Spice rack: What gives Indian food its flavor?

In this week's review of Azitra, I write about dishes with names you might not never have heard of, such as kaali mirch ka murg or chicken hariyali lazzatdar. But even if you know your chana from paneer, you still might need help pinpointing the spices that give your favorite Indian dish its flavor. Commonly used ingredients such as cumin and ginger are easy to spot, but others are trickier.

What follows is a cheat-sheet for an Indian pantry.

See also: - Spice is nice in Indian food -- and so is tradition - Photos: Scenes from the kitchen at Azitra - Best Indian Restaurant 2012: Jai Ho Indian Restaurant

Amchoor. This powder, made from dried green mangos, has a slightly sour flavor.

Asafetida. Made from dried resin from the roots of giant fennel plants, asafetida comes in lump or powdered form. Though it smells offensive, asafetida infuses hot oil with a garlicky, oniony aroma.

Cardamom. What we know as cardamom is really the pod of the cardamom plant. Green pods contain tiny seeds, but many recipes call for whole pods, which lend a fragrant, floral note to sauces, puddings and other dishes. They are not meant to be eaten whole. (You've probably picked around them in plates of fluffy basmati rice.)

Coriander seeds. The coriander plant produces two ingredients used in Indian food: fresh cilantro and coriander seeds. As the leaf of the plant, fresh cilantro looks like parsley and is a frequent addition to Indian as well as Mexican cooking. When the plant is left to fruit, it produces the slightly lemony, yellow-brown balls we refer to as coriander seeds, which are eaten dried.

Garam masala. The quintessential spice blend used in Indian cooking, garam masala frequently includes cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and black peppercorns, but recipes vary depending on the cook and might also include nutmeg, cumin and/or coriander seeds.

Mustard seeds. These seeds come in both black and yellow, and find their way into everything from matar makhani (green peas in cream sauce) to gajar au kishmish ka raita (yogurt with carrot and raisins). Frequently added to hot oil, they pop when heated, releasing a pleasant, nutty taste.

Turmeric. A powder made from the rhizome (underground stem) of a plant in the ginger family, turmeric is prized both for its slightly bitter flavor and vibrant orange-yellow color, which is used to tint Indian foods as well as American-style mustard.

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