Indian Spices Used from North to South and East to West
Spices are the heart of Indian cuisine. They add depth, flavor and a kind of warmth that is unique to it. Be it the spicy red chilies used in Gujarati cuisine
or the taste of sharp mustard in Bengali cuisine
, it could be the aroma of the curry leaves in Kerala cuisine
or the sharp smell of hing or asafetida in the Punjabi tadkas,
there’s something about the Indian spices that contribute to each of these cuisines.
The best part is that in spite of being so commonly found, each spice does add its uniqueness to the different cuisines. The reason for adding these spices is not only the flavor, but also health benefits. So here are some of the most commonly used spices in Indian cuisine that truly enhance the taste of Indian food-
Fennel Seeds (Indian Name: Saunf)
These are also known as a sowa dana or Shopa and are commonly used Marathi, Gujarati and South Indian food, especially in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The spice has a sharp and aromatic taste and is known for boosting digestive functions. Fennel seeds are another version of the Aniseed. Basically fennel has a much sweeter taste as compared to the sharpness of the aniseed. It is used in different kinds of vegetables and curry and also is served at the end of the meal. It can also be used in some sweet dishes.
Asafoetida (Indian Name: Hing)
This is one of the most commonly used spice across the Indian continent and is known for its aromatic and sharp taste too. Known as hing in most households, this spice is a crucial part of ‘Tadka'. It is largely used in making the everyday daal and really spruces up the taste. Some people use it in vegetable curries. The spice itself is available in a chunky and rocky form, which also retains the freshness of the aroma. It is then broken down and powdered. Hing too has very good digestion properties and helps in prevention problems like gas and acidity. It can be found in almost all cuisines especially North Indian and western dishes.
Basil Seeds (Indian Name: Falooda Seeds)
These seeds are called sabja seeds, falooda seeds or even tukmaria. It is added to sweet dishes in western part of India like falooda, which is basically a sweet noodle that is soaked in syrup. It is then served with kulfi. So the sweet basil seeds basically enhance sweetness and add some freshness to desserts.
Bay Leaf (Indian Name: Tez Patta)
Tej patta or tamalpatra is a common spice leaf found across the Indian sub-continent. It is really not much used in the fresh forms, but you will find the dried form of the leaf in every masala box in the house. Basically this leaf enhances the flavors of gravies and is a must for different kinds of vegetables like paneer, mixed vegetables, etc. The humble looking bay leaf is added to cuisines all across the country and even used in Italian sauces like the Indianised version of the Bechamel sauce.
Mustard (Indian Name: Rai or Sarson)
Mustard seeds are also known as rai or sarson. They are very sharp and rather pungent. If not provided in moderation they add a kind oF bitterness to the food. For instance, in West Bengal, mustard paste is made for soaking and marinating fish, while slow cooking or steaming. In southern India, it is a crucial part of the sambar. The Punjabis of the north use fresh mustard leaves for making the popular sarson da saag. In the western coast, it is generously poured in all dishes. You can get variations of mustard across the country too like the white, red and black mustard.
Cardamom (Indian Name: Elaichi)
Elaichi or cardamon is a spice that is not restricted to just savory foods. It is used in drinks and beverages like tea, in desserts like kheer and shrikhand or even phirni and even in all kinds of aromatic vegetables, especially mughlai cuisine. The cardamom too is available in many variations. One of the most commonly available ones are the green and the black version. Of course, there are some foods like the biryani or the shahi paneer, where one has to use both versions of the cardamom. You can add it to your favorite tea to make masala tea too!
Cinnamon (Indian Name: Dal Chini)
Another commonly used spice in the Indian subcontinent is the cinnamon. It can be found in most homes and is shaped like a bark. It is also known as dal chini or laung patta. Cinnamon too has to be broken down and powdered using a mortal and pestle. Cinnamon can also be added as a whole to curries and daals. Once the flavor from the bark is extracted, it is usually taken out. On the whole, it is a very strong smelling spice that enhances your senses and tangles the taste buds. It is used again generously all over the country.
Cumin Seeds (Indian Name: Jeera)
Jeera is another commonly used spice in all Indian homes. You can get many variations of the jeera like the brown jeera or the black jeera, which is also known as shahi jeera. The latter is in fact, much stronger in taste and adds a bitterness to the cuisine to enhance the other spices. Jeera is usually roasted before using. One can powder the jeera after the roasting process is done or even add it on its own to the vegetable. It is used for different kinds of dal, vegetables, etc. It is also used for making different kinds of breads and adds a distinctive flavor. In northern and southern India, a popular version of the jeera rice is available, which is basically rice sautéed with some smoked cumin seeds. Like its above-mentioned counterparts, jeera too has a lot of digestion benefits and is known to improve immunity too.
