Herbs and spices are essential ingredients in the Indian kitchen. If you can master their usage, you’ll be way on your way to replicating the delicious flavour combinations you’ve experienced in restaurants at home.
Each herb and spice is unique in its own way, and there are close to forty used in Indian cooking. Some, such as black stone flower and garcinia, are only found in specific regions. Others, like cumin and turmeric, are widely used across the entire subcontinent.
Below, we’ve listed 22 of the top herbs and spices that are a mainstay in our kitchen cupboards.
1. Cumin (Jeera)
Cumin is an Indian spice with a warm, citrusy flavour similar to caraway and is widely used in curries and spice mixes. A member of the parsley family, cumin plants originated in Western Asia and have been cultivated for culinary use for thousands of years.
To extract maximum flavour, cumin seeds should be tempered by cooking them whole in oil at the start of a recipe (a process known as tadka). The seeds will brown quickly if cooked at a higher temperature, so be careful that they don’t burn as the flavour will become bitter. When they start to pop, you’ll know they’re done.
2. Green Cardamom (Choti Elaichi)
An aromatic spice native to India, green cardamom is used in both sweet and savoury dishes, from curries to ice cream. The flavour of green cardamom is distinctive – it contains cineole, which imparts a eucalyptus-like taste, with hints of pine also detectable on the palate.
When adding to a dish during cooking, first toast the whole pods until they’re fragrant and then remove before serving. For desserts – which usually call for powder – split the pods and grind the seeds with a mortar and pestle.
Bear in mind that green cardamom can become overwhelming if too much is used. Less really is more here!
3. Asafoetida (Hing)
Asafoetida, known to Indians as hing, is frequently used in curries. It’s sometimes referred to as Indian leek or onion weed; however, it’s actually a resin derived from a flower (Ferula assafoetida).
Otherwise known as devil’s dung – due to the distinctive, pungent smell that dissipates during cooking – asafoetida has an oniony, garlicky flavour profile and is commonly used as a substitute by those who are intolerant, as well as by Jain and Brahmin Indians, whose religion does not allow their consumption.
Vegetable, cheese and egg dishes all benefit from a slight, oniony kick, so why not spice up your paneer, masala eggs, or aloo gobi a little more with some asafoetida?
4. Coriander seeds (Dhaniya)
Coriander seeds are one of the 5 main Indian spices and one of the most important on this list. It has a citrus aroma with green, woody undertones and is used in a number of recipes, including madras and vindaloo.
The easiest way to use coriander seeds is to dry roast them in a pan to release the aromatic oils and grind into a powder before adding to a curry sauce.
5. Turmeric (Haldi)
Turmeric is a pungent, earthy spice that’s used in many Indian dishes. Commonly referred to as “Indian saffron”, turmeric gives many curries and rice dishes their characteristic orange colouring.
To make your curries tastier, substitute ground turmeric with grated fresh turmeric root—which is much more aromatic than ground powder. You can find this in virtually every specialist Asian supermarket in the UK, as well as many mainstream supermarkets.
In addition to its culinary usages, turmeric has been used for more than 4,000 years as a dye and medicine. It contains more than 200 compounds, including curcuminoids, a potent antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties.
6. Black Cardamom (Kali Elaichi)
When you dry black cardamom over an open fire, it matures into a smoky scent and flavour. The spice has resin and camphor undertones, with hints of eucalyptus.
Black cardamom can be incorporated into a variety of delectable Indian dishes, including curries, stews, dals, pilafs and biryanis. One or two full black cardamom pods are usually enough in a recipe for four people.
7. Bay Leaves (Tej Patta)
Commonly used to infuse sauces and in rice dishes like biryani, bay leaves impart a slightly bitter, herby flavour that adds depth to a meal. Bay leaves can be used whole, added during cooking and then removed before serving, or ground up into a powder for use in garam masala or other spice mixtures.
8. Black Peppercorns (Kali Mirch)
The flavour of black pepper and the punch it lends to recipes are recognisable to billions of people around the world who use it in their everyday cooking – and Indian kitchens are no exception.
Black pepper has a bold, vibrant flavour and imparts a pleasant background heat to a wide variety of dishes, such as Indian pepper chicken.
9. Curry Leaves (Kadi Patta)
Curry leaves are used in many savoury Indian recipes, from curries to rice dishes, and are generally added at the end of cooking, as heat destroys their flavour quickly. Especially popular in South Indian cooking, curry leaves come from a specific type of evergreen tree (murraya koenigii) and have a distinct, lemony taste.
Try using them in a sambar (spicy lentil stew) or rasam (tomato-based soup).
