It has been close to five years since I first stepped into the US—the land of opportunities!—a place that people from all over the world call home. Since my move here, I’ve met and become close to many such people and enjoyed the opportunities to learn about their cultures and cuisines. In return, I’ve also discovered new perspectives on Indian cuisine. What strikes me most is a common belief many people have about Indian cuisine—that it’s all about curry—garam masala, specifically. So would you be surprised to learn that garam masala doesn’t even make the list of my top six essential Indian spices?
I don’t deny the fact that garam masala is a very important part of Indian cuisine, but you can do so much without it—a statement I make on behalf of many seasoned Indian cooks. India is blessed to have fertile soil and a climate that is conducive to growing several crops and varied spices. For centuries, Indians tested, tasted and perfected their spices and blended them beautifully in our cuisine. Every spice boasts its own rich history and cultural significance. Indian spices offer much more than just flavor; each one has its own story as well as powerful, natural healing properties. When I think about the six essential Indian spices I couldn’t live without, here are the first three that come to mind.
Turmeric is one spice that Indians can’t cook without, no matter what part of the country we’re from. Turmeric can be used fresh, dry or in ground form. It belongs to the ginger family, so fresh turmeric looks very similar to ginger root. It has a mild taste and is slightly peppery or bitter. Like any other food, fresh turmeric has a much stronger flavor, but it’s the milder ground form that is more commonly used all around the country.
More than flavor, turmeric is used to add color to food. In fact, some people call it “Indian saffron” and back in the old days, it was used as a cheaper alternative to saffron. Be it a simple stir fry, a dal (lentil soup), a spicy curry or an Indian pickle, turmeric is used everywhere. In addition to being called on for its brilliant yellow color and mild flavor, turmeric is also used as a preservative. To make pickles, my grandma would coat raw mangoes or vegetables with a mixture of salt and turmeric and leave them out in the sunlight to dry. Those pickles would last for years! Turmeric is also used to color cheese, yogurt, spice mixes, salad dressings and even butter and margarine.
Outside of the kitchen, this spice is known for its therapeutic properties. Did you know that turmeric is a fabulous anti-inflammatory agent and an antiseptic? As a child, whenever I came home with a cut or bruise, my mom would rub a paste of turmeric and water on the afflicted area and it worked like magic. If I had a fever, she would give me haldi doodh (a little turmeric mixed with warm milk). In India, when a girl is about to get married, she gets a body massage with a paste of turmeric, as it is believed to improve the skin tone and considered a great anti-aging agent.
It is thanks to all these medicinal, culinary and cosmetic qualities that turmeric has earned a sacred place in Indian culture and history, especially in a Hindu home.
It is believed that chili was first introduced to India by the great Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. The spice was a welcome addition to the cuisine and India’s climate helped cultivate many varieties of chili across the country. Lal mirch, or Indian chili powder, is very similar to cayenne pepper, which we can find easily in the US and Europe. Unlike Mexican or American chili powder varieties where salt or spices are added to the pepper, Indian chili powder is pure ground red pepper. Dried red chilies are powdered after being sun dried until they are nice and crisp. The red chili peppers range from orange to dark red and have a pungent odor with a very strong bite.
There are two main types of chili powders widely used in India—the usual red chili powder described above, which is fiery hot, and the milder type, which is called kashmiri lal mirch. Kashmiri mirch is named after Kashmir, where it comes from. It has a much milder heat and, like turmeric, is used primarily to add color to the dish. The tandoori chicken and beautiful red curry that your local Indian restaurant serves get their vibrant hue from kashmiri lal mirch. Chili powder can be used in practically any dish. An Indian cook cannot live without lal mirch; we like our meals on the spicy side!
Cumin is another basic spice that can be found in every Indian household. It has a strong, distinctive aroma and can be used whole or ground. There are two types of cumin: white and black. Black cumin, also known as royal cumin, has a slightly sweeter taste to it. It is also a bit more rare than white cumin.
Both types of cumin have a warm and earthy flavor, which works really well with lentil soups or hearty stews. Roasting adds to the aroma of the cumin seeds, making them perfect to flavor cheese or breads. Roasted, ground cumin seeds also make a wonderful garnish for raita (a cooling, yogurt-based dip) and yogurt. Another excellent use for this spice? Cumin aids digestion, and the most common way it’s enjoyed in India is in a beverage called jal jeera—an Indian form of lemonade (in Hindi, jal means water and jeera means cumin).
These three spices and the next three I’ll discuss in the second installment of 6 Essential Indian Spices can be found at any spice store or Indian supermarket. They can also be bought at online stores like Amazon or My Spice Sage. For the best shelf life, potency and aroma, store your spices in a cool, dry place, preferably in airtight containers.
Editor’s Note: Which Indian dishes do you love that incorporate these spices? What do you think of garam masala not making the cut (gasp!)? Discuss!
Prerna is a food photographer and the blogger behind Indian Simmer. She spent most of her childhood in a few small towns in central India, a time she fondly remembers for rotis straight off the clay oven and her mom’s cooking with produce plucked right from the farms. She earned her MBA in India and worked in the advertising industry for a few years. Then she met a guy, married him, and moved to the US. When Prerna’s not running after her daughter, you’ll find her cooking in the tiny kitchen of her small apartment in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Three things made me this awesome cook that I am today,” she says, sarcastically, “circumstances, no help and hunger! Whatever I do in the kitchen today is because of the two moms in my life: my mom and my husband’s mom.” Prerna loves traveling and exploring new cuisines, then testing them in her kitchen before sharing them with the world. These days she’s having fun combining two of her biggest passions—food and photography—on Indian Simmer. Check out Indian Simmer on Facebook!