique flavor. My two favorite sources for recipes are Manjula's Kitchen and Lisa's Kitchen.
posted by Space Kitty at 7:41 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

If they sell fresh turmeric root, get some of that. It has a richer, more complex flavour than the dried stuff (although it's even stainier - when you're cooking with it, put paper towels or something like that on any nearby surface that you don't want turned yellow). I made lamb keema with it the other night and it was delicious (I used a recipe from a book; this one is similar but I recommend mixing the ginger, garlic and turmeric through the lamb instead of adding them at the start, and also adding about 10 curry leaves to the oil along with the chilli).

Also, if you can get whole seeds (cumin, fennel etc.) and grind them yourself just before cooking, or use them whole, they taste much better than they do pre-ground.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 7:52 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow, great list already. My regular use spices are:

cumin (whole + powdered),
coriander (powdered),
black cumin (kalonji or onion seed; whole),
red chili (crushed + whole + powder, why yes I do like it spicy),
turmeric (ground)
ginger (dry powder + paste)
garlic (fresh + paste)
black mustard seed (whole)
cinnamon (whole + ground)
black pepper (whole + ground)
cardamon pods
cloves (whole)
bay leaves (dried)
fennel seeds
mango powder (amchur)
garam masala - not a big user, I prefer to mix my own
tamarind paste.

Ok I think that covers everything except special cases... (For reference, I usually cook heavily modified East Indian; I'm missing South Indian specifics.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 8:36 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wanted to mention that onion seed / kalonji is not the same as black cumin seed. I only recently got around to buying black cumin seeds and black cardamom for one specific recipe, and I hardly ever use asafoetida, tamarind paste, or amchur powder.

Onion, garlic, and ginger are best fresh, though you can buy great ginger-garlic pastes in Indian grocery stores. I would not recommend dried.

I grind my own garam masala, although you can buy good ones. I've also got a fondness for panch phoron ('5 spice' - whole seeds of cumin, fennel, kalonji, mustard, and fenugreek, mixed together). And I loooove curry leaves (fresh, not dried).

Most key for 'introductory' level:
ground and whole cumin
ground coriander
cayenne pepper
black peppercorns
whole mustard seeds
cloves (whole)
bay leaves

But I would say to pick out a few recipes you want to make, and then google what goes in them.
posted by Lady Li at 8:56 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am an incompetent cook when it comes to Indian food. But, I am flawlessly cheap. Spend the gift card with the suggestions given. But when you need more find the local Indian or Asian grocery store. It is usually so much cheaper than in the Penzeys of the world.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:07 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I implore you: don't buy ground spices. Buy a coffee grinder instead and use it just for spices. It's really not much more work, and the difference is quite noticeable. And making your own garam masala is so easy.

The number one most used spice in Indian cuisine, regardless of region, it's coriander seed. Followed by cumin (Brown is fine, get black if you want as well). Followed by turmeric (get this one ground, though fresh is heavenly). Then dried chili, curry leaves (they freeze brilliantly), then probably comes yellow mustard seed, hing, cardamom, fenugreek, cinnamon, amchur, and other stuff. Protip: once you have made your curry powders, freeze them too.

Don't forget to pick up some ghee while you are there, and some of the lentil varieties you won't get at regular shops, e.g. urad dal, mat dal etc.

To make an easy garam masala, just remember five c`s: cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and pepperCorns.
posted by smoke at 10:07 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Everyone forgot mustard seeds!!

Also, dear me skip the asofeotida (sp?) unless you need to avoide garlic. It does taste delicious when cooked through, but it just stinks! After using it once you won't experiment with it again because that level of stank is a commitment you won't be up for twice. If you buy it, store the container in a sealed glass jar.

And as for what to do with all of your spices - previously.

Incidentally, there's a spiced tomato and slow cooked onion "sauce" that you mix into Dal/Dhal - forget what it's called - but I came up with the PERFECT spice blend for this the other day:

Chopped yellow onion and chopped tomato cooked in butter or ghee or coconut oil (Yummmmm!) on low for 45 minutes +

Sprinkle salt to help onions caramelize
Fresh garlic & ginger
Dash turmeric
Dash dried ginger
Dash of allspice (super important!!)
Few dashes ground coriander
Few dashes ground cardamom
Few whole mustard seeds
White pepper
Cayenne or other hot chilli ground to taste

Optional: Scant dash of cumin, freshly ground fennel seeds.

