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The Indian Pantry

Our special thaks to the following photographers for their contributions:

Susannah Monty

George Jiminez

Robert Leach

Samir Shreshtha

The history and culture of Indian spices is probably as old as civilization itself. The Vedas, the Bible, and the Quran are all replete with references—direct or indirect. The earliest literary record on spices in India is in the Rig Veda (around 6000 BC) as well as in the other three Vedas—Yajur, Sama, and Athasva.

Spices constitute an important group of organic commodities, which are virtually indispensable in the culinary arts. They can be primarily defined as farm products used in various forms; fresh, ripe, dried, broken, powdered etc., which contribute to the aroma, taste, flavor, color, and pungency of food. Spices may be in the form of bark, buds, flowers, fruits, leaves, rhizomes, roots, seeds, stigmas and styles, or the entire plant.

It is hard for me to imagine my pantry without these magical gifts of nature that change the entire character of food.

The following is the list of popular Indian seasonings. I always suggest that you buy the spices in small quantities. Once you are familiar with the use and taste, you can expand your collection as much as you want.

Ajwain Seeds

Tiny black seeds of the carum plant, which resemble poppy seeds. It is also known as carom, lovage, omum, or bishop’s weed. They are pungent in aroma and have a sharp taste. I particularly use this spice in small quantities, as it gives the dish a very strong and distinctive flavor.



The dried pulp of unripe mangoes is ground to make amchoor powder. It is beige, slightly fibrous in appearance, and sweet and sour in taste. It is used particularly to add sourness to a dish, but the ingredients need to be kept dry, such as in salads or chaats.


The dried resin from a rhizome of a giant fennel-like plant. It is sold in both lump and ground forms. It is used in very small quantities because of its strong and pungent flavor. I use and recommend the ground version because it comes mixed with rice flour and turmeric powder to mellow the flavor.

Bay Leaves

These are long, oval, pointed, and smooth leaves of a hardy evergreen shrub. The leaves are dark green when fresh and turn olive green when dry. They are often used dry, whole, or ground in curries and rice dishes. They are an important ingredient of garam masala.

Black Cumin Seeds

These tiny, oblong, and very aromatic seeds with herbal flavor, used to delicately flavor lentils and curries.


Black Onion Seeds

Tiny and black seeds of the nigella plant. Except for their appearance, they are totally different from the onion seeds in taste and origin. They have a very robust and earthy aroma and are mainly used in pickles, dals, vegetables, and on naan breads.

Black Salt

Contrary to its name, powdered black salt is salmon pink in color. It is an unrefined table salt which has a very strong and sulfurous taste. It is available in lump or powder form. Its distinctive flavor and aroma helps to bring out the flavor in relishes, salads, and raitas.

Cardamom Pods and Seeds

They come in three different colors like mellow black, white, and pale green.The pale green is the most common and flavorful. The black seeds, which hold the fragrance, are used in almost every part of the cuisine, starting from savory dishes to curries and desserts. They are also known as the grains of heaven for their exceptional flavor.

Cayenne Pepper

This is a red powder that is made from grinding dried red skins of several types of chili peppers. In India, it is simply called chili powder. But I use the word cayenne pepper in all my recipes as there are many different chili powders available in the United States. It adds a spicy flavor to dishes.


These are whole dried red hot chilies that are usually added to hot oil to infuse their strong flavor to the oil. A quick contact with hot oil enhances and intensifies the flavor of the skins.


The dried inner bark of a laurel tree is an important ingredient of curries and desserts. It is sold in powder and stick forms. The whole sticks are used to flavor meats, curries, as well as teas; but the powder is almost never used in Indian cuisine.


These are dried unopened buds of a tropical tree. Deep reddish brown cloves add a strong fragrance to rice and grain recipes. It is also an important ingredient in garam masala. They are lightly fried in hot oil, which perfumes the food that is to be cooked in it.

Coriander Seeds

Coriander seeds are ribbed peppercorn-sized spherical pale-green-to-beige-brown seeds of an annual fern like plant of the parsley family. They are extremely aromatic, with a spicy hint. I always keep them in little quantities in airtight containers, as they lose their flavor with exposure and age.

Cumin Seeds

Tiny, oblong dried seeds of a parsley like plant. They are either greenish brown, white, or black. They are the best-known and most widely used spice in Indian cuisine. They are either used fried in hot oil, dry roasted and then used whole, or powdered, according to the recipe. It is warm, intense, and has an almost nutty aroma.

Fennel Seeds

These are oval pale greenish yellow seeds of the common fennel plant. They are sweetly aromatic and have an anise like flavor. They are used in both sweet and savory dishes. Roasted fennel seeds are often chewed as a digestive and mouth freshener after Indian meals.

Fenugreek Seeds

Dried rectangular yellow brown seeds of a strongly scented annual herb of the legume family. They are used in little quantities because of their strong flavor. The greens of the plant are very frequently used for their aromatic and somewhat bitter flavor.


A knobby pale brown rhizome of a perennial tropical plant. It is available fresh, dried (ground into pieces), and as a preserved stem. Fresh ginger is often ground into a paste, finely chopped, or made into juice. Ginger has a refreshing, warm, woody aroma with citrus undertones. It has a pleasant fragrance and pepper-hot bite.


These are sun-dried, dark-purple-to-black, sticky, and curly edged fruit of a mangosteen tree. It has a citrus and refreshingly sour taste and a sweet aroma. It is native to the southern Indian coastal regions.


It is the beautiful deep reddish brown outer coating of the nutmeg seeds. It is available in both ground and blade forms. It has a strong and bitter flavor and is basically used in making garam masala.


It’s the most popular herb in the world. It is an aromatic perennial herb with oval dark green leaves. It is used for making chutneys, curries, and desserts. The sun-dried leaves are used for making breads and marinating meats.

