Your Seven Essential Indian Spices

July 28, 2012 2 Comments

As I continue to travel the country and Canada talking about all things Indian and food, I continue to be amazed by the common thread of every discussion with non-Indians and second generation Indians alike: Indian food is complicated and labor intensive. It's easier to head outside of your own home and pick up take out rather than try and make it yourself.

I'm always shocked when I hear this thrown at me in demo after demo after demo. I've now cooked up Indian goodies at Williams-Sonoma stores across the country including King of Prussia, PA; Philadelphia, Chicago, Oak Brook, Seattle and this weekend San Diego. The reaction is always the same: pure joy when I explain and show customers how easy Indian food is to make. There, I said it. Easy. Easy Easy.

Sure, like any other cuisine, there are items on the Indian menu that do take extra time and energy to make, including desserts, some breads, and even some complicated curries an appetizers. But, when you look at the food we eat at home on a daily basis (dal, roti, stir-fries), it's incredibly simple. Follow a few key steps, including equipping your kitchen with the proper tools and purchasing the basic spices. Once you have them, you're good. No, really!

As I continue to update this blog, I will give you more and more tips, but for now, how about we talk spices?

Essential in an Indian home kitchen when it comes to spices is not a spice at all, but a box to store them, a masala dabba, as it is known in Hindi. (masala is a spice mix and dabba means box). I once interviewed cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey about this very item. She told me all about the history of wooden boxes, with small compartments for all of the spices. The modern box is made of stainless steel and is a wonderful way to store your spices. In my own uniquely created box, the Spice Tiffin, you can not only store about 2-4 ounces of any spice, you can also dole it out with either a tiny teaspoon or tablespoon and level your spoons right in the small container. (I am a mom, after all, always practical).

Once you have this box, fill it with your key essential spices. Of course, you'll need other spices for various other recipes, but you need seven essential spices to whip up virtually any Indian meal - and one I know you already have lurking in your kitchen.

  1. Salt (I prefer coarse sea salt but you can use regular table salt)
  2. Cumin seeds (a primary spice used in North Indian cooking)
  3. Black mustard seeds (a primary spice used in South Indian cooking)
  4. Turmeric powder
  5. Garam Masala - (a blend of various spices that are dry roasted, cooled and ground - buy it pre-ground, or grind your own. My grandmother's recipe is in my new cookbook.)
  6. Coriander powder
  7. Red Chile Powder or Cayenne

I am also always asked about the freshness of spices. How long it too long to hold onto them? I contend, use common sense as your parameter. For ground spices - usually no longer than six months - or until they no longer smell like anything special.

For whole spices? Up to 4 or 5 years. That's right, I said years. Because their essential oils have not been released, they will last you longer. Precisely why most chefs and experienced home cooks buy as many spices whole as they can and grind them in small batches themselves.

We'll take more about this later, for now, compile your spices, get your spice box ready, and let's get ready to do some cooking.

If you have a masala dabba already -- tell me which spices it holds. Everyone is different - and there's no one right answer when it comes to India and Indians. We are after all a huge country with hundreds of thousands of food traditions.

Can't wait to hear from you!

2 Responses


July 28, 2012

Great post. I always get the same thing as well… It must be hard to cook Indian food.
Okay, here goes…
Red chili powder
Whole cumin
Urad dal
Chana dal
Fenugreek seeds
Mustard seeds
I keep whole red chilies in the tray.


Trupti Bakshi
Trupti Bakshi

August 03, 2012

Love the website and thanks for finally coming up with he 2 books I have always wanted..slow cooker cooking and vegn cooking. As far as the masala dabba, I am Gujarati and this s what my dabba holds,
Rai- black mustard seeds
Jeera- cumin seeds
Methi- fenugreek seeds, used a lot in staple Gujarati food
Lavang- cloves
Chili powder
Dhana- Jeera powder- coriander cumin powder – again used a lot in staple gujju cooking.

Keep us cooking! :)

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