How to Build an Indian Pantry: 10 Essential Spices

Love Indian cooking but fearful of the long and intimidating list of spices needed to re-create all of your favorite dishes? We’ve compiled and introduced the 10 most widely used Indian spices to help familiarize you with common flavors and applications and get you started on cooking a myriad of your favorite Indian foods.




Asafoetida (a.k.a hing), is commonly used in South Indian cuisine. Uncooked, it has an unpleasant, sulfuric smell. However, once toasted in oil or ghee, it emits a deliciously mellow, slightly garlicky flavor.

Substitute: Asafoetida’s predominant flavor is similar to the combination of onion and garlic, which means that a blend of onion powder and garlic powder can bring essentially the same flavor to your dish. They offer a less concentrated flavor when compared to pure asafoetida, but does the job.



Black Cardamom

Black cardamom, known as the “queen of spices,” has a smoky, pungent aroma that intensifies when ground and cooked slowly for a prolonged period. Use it to braise meat, or use it in the preparation of biryanis, lentils or dals.


Black Pepper

Before chilies were brought to India, black pepper was used to provide Indian food with its bite. It remains an Indian cuisine staple, used as a key flavor or strong background spice to complement other ingredients.


Cayenne Pepper

Cayenne adds heat and a beautiful red color to spicy Indian cuisine. While not as hot as chili powder, it still packs a punch, so use sparingly to start.



Coriander, the dried fruit of the cilantro plant, has an earthy, nutty and slightly citrusy flavor It can be used whole, crushed or ground, and is often added along with cumin in Indian dals, soups and curries.



Cumin is a staple in North Indian cuisine. Often used in curries, raitas, dals and chutneys, it has a warm, nutty and slightly peppery flavor. Use ground cumin in your Indian cooking, or roast and fry seeds for a slightly smoky flavor.


Garam Masala

Garam masala is a highly aromatic spice blend that typically combines warm spices like cinnamon, coriander, fennel, cumin, cardamom and cloves. It’s perfect for adding to curry.


Green Cardamom

Green cardamom has a subtle, zesty flavor that lends itself well to delicately flavored curries, as well as sweets.


Mustard Seeds

Mustard seeds are often toasted in a dry pan or tossed in hot oil until they pop and emit a warm, nutty flavor. While there are almost forty types of mustard, brown and yellow seeds show up the most in Indian cooking. Brown seeds are more commonplace and have a more mild flavor, while yellow mustard seeds are slightly spicer.



Turmeric has a mellow, warm flavor and characteristic yellow color that brightens any Indian dish. It is used extensively to flavor dals and meat, seafood and vegetable dishes.

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