Guide to Indian Spices

Spices and seasonings are in fact the soul of every Indian dish, so a guide to Indian spices can help you learn more about the heart of Indian dishes. This beginner’s guide to Indian spices includes a list of Indian spices and pictures with brief descriptions.  It is meant to serve as an overview of the many spices that can be used in Indian cuisine.

Masala dabba filled with spices

Indian spices serve different purposes from adding heat, layering to create depth of flavor and even as a means to add a little color to a dish.  They also serve medicinal or health benefits. 

It is important to note that you do not need ALL the spices listed to get started with Indian cooking! The list is intended to help get you familiar with spices. Indian cooking is very varied.  So, dependent on what regional food you are cooking, the spices needed may change.

Overview of Flavoring Indian Food

Spices are the key to Indian cooking and Indians have a long and rich history when it comes to spicing their delicacies. From simple dishes to special dishes, almost every meal will consist of multiple spices. Contrary to popular misconceptions, spices are used to give dishes flavor and not necessarily make them hot. Every Indian spice gives a really nice special flavor, and more than one spice can be used to give a dish a unique blend of mouth-watering flavors.

  • Essential Spices: The essential spices to get cooking are those I keep in my Indian spice box or masala dabba.  Those plus a few other spice blends can make the majority of basic Gujarati/North Indian dishes.

The extensive list with pictures is below.

  • Herbs: A few herbs are used very often in Indian cooking.  Those have been listed separately for ease of reference.
  • Indian Spice Blends:  The main spice blend used is garam masala. Although it is a blend and not a spice, I’ve included it on this list because it is used very often.  If you are out of it a garam masala substitute can stand in, in a pinch.  If you are an avid Indian food cook, then Indian spice blends may make some of your meals easier to whip up!

In this article, we will be looking at some of the common Indian spices and seasonings that are used to give Indian dishes their unique and delicious flavors. Also, there is an Indian spices list with pictures below.

Note: While not listed as they are common ingredients across cuisines, salt, sugar and lemon juice help give balance to many Indian dishes.

Techniques to use Indian Spices

Indian spices are used in a variety of ways to create big flavor.  These are the three primary ways:

  1. Whole spices often used in tadka/tempering
  2. Ground spices added directly to the dish to layer flavor
  3. Ground spices sauteed with onions, garlic etc. to infuse the oil with flavor

List of Indian Spices with Pictures and Descriptions

Asafetida or hing in a small clay bowl.

1. Asafoetida

  • Hindi: Hing
  • Taste: Umami, onion/garlic taste

This spice has a strong sulfuric smell, but it gives a wonderful depth of flavor with a little of it going a long way. Most commonly used during tadka, cooking it in oil provides that flavor. It has a strong taste that changes to umami or onion like taste once added to hot oil. It is often used in Jain cuisine for added flavor as they do not eat onions.

Bay leaf or Tej Patta

2. Bay Leaf

  • Hindi: Tej Patta
  • Taste: Mild cinnamon taste

Different from the bay leaf used in the West.  Indian bay leaf comes from the cassia tree, native to Asia. I has a light cinnamon taste. Often used in tadka to provide depth of flavor.

Black cardamom or badi elachi

3. Black Cardamom

  • Hindi: Badi Elaichi
  • Taste: Smoky, earthy, floral notes

These pods are used whole or smashed, often to temper oil. Black cardamom has a stronger, nuttier taste than green cardamom.  You can substitute green cardamom.

Black cumin seeds in a small clay plate.

4. Black Cumin

  • Hindi: Shahi Jeera
  • Taste: Nutty, sweet and floral notes

Black cumin is related to cumin as they are both from plants in the parsley family. You can substitute a small amount of cumin seeds if you don’t have this spice handy.

Black peppercorn or kali mirch

5. Black Pepper

  • Hindi: Kali Mirch
  • Taste: Peppery, strong

Used whole or ground. Often added freshly ground to Indian spice blends such as masala chai powder and sandwich masala.

Black salt in a gray bowl.

6. Black Salt

  • Hindi: Kala Namak
  • Taste: strong, tangy taste

Most often used in chaats, chaat masala.Try sprinkling a little over fruit or even sliced tomatoes for a different taste. It brings out sweet and sour notes. A little goes a long way. Can also be used to flavor cool drinks such as nimbu pani.

Carom seeds in a white plate.

7. Carom Seeds

  • Hindi: Ajwain
  • Taste: spicy sweet, reminiscent of oregano/thyme

Adds a nice contrasting taste. Ajwain can be used in tadka, added to breads and most popularly to the dough of samosa pastry.

