Adding Zing to Food with Indian Spices
Tangy or delicate, Indian spices are the ingredients that make dishes tasty and full of flavor.
India is one of the largest producers of spices in the world and, due to the variety of climates across the country, grows at least 26 different flavorings that add zest and color to Indian cuisine.
Which Spices Come From Where?
The most commonly used Indian spices are:
Black PepperIndigenous to south India, black peppercorns are used whole or freshly ground. Peppercorns are the fruit of a climbing plant and are harvested and dried before use. Before chillies were introduced to India in the 1500s, black pepper was the spice that lent dishes a hot flavor.
CardamomThe two types of cardamom, black and green, are both used in Indian cooking. Cardamom is grown mostly in the evergreen forests in southern India, and a small amount is produced in the northeast. The seeds are added to dishes to give them a smoky fragrance and taste (black cardamom) or a sweet, lemony flavor (green cardamom). Pods are not to be eaten, but are added at the end of the cooking process to add a subtle twist.
ChilliGives dishes an intensely hot bite, and is produced mainly on the southeastern coast of India. Chilli is harvested during the winter months, and is used whole or as a dry powder in food. It was originally brought to India in the sixteenth century from the Americas.
CinnamonIndia produces a moderate amount of cinnamon in the southern parts of the country. This spice is derived from the inner bark of a tree and is usually sold in small scrolls; its sweet warm flavor comes from the essential oil in the bark, and it’s mostly used in savory dishes.
CorianderThis spice, also known as dhanyia (seeds) and dhania (leaves), is a common addition to meat, rice, and vegetable dishes. It’s grown in the northwestern areas of India, and has a sweet, nutty aroma and taste. The leaves are used freshly picked, while the seeds are best used whole or recently ground.
CuminGrown in the west and northern parts of India, cumin is the spice that gives many Indian foods their typical aroma and spicy, sweet taste. The seeds can be used ground or whole, and raw or roasted, the latter bringing out its nutty flavor. Because of its strong taste, it’s only added in very small quantities to food.
GingerThis root or rhizome has many uses in Indian cooking and can be added to vegetable and lentil dishes, used to flavor tea, and eaten in its preserved form as candy. Ginger is grown throughout India, making the country one of the largest producers of this spice.
Nutmeg and MaceThese spices are two different parts of the same fruit on the nutmeg tree. Nutmeg is the seed of the fruit, while mace is the lacy covering of the seed; nutmeg has a sweet flavor and mace is more delicate, adding a bright orange color to food.
Pomegranate SeedsGrown in the south and the west of India, these seeds, when dried, are used to add a tangy taste to vegetables and meats. Fresh pomegranate seeds make a delicious and refreshing beverage.
SaffronThis spice is the most expensive in the world. Its summer harvesting is very labor intensive because the flowers are picked and processed by hand. The bright crimson spice is derived from the stigmas of saffron crocus flowers, and it has a sweet honey/hay-like taste. Saffron comes from India’s northern-most reaches at the foot of the Himalayas, where it gets lots of sun, rain, and cold weather.
Another brightly colored spice, turmeric adds the yellow-golden tint to many Indian sweet and savory foods and curry pastes. It has a slightly bitter, hot taste and a mustardy aroma. Grown all around India, turmeric comes from a rhizome that is either grated in its raw form or cooked, dried, and ground to a powder.
Other spices and herbs such as mustard seeds, fennel, aniseed, tamarind, asafoetida, fenugreek, cloves, celery, and garlic are also used in Indian cooking, and all add to the variety and blended flavors, aromas, colors, and textures of the dishes.