Essential Spices for a Beginner Indian Cook

Growing up in a Hindu household, eating delicious homemade Gujarati food almost every single day, you would think that I picked up the skills needed to cook the traditional dishes my family knows and loves. Nope. As an active teenager, I had better things to do than spend time in the kitchen…In fact, my love of cooking blossomed later in life, after graduating with a nutrition degree and moving to New York where I couldn’t just take coolers packed with food from my parents’ house. And although I’ve learned how to make all kinds of dishes from various types of cuisines, Indian food always felt intimidating. Maybe because I felt like I’d never make it like my mom and grandma, so why try? Admittedly, over the past few years, I’ve felt a bit guilty about not knowing how to make the simple vegetarian foods I grew up on. And a few comments from my grandfather about carrying on our traditions and culture have made me change my tune as well. Plus, now that my toddler has had a taste of my mom’s Indian cooking, and scarfs it down like someone’s going to steal it, I’ve come to the realization that it’s time to stop wishing I had learned and actually give it a shot. I guess I’ll have to be more like a “good Indian girl” – at least in this one way.


Let me give you a little bit of background…I’m first generation American. And although my ancestry is Indian (Gujarati, to be more exact), most of my family immigrated from Africa. Just before I was born, my grandparents came from South Africa to help raise me. My grandma (Ba) is an INCREDIBLE cook. She had to be…my grandfather (Dada) lives for delicious, homemade Gujarati food. Back in their day, after having an arranged marriage at the ripe age of 16, my Ba learned how to cook from her sister-in-law. She was basically trained to cook in order to please my Dada’s very refined palate. Growing up, I got to reap the benefits as well.


Now, I’m one incredibly lucky girl to have grown up with not just one amazing cook in the house, but TWO. My mom’s cooking is the BEST. I know everyone says that about their mom, but I’m serious…she knows her way around a kitchen and I’m sure that if she was brave enough to go on one of the millions of national cooking contest shows out there that she’d take home the grand prize. My mom was born in Zambia, but spent most of her childhood in India with her aunt and uncle. That’s where she started learning how to cook. Her aunt (Mami) was also wayyyy ahead of her time and prepared food in a much healthier way than what was traditional. She paid attention to portion sizes and limited desserts and sweets (much to my moms dismay at the time). And when my mom came to the United States for college, she expanded her cooking skills even more by helping her mom in the kitchen, often cooking large amounts of food for the guests coming in and out of the house almost every weekend (they lived in California – right between San Francisco and Los Angeles, so their house was a convenient pit stop along the way for family, family friends, and so-and-so-who’s-related-to-so-and-so). And then when she married my dad, her cooking transformed again to be more in line with what he grew up with. So, my Ba taught her a trick or two or three or four.


Basically, my Ba and my mom have both been cooking Indian food for a REALLY long time. They are fast and efficient in the kitchen and have their recipes down pat (in their heads!). They’ve learned from practice and more practice, making dishes over and over again, tweaking and changing recipes along the way. Fortunately, there’s a handy thing called the Internet and several translation sites I can use to at least figure out the English names of ingredients. Not to mention, my sister has had her fair share of experience helping my mom in the kitchen so she’s picked up a thing or two and makes a great resource as well.


So, now that I’ve expressed an interest in learning the tools of the trade, the whole gang is more than happy to slow things down a notch and help me with the simpler dishes to start. They send along general recipes and I give them a shot. I’ve made a couple (which I’ll share soon!) but let’s start with making sure all the right spices are present…since Indian food is really about layering different spices together, this is the most essential part of a new Indian cook’s toolkit. Although more complex dishes use more than the ones listed below, here are the basics (I’ll get into more details about each one in future posts…promise!):

Turmeric (Hardhar)

Turmeric lends an earthy flavor and a yellow tint to many Indian dishes. It’s also known for it’s use in Ayurvedic medicine as an anti-inflammatory and antibiotic.


Mustard Seeds (Rye)

Black mustard seeds are generally added to hot oil so they pop and release a nutty flavor. This method is used at the beginning of most dishes.


Fenugreek (Methi)

Fenugreek has a very distinct flavor and is typically used in small amounts in order to keep it from overpowering the dish. It’s also known to help with milk production in breastfeeding moms – everything I ate when my son was first born was laced with fenugreek in one way or another.

Fenugreek (Methi)

Crushed coriander and cumin (Dhana Jiru)

This cumin-coriander blend is a staple of Indian cooking. The flavor combo brings a fresh taste to many dishes.

Daana Jeeru - Crushed coriander and cumin

Cumin (Jiru)

Cumin can be used as whole seeds or ground into a powder. Either way, it provides a strong earthy flavor.

Cumin (Jeeru)

Carom Seeds (Ajmo)

We call this Ajmo and it’s added mostly to dishes with beans (to help counteract the gassiness factor). It adds great flavor as well. Plus, it does wonders for stomach aches – I just take a pinch with some water when my tummy is a little uneasy.Ajmo

Crushed Red Chili Powder (Laal Masala)

It isn’t Indian food without a little bit of heat. Different chili powders vary in spiciness – depending on the type of chili used. For me, the hotter the better, but if you’re not used to spice, skip it or use it only to taste.

Red Masala

Green Masala 

Made by crushing green chilis, ginger, garlic, and salt together, this is used to provide heat to virtually any dish. I keep it in the freezer and break off chunks whenever needed. If you’re using it more often, storing it in the fridge works as well.

Green Masala 1

Be on the lookout for more posts on recipes and how to use these flavor-packed ingredients!

Have you ever tried cooking Indian food? What are your favorite spices to use?

Category: Food, Indian Food

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  1. Tina’s mom is hands down THE best cook in Raleigh! I have had the privilege of sampling her goodies for over 30 years and she never disappoints. Getting her recipes will give you an insight and taste your tastebuds never imagined!

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