10. Fennel Seeds (Saunf)
Fennel seeds are used in Indian cuisine to add a slight anise, liquorice flavour. A key ingredient in many masala spice mixes, pickles and chutneys, fennel is also widely used as a digestion aid and mouth freshener.
11. Cinnamon (Dalchini)
One of the most widely used spices in Indian cooking, cinnamon has a wonderfully warm, sweet aroma and taste. In India, cinnamon sticks are more common than ground cinnamon, with the quills being added during the cooking process and then removed before serving.
Interestingly, there are actually two kinds of cinnamon: Ceylon (also known as true or real cinnamon) and cassia (or Chinese cinnamon). While both can be used interchangeably, Ceylon cinnamon has a more intense flavour and aroma that works particularly well in desserts. Cassia cinnamon is cheaper and more prevalent in India, with Ceylon cinnamon being highly prized and used sparingly.
12. Cloves (Laung)
A basic spice that is key to many Indian dishes, including curries, biryanis and puddings, cloves pack a sweet, earthy flavour punch. Known as one of the most powerful spices, cloves should be used with caution as they can easily overpower other, more subtle flavours and ruin a dish.
Outside of flavouring food, cloves are even used in Ayurvedic medicine as a decongestant and anti-inflammatory.
13. Mustard Seeds (Rai)
Mustard seeds, whether yellow, brown, or black, add a peppery, nutty note to curries and pickles. Try tempering them whole in oil (as a part of a tadka) to finish a dal for added flavour and texture. They can also be dry roasted and ground into a paste or powder for use within a marinade or spice blend.
14. Garam Masala
Technically a spice blend rather than a spice itself, garam masala is used extensively in Indian cooking and is well worthy of its own place on this list. Made from dry roasted and ground cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, pepper and bay leaves, garam masala adds sweetness and warmth to dishes.
Although it can be purchased as a powder, garam masala quickly loses its flavour in this form, so it’s well worth making your own at home. Add it near the end of the cooking process to prevent the flavours from being lost, and add a mouthwatering aroma to your dish.
15. Coriander Leaf / Cilantro (Dhaniya)
Cilantro, also known as coriander leaf, is one of India’s most popular herbs. Used in virtually every type of dish, from seafood to tandoori chicken, the leaves lend a citrusy, floral taste that helps to balance out other spicy or tart flavours.
16. Ginger (Adarek)
Another must-have ingredient for the Indian kitchen, fresh ginger is widely used alongside onion and garlic to form the base of a curry. Ginger is interchangeably classified as a herb and a spice depending on the recipe you look at, but as it’s the root of a plant, it’s actually a vegetable!
Fresh ginger has a spicy yet sweet flavouring which becomes significantly less complex when ginger is dried and ground into a spice. The flavour of dried ginger is more intense than the fresh, giving a bigger hit of spice but less sweetness.
17. Chilli Powder (Lal Mirch Powder)
Chilli powder is used to add heat and colour to Indian recipes. There are many different types of chilli powder available with varying degrees of heat. Kashmiri chilli powder, for example, imparts a vibrant red colouring but is relatively mild when compared to other varieties. Think of the difference between hot paprika and cayenne pepper.
18. Fenugreek (Methi)
Available as leaf or seed, fenugreek imparts a bitter, nutty taste used within curries, such as butter chicken and as a topping for methi paratha and thepla.
Ever struggled to replicate the exact taste of a restaurant curry at home? Fenugreek may well be the missing ingredient! Despite its unique flavour, it’s still not well-known in the West, but the dried leaves and seeds can be found in most Indian supermarkets and online.
19. Carom Seeds / Bishop’s Weed (Ajwain)
Also known as Ajwain, these hardy seeds are thought to have originated in Egypt but are now grown throughout India. They have a bitter, herby taste, which some compare to thyme or oregano.
These strong-flavoured seeds can be used fresh or dried to add both flavour and texture to a dish. Use them sparingly in meat curries, samosas and flatbreads.
20. Nutmeg (Jaiphal)
Nutmeg is an essential ingredient in many Indian dishes and spice mixes, most notably in garam masala. With a warm, sweet taste, it’s also popularly used in desserts like kheer and basundi.
Ground nutmeg loses its flavour quickly, so purchase it whole and finely grate when needed.
21. Mace (Javitri)
Derived from the nutmeg tree, mace is the outer coating of the nutmeg seed. Although the flavours of nutmeg and mace are similar, a distinction can be made between the two. The flavour of mace is stronger and spicier than nutmeg, so is more often found in savoury dishes.
22. Mango powder (Amchoor)
Mango powder, or amchoor, is a fantastic spice that adds much-needed tartness and vibrancy to a dish. Made from dried green mangos, the hit of acidity that amchoor provides is wonderful in meat marinades – it will begin tenderising it as well as adding flavour!