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21 Essential Ingredients for Indian Cooking



Do you love Indian food, but don’t know where to start?

A selection of authentic Indian spices

A selection of authentic Indian spices

This list of essential ingredients for Indian cooking will make you a master of the Indian cuisine. 

As the Rumeana Jahangir put it, British people have had the “hots for curry” for a long time. 

It all started 200 years ago when an Indian migrant opened up England’s first curry house to cater for the increasingly popular demand for spicy food. 

The British have long enjoyed food with a bit of bite. 
Fresh spices and ingredients for an Indian curry

Fresh spices and ingredients for an Indian curry

But, many people assume that cooking a curry themselves is difficult.

I'm going to show you that as long as you know just a few essential ingredients for Indian cooking then you too could quite easily put together a lip-smacking Indian dish yourself. 

In this blog, I’ll share the main spices and ingredients used in Indian cooking.

I’ll also tell you how you can use them starting today and their various health benefits. 

Chillies

Chillies

1. Chillies

Chillies come in all shapes and sizes- from green to red to black- and from large to small. Chillies are a key ingredient in Indian curries and help to give them their pungent taste. 

Hari Ghotra has said that a general rule of thumb is that the smaller the chiller the hotter it will taste

She explains that the capsaicin binds with the pain receptors in our mouth for heat which is why we feel an increase in temperature when enjoying spicy food. 

Cumin seeds or 'jeera'

Cumin seeds or 'jeera'

2. Cumin

Many Indian curries contain cumin and it usually comes into two forms- either ground or in seeds. It can be identified by its distinct seed-like appearance and powerful aroma. 

Cumin is often used in its whole form and cooked in oil so that its flavour can diffuse into the oil. One thing to keep in mind while frying this Indian cooking ingredient is that it catches the heat quickly so be careful not to burn it. 

This will leave your dish with a bitter taste. 

As soon as the spice become quite fragrant that’s a good sign to move on to the next step in your recipe. 

Fresh coriander

Fresh coriander

3. Fresh coriander

Fresh coriander is a staple of Indian cooking and one that any avid Indian cook will keep an ample amount stored in their refrigerator. 

It is often used in Indian curries towards the end of cooking but I would recommend adding some chopped coriander leaves with your sauce/ vegetable mixture while its cooking and also at the end for garnishing. 

It adds a bright and earthy punch that works brilliantly in combination with other spices.

Green cardamoms

Green cardamoms

4. Green cardamoms

Green cardamoms are small green pods containing about 20 black seeds that have an incredible flavour. Just one or two added to your curry can add a strong, intense aromatic perfume. 

My top tip is to be conservative with cardamoms if you’re cooking with them for the first time.  Also, be sure to remove them from your final dish as they should be used to merely flavour and not consumed. 

Mustard seeds

Mustard seeds

5. Mustard seeds 

Mustard seeds are tiny round seeds, and taste just like mustard in its paste form. 

These are best used by tempering in which cooking oil is heated on a high heat and whole spices are cooked in it. 

This occurs at the start of the dish and the mustard seeds should be fried until they begin to pop and release their peppery flavour.

Did you know that some research has suggested that mustard seeds contain compounds that help fight cancer? 

That’s even more reason to add them your Indian curry on top of the fact that they help to give your dish a greater depth in flavour. 

Garam masala

Garam masala

6. Garam masala

The word masala translates to “spices” and garam means “hot.” 

Garam masala literally translates to hot spices although the exact mix can vary between regions in Indian but usually contains a mixture of cinnamon, cloves, cumin, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg and peppercorns. 

Use garam masala towards the tail end of cooking your dish- you can even stir it in just before serving so that it retains the most amount of flavour. 

It’s one of the main spices used in Indian cooking and one that I keep in my pantry at all times!

Ground tumeric

Ground tumeric

7. Ground turmeric 

Turmeric's vivid yellow colour is what gives Indian dishes their well-known bright appearance. 

In the last few years, turmeric has become increasingly popular among health-conscious individuals with new research indicating its numerous health benefits.

It aids in digestion, alleviates arthritis pain, menstrual pain, heartburn and has purported healing properties. 

Although it's long been dubbed as a ‘miracle’ food and used in Eastern cultures as an Ayurvedic medicine. 

Turmeric powder, however, is not just used as a colourant. 

The spice has a distinct flavour with earthy, nutty and spicy notes with somewhat bitter undertones that adds an aroma to your dish. 

If you simply want to give turmeric try for its remarkable health benefits than simply add 1 tsp to a warm glass of hot water and enjoy (I would suggest knocking it back in one go)! 

