Here’s some handy information about the spices the most common (and uncommon) spices used in my recipes.
One of the most well-known spices in the world, cumin is essential to Indian cooking. With a distinct earthy, warm and pungent flavour, there are very few South Asian savoury dishes that don’t use it. Cumin is used in both seed and powdered form.
These spherical light brown seeds are another key ingredient. They have a citrus and earthy aroma, and are most often used alongside cumin to build basic Indian flavours. Coriander is generally used in powder form, but the seeds are sometimes crushed for texture.
Turmeric is distinctively yellow, and has a soft, warm, earthy taste. It is another spice that’s used very often, and mostly as a powder. Despite its mellowness, excessive use can overpower a recipe. I use the commonly available powdered version, as opposed to the fresh root. Avoid spilling it in your kitchen: it stains everything!
Meaning ‘warming spices’, garam masala is a mixture of aromatic powdered spices such as cinnamon, coriander, bay leaves, nutmeg, black peppercorns, cloves, fennel seeds, mustard seeds, cardamom seeds, and cumin seeds.
In BIR cooking garam masala is commonly used as a minor component of mix powder. It is often added to a curry near the beginning of cooking, and in some cases it is added at the end for a more prominent aftertaste.
With its pungent flavour garam masala should be used sparingly to avoid overpowering the food.
This is a common ingredient in many BIR dishes, where it contributes a unique flavour and fragrance that is especially noticeable during cooking.
Both the seeds and leaves of the fenugreek plant have uses in Indian restaurant food. Strictly speaking, fenugreek leaf is a herb rather than a spice. The most commonly used form is the dried leaf (kasuri methi), which is cheap to buy and imparts an aromatic layer of flavour.
Fresh fenugreek leaves can be used for a fresher, more sophisticated taste. Fenugreek seeds have a similar flavour to the leaves, and are a little more bitter. Fenugreek powder ground from the seeds adds a little extra earthy character to curries, while the whole seeds make up an important part of panch phoran (see below).
Fenugreek is a bitter tasting ingredient, so should be used carefully to avoid overpowering the food.
This hot, pungent red stuff is used extensively in South Asia, and is a vital part of the cuisine. Chilli powder is made by drying out fresh chillies and grinding them to a very fine consistency.
There are several types of chilli powder commonly used in Indian cookery. What I refer to as ‘regular’ or ‘normal’ is that sold labelled simply as ‘Chilli Powder’. Generally hot, but not excessively so, a good brand will be a handy all-round powder to keep in the kitchen. A good chilli powder should not be overly harsh once cooked properly.
‘Kashmiri’ chilli powder is typically milder in heat and has a distinctive piquancy. It has a vibrant red colour that enhances the appearance of any curry. Deggi mirch, made from a colourful blend of red capsicums and chillies, also imparts a vibrant red colour, but with a little more heat.
There are also chilli powders available that are significantly hotter. These will typically be labelled as ‘Extra Hot Chilli Powder’, but if you are daring you can buy specialist powders made from super-hot chillies such as naga, habanero, Carolina reaper, and so on.
Different chilli powders have slightly different piquancy, and you can get extra dimensions of flavour in a dish by combining them. My recipes often include various combinations of ‘regular’, ‘extra hot’, and Kashmiri chilli powders.
The amounts and types stated in the recipes are guidelines. Feel free to experiment!
Instead of buying the pre-ground version, another option is to buy dried red chillies and grind them yourself for a fresher flavour. Remove the stalks beforehand as they can be bitter.
This warm, mellow and slightly sweet flavoured powder is made from dried capsicum (bell peppers). It adds red colour to food and imparts a subtle savoury flavour. By and large, the typical unsmoked Spanish and Hungarian paprika are used,
A common ingredient in BIR cooking, tandoori masala is a blend of powdered spices traditionally used in tandoori chicken and tikka marinades.
Vaguely like garam masala (but not as pungent), tandoori masala usually contains a sour element that provides a tangy flavour. It sometimes contains red food colouring, but this is becoming less common (at least in the UK).
