One of the things that people find intimidating about cooking Indian food is the vast array of spices used — both whole and ground, which are often combined into complex spice mixes. However, having taught classes on Indian food, I find that as soon as people are able to identify and understand the spices we use, then suddenly they find this cuisine is not as hard to make after all.
Using Indian Spices
Most spices, with some exceptions – notably, nutmeg – are dry-roasted to release their essential oils before being ground into spice mixes. While some spices can be blended using a mortar and pestle, I normally recommend the use of a spice grinder or powerful blender to make sure your mixes are finely ground, especially because some spices, like cassia bark, are very hard and tough to blend down to a fine powder.
There are two kinds of cardamom used in Indian cooking: green and black. Green is the more common variety, used for everything from spice mixes to lassis to Indian desserts. The flavor is light and sweet, with a mild eucalyptus note. Green cardamom can be blended whole when making spice mixes, like garam masala, however when using them in sweets or desserts, you would pop the pod open and lightly crush the fragrant black seeds before using.
Black cardamom, on the other hand, is very powerful and smoky, and needs to be used with a lot of caution. Normally only the seeds would be used, and if using the whole pod, it’s best to pull it out before serving the dish, as it can be very spicy to bite into.
Clove is a common spice in Indian cooking and its anise notes are easily recognizable in many Indian preparations. The strong, almost medicinal flavor of clove comes from the concentration of essential oils. Cloves are technically flowers, and a lot of their oils are pressed out before they are dried and used in cooking. Cloves can be used whole or blended into spice mixes. They do need to be used with caution, however, as they can tend to overpower more delicate spices.
3. Cassia bark
Cassia bark is an interesting spice. Also known as Chinese cinnamon, it is a genus of the cinnamon tree. Cinnamon is a little bit different from cassia, and usually differentiated by being called “true cinnamon.” Cassia is cheaper to produce, and the majority of ground cinnamon is actually made from cassia bark. Indians use cassia instead of true cinnamon in their cooking, as it has a milder flavor and can be used in larger quantities.
Cassia can also be used whole or ground in spice mixes. It is easily distinguishable by its rough, tree bark-like texture, and the best way to check for freshness is to rub a little on your fingers. If you can smell a cinnamon fragrance, then the bark is fresh.
If substituting cinnamon for cassia, use less, as the flavor of true cinnamon is more intense.
4. Black pepper
Black pepper is actually native to India, primarily from the Western Ghats and Malabar region. It is a surprisingly hard spice to grow, as it depends on many natural cycles, like a set amount of rainfall, which is why prices for fresh pepper vary a lot.
Like most spices, black pepper needs to be toasted before blending. For the best flavor, however, fresh black pepper can also be ground directly into dishes.
Cumin is used frequently whole and in spice mixes to add a characteristic smoky note to Indian dishes. It can be identified by its distinct ridged brown seeds and intense fragrance. It is sometimes confused with fennel, caraway, and anise seeds, but you can tell the difference by looking at its color (brown, as opposed to green fennel) and taste (smoky, as opposed to a stronger licorice taste).
Cumin is best used freshly ground for the most intense flavor. One thing to keep in mind while dry-roasting this spice is that it burns really easily, and burnt cumin tastes very bitter and will be very noticeable your dish. Toast this spice until your nose just gets a whiff of smoke and fragrance (about 30 seconds max), and then let it cool before blending into mixes.
Coriander is probably the most ubiquitous of spices in the Indian spice rack. It is one of the oldest-known spices in the world, and it’s characterized by its golden-yellow color and gently ridged texture. The seeds are very aromatic with citrus notes.
Whole coriander is used as a base for many spice mixes, and ground coriander is one of the most commonly used ground spices in Indian cuisine. Like cumin, it needs to be dry-roasted until you can start seeing a light golden-brown tinge to the seeds and they start “dancing” and popping in the pan.
7. Nutmeg and mace
Two of my favorite spices, nutmeg and mace, are used a lot in Indian cooking. Mace is the dark-red outer covering of the nutmeg. Fresh nutmeg is processed by removing the pulpy outside and sliding off the mace. It has a tough outer covering that needs to be cracked off before grating.
When dried, mace turns golden-orange and adds hints of warm flavor. Once nutmeg is dried, it lasts pretty much forever, so it is best to buy it whole and grate as required into your dishes. I rarely ever use ground nutmeg, as it is one of those spices whose flavor degrades very fast once it is ground. Nutmeg does not need to be toasted before blending into spices, as toasting wrecks its delicate flavor.
8. Mustard seeds
Mustard seeds can be yellow, black, or brown and are used interchangeably in Indian cooking. The flavor of mustard seeds is released when they are crushed or cooked in oil. Their smoky, nutty flavor is a staple in curries and curry powders, and mustard oil is commonly used in the North of India.
Fenugreek is the spice which gives Madras curry powder its very characteristic, earthy, musky “curry” flavor and fragrance. The seeds are yellowish and look like tiny wheat kernels. Fenugreek leaves are also dried and used as a spice (they are commonly called kasuri methi) and are what make butter chicken unique.
Fenugreek seeds are strongly fragranced and should be used with caution, just like cloves. They are also used in traditional medicine, and strangely enough, to make fake maple syrup.