12 Indian Spices You Should Know + How to Use Them

You can make so many flavor combinations with these!
powdered and whole spices ingredients

Think of Indian food, and you’re probably imagining all the different ways curry can be cooked. Curry is probably the most common and popular Indian dish. While curry is technically not a dish at all (“karee” actually means “sauce” or “gravy” in Hindi), it has taken on a life of its own as a dish in other cuisines. 

The most important ingredient in these kinds of curry is curry powder. Curry powder is a blend of different dried and powdered spices. The mix of spices used to create the curry powder is a specific flavor combination. This is why curry powders can vary from region to region in India. 

In fact, it can be hard to find the same kind of curry powder mix every time since the amounts can vary from vendor to vendor. It can be a mild mix of herbs and spices such as that we use in the Filipino version of the chicken curry but it can also be a potent blend of fiery ingredients that inflame your taste buds such as that used in a vindaloo, considered by many as a super spicy curry. Whatever the mix you use to make your kind of curry, there are some spices that are the most commonly used in Indian cooking. 

Here’s a quick list of 12 spices commonly used in Indian food that you might know and already use: 

1 Turmeric

turmeric fresh and powdered
Turmeric, also known as luyang dilaw, looks like a bright orange ginger root.
Photo by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Turmeric is a root that looks eerily like fresh ginger. The big difference is that turmeric has orange flesh, not yellow, unlike ginger. The root is known to be much less sharp in flavor than ginger with an earthy flavor. It also stains food a brilliant yellow, depending on how much is used. This is one reason why many yellow curries have turmeric to differentiate them from mild green and spicy red curries. 


2 Cumin

cumin seeds spice
Cumin is a popular spice used in Indian cuisine as well as mid-eastern cuisine.
Photo by Shutterstock

When people take a bite of Indian food, there is a distinct spice that many smell and taste. People either love it or hate it, and cumin is commonly the spice that many associates with this feeling. The seed itself is tiny yet long in shape that looks like wheat. It’s a rich and earthy-tasting spice with hints of nutty and peppery notes that is unfamiliar yet specific. It’s also got a strong aroma that makes it perfect for Indian dishes as well as mid-eastern recipes. 

3 Cardamom

cardamom spice
Cardamom is a delicious spice that is commonly used in dishes as well as desserts.
Photo by Shutterstock

Cardamom is a spice that is found as a pod. While there are those who commonly peel off the covering and just use the fuzzy black pearls inside, it can be used and even ground in its entirety. It is a warm and earthy spice with notes of dried mint and fruit. It’s this characteristic that makes it super delicious as a spice added to coffee and desserts. 


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4 Coriander Seeds 

coriander seeds spice
The flavor of coriander seeds should not be confused with the leaves or the herb.
Photo by Shutterstock

Coriander seeds are the seeds of the same plant that you use its leaves for topping your ramen, add to salsa, or toss with stir-fries. The seeds are small and round, and just like many of the spices on this list, are commonly used whole and even ground whole. It has a similar taste to cardamom, earthy yet fruity with hints of mint, and is commonly used as a substitute for each other. However, cardamom is the stronger of the two spices in terms of flavor, so when substituting, use less cardamom than coriander seeds. 

5 Ginger

fresh ginger
Fresh ginger is a potent spice that makes a great ingredient in many dishes.
Photo by Pixabay

This sharp, peppery-tasting root is a delicious addition to many Indian as well as Asian dishes. Ginger is easily peeled using a spoon but can also be left with the peel on as the entire root is edible. 


6 Garlic

fresh garlic in a bowl some with and some without peels
Fresh garlic can easily be peeled by smashing each clove lightly to release the paper from the clove.
Photo by Patrick Martires

Garlic is another common spice that is used in many dishes around Asia. It’s got a sharp pungent taste raw and becomes earthy when fried to a crisp and toasted. When cooked slowly until softened, it turns buttery with sweet notes. 

7 Onions

red onions white onions in a basket
Whether white, yellow, or red, onions are an important ingredient in many dishes.
Photo by Pixabay

Onions are commonly used as part of the trinity of dishes, including Indian recipes. The onion is sharp in taste but has a pungent aroma that makes many people cry! Onions however is essential in many dishes and turn soft and delicious when cooked. It takes on a toasted and nutty aroma when fried and is commonly used as an ingredient as well as a topping for many dishes. 

8 Cinnamon

cinnamon spice ingredient
Ceylon cinnamon has a more complex aroma and taste than cassia cinnamon which is more commonly found.
Photo by Shutterstock

Did you know there are two kinds of cinnamon? Ceylon cinnamon, a thinner rolled-up stick of the bark of the tree, is considered the real or true cinnamon while the thicker, scroll-like sticks are from the cassia tree and are less aromatic than ceylon. Cassia is actually the more common of the two spices and cheaper, too. However, this doesn’t mean that the tastes of the two cinnamon are far off from each other! While ceylon is stronger in taste, cassia is just as delicious but less flavorful and aromatic as the ceylon. 


9 Star Anise

star anise spice
Star anise is a common spice in many cuisines.
Photo by Pixabay/Ajale

The exotic flavor of star anise makes many dishes flavorful and unique. The spice is a lovely star-shaped spice with seeds peeking out from the spokes. This warm spice that’s a mix of cinnamon, cloves, and licorice is pungent and powerful so just a few will do. 

10 Mustard seeds

black msutard seeds spice ingredient
Mustard seeds are tiny spices that give your Indian dishes a spicy, bitter kick.
Photo by Shutterstock

Mustard seeds are tiny little seeds that are found as either black or white. Black mustard seeds are spicy and bitter while white mustard seeds are milder and nutty. These are commonly used whole, initially bloomed in hot oil which pops when heated through. 

11 Cloves

cloves spice ingredient
Christmas isn’t complete if you don’t have a dish that has aromatic cloves in it!
Photo by Shutterstock

Think of Christmas aromas, and you’ll probably immediately think of a powerfully aromatic spice: the clove. Cloves are dried flower buds and have a warm and sweet but astringent taste. It also has a bitterness to it but when used in desserts or dishes that are sweetened, the flavor is super delicious! It’s one of the spices you’ll find in pumpkin spice along with cinnamon! 


12 Black peppercorns

black and white peppercorns
Peppercorns can be black or white.
Photo by Unsplash/Christina Rumpf

Peppery is the first taste you might associate with black peppercorns and you’re right. These tiny dried berries are potent spices that deliver a peppery bite that has a woody taste. It’s also used whole as well as ground in its entirety when used in savory dishes but is just as delicious when selectively used in desserts, too, when a little kick is desired. 


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