A Guide to Spices in India

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India is known for its wide variety of rich, earthy spices that lend immense flavor to dishes throughout the country. From tandoori chicken and corn chaat, to saag paneer and butter chicken, spices are used in cooking to bring out unimaginable flavors.

Khari Baoli, a street in Old Delhi, is the biggest spice market in Asia. It’s located within the walled city just north of the capital. Here, you can finds hundreds of shops that sell local spices, like cumin and cardamom, and other foods like nuts and chili peppers that are all stuffed to the brim in large bags.

This large market is rich in colors, sights, and aromas. It’s an epicenter for familiar, as well as more exotic spices, and there’s even beautiful, unrefined pink and black salts and rare varieties of saffron. Khari Baoli Market has been in operation since the 17th century, and the street is a fully stocked market, as well as a major tourist attraction. Many of the vendors have had family members working in the market for as many as 10 generations.

Inspired by the spice markets of India, we decided to compile a list so you can master some of the most important spices used in traditional Indian cooking. Go beyond pre-made curry powders and learn about the complexities that make India’s unique cuisine.

 

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Cumin / jeera
Adding a smoky and warm note to dishes, cumin is a thin, brown seed with a strong fragrance. It’s often toasted, prior to being pulverized, or used in cooking. The spice should only be toasted for 30 seconds to prevent burning. One of the most popular dishes is jeera basmati rice served with peas.

 

 

 

 

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Cardamom / elaichi
There are two variations of cardamom: green and black. Green is subtle-tasting and often used in desserts to add a light, sweet flavor. Conversely, black cardamom is powerful so a little goes a long way. The pods are large, flat discs that contain small, black seeds, and pods are heated to release oils. Try making cardamom chicken called masala murgh.

 

 

 

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Coriander / dhania
Light brown or yellow in color, coriander is one of the most widely used, as well as one of the oldest in the world. After the plant flowers and develops seeds, cilantro is referred to as coriander; it is also sometimes called Chinese or Mexican parsley. With a slight hint of citrus, coriander is toasted prior to grinding.

 

 

 

 

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Fenugreek / methi
Used both in cooking and in medicine, these seeds are tiny and are the primary proponent of “curry” flavor. These seeds should also be used with a light touch, as they are very strong.

 

 

 

 

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Turmeric / haldi
Known for its trademark golden hue, turmeric is actually a root similar to ginger, but it’s often used in a dried form. The rich, orange colored spice is very healthful and has many properties offer a multitude of health benefits. Try sprinkling it onto plain yogurt with honey, or make a lassi drink.

 

 

 

 

 

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Saffron / kesar
Known as the most expensive spice on earth, saffron is actually the stigma (or end) of the crocus flower. The incredibly high price is due to the sheer amount of labor required to produce the hand-picked spice. The flavor of saffron can range from earthy to floral, and should certainly be used in small quantities.

 

 

 

 

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Mustard seed / rai
Mustard seeds are often cooked in oil or ghee (clarified butter), and they impart a strong, pure mustard flavor that is much different than the processed American mustard condiment. There are a slew of kinds and colors of mustard, and each has a distinctly unique flavor. Try using it to roast potatoes.

 

 

 

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