Indian

How to Stock an Indian Pantry

July 16, 2015

With expert help from Nik Sharma of A Brown Table, cooking Indian food at home is going to be less intimidating than you think. 

Today: The first step to cooking Indian food is stocking your pantry with the essential ingredients.

Dried Kashmiri chiles (left) and coriander seeds (right).

Cooking anything for the first time can be intimidating. And it can even be scarier when it’s a cuisine that's completely new to you—especially one that belongs to a different country or region.

I have a lot of friends that tell me how much they love Indian food and want to cook it, yet overcoming the hurdle of a potentially long list of spices and how to use them is what freaks them out the most. 


Jaggery is a coarse, unrefined sugar made from the sap of palm trees or sugar-cane juice.

I’m here to tell you that cooking Indian food at home is easier than you think. Except for a few methods, most of the techniques are the ones you would use in Western kitchens. And you’re probably already familiar with most of the spices; you might even have them in your kitchen already!

Some ingredients will be new to you, but that's what makes cooking fun. Exploring and discovering ingredients and combinations of ingredients that can create complex and rich flavors is what I love the most about Indian cuisine.

From left to right, green cardamom, black cardamom, and bay leaves.

My pantry is always stocked with a few staples that I use often when preparing Indian food. Once you figure out how each spice functions in a dish and how to use it, you will be an expert at understanding why they’re added to the food.

It’s very common to "temper" spices in Indian cuisine, which is a method of releasing their flavors. Sometimes, I dry-roast specific combinations of whole spices in a pan and then grind them with a mortar and pestle or a small spice mill before adding them to the dish. There are other times when I fry the spices in hot oil or ghee and then add them to the dish. Either way, tempering helps to make the spices less harsh and ultimately produces a tastier dish. 


From left to right, cumin seeds, black Indian salt (kala namak), black mustard seeds, and turmeric powder.

When it comes to buying and storing, I keep it simple. Whole spices tend to retain flavor longer and I can use them when I’m cooking anything. If you’re short on space, store your spices in Ziploc bags; otherwise, airtight glass jars are great!

Here are some of my favorite spices that I commonly cook with when I’m making Indian food at home. They provide color, flavor (acidity, sweetness, or heat), and/or aroma.

  • Turmeric and saffron give color and aroma. 
  • Dry mango powder (amchur), dried pomegranate seeds, and tamarind provide acidity to dishes.
  • Black and green cardamom, cloves, coriander seeds, bay leaves, carom seeds (ajowan), cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, nutmeg, nigella seeds, curry leaves, bay leaves, black mustard seeds, poppy seeds, and kokam (amsul) add aroma and flavor.
  • Jaggery, made from palm or cane juice, gives a rich and deep molasses-flavored sweetness to desserts.
  • Kashmiri chilies, red chili powder, and black pepper are great at bumping up the heat level. 

  
Nigella seeds (left) and fresh curry leaves (right)

Besides spices, fresh herbs like cilantro and mint, along with green chili peppers (green Thai chili peppers are a great substitute), are added to brighten flavors and often used as garnish. You’ll also find fresh garlic, ginger, and onion—often used to create thick, rich, flavorful sauces—are very valuable in Indian cooking. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of spices and herbs used in Indian cooking, but it’s a helpful start. You can find most of these ingredients at any local Indian or international food market or in the spice aisle of a well-stocked grocery store.

Do you cook Indian food at home on the regular, or are you intimidated by curries and dosas? Share with us in the comments below!

Photos by Nik Sharma 

17 Comments

Ellen S. August 10, 2015
I find that curry leaves are the one thing I have to go to a real Indian grocery store for, but you can freeze them in a small zip-lick bag. Most other things can be found at conventional supermarkets or ethnic stores that serve a lot of southeast Asians (Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, etc.). Oh, Mexican groceries should have tamarind and of course cilantro and many kinds of chilies. Never have run into any recipes asking for nigella seeds, kokam or dried pomegranate seeds! Must investigate. Indian food has SO many regional variations, there is always more to learn. For beginners, sometimes food or women's magazines have simplified versions of Indian recipes. But at some point you should just jump in and not worry about whether it tastes "authentic." Think of it as a fun craft project which ends up as dinner. For any given dish, probably every Indian auntie makes it a little differently.
 
Amisha G. July 28, 2015
Well written Nik, great stock pantry to have at all times! Do you use whole cinnamon as well ? My mum used to put whole cinnamon a whole lot in her cooking .
 
Peter M. July 25, 2015
Great article. I love Indian food and have been fortunate to have a neighbor give me some pointers and took a class from Raghavan Iyer how is a great teacher. My kids like it so much that one of them picks it for birthday dinners. Definitely easier than I expected and so delicious. I don't know if I get it exactly right but it sure tastes good!! Take a chance and give it a try!!
 
Ashlae W. July 23, 2015
I am over-the-moon excited for this new column. HIGH FIVES, NIK!
 
marynn July 17, 2015
I am now your faithful student! So very excited and grateful that you are taking this on. Indian cuisines (yes, plural) have long fascinated and delighted me. But they also intimidate the heck out of me and I need this to help me learn.
 
Chandrima S. July 17, 2015
Very well written article Nik. What about Bengali 5 spices/ paanchforon. Wild celery seed (Radhuni) is another important spice, not so popular though. But this particular spice adds an amazing flavor to the dish.
 
Annada R. July 17, 2015
Glad that you mentioned jaggery, Nik! I add some to my pasta sauce too. Find that it cuts tartness of tomatoes so much better than sugar. Plus it contains iron too. Try eating roasted, unsalted peanuts with jaggery. Tastes amazing!
 
AntoniaJames July 17, 2015
Suggested uses for kala jeera? ;o)
 
Diari July 16, 2015
So intimidated by Indian cuisine! Some if these ingredients I have never heard of! Still searching for the perfect masala dabba!
 
Chitra A. July 16, 2015
There's so many Indian ingredients to choose from so this is a tough job, but you did a great job Nik! You hit a good balance of dried spices and fresh ingredients with your list. And so happy you included jaggery, that is one of my favorites.
 
Betty July 16, 2015
Yay! So excited for this, Nik!
 
Jennifer July 16, 2015
One ingredient not listed in the article is asafoetida, perhaps because its aroma before cooking is off-putting. However, it adds a distinctive note I'd be sorry to lose; I advise putting it in a glass jar to contain the odor. (The plastic container I bought fits easily in a mason jar.)
 
Author Comment
Nik S. July 16, 2015
Hi Jennifer, glad you mentioned "hing"/asafoetida. It's generally used by certain Indian communities that don't eat onions or garlic as a substitute. You're right that the smell can be intense but once it is tempered in oil, it mellows out. This by no means is an exhaustive list but I've mentioned the most popular ones and though I grew up with hing in the kitchen, we rarely used it unless we ran out of onions or garlic.
 
Caroline L. July 16, 2015
i am so excited about this! i will make an true curry yet.
 
Author Comment
Nik S. July 16, 2015
Have fun with it :)!
 
Valhalla July 16, 2015
No matter how authentic my spice arsenal, I just can't seem to get authentic flavor. This is in contrast to other Asian cuisines that I think I approximate pretty well. My Indian dishes come out tasty enough, but I have to accept they will never taste like an auntie made them!
 
Pat September 21, 2016
Aside from fresh spices I find the most important thing for full flavour is to "bloom" the spices by frying gently in oil (or ghee) for a few minutes (seconds) before adding any liquids