How to Cook with Indian Spices

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Pound for pound, turmeric is the most expensive spice in the world. It is also one of the most versatile. In addition to adding color and flavor to foods, it is a staple medicinal in Ayurveda: it’s used to treat everything from coughs and colds to indigestion and menstrual disorders.

A favorite of mine (in fact, my favorite spice) is garam masala, an aromatic mix that includes cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg. Its name means “warm mixture” in Hindi. The spices are cooked in oil until their fragrance wafts through your kitchen like notes from a distant land.

This spice blend can be made at home or purchased pre-made at a grocery store or Indian market. You can add it to pretty much anything: rice pilafs, sautés and stews of all kinds, sauces, soups — even desserts. The recipe below calls for a home-cooked version; if you’re using store-bought masala mix, I’d half the amounts called for below.

This is the “how to cook” section. It is structured as a step-by-step process, with each step linked to the appropriate place in the process. It also has a brief description of each step and links to more information about the subject. The tone is professional, but accessible and informative. Readers of this article will learn not only how to make a masala, but also what exactly a masala is and why it is used in Indian cooking.

You can make this herb mixture up to two weeks in advance, but you need to refrigerate it after one week. Store the masala in an airtight jar or plastic bag, and use within a month for best flavor.

For a milder masala, remove the seeds from the dried chiles before adding them to the mixture.


4 tablespoons coriander seeds

3 tablespoons cumin seeds

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

2 teaspoons mustard seeds (or 1 1/2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds, 2 teaspoons brown mustard seeds)

2 small cinnamon sticks*

2 bay leaves*

8 cardamom pods* (or 1 teaspoon ground cardamom)**12 whole cloves*

5 dried red chiles*


Place all ingredients in a medium bowl and gently toss to combine. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.**

The traditional way to buy spices is from a South Asian grocer. Indian grocery stores are the best places to find exotic, hard-to-find ingredients. Not only do they have the staples of South Asian cuisine like garam masala, but they also sell varieties of each spice you’ll need that are specific to particular regions and communities within India.

Taste Indian food in restaurants and you’re likely to be disappointed. The problem is that most restaurants use commercially prepared spice mixtures rather than fresh spices ground on demand. These premixed powders are an inferior substitute for freshly ground spices mixed one at a time, in front of you, with care and attention. They’re often stale or adulterated with inferior ingredients. The shopkeeper may add other ingredients—not necessarily bad but not what you want—and then grind them all together into a powdery mix that seems exotic but really tastes more like curry powder than anything else.

In fact, curry powder isn’t even a spice mixture; it’s a blend of several different spices, including turmeric (a relative of ginger) and coriander, ground together with some dehydrated vegetable material. Curry powder is convenient in recipes because it saves you from having to

I just love this spice bag. It is a wonderful way to add a burst of flavorful goodness to chicken, fish and vegetables. The spices blend well with the other ingredients and can be adjusted to your preference of hotness. I use this masala often, especially in my morning eggs or sprinkled on roasted cauliflower.

You can make the masala from scratch, but I often purchase it ready-made. Here’s a great brand: Spice Islands Garam Masala . The Spice Islands Garam Masala comes in a jar that contains 6 tablespoons, which is how much you’ll need for the recipe below. Store the extra in an airtight container away from direct sunlight.

Tandoori Chicken served with Cucumber Raita makes an excellent meal when paired with rice and naan or chapati made from scratch.

What is a spice bag? It’s a small pouch made from cheesecloth or muslin, filled with whole spices and tied closed with kitchen twine. Carrying the bag in your purse or backpack allows you to season your food as soon as you get to the campsite and are ready to start cooking.

The best thing about a spice bag is that it gives you the opportunity to learn by tasting. The spices in this recipe are ones that I use frequently, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t substitute other spices or add more of the ones listed below. The purpose is to give you an idea of how flexible this recipe can be and to show you how easily you can create your own signature blend. When seasoning with a spice bag, the only rule is to go slowly so that you can taste along the way and see what effect each spice has on the dish.

It’s always good advice to buy whole spices when possible, not only because they have a better flavor but also because whole spices keep their potency longer than ground spices do. If all you can find are ground spices, look for terms like “freshly ground” or “pure” on the label, since these will be fresher than most.

Spice Bag for Indian Cooking:

You can buy ready-made spice blends known as masalas, but it’s not hard to make your own. Store any extra in an airtight container and use it within a week.


3 tablespoons coriander seeds 2 teaspoons cumin seeds 1 teaspoon black peppercorns 1 teaspoon cloves 1 teaspoon cardamom pods 4 green chiles, such as serrano, stemmed 1/2 cinnamon stick 3 bay leaves 6 medium-sized onions, coarsely chopped 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 tablespoon ground ginger 1 tablespoon ground turmeric 2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes (optional) Salt

Preparation: Grind the coriander seeds and cumin seeds in a coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle until fine. In a small skillet toast the peppercorns, cloves and cardamom pods over high heat just until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a plate to cool. In the same skillet toast the chiles until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add to the spices in the plate with the cinnamon stick and bay leaves and set aside to cool.

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