Cassia bark on a white plate.

8. Cassia Bark

  • Hindi: Dalcini
  • Taste: Warm sweet, woody, hint of spice

Cassia bark has a mild cinnamon taste, it is known as Chinese cinnamon. Cinnamon sticks have a stronger taste than cassia bark. You can substitute cinnamon sticks broken into pieces. I would use less cinnamon than the cassia bark called for due to the stronger taste.

Whole cloves in a gray bowl.

9. Cloves

  • Hindi: Laung
  • Taste: warm sweet, Bitter eaten raw

While cloves have a strong taste on its own, it releases a fragrance once cooked. Used often in tadka and to spice rice dishes such as pulao or biryanis.

Coriander seeds in a bowl resting on marbletop.

10. Coriander Seeds

  • Hindi: Dhaniya
  • Taste: warm, citrus notes, hints of lemon pepper

Coriander plays a big role in many Indian dishes. It is a staple spice and is even used fresh as an herb in many dishes. Whole coriander seeds are often used in Indian pickle recipes. It is kept as a staple ground into coriander powder and used as well.

Dhaniya jeera powder in a small bowl with a green cloth to the side.

11. Coriander Powder

  • Hindi: Dhaniya
  • Taste: Deeper/smoky notes than coriander (above) as they are roasted and ground

An essential spice in my masala dabba and used very often in Indian cooking. Whole coriander seeds are roasted, cooled then ground. Very often it is kept as a spice blend with cumin powder, referred to as dhaniya jeera or dhanu jeeru. You can also find it in Indian stores in this spice blend form.
Coriander powder does not taste like cilantro which it comes from. It also helps provide a little thickness.

I’ve included both ground coriander and whole coriander and cumin because I keep both in my cabinet and they each serve different purposes/ are used differently.

Cumin powder in a gray bowl.

12. Cumin Powder

  • Hindi: Jeera
  • Taste: mild, earthy, hints of sweet and bitter

Ground roasted cumin powder, an essential Indian spice, is added during the cooking process or as a sprinkle.

Made from ground cumin seeds, this smoky spice or masala can be found in most Indian homes and can be used in basically all dishes such as lassis and shaaks/sabzis. Used in spice blend, cumin coriander powder.

Cumin seeds in a clay bowl.

13. Cumin Seeds

  • Hindi: Jeera
  • Taste: mild, earthy, hints of sweet and bitter

Whole cumin seeds are added to hot oil for tempering or tadka in many dishes. It is a staple in my masala dabba.

Dill seeds in a small clay bowl.

14. Dill Seeds

  • Hindi: Suwa
  • Taste: Grassy, similar to caraway, notes of licorice

While this is not used very often in Indian cooking, it does come in handy to provide a spin on flavor.

Fennel seeds in a clay bowl.

15. Fennel Seeds

  • Hindi: Saunf
  • Taste: Licorice

Fennel seeds impart a subtle sweetness to dishes. Ground and roasted fennel is used in our garam masala spice blend. You will see fennel seeds very commonly used as a mouth freshener too!

Fenugreek seeds in a white plate.

16. Fenugreek seeds

  • Hindi: Methi
  • Taste: Bitter when raw, imparts sweetness when cooked

Used as both an herb and a spice in different recipes. Provides complexity, depth of flavor.

Garam masala powder on a white plate.

17. Garam Masala

  • Hindi: Garam Masala
  • Taste: Warm, complex

This is technically a spice blend but it is definitely an essential one for many Indian dishes so I have included it here. If you run out of garam masala, you can try a DIY garam masala substitute for a quick fix. The word ‘Garam’ when translated means ‘heat.’ This is rightly so because this special spice has a warming property which helps heat the body up.

Garam masala differs slightly in different regions and from family to family. However, they all ensure the same warming property on the body. This amazing spice is often used in sabzis and dals. This is one spice you just have to try out.

Green cardamom pods in a small clay bowl.

18. Green Cardamom

  • Hindi: Hari Elaichi or Choti Elaichi
  • Taste: Floral,mild spice, notes of sweet

Green cardamom is used both ground and whole. This floral spice has a light fragrance that makes dishes taste magical. Green cardamom can be used whole in tadkas and to flavor rice dishes or dals. Ground cardamom is used often in Indian sweets and desserts and it is a key ingredient in masala chai powder.

While it is hard to replicate, there are a few ideas for cardamom substitute.

Ginger powder in a clay bowl.

