The five spices you should never be without
By Perisha Kudhail
As an Indian home cook, my spice tin is the most important tool in my culinary belt. Here are the key spices for building your own and ideas for using them to create authentic Indian recipes.
As in most Indian households, the spice tin was one of the most essential items in my kitchen when I was growing up in Punjab. Also known as a dabba, this container keeps spices fresh and organised in one convenient place. It differs from a spice rack because the jars of spices inside are open, making it easy to add a pinch of this and a dash of that at will, without having to fiddle around with lids.
This is still my preferred way to store spices. And as for what I keep inside, these are my staple ingredients for cooking up colourful and aromatic Indian food.
The smell of cumin being fried in oil or ghee often filled my childhood home. It signalled that my mum was about to cook up a storm in the kitchen – most likely preparing a North Indian curry such as masoor dal or the aubergine dish benghan. It’s also a smell I associate with vegetable samosas as well as aloo (potato), mooli (radish) and gobi (cauliflower) paratha fillings.
It’s a warm, hearty spice and earns its place in any spice tin, given that it’s used in so many cuisines – from Indian to Middle Eastern and Mexican.
Cumin comes as seeds or a ground powder – and both have their advantages. The seeds, once toasted, pack more of a punch flavour-wise and carry a gentle sweetness. They tend to hold their flavour for longer than the powder and it’s easy to grind them yourself (either with a pestle and mortar or using a spice grinder) if you wanted a finer texture. However, it’s hard to beat the convenience of a pre-ground powder. Its consistency makes it great for coating ingredients such as ginger, garlic or onion, helping to build flavour. This is important as cumin is a key base ingredient in Indian cooking, bringing a whisper of earthiness to dishes.
A word of warning though: use a little at a time. Cumin can easily become overpowering if you’re too heavy handed with it.
Chilli can take so many forms, from hot sauce to flakes, with varying levels of heat. Hot chilli powder and dried chillies are both in my spice tin but, really, one kind will do the job.
Chilli flakes are always a safe bet. They are on the fiery side but are incredibly versatile and will give you the most bang for your buck. Because they don’t need to be cooked like a powder does, they can be used in both hot and cold dishes and are great for layering flavour during cooking as well as sprinkling over a dish before serving. Not just ideal for curries, they can add flavour and spice to everything from stews to eggs.
Not a fan of too much spice? Chillies aren’t just about adding fire to your food. A very small pinch of flakes will bring a lovely warmth to your cooking without danger of setting your tongue ablaze. Even if you always opt for the mildest Indian dish on a menu, you’ll still often find it contains chilli – it’s a key spice for building flavour.
Having been linked to a wealth of health benefits, this golden-yellow spice has been at the forefront of ‘wellness’ movements over the last few years, with the likes of turmeric shots and turmeric lattes becoming popular.
Indeed, when I was growing up, it was often used for medicinal and wellbeing purposes: as a child I’d be given a cup of hot milk with turmeric to help me get to sleep, for instance. To make it, mix a splash of milk with ½ teaspoon of turmeric in a mug to form a loose paste. Gently heat 250ml milk, then slowly whisk it into the paste and finish with a small pinch of pepper. For sweetness, you can add some honey, sugar or cinnamon, if you like.
Of course, turmeric is also a popular ingredient to cook with. It has an earthy, peppery taste and while it’s got a distinctive flavour it’s mild enough to not overpower dishes – which is why you’ll find it a great addition to everything from smoothies to sauces.
A small amount of this spice can also be used to make yellow rice and roti by sprinkling it in your water as the rice cooks, or mixing it into your dough. It will add a vibrant pop of colour to your table while also injecting extra nutrition into your food. It truly is a multipurpose spice.
My biji (grandma) used to dry out different seeds in the sun during summer then blend them together to make a big batch of garam masala to last the whole year. While nothing will beat the flavour of that spice blend for me, I happily buy ready-mixed blends at the supermarket instead.
This spice blend is usually made with ground coriander seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, cinnamon bark and cloves, but you could always add to it or, like my biji, create your own using the spices you like best.
Garam translates to hot, but this spice blend is all about warmth of flavour rather than fieriness. It's extremely versatile and suits all kinds of dishes, from curry to pilau, dal to pakoras. While most of the spices I’ve mentioned are used early on in recipes, garam masala is also great for finishing and garnishing Indian cooking.
I know it might sound controversial to include this in your tin – salt is not a spice after all, but a mineral. It’s well worth bending the rules though and giving it a spot in there. It’s so frequently used in Indian dishes – and, of course, in cuisines from all over the world – that you’ll be grateful to have it conveniently rooming with your most used spices, so it’s right at your fingertips when you need it.
Salt is a powerful tool for releasing and enhancing the flavour of other ingredients as well as adding balance to your cooking. It works wonders on the humble onion, drawing out moisture to help it caramelise and give a softer texture. It’s also used for crushing garlic and ginger into pastes to make Indian cooking sauces, thanks to its rough texture that helps to break the ingredients down.
Budget-friendly fine table salt is best suited for a spice tin because it’s easier to measure and control the amount you use. Save more expensive, coarser salt flakes for when you’re using a salt grinder.
Now use your spices to make these recipes
Originally published March 2023