Carom Seeds (Indian Name: Ajwain)
Ajwain or carom seeds are another ingredient that are used in spicy dishes to enhance the pungent taste. These can be easily mistaken for Bishops weed but are actually a very different breed of spices all together. The sharpness of these seeds actually makes it very bitter for the tongue along with a light burning sensation, which is not really chilly like. Nevertheless, a small portion of this spice spruces up the flavor in a lot of culinary dishes. It is also used in different kinds of breads and roti’s or parathas to add that zing. The seeds have antiseptic properties and are a great remedy for constipation too.
Cloves (Indian Name: Laung)
These are like little flowers buds that are known as laung in the Indian subcontinent too. This again is one of the spices that is largely used across the country, especially in Mughlai cuisines. It is a part of the essential five spices that are used in garam masala and hence an inevitable part of the cooking process. It is one of the rare species that adds a warmth to the food, which makes it almost nostalgic. A little bit of this spice adds loads of flavor. The best way to use it is the whole form but a lot of people prefer powdering it to avoid the entire chunk being chewed, which can really make your eyes water. Cloves are also used as a form of mouth freshener and aid in controlling cough and cold.
Coriander Seed (Indian Name: Dhania)
Also known as gota dhania or sabood dhania, these are a form of the fresh coriander, but they are dried and then stored in air tight jars to enhance the flavor. Cilantro or coriander seeds are basically light brown in color. They are added to different cuisines across the west and even in North and South India in whole or crushed forms. They are first roasted lightly to enhance the flavor and then crushed or powdered. On the whole, these have a very nutty and earth flavor. It is used in sambar powder in southern India, different curries of the north and even dishes like aloo dum or mughlai cuisine. It is best to not powder this spice for long as it loses flavor.
Fenugreek (Indian Name: Methi)
Known as methi across the country, fenugreek too has a very bitter taste. But it is one of the best cleansers to detoxify the system and is good for hair and skin. The seeds are used along with other ingredients like mustard seeds or even fennel to cut out the bitterness and the perfect balance of flavors in the dishes.
Nigella (Indian Name: Kalonji)
Kalonji or onion seeds are another popular spice that are used in North and south Indian cuisines. These are highly used in different kinds of breads and provide a nice flavor and crunch. You can use them in Naans, roti or even parathas. In the eastern part of India, they are not used in breads but instead help in favoring the sea food, especially fish.
Nutmeg (Indian Name: Jaiphal)
Jaiphal is one of the spices that adds loads and loads of flavors to different kinds of sweet and savory dishes. What works amazingly well here is the subtle earthiness and aroma it adds to Indian cuisine. One of the rare desserts that nutmeg is used would be the Gujarati Shrikhand. Apart from this, it is used for flavoring Biryani.
Red Chilies (Indian Name: Lal Dhania)
If anyone thought that Indian food could be complete without red chilies, they are highly mistaken. Be it the dried red chilies or their powdered form, red chilies add that needed bang of hotness to different foods along with a nice red coloring. In western states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, they are used largely in their dry forms for tadkas. A reason for this is that the smokiness that red chilies as a whole provide an exotic aroma to dishes. However, many dishes use green chilies along with red chilies to add taste and aroma.
Saffron (Indian Name: Kesar)
Saffron is literally the king of spices used in Indian cuisine because it is probably one of the most expensive ones as well. Saffron is used to add color and flavor to different sweet and savory items. You cannot think about biryani without the saffron strands or even imagine the kheer without some strands of saffron on top. It is also used for making the gourmet masala milk and tea, which is served in earthen pots during the colder season with few saffron strands on top. Saffron is also used as a gift for auspicious occasions and is distributed along with laddoos
when wedding cards are sent. Kashmir is the primary saffron growing region in India. The best way to use saffron would be to soak a few strands in warm water or milk for about 10 minutes and then use the entire mixture.
Turmeric (Indian Name: Haldi)
Turmeric is a spice that is simply high on medicinal properties and so all Indian homes do have this spice in their masala box. It is another auspicious ingredient called Haldi, which is used for starting off wedding rituals. Haldi or turmeric adds a nice, pale yellow color to the different dishes. It has a light earthy taste, but is mostly used for the number of health benefits it has like antibacterial, antiseptic and anti-fungal.
Ginger (Indian Name: Adrak)
Ginger is a dried spice that is also available as saunth or dry ginger powder. Both of these ingredients are used largely in Indian cuisine. It adds a nice sharpness and pungent taste to different cuisines. Dry ginger powder is used mainly if the fresh ginger variations are not available. However, dry ginger is much sharper in taste as compared to the fresh ginger and thus should be used in moderation.
Mace (Indian Name: Javitri)
Mace or Javitri is a spice that is very much similar to taste in nutmeg. Mace adds a light and earthy aroma to both savory and sweet dishes. Mace is used largely in southern and western India as a main spice in different curries and gravy based dishes.
Black and white pepper (Indian Name: Kali Mirch)
Black and white peppercorns are largely used in Indian cuisine. Some recipes call for white pepper rather than black as it has a subtler taste. Both black and white peppercorns are used in different masalas to spruce up flavor. In fact, they are preferably crushed instantly or used in its whole form for retaining flavor. It adds a subtle hotness to the food and is used for vegetable and meat based dishes.