It can be intimidating to try cuisines that are new to you. Sure, you hear about different cultures’ delicacies — and they can sound so exciting — but jumping into ordering them or even making those foods yourself can be nerve-wracking. For as much as it’s been a part of the American dining landscape, Indian food and its many intensely flavorful spices are often intimidating for those new to the cuisine. But remember, using Indian spices doesn’t necessarily mean “spicy,” and it doesn’t even necessarily mean heat.
Whether going out to eat at Indian restaurants or cooking for yourself, there are certain flavors you should look out for if you’re looking for less heat in your Indian food experience. Many dishes rely on milder, earthy Indian spices (including ones you might already have in your cabinet), and by mixing and matching these spices, you can create wonderful flavor profiles right in your own kitchen.
Also known as Asafoetida, hing has a reputation for being pungent when raw — pungent to the point of needing to keep it tightly sealed practically at all times because it will stink up your kitchen otherwise. That being said, when properly toasted, this spice goes from smelly to intriguing, bringing savory onion and garlic flavors into your dishes.
Some Indian religions like Jainism don’t include onion and garlic in their diet, so they use hing instead. If garlic or onions give you indigestion, consider getting hing as an alternative. But be warned: a little goes a long way with this spice, and measuring too much in can overpower your dish.
[fen oo greek]
It’s very bitter if tasted raw, but lightly dry toasting fenugreek seeds or frying them in oil brings out the almost maple-like sweetness. Cooking it this way also softens the seed up enough to be put into dishes whole, or you can grind it after toasting.
Fenugreek has a very strong flavor, so a little goes a long way. The whole plant is quite versatile, as fenugreek leaves are also popular herbs in Indian cuisine with a similar flavor component to the seeds.
[kawr ee an der]
Coriander has a multi-faceted flavor, with citrus and earthy notes alike. Many coffee and tea shop fans will recognize the spice as a common flavor component in chai tea, but it can also be used in breads, cookies, gravies, and baked fruit desserts. In India, it’s a major flavor component in daal, a spiced lentil stew. Next time you’re at an Indian restaurant, why not order the daal and taste for yourself!
While originally native to the Mediterranean, fennel became a popular flavor in Indian dishes over centuries thanks to the spice trade. Further east, it’s one of the key ingredients to Chinese Five Spice. Like the fronds and bulb of the plant, fennel seeds have a licorice-like taste (similar to anise). The spice can be used in everything from meat rubs to cookies.
Mustard seeds add a delicious flavor to many different types of Indian dishes, but the type of mustard seed you choose is important. Black mustard seeds have a biting, hot, almost bitter flavor to them. Brown mustard seeds are less intense, but still acrid. The mildest variety is the yellow (sometimes called white) mustard seed.
If you’re worried about the seeds being too harsh, start by trying out the yellow mustard seeds in dishes. Then maybe consider a mix of yellow and brown seeds for when you feel daring. And if you see yellow mustard seeds in dishes on restaurant menus, you know it’ll bring a mellow flavor to the dish.
[tuhr meh rik]
Turmeric is probably known best for its bright yellow color, but it also adds a slight bitter component to spice blends. Besides being popular in curries, rice dishes, and mustard sauces, a little turmeric is also added to hot toddies and teas to help soothe the throat. This spice is pungent and bitter in excess, so stick to small doses when adding it to your recipes.
[gah ram mah sah luh]
While not an individual spice itself, no list of Indian spices would be complete without the garam marsala blend, which offers a warm, balanced flavor to dishes. There are some different varieties depending on who is making the blend, but garam marsala is generally made from a combination of:
- Bay leaf
- Cinnamon (or cassia bark)
- Both green and black cardamom pods
- Mace (part of the nutmeg seed)
- Black and white peppercorns
Considered by many to be the quintessential mix of Indian spices, garam marsala can be used many different dishes, including curries and soups.
Elevating your Indian spices
In order to get the most out of these different spices, you’ll want to either bloom (gently fry in hot oil) or toast them in a dry pan. This will bring out the spices’ oils and allow your food to get the most flavor out of these ingredients. These Indian spices become very aromatic when they’re heated, so once those pleasant smells start coming from the spices, you’ll know they’re ready.
That said, be very careful — it’s so easy for these Indian spices to burn. And there’s no saving burnt spices, because they turn bitter and make any food they’re added to just as bitter. It’s very important to pay attention and take the spices off the heat at just the right time to avoid having to throw them out and start over.
Want to explore more on Indian spices? Check out our Indian Food Glossary of terms you’ll find on a restaurant menu!