I use tandoori masala in numerous recipes throughout the book, including some curries. Some brands of tandoori masala can contain large amounts of salt, so please bear that in mind. Adjust the quantity in any given recipe to suit your taste.
While being part of the cinnamon family, the bark of the cassia tree is more pungent, tougher, less sweet, and has a darker colour than that of the light brown, brittle, ‘true’ cinnamon quills. Cassia bark is very good at infusing flavour to the oil in dishes when added early. It can also be added to simmering water to impart its aromatics to rice or pre-boiled ingredients.
Asian Bay Leaf (Tej Patta)
These leaves, which are from the cassia tree, share a slightly similar flavour to the bark. They are used in the same way as cassia bark: to infuse flavour. Tej patta are different in taste and appearance to the better-known leaves from the bay laurel tree often used in western cooking.
Asian bay leaves have three large veins running from top to bottom, whereas the European version has just one vertical vein.
They are often quite difficult to find in the UK and many other countries. Some Asian supermarkets sell them very cheaply in bags, but if you are not fortunate enough to live near one, tej patta are usually available to buy online from eBay, Amazon, or specialist websites. I recommend you do try to source some, but you can omit them or substitute with the ‘normal’ type instead if you wish.
This is another commonly used and essential spice for the store cupboard. The seeds inside green cardamom pods yield a lovely aromatic, ethereal dimension to Indian food. While having a delicate flavour, its subtlety isn’t suppressed by other robust spices. It manages to poke through the top of any dish and win the day.
Green cardamom pods are usually added whole when cooking, and should always be split open before use so that the flavour of the seeds can escape. The flat of a large knife is handy to crush the pods open.
Not everyone likes biting into a spice pod, so to avoid embarrassment at the dinner table scrape the seeds out and discard the pod before using. The little seeds can be added as they are or ground to a powder (elachi). For the very lazy, elachi powder can be purchased ready to use. Be prepared to pay a premium though: green cardamom is the world’s third most expensive spice by weight, after saffron and vanilla.
This large, dark spice pod is a world apart from its green cousin. Black cardamom seeds have a unique smoky, earthy, musky flavour. They work well in red meat based curries, and as an ingredient added when pre-cooking lamb (see my recipe later). Careful use is needed because they are not everyone’s cup of tea.
Star Anise & Fennel Seeds
Both these spices have an aniseed flavour. They can both be used to infuse that flavour into oil or water-based dishes, but the star anise should be fished out before serving.
Once again, yet another dimension of aromaticity (if that isn’t already a word, it should be!) is afforded to us by another pungent spice: the mighty clove. In BIR food its most common uses are as a component of garam masala, and to flavour pilau rice. Avoid adding them whole to a curry because they are difficult to retrieve, and most people find them unpleasant to chew on. I tend to use cloves sparingly as they remind me of the clove oil administered to me to soothe early-life toothache!
While not used in an abundance of BIR dishes, black pepper is an important component of garam masala.
Unripe mangos are dried and ground to make this sour tasting powder, which can be used as a substitute for lemon or lime juice. While not having the fresh taste of its counterparts, it has a distinctive fruity sourness.
With its warm and sweet taste, the aromatic flavour of nutmeg can complement most dishes. It’s hardly used in BIR cooking except as a component in garam masala, and as a subtle addition to chicken tikka and tandoori marinades.
An overlooked and underestimated blend of tangy, pungent spices. In South Asia it is traditionally added as a seasoning to street food and snacks just before serving. Chaat masala is salt based, most usually containing sour amchoor (dried mango) powder, various aromatic spices, and often sulphurous kala namak (black salt). It gives a fantastic zingy taste to anything you sprinkle it on.
Panch phoran (often spelt differently) translates in various languages to ‘five spices’. Those spices, which are usually mixed in equal quantities, are fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, nigella/kalonji seeds, black mustard seeds, and cumin seeds. Panch phoran is a special friend of vegetables, particularly potato. My vegetable-based recipes use it a lot.
See ‘Green Cardamom’.