Indian Spices: An Explosion of Flavors and Color

From The Lecture Series: The Everyday Gourmet — Essential Secrets of Spices in Cooking

By Chef Instructor Bill Briwa, The Culinary Institute of America

From cumin to coriander, paprika to pepper, Indian cuisine is a flavorful explosion of colorful spices. Add a new dimension of taste to your cooking repertoire by learning to incorporate Indian spices into your own meals.

Indian spices in terracotta pots

A flavor profile is shaped by climate and geography, both of which have an effect on the availability and taste of ingredients. It’s also shaped by history, tradition, and cooking techniques. And of course, what makes a flavor profile distinctive is how its culture chooses to embrace spices. Most of the spices we consume come from the East—from India and the Spice Islands beyond. India alone produces 50 percent of the spices that are consumed globally. From cumin to coriander, from paprika to pepper, Indian cuisine is a cuisine of spice. If there are techniques to be learned about working with spices, then India should be our teacher.

This is a transcript from the video series The Everyday Gourmet: Essential Secrets of Spices in Cooking. Watch it now, Wondrium.


A masala is a mixture of Indian spices. It can be either a combination of dried or dry-roasted spices, or a paste. For example, you can make a sambar powder of toasted whole spices: ½ cup coriander seeds, 1 ½ tsp cumin seeds,1 ½ tsp black peppercorns, and 1 ½ tsp fenugreek seeds.

Fenugreek is a herb of the pea family that has aromatic seeds.

Toast the seeds in a dry pan to draw out their flavor. As the pan starts to heat up, make sure to keep the spices moving so they don’t burn. You’ll know the pan is getting hot when the spices start to become aromatic. Next, you’ll notice some popping; the seeds pop just the way popcorn does in a hot pan. Then, you’ll notice that the color slowly begins to darken. Finally, you’ll see a little bit of smoke coming off the pan. Keep tossing or stirring the spices throughout these changes; otherwise, they will burn. When the spices are toasted, remove them from the pan to a cool plate. When cool, you can add-in chilies and grind them with toasted beans and lentils in a spice mill or with a pestle and mortar. Add in 2 tbs of turmeric to finish your sambar masala.

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Turmeric has a wonderful citrusy flavor and a distinctive color, but because it is a ground spice and would burn easily, it isn’t toasted. This sambar masala is used to spice a dal—a cross between a stew and a soup that’s made primarily with lentils—known as sambar in southern India.

You can find the ingredients and recipe for the full Sambar Dal, as well as many other delicious dishes spiced with Asian, Mexican, Mediterranean, and American spices in The Everyday Gourmet: Essential Secrets of Spices in Cooking.

(Image: monticello/Shutterstock)

Using Indian Spices to make Shrimp with Chile Tamarind Sauce

Ingredients: Shrimp and sauce

  • 1 1/2 lb medium or large shrimp peeled and deveined
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 5 tbs vegetable oil
  • 1/2 tsp tamarind paste
  • 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1/8 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 10-12 fresh curry leaves
  • 2 cups onions thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 tsp garlic minced
  • 1 1/2 tsp ginger minced
  • 1 tsp fresh green chile (serrano or Thai) minced
  • 3/4 cup tomatoes chopped

Ingredients: Masala

  • 3 tsp coriander
  • 3/4 tsp cayenne
  • 1/2 tsp cumin

Cooking Instructions

Begin by mixing cayenne, turmeric, and salt together in a bowl, then adding some shrimp and coating it with the spices. The mixture of spices flavors the shrimp—in effect, marinates them—and acts as a preservative. In a culture that doesn’t always have ready access to refrigeration, adding shrimp to a spice mixture like this one will guarantee that it stays fresh.

The next step is to create a masala. In an Indian kitchen, the cook might pull out a masala dabba, or spice caddy, and mix together some cayenne, coriander, and cumin. We’ll use the same three spices for our masala, and we’ll adjust the flavor of the finished dish by adding more of that masala at the end. To complete your mise en place, have on hand some tamarind paste.

Tamarind is a souring agent. It is the fruit of the tamarind tree and grows in the shape of a long pod— about as long as a banana—but flat and brown. On the outside is a hard shell, which is cracked off, and the inside is a sweet-sour paste shot through with fibers and seeds. The way to get the fibers and seeds out is to break up the block and soak it in hot water—overnight if possible. What’s left is tamarind liquid and paste. It’s very sour, but also has some sweetness and fruitiness to it and makes a delicious condiment.

In a large pan, heat some oil and pop the mustard seeds, keeping a lid close by. Next, add some fenugreek seeds and curry leaves. When the curry leaves stop sizzling, add sliced onions and cook until they are translucent and starting to brown along the edges. Next, add garlic, ginger, and hot chiles, but go light on the chiles because there is already some cayenne in this dish. Once the garlic is aromatic, add the tomatoes; you may need to lower the heat at this point to prevent the garlic from burning. This mixture, along with the tamarind paste, will be the sauce.

Toward the end of cooking, you may need to turn up the heat to reduce the sauce.

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While the sauce cooks, sauté the shrimp in oil, allowing the spices on the outside of the shrimp to touch the hot surface of the pan. Heat the oil in the pan first and watch for it to smoke. The smoke is an indication of the fat beginning to break down; when it smokes, you should either take the pan off the heat or add food. Essentially, the smoke is telling you that the oil can’t get any hotter.

Shrimp cooks in as little as 5 minutes. Once it changes color and firms up, you know it’s almost done. At that point, add the sauce to the shrimp and finish cooking the two together. This step allows the fond—foundational flavors that are clinging to the pan—to make their way into the sauce. You can turn off the heat because the shrimp will continue to cook in the residual heat of the pan.

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Common Questions About Indian Spices

Q: What are the most essential Indian spices?

There are many essential Indian spices including but not limited to ginger, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, red chille, garam masala, cardamom, turmeric, and mustard seed.

Q: Is there a best brand of masala?

Different parts of India prefer different brands of masala. Some of the most popular are Eastern, Priya, and Ramdev.

Q: Why is Indian food spicy?

There are many reasons for the spiciness of Indian food, some stemming from the region of the globe where hot weather produces potent spices. Additionally, spices prevent food from going bad, so Indians have used this advantage in keeping food safe to eat.

Q: Are Indian curries healthy?

All Indian curries can be made healthy if well thought-out with clean vegetables and meats sourced. Some of the curries that should be avoided include those with cream or excessive starches such as korma, pasanda, and those with poppadoms and pakoras.

This article was updated on 8/3/2019

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