19. Ginger Powder

  • Hindi: Adrak
  • Taste: peppery, sweet

Ginger is used fresh and as powder. If you don’t have fresh ginger available it is handy to have this to use. It can be added to a variety of dishes including dal for flavor and heat.

Kashmiri chili powder in a gray bowl.

20. Kashmiri Chili

  • Hindi: Kashmiri Mirchi
  • Taste: Sweet and smoky, mild heat

Kashmiri chili gives a smoky flavor and mild heat to a dish. It is often used for the color it gives a dish so you will see it used in combination with red chili powder which gives more heat.

If you don’t have it on hand, you can use a Kashmiri Chili Powder substitute by using a smaller quantity of red chili powder.

Mace on a gray plate.

21. Mace

  • Hindi: Gada, Javitri
  • Taste: Mild nutmeg, woody, cinnamon/ black pepper

Mace is the lace or outer shell covering nutmeg seeds. So, it has a very light nutmeg taste. It can be toasted and ground and added to many dishes.

Amchur or mango powder on a white plate.

22. Mango Powder

  • Hindi: Amchur
  • Taste: Tart, tangy

Mango, known as the king of fruits in India, is also used in powder form as a spice. Unripened mangoes are used to form this powder which provides a tartness. Often, if you do not have this on hand, lemon juice can be used as a substitute. This is a key spice in Chaat Masala and Sandwich Masala spice blends.

Mustard seeds in a gray bowl.

23. Mustard Seeds

  • Hindi: Rai
  • taste: sharp, wasabi (uncooked), nutty

Small black seeds similar to poppy seeds.
Used in tadka to enhance taste. When cooked bitter taste goes away.
Mustard seeds is rich in selenium which is known for anti inflammatory benefits

Nigella or kalonji seeds on a white plate.

24. Nigella – Onion Seeds

  • Hindi: Kalonji
  • Taste: nut-like, peppery taste

Kalonji is used in pickles, dals and for some types of naan. Imparts a smoky taste.

Nutmeg

25. Nutmeg

  • Hindi: Jaiphal
  • Taste: Warm, clove/cinnamon, woody

While in the West it is used often in sweet dishes, nutmeg is used in savory dishes in India. Most frequently it is seen used in Mughlai cooking.

Dried red chillies

28. Red Chilies (Whole)

  • Hindi: Lal Mirch
  • Taste: Spice, heat!

Made of dried ground red chilies, this is the spice that really gives Indian food its heat. Whole red chilies are also used often in Indian-Chinese dishes which are known for their heat.

Red chili powder on a white plate.

26. Red Chili Powder

  • Hindi: Lal mirch
  • Taste: Hot!

The red chili powder is another ‘spice or kick’ that you can surely find in any Indian home. This spice gives your meal that spicy hot sensation. The red chili powder is made by grinding red chili pepper to spice different types of meals. This spice is responsible for the spicy reputation Indian meals are known for. The red chili powder can be used to marinate meats, to sprinkle on raitas, or to even flavor your rajma.

Saffron strands or kesar in a small white bowl.

27. Saffron

  • Hindi: Kesar
  • Taste: Sweet, floral, musky

A little goes a long way. Bloom it. Used in many Indian sweets and desserts. The combination of saffron and pistachio is a very popular Indian ice cream flavor, kesar pista ice cream.

This masala or spice has a sharp, musky and floral flavor and is commonly used in Indian Saffron rice. The flavor also has honey undertones that add to its appeal. This spice is really valuable as it can be very expensive. This masala is harvested by hand, and it gives dishes a beautiful yellow color when used.

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Split mustard seeds or rai kuria in a small gray plate.

29. Split Mustard Seeds

  • Hindi: Rai kuria
  • Taste:

Split mustard seeds are made by removing the skin of mustard seeds which are then split into smaller pieces. They are used often in Indian pickles or achars such as athela marcha, methi masala and even in raita.

Star anise on a white plate.

30. Star Anise

  • Hindi:
  • Taste: Licorice, sweet notes

Used in rice dishes often. Dependent on how you make your chai masala, it can be included in that too!

That wraps up the beginner’s guide to indian spices

Indian spices are just amazing, and they can add the much-needed flavor to your dishes. Explore the various spices mentioned in this article and give your dishes a blend of different appealing flavors. You can also use more than one of these spices to your meal to create unique flavors and aromas. These spices aren’t just about the flavors they offer. Many of them also have medicinal properties that you can explore. Add flavor to your meal with healthy spices.

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