Fresh ginger

Fresh ginger

8. Ginger

Fresh ginger has a freshness but is pungent in flavour too.  It is an essential component in indian cooking alongside onions and garlic, particularly in the cooking of masala sauces. In fact, Indian is the largest producer of ginger in the world! 

Top tips:

  1. Its fibrous texture makes it really easy to burn so keep a close eye on it once it’s in the pan. 
  2. Using a teaspoon to peel the outer layer off the ginger as it will come off with ease and you’ll reduce any wastage of the good part. 
  3. Grate the ginger and put it an ice cube tray with the grated ginger. Freeze it and the next time you need one just remove it and cook.
Coconut

Coconut

9. Coconut

Coconut is used as a fruit as well as an ingredient in a variety of different Indian dishes. It is used as an ingredient particularly in the south of India such as in Kerala in which it also plays an important role in the economy. 

In some states such as Goa, almost all dishes have coconut milk as part of the base sauce in what is called ‘Aapros.’ 

It’s sweetness pairs deliciously with the fiery heat of a traditional Indian curry and actually helps to take the sting out of the chilli.

An absolute favourite Indian food of mine is Peshwari naan which is simply a tandoor baked bread stuffed with desiccated coconuts, raisins and nuts. 

The sweetness provides the perfect counterbalance to your food and I would highly recommend that you give it a try the next time you feeling like enjoying an Indian curry. 

Cinnamon

Cinnamon

10. Cinnamon

There are two types of cinnamon- cassia cinnamon is much more common and considered as an inferior cinnamon. True cinnamon is native to Ceylon and southern Indian and can either come in a stick form or be ground into a powder.

The ‘true cinnamon’ has a mellow and subtle flavour with floral and citrus notes in comparison to cassia, which provides a deeper flavour and aroma that you might associate with cinnamon rolls for example.

Like cardamoms, true cinnamon should be used to intensify the flavour of your dish and therefore removed before serving. I would always recommend using the paper like twirl versions of the spice and not the ground powder. 

Fenugreek seeds

Fenugreek seeds

11. Fenugreek seeds

Fenugreek seeds are a key component of many curry powders because of the unique aromatics it gives off when cooked. During cooking its bitterness mellows and the aroma intensifies.

Like many of the essential Indian spices I’ve mentioned so far fenugreek similarly has health-boosting properties such as its use to treat diabetes as a form of natural medicine. 

What’s more, is that in India where the consumption of fenugreek is relatively high the incidence of arthritis is remarkably low. It also have antiviral properties and evidence support the claim that it can help relieve joint pain. 

Bay leaves

Bay leaves

12. Bay leaves

Originating from the southern slopes of the Himalayas mountains, bay leaves are grown in a natural and wild environment. 

They should not be mistaken for Laurel bay leaves, which have a completely different taste and aroma. 

To extract the maximum amount of flavour from this soft, subtle and cinnamon-like ingredient you should crush the leaves so that a greater amount is imparted to your dish. 

It’s versatile too, so you can add it to rice dishes, biryanis and lentils. The way to use bay leaves in Indian cooking is to temper them in oil to get the flavour out of them and then they can be added to the rest of your main dish. 

Red chilli powder

Red chilli powder

13. Red chilli powder

Chillies and Indian food go hand in hand and what I’m guessing you didn’t know is that chillies were introduced to the Indians by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

Hari Ghotra says that Kashmiri chilli powder is an essential Indian cooking ingredient for her because it has a lovely smoky flavour with a fairly mild heat level and a wonderful colour that’s perfect for marinades and curry dishes.

To get started, just add it into your dish but be conservative and assess your tolerance level and add more if you like. 

Chillies have lots of health benefits from raising your metabolic rate, which will help you burn more calories, to its endorphin-releasing properties. Both of which make it something you should add to your diet even if you aren’t cooking an Indian recipe! 

Tamarind

Tamarind

14. Tamarind

Tamarind is a sticky and tangy-tasting fruit that is indigenous to Indian where the fruit grows in large pods on the tamarind tree. The fruit is removed from the pods and separated from the seeds in order for it to be consumed. 

The pulp has a sour and sharp flavour and is commonly used in Indian cooking to make pickles, dips, chutneys and can be used to flavour sauces.

Taste-test your recipe to achieve the desired flavour and optimal balance between sweet and sour.

Saffron

Saffron

15. Saffron

Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice by weight and it's unsurprising when you consider the labour-intensive process involved in harvesting it. 

After which it has to be handpicked. 

The way you would use saffron would be to either soak it in either milk or water or grind it up into a powder. 

It is used predominantly for its colour as it gives off a beautiful orange reddy colour and also has grass-like flavour.

