First, let me say that I still consider myself to be a fairly novice Indian chef. I’m in my mid 20s and I’ve only been cooking Indian food for about 7 years now. That being said, my father’s Indian, and I’ve got a lot of great Indian chefs in my family, so I’ve learned from some of the best.
What I’ve found from cooking a fairly wide range of Indian dishes though is that there are essentially 4 spices or ingredients that I use over and over to flavor my Indian cuisine. These are the must haves if you’re doing any Indian cooking:
- Chili Powder – I’d say one of the first flavors people think of when they eat Indian food is “spicy” or “hot”, so it’s no mistake that chili powder is #1 on my list. I use chili powder in just about every Indian dish I make, and if I’m not using chili powder then I’m using cayenne or fresh chilis. Chili powder is an absolute must and it’s probably the spice I go through the quickest.
- Cumin Seeds – Cumin has a strong, rich, heat hot, and somewhat smokey flavor. It’s an incredibly versatile ingredient and something I use in many of my Indian dishes. Ways I use cumin include: a) pan frying seeds in a pan with oil prior to adding meat or veggies, b) dry frying seeds in a pan without oil and then grinding the roasted seeds with a mortar and pestle to create roasted cumin powder (a very different flavor that’s nuttier than normal cumin, and c) using normal cumin powder or just grinding seeds that have not been roasted to create normal cumin powder
- Black Mustard Seeds – These seeds are used often to flavor vegetable dishes (e.g., Indian Okra), and they’re typically fried in oil so that they release their flavor into the oil. Black mustard seeds are the most pungent of mustard seeds, but using a few extra of the yellow can also work for many dishes.
- Coriander Powder – Coriander is the seed of the plant which produces cilantro. It offers a slightly lemony flavor when added to dishes. Coriander seeds can be ground into coriander powder or coriander powder can be purchased directly from a store. Coriander powder is used in garam masala and is added to a variety of meat and vegetable dishes for seasoning.
So those are your must haves for your Indian spice cabinet. Keep them on hand and use them wisely!