Helpful to own: A spice grinder.
posted by jbenben at 10:31 PM on August 3, 2013

I'm coming in here to say yes, do get asafoetida. It gives my Indian food an authentic taste that I've only ever found in restaurants.
posted by essexjan at 11:58 PM on August 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

I came in to say exactly what essexjan did: asafoetida was the ingredient that, when I bought it, I realized was the little nudge I was missing between "this is okay" and "this was made by someone who knows what they are doing". I don't have a stink problem with asafoetida as someone mentioned above - the container it comes in is plenty tight, and it doesn't foul up the air while cooking. Maybe the above poster is particularly sensitive to it? "YMMV?" But it definitely kicked the final results up a notch.
posted by whatzit at 12:36 AM on August 4, 2013

This is such a great AskMe! Not only am I going to refresh my cabinet, but maybe I'll give asafoetida another try. I bought a container a while ago and had to pitch it after a week after opening it. The reek was so intense that it was all me and AbsquatuHubby could smell in the kitchen despite being wrapped in two plastic bags and in another plastic container. Is glass somehow better at keeping the smell contained?

What I've learned about Indian cooking is that everything in the recipe and every step in the process has a reason. Don't try to create shortcuts, for the most part the end result will be okay, but not spectacular.

posted by absquatulate at 6:11 AM on August 4, 2013

To go along with whole spices, if you don't already have one, a mortar and pestle are recommended.
posted by mayurasana at 7:39 AM on August 4, 2013

Hi, I'm Indian. Here's what I always cook with. Asafoetida, turmeric and black mustard seeds are the base of all my vegetables. Otherwise most used in my spice box: cumin, coriander, red chilli powder (you could use cayenne but they are two different things), amchur (dry mango powder).

I always have a stock of dried red chillies, fenugreek seeds, tamarind, black peppercorns, cloves, green cardamom pods and cinnamon sticks (the Indian kind we call dal chini, not the curly american ones you put in cider but those work fine when you lack the real stuff). The latter four are essential for when I cook meat.

Kalonji is really rare in my cooking, but I keep it around. Same with saffron, sesame seeds and bay leaves. I am recently getting into curry leaves but I don't use them much.

I don't use store bought garam masala, nor do I grind my own. I just throw stuff in arbitrarily or according to whatever recipe I am using.

I am lazy and always buy pre-ground spices and ready to use ginger garlic paste. Just make sure they were packaged recently and that the paste doesn't have a ton of vinegar in it (though sometimes that's only possible by trial and error).

Have fun!
posted by 9000condiments at 9:17 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Since you can get cayenne everywhere I'd skip it and opt instead for some "deggi mirch" and/or "kashmiri mirch" which are a bit hotter, but more importantly redder which makes your dishes look nicer.

The bay leaves called for in Indian cooking are not the bay laurel leaves we're accustomed to using, but something called Indian bay leaf and taste along the lines of a cross between cloves and cinnamon. If you can't get them and the recipe calls for "bay leaves" add a little cinnamon and skip the bay laurel completely. Btw, both bay laurel and Indian bay leaf are called "tejpatta" in Hindi.

In Punjabi cooking dried pomegranate seeds (anardana) are used quite often, to be honest I've never tasted a difference with, or without. I bought a bag of them well over a year ago and they sit untouched in the cupboard unless I make some Punjabi Chole.

I wouldn't bother with the black cumin. It's one of those spices that shows up on occasion, but unless you're doing some serious cooking ... eh. Ditto for Ajwain/Carom which tastes like thyme and can be subbed with the same, except as I sit here thinking about it, it's used in some bread (samosa, roti) so ...

Amchur powder has a kind of sour that can't be replicated by using lemon or lime juice, I wouldn't skip it.

Tamarind is another souring agent and is a must for both cooking and a cooked chutney called imli chatney.

Hing is so gosh darned cheap get a tiny container just so you can try for yourself. I keep hearing about how awful it smells, but no one who's been in my kitchen has noticed.

If you have the gardening space I'd get some fenugreek seeds, which are typically sold in large volumes, because even though they don't get used often as whole seed (very bitter), they're sprouted and grown to make a wide variety of dishes with the fresh leaves. If you can't, get some kasoori methi instead. Mmmm tandoori chicken.

I normally skip the curry powders and other spice blends and make my own, but I can't replicate the taste of Ship Label Madras Curry Powder.

Finally, as I was trying to think of how to respond to the question, I realized much of what use and have has always been predicated on wanting to try something new and whether I make it again. I find I don't use much coriander and have never used saffron in my Indian dishes, for instance.
posted by redindiaink at 10:45 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, and back to add - asafoetida is usually sold mixed with a healthy amount of flour, so even though it's used sparingly, it's not so friendly for those who are sensitive to gluten. Might want to keep that in mind if you or someone you are feeding is gluten intolerant.
posted by 9000condiments at 10:54 AM on August 4, 2013

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