Mustard Seeds

Tiny, round, hot, and pungent seeds of an annual plant of the cabbage family. They are available in white, yellow, brown, or black color. The large white seeds are used to make commercial mustards in the United States; the yellow and brown are used for European mustards and for pickling; it is the black seeds that are commonly used in Indian cuisine. The black seeds are also the source of commonly used mustard oil. They are used in both whole and powdered forms. The whole seeds are used to season vegetables, curries,appetizers, salads, and legumes while the powder is used to steam fish, curries, and in pickles.


The rich brown seed of the fruit of a tropical evergreen, nutmeg has a warm,sweetly spicy flavor used to season both savory and sweet dishes. It is available in whole and ground forms. For best results, I always prefer buying it whole and then freshly grinding it, according to the recipe.


It is a red powder made from the dry, mild, non pungent chilies. It is mainly used for the rich red color in the curries. When added to hot oil, it immediately releases a deep red color. It is also called kashmiri mirch in Indian stores.


Very tangy, slightly hot berries that grow like clusters of grapes on a pepper plant. They are one of the oldest-known spices to humanity. They range in color from green, black, to white. Black peppercorns are picked underripe and allowed to dry until dark black. They are most commonly used and impart an incredible flavor to all the curries. White peppercorns are picked ripe, and their outer skin is removed. Green peppercorns are underripe berries that are cured in brine.

Pomegranate Seeds

These sun-dried, kernel-like seeds of the wild Indian pomegranate are

usually ground to give a sour and tangy flavor to dishes. They impart a

dark brown color to curries when cooked in hot oil. The fresh pomegranate seeds are not the substitute of the dried ones because of their totally different character.

Poppy Seeds

They are tiny pale yellow white seeds of the opium-producing poppy plant.Raw poppy seeds have a light and sweet flavor. When heated, they turn nutty and almondlike, rich in flavor. They are usually soaked in hot water and blended to a paste before being used in curries.



These intense yellow threads are the dried orange-to-deep-red stigmas of a small purple crocus, a member of the iris family. It is the world’s most expensive spice, as it takes almost seventy-five thousand handpicked blossoms to make one pound of saffron. It has a distinctly warm, rich, powerful, and intense flavor, with no substitute. It can be purchased in strands or ground. I recommend the strands for the sake of more assured quality.

Sesame Seeds

They are the tiny oval, flat seeds of the pod of an annual tropical herb variety. When roasted, they impart a rich, nutty, almond like fragrance and taste. They are beige to creamy white in color when husked. They are sold dried and whole or ground to form the tahini paste. In Indian cuisine, only the whole seeds are used.

Star Anise

It is the dried star-shaped dark brown pod containing flavorful seeds in each section of the evergreen tree of the magnolia family. These licorice like seeds are used to flavor both sweet and savory dishes.


It is the curved brown bean pod of the tamarind tree. The pod contains a sticky pulp enclosing one to twelve shiny black seeds. It is the pulp that is used as a flavoring for its sweet, sour, fruity aroma and taste. It is used for making chutneys, preserves, and curries and is available as a pressed fibrous slab or as a jam like bottled concentrate. I have used the jamlike bottled concentrate in all my recipes for convenience.


It is a dried rhizome of a tropical plant of the ginger family; intensely yellow ground turmeric is used to color many curries. It is actually boiled, peeled, sundried, and ground into a bright yellow orange powder. It has a warm, peppery aroma—reminiscent of ginger—and a strong bitter taste, which mellows upon cooking.

Spice Blends

Spice blend and combination vary with each chef and household. It is a fragrant mixture of spices in a certain proportion, which is usually very strong and thus used in small quantities. Most of the blends are available in the market, but I recommend making your own creative mixture. The following are some of the classic ground spice mixtures used in certain cooking regions of India:

Curry Powder

1 cup coriander seeds

1/3 cup cumin seeds

2 tablespoons ground turmeric

2 tablespoons cardamom pods

1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon cloves

8 black peppercorns

1 tablespoon dried fenugreek leaves

1. Preheat the oven to 300°F.

2. Put all the ingredients on a large baking sheet and roast for about 15 minutes until the spices become very fragrant.

3. Put the spice mixture in a spice grinder in batches and process at high speed until spices are very finely ground like powder.

4. Pour in a non reactive container, cover tightly, and store up to 3 months.

Garam Masala

3 tablespoons cardamom seeds

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 tablespoon cloves

1 teaspoon dried ginger powder

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 300°F.

2. Put all the ingredients on a large baking sheet and roast for about 15 minutes until the spices become very fragrant.

3. Put the spice mixture in a spice grinder in batches and process at high speed until spices are very finely ground like powder.

4. Pour in a non reactive container, cover tightly, and store up to 3 months.

Goan Curry Powder

3/4 cup shredded unsweetened dried coconut

1 tablespoon minced garlic

4 fresh green chili peppers, such as serrano, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons coriander powder

2 tablespoons white poppy seeds

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 tablespoon fennel seeds

1 tablespoon ajwain seeds

10 cardamom pods

10 cloves

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1. In a medium-sized skillet, roast the coconut over medium heat, stirring continuously for about 8 minutes until it is golden and crispy. Transfer to a bowl.

2. In the same skillet, dry roast the garlic and green chili peppers over

medium heat, stirring continuously for about 8 minutes until it is dry

and golden.

3. Place the remaining spices in the skillet and dry roast over medium heat,stirring and shaking the pan until they are golden and very fragrant. Remove and cool.

4. Mix all the roasted ingredients together, put in a spice grinder in batches,and process at high speed until spices are finely ground like powder.

5. Pour into a non reactive container, cover tightly, and store up to 3 months.

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