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Top 20 spices used in the Indian kitchen

Its lockdown time, thanks to the virus that is regularly the most cursed organism on the planet these days (though it gets stiff competition from Homo sapiens, I am sure). These times have pushed us to realize the value of little things that we don’t often notice. One such thing I realized the value of, is spices. You know, when you want to cook a particular dish, because you really want to eat it, you go into the kitchen, chop up the vegetables, everything is prepared, you begin cooking, only halfway through to realize that the particular spice that gives the dish all its flavor is something you have run out of! Alas! You look for possible replacements, seek Google’s help even, but you know your dreams of savoring that dish are ruined, until you can make the trip down to the spice store and replenish your stock.

Spices, that make up a staple part of Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, among others, is not such a staple in the West. I often wonder how would people in the West begin cooking, if the basic step of heating up the oil and adding mustard or cumin seeds is not there! I am sure, there is no such dilemma or confusion or fix in real, it is just a whim of my imagination. But for us Indians, where everything we eat, has at least 2-3 spices, if not more, or the omnipresent garam masala or chat masala topped up, it is hard to imagine a world without it.

Thanks to the spice crisis in the kitchen, I decided to make a lit of the spices that absolutely should be in stock in my pantry at all times. And I got a list of top 20 spices that probably every Indian kitchen has and uses. Sharing the list with you, so you get to discover more spices if you don’t already know them, and also to avert a future spice crisis in your kitchen. Arranged alphabetically (Thanks to Microsoft Excel) for your convenience:

Ajwain seeds

Would you believe it if I said, that these tiny grey seeds come from the same family as cumin and parsley? In taste, they are similar to celery seeds with overtones of Thyme. In Indian cooking, they are commonly used to flavor deep-fried food, fish and vegetables.


Indians may not recognize the spice by this name, but maybe saying Jamaican Pepper or Kababchini could ring a bell. This tiny berry comes from Pimenta diocia, a small tree native to the West Indies. The fruits are gathered when they are green and unripe then they are dried in the Sun, where the berries turn black. Allspice has flavors of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.


As the name suggests, this one originates from mangoes. Green mangoes are dried and ground to obtain this sour and tnagy spice, which is very commonly used to ift the taste of popular snacks like samosas and pakoras. This is a great spice, if you want to add in the sour taste or a lemon or a tamarind without having to deal with the liquid content.


This one has a very sharp taste, and is quite strong a spice. Derived from a resinous gum from the plants of the fennel family, asafoetida or hing is sparingly used n veegtarian dishes, espcially lentils. North Indian dishes, especially from Kashmir also commonly feature asafoetida. This spice aids digestion and has a unique taste, which you can either love or hate, but you can’t ignore or forget. It is often said that the aroma of asafoetida after cooking resembles that of truffles.


Cardamom is undoubtedly known as the Queen of Spices. It is the fruit of a reed-like plant from the mountains near the Malabar coast of India. There are two types of cardamoms commonly used in Indian cooking – A small, delicate, green one with thin black seeds inside and a large brown one generally four times the size of the green ones. These pods release a beautiful fragrance once crushed, while the seeds have a sweetish but strong flavor. Cardamom is an indispensible ingrendient of the omnipresent Indian garam masala too. Interestingly, cardamom is one of the spices that is used to flavor sweet as well as savory dishes.


In India cooking, chilies can be fresh and green, dried and red or ground as red chili powder, when used as a spice. All these three have different flavor profiles, and are generally not inter-replaceable in recipes. There are different types of chilies available in India, varying in sizes and pungency. As a thumb rule, always follow – the smaller the size, the spicier it is. Also, to get rid of the spice quotient, scrape out the seeds.


Bark of an evergreen tree from the Laurel family, Cinnamon is a spice native to neighboring Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia. For extraction, the outer bark is stripped away, while the inner bark is loosened and dried. Nott o be confused with cassia bark, real cinnamon is softer and has a more subtle aroma. Cinnamon leaves are also used to flavor curries, stocks and rice.


One of the oldest known spices in the world, cloves were regularly used by the Ancient Egyptians and Romans. the clove (myrtle) tree can grow up to six meters high. The unopened flower buds are carefully harvested from these trees. Cloves are known for their preservation qualities and like cardamom, cinnamon, etc. can be used to flavor sweet as well as savory dishes.