Because of the nature of this spice, it is best suited for more decadent dishes. If you’re thinking of giving it a try utilise it in a biryani. 

Saffron fits the bill for one of those ingredients where a little goes a long way, not least because of its high price so just keep that in mind before cooking with it. 

In order to release the intense flavour and colour from the saffron there are two key ways that I use:

  1. Soak the saffron threads in water or milk before adding them to your dish. 
  2. Dry the threads in a pan then crush the threads into a powder in a pestle and mortar.
Poppy seeds

Poppy seeds

16. Poppy seeds

Poppy seeds come from the opiate poppy and contain very low levels of opiates. 

You can harvest either white seeds, blue seeds, or black seeds. In Western cuisine, the black seeds are often used on top of bread or in stew type dishes.

Contrastingly, in Indian cuisine, white poppy seeds are used commonly as a thickening agent and in some regions such as Bengal, they are used as an ingredient in their own right. Although it’s worth mentioning they are ground before they’re used in dishes.

They add a slightly nutty texture when used in sauces.

Curry leaves

Curry leaves

17. Curry leaves

Curry leaves are used in south Indian cuisine in particular and are grown in south India and Sri Lanka. 

They are used to impart a very distinct curry aromatic. 

Unsurprisingly they come from the curry plant, which refers to the strong aroma that it emits and many people say that it actually smells like curry powder. 

The way you would use them would be like the way you in which you would a whole spice: first, temper them in oil first and then add the other ingredients to that dish. 

Top tips:

  • Wash your curry leaves before you use them 
  • Choose fresh curry leaves and not dried ones.

There’s much more to the humble curry leaf than its mere cooking qualities. It is also packed with compounds that improve digestions, lowers cholesterol and even keeps anaemia at bay because of its rich source of iron and folic acid.  

Fresh garlic

Fresh garlic

18. Garlic

Garlic alongside onions and ginger form the base of almost all masala sauce.

It’s an essential ingredient for Indian cooking that you can’t forget.

“Along with ginger and green chillies garlic is the third key ingredient in Indian home cooking” explains Meera Sodha, the author of the cookbook Made in India, Cooked in Britain. 

This helps explain why India is the second largest producer in the world of garlic and it is grown in many states including Punjab and Gujarat. 

The use of garlic as many ingredients in Indian cooking is not just about its flavour or appearance.

Garlic is packed full of allicin, which is what gives garlic its fresh aroma when it's crushed or chopped. 

It’s been found to contain vital antioxidants and helps to fight inflammation. Other studies have indicated that it has cardiovascular benefits and can help reduce the risk of heart disease when consumed on a regular basis. 

Paneer

Paneer

19. Paneer

Paneer is a fresh, cream-coloured cheese that was originally made from buffalo milk, although it's more common to find it being produced from cow’s milk now. 

Paneer is made by curdling hot milk with lemon or lime juice, vinegar, or yoghurt. The curd is separated and all the whey (the watery part of milk that remains after the formation of curds) is squeezed out. 

Paneer can be cut up into cubes and used in dishes such as mattar paneer, which is a (north Indian dish consisting of peas and paneer in a tomato-based sauce. 

It can also be crumbled into masala pastes or marinated and cooked in a tandoor, which is my favourite way of enjoying it and the most healthy. 

Tomatoes

Tomatoes

20. Tomatoes

Something less well-known is the extensive use of tomatoes in Indian cooking. It is one of the essential Indian cooking ingredients and important in creating the masala base sauce, which is what gives ‘body’ to a dish.

Tomatoes also act like a souring agent and its the sourness of curries which in fact give it its, the sharpness enlivening the bland carbohydrate sources we eat with them. 

Make sure you use whole plum tinned tomatoes or blended fresh tomatoes and not chopped tomatoes or passata as it can change the flavour of the final dish. 

Red onions

Red onions

21. Onion

The onion is used across all cultures and I bet you’ve probably got several sitting in your kitchen somewhere right now. 

Cooking the onions in an Indian dish is crucial- they need to be browned so that they can almost disintegrate into the masala base sauce.

If you’re cooking a meat dish to cook your onions for an intensely flavoured sauce for 20-30 mins and if you’re cooking vegetables, fish or lentils to go for a light brown colour at around the 15 mins mark.

Summary

There are lots of essential spices and ingredients you’ll need for a successful Indian dish, but start with one and follow the tips I've suggested. 

From tempering your spices before cooking a curry or adding your garam masala into your dish just before serving there are some easy ways to start.

What are your favourite Indian cooking ingredients that you use? Are there any big ones that I’ve missed out? 

To find out more See FAQs

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