EXPLAINED: Indian Spices For That Successful Indian Dish

From the curry leaf to turmeric, this is your culinary lesson on the Indian Spice and how it can enhance your next Indian recipe.

During the 1400’s there was an apt expression: “No man should die who can afford cinnamon.”

This referred to the lucrative spice trade that existed between India and the rest of the world. Indian Spice has been used for centuries enhancing flavour to meat, roots, leaves and pulses.

Indian spices have a variety of spices and herbs that are grown across the Indian subcontinent. A spice is grown in a variety of climates all over the Indian diaspora Over time Indian spice has been taken to other countries where some are able to produce Indian spices successfully.

Cassia, ginger, turmeric, pepper and cardamom as well as the coveted cinnamon established this land on the global market, even centuries ago. The origin of the spices was kept a strict secret by those bringing these spices into different parts of the world, which caused the merchants and consumers to come up with intriguing tales and legends, lending the spice trade a sense of deep mystery. This industry played a key role in various events and developments, one of which was the very discovery of America. This discovery was as a result of the European determination to establish their own spice trade, so that the Arab merchants no longer had the monopoly.

The 9 essential spices for a successful Indian dish

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.

  • Cumin. Many Indian curries call for this strong, aromatic spice
  • Coriander
  • Mustard seeds
  • Ginger. Fresh ginger gives delicious, peppery flavor to recipes
  • Garam masala
  • Turmeric
  • Cinnamon
  • Cardamom
  • Red Dry Chilly

How are Indian spices prepared for cooking?

I frequent the beautiful island of Mauritius often and spend a great deal of time the amazing chefs from the five star hotels of Long Beach and Le Touessrok. According to them spices should be acquired weekly and never in bulk as the temper of the flavour is degraded if you stock in bulk.

Spices are typically heated in a pan with ghee (a vegetable cooking oil) or your normal off-the-shelf cooking oil before being added to a dish.

Lighter spices are added last, and spices with strong flavor should be added first. Curry is not a spice, but a term which refers to any side dish in Indian cuisine. It could be with a gravy base or a dry item. A curry typically contains several spices blended together. But its term is used loosely these days where you will be able to buy a mix masala or generally known as chilly powder to make cooking apparently easier to cook.

As South African Indians we’ve learnt over the years especially the Durban-to-Joburg Indian that ‘buy in bulk’ from your Durban Indian Spice store will keep you stocked up until your next drive or fly-down to Durban. Don’t cringe at my statement as you know I am right.

Here is a list of Indian Spice’s and their Indian name

Indian Name English Name Comments
AdrakGingerUsed as fresh and also Dried Powder form, see “Sonth”
Aamchur/Amchoor powderSour mangopowdergives fish curries tartness
AcharIndian pickleHundreds of varieties exist. All are interesting.
AjmudCelery /radhuni seed 
AmlaIndian gooseberry 
AnardanaPomegranateseedDried not fresh. Is ground in Middle East.
Bazil / BasilFresh basil 
mayur BadamAlmond 
Choti ElaichiGreen cardamomMalabar variety is native to Kerala.
Badi ElaichiBlack cardamomVery earthy and darkly aromatic.
Chakra PhoolStar aniseExotic, chinese influenced flavors
ChironjiCharolia type of nut particularly used in making desserts
DalchiniCinnamonGrown commercially in Kerala in southern India. Two types, cassia (common) and royal.
Garam MasalaSpice mixtureBlend of 8+ spices. Each family has their own secret recipe.
Gulab JalRose waterFlavors desserts. Heavily used in Middle East.
GurJaggery(unrefined sugar)from the sap of the sugarcaneor date palm
HaldiTurmericSource of “yellow color” in many curries.
Hari dhaniyaFreshcorianderFresh green leaves. AKA Cilantro.
Harad / himeTerminalia chebula 
Hari MirchGreen chili pepper 
Dhania powder/ Pisa DhaniaCorianderpowder 
HingAsafoetidaIntensely aromatic – related to Truffle and Garlic
ImliTamarindProvides tartness in South Indian curries
JaiphalNutmegWhole nuts last forever. Powder, only a month.
JavitriMaceMace is outer covering to nutmeg nut. Similar aroma.
JeeraCumin seedSee Kali Jeera.
Jeera GoliCumin seed grounded into balls 
KachraCapersalso known as Kabra, Karer in Hindi
KadipattaCurry tree orsweet neemleafCannot retain flavor when dried. Only use fresh.
KajuCashew nut 
Kala Namak / SanchalBlack saltRock salt, but with very sulfury smell.
Kali ElaichiBlack cardamomEarthy, much used in North Indian curries.
Kali MirchiBlack pepperLargest producer is the southern Indian state of Kerala.
KalonjiNigella seed 
Kasoori Methi DriedFenugreekleaf 
Katira GoondGumtragacanthA thickener and coating for desserts
Kebab CheeniAllspiceTastes of Clove + cinnamon + nutmeg + bayleaf
Kesar, mayurSaffronWorld’s most expensive spice. Flavoring for rice.
Kesar mari mariSaffron pulpActually, safflower concentrate
KokumGarcinia indica 
Khus KhusPoppy seed 
KudampuliGarcinia gummi-guttaUsed in fish preparations of Kerala
Lal MirchiRed chili pepper 
LavangClovesAndhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are largest producers in India.
Kali MirchPeppercorns 
Methi leavesFenugreekleaf 
Methi seedsFenugreekseed 
Naaga KesharCinnamonbuds 
NimbuLemon / Lime 
Pyaz / KandaOnion 
 Panch PhoronThis is a Bengali spice mix that combines aniseed, cumin, fenugreek, mustard and nigella
Pathar Ka PhoolKalpasiAlso known as black stone flower
PippaliLong pepper 
Peeli MirchiYellow pepper 
RaiBrownmustard seed 
Ratin jotAlkanet root 
Safed MirchiWhite pepper 
Saji na phoolCitric acid 
SarsonMustard seed 
Sarson TelMustard oilshorsher tel
Saunf/SanchalFennel seed 
Shahi JeeraCarawayseedssmaller in size than regular
Soa sagDill 
SonthDried gingermostly powdered
Suwa or ShopaAniseed 
Tej PattaMalabathrum,bay leafBoth Malabathrum and Bay Leaf are similar and called as Tej Patta in Hindi. however, they are from two different families with difference in taste
TilSesame seed 
Shimla MirchCapsicum 
Kali ZeeraBlack cuminSweet, floral and smoky cumin and anise-like flavor.
TulsiHoly basil 

About Naufal Khan

Naufal Khan was the Publisher at ADISHAKTI MEDIA and the editor-in-chief of the South African Indian news service Indian Spice. Khan was former Sunday Times journalist and also an occult fiction and non-fiction writer with several published titles.