Food & Drink

The 5 Spices You Need to Make Indian Food at Home

A typical Indian pantry brims with a plethora of spices, legumes, and grains. Raghavan Iyer’s bare-bones approach to cooking the Indian way saves you not only money, but space and time as well, all precious commodities. One trip to the supermarket is all you need since these ingredients are all readily available, or order online at

Indian Spices



Cardamom pods

It may surprise you to know that cardamom is a close relative to ginger (and turmeric), but very much like disparate siblings, this highly aromatic spice is the expensive, high-maintenance diva of the Zingiberaceae family.

Green cardamom and its seeds scent many of India’s desserts; pop a few raw seeds in your mouth, they’ll make your breath smell fresh and aid digestion (call it an Indian’s antacid). Sizzle whole green cardamom pods in hot oil or add them to sauces and they infuse them with sweet, delicate aromas. When you pry the seeds out of the pods and gently pound them, you release a stronger aroma. Toasting and grinding the seeds from the pods extracts their optimum strength. The green pods are also sun-bleached white and sold in grocery stores as white cardamom, apparently an aesthetic measure, as the taste remains the same. When a recipe calls for just the cardamom seeds, if you don’t wish to pry the seeds out of the pods yourself, you can purchase the seeds in bottles labeled “decorticated cardamom,” but be prepared to secure a bank loan for that convenience.

Coriander seeds

The seeds from the cilantro plant (called coriander leaves in India and Chinese parsley as well) are citruslike, brownish yellow in color, and not at all similar in taste or aroma to cilantro leaves. You can’t substitute coriander seeds for cilantro leaves in a dish (or vice versa), but on numerous occasions, they complement each other. Coriander seeds have a slightly sweet, fennel-like, citrus undertone and are pleasantly bitter. Cumin and coriander seeds form a cozy relationship in many spice blends, and they provide a well-balanced temperament to recipes that have large amounts of capsaicin-heavy chiles.

Cumin seeds

A popular sibling of the carrot family, cumin is India’s favorite spice (its Latin name is Cuminum cyminum). Like many other spices, cumin is capable of having multiple distinct flavors based on how it is used. Cumin is truly a national treasure, sizzled, toasted, roasted, soaked, and ground in recipes.

Mustard seeds

Three kinds of mustard plants are primarily harvested for their seeds: Brassica nigra produces brownish-black seeds, while Brassica juncea yields reddish-brown ones, and Sinapis alba (white or yellow mustard) is the source of light yellowish-brown seeds. The first two are widely used in Indian cooking, but because of its availability in supermarkets, I have recommended the yellow kind as an acceptable alternative. I consider these seeds to possess a split personality. When pounded, cracked, or ground and combined with a liquid, mustard seeds yield a nose-tingling sharpness. Cook the seeds in oil and let them pop (just like popcorn) and they become nutty-sweet, a crucial flavor in the cuisine of the south (India, that is).


This deep-yellow rhizome gives commercial curry powders their distinctive yellow hue. A very close sibling to fresh ginger, turmeric, sold most often in ground form in the United States, is harsh tasting when raw and is rarely used this way. But sprinkle turmeric in oil, add some spices and vegetables, and as it cooks, its astringent taste diminishes. Strong tasting and imparting a deep color, turmeric is a spice that Indians use sparingly, albeit frequently, in many of our recipes. The fresh rhizome is also delicious when thinly sliced and pickled in bitter mustard oil, salt, and chopped fresh green chiles. In the western regions of India, its large leaves are used to wrap and steam fish.

Indian Cooking UnfoldedIndian Cooking Unfolded
by Raghavan Iyer

Love Indian food but feel it’s too daunting to re-create at home? Fear not. Award-winning cooking teacher Raghavan Iyer puts the breeze and ease into Indian cooking. Taking a heavily illustrated, step-by-step approach, he introduces cooks to one of the world’s most popular cuisines. With his natural charm and enthusiasm, Raghavan begins each chapter by explaining the recipe choices, what techniques are included, and a suggested order in which to approach the recipes. The book’s 100 authentic recipes use only ingredients readily available at the local supermarket. Indian Cooking Unfolded is a 21st-century approach to one of the most ancient—and popular—cuisines.

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