These are small round or oval brown seeds from the coriander plant. The seeds are roasted and ground before use. Fresh coriander leaves are also a common flavoring and garnishing agent for curries, salads, dals, chutneys, etc.


Can be used whole or as powder, cumin os abundant in Europe, India and Mexico. It stimulates the appetite and the digestion. It is commonly used in tempering in curries, couscous, fried rice and also as a flavor in biscuits, cookies, etc.

Fennel seeds

Fennel seeds are the dried fruits of a perennial herb from the Parsley family, and it commonly growns in Europe, Middle East, Argentina and India. The seeds do look a lot like cumin, so don’t confuse them. Fennel is greener and fatter than cumin and has a licorice-like flavor. Fennel is used whole or ground for use in breads, pickles, sauces, and curries especially in Southern India. It is also one of the ingredients in the Bengali spice mix – Panch Phoron.

Fenugreek seeds

Fenugreek are squarish, yellowish-brown seeds with a slightly bitter flavor that can be used whole or ground. Its leaves are commonly used as vegetables, and dried leaves are used to flavor curries. They are also very good for health, especially the skin, hair, and the heart.


Mustard is an ancient spice grown in most parts of the world, and commonly used in both Western and Indian recipes. The seeds release their pungency once the seeds are ground and mixed with water. In India, botht he yellow, as well as the black seeds are used in cooking. One of the most popular dishes using mustard in India is Vindaloo. Dishes from northern and eastern India are especially abundant on mustard. The oil from the seeds is also used commonly for cooking and pickling.

Nutmeg and Mace

Both these spices are derived from the same fruit. Nutmeg is the seed, protected by a thin shell that has a coat of orange flesh. The orange flesh when dried becomes mace. This fruit is commonly grown in Malaysia, Indian subcontinent, Indonesia and the West Indies. Mace has an aroma similar to nutmeg but it is much sweeter, comparatively. Nutmeg is commonly used to spice sweet dishes, curries, and sauces, while mace is coarsely crushed to flavor soups, stocks, sweet dishes, Mughlai curries and biryanis. The key to buy good nutmeg – always look for seeds that are round,compact, have an oily appearance and feel heavier than their size.

Onion seeds

Often referred to as black cumin, these are tiny black seeds with a sweet flavor. They are also one of the ingredients of the Bengali Panch Phoron. Onion seeds are also used in pickling, as a flavoring for breads and in some curries.


Commonly seen as black pepper, but needn’t always be black, they can be white, green and even pink. In Indian cooking, peppers can be used whole, crushed – coarsely or finely, and are also an ingredient of the garam masala. They are vey good for digestion and metabolism, as well as immunity and elders inssit on consuming it especially during winters.

Poppy seeds

Known for their nutty flavor and thickening properties, poppy seeds are used in rich curries like kormas. They are usually soaked in water for two hours before using. They are also used in some sweets.


Better recognized as the world’s most expensive spice, Saffron is made from the dried stamens of a type of crocus commonly growing in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Indian (espcially the Himalayas). Did you know you need a quarter of a million plants to get 450g or 1 lb of saffron? Fake saffron is pretty common in the markets, so buy only from reputed brands and known sources. Saffron has an ethereal fragrance with a pale yellow to orange color. It is best to create an infusion in a small quantity of milk to use saffron. IT is commonly used in desserts, stocks, soups and rice/biryani/pilaf.


Turmeric is a giner-like rhizome that grows in India and West Indies. It is common to see moms and grandmothers making a milk-based concoction from turmeric during winters and insisting the unwell children drink it to get rid of cold and cough. Turmeric has great medicinal proprties and is known to be great for skin, while also helping bring down inflammation in the body. The hard resinous flesh of the dried root is ground into a fine powder and used in just about everything. The fresh root is also used to make curries and salads. Turmeric is highly versatile and is used as a medicine, flavoring agent, coloring agent, preservative, etc. It is also a valuable part of Indian wedding rituals.

Well, that’s my list. Do you have any great memories with these spices? Tell me about it in the comments.

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