Cookbook Club

The 5 Spices You Need to Stock Your Indian Pantry

October 13, 2017

While I’ve always enjoyed eating Indian food, I spent most of my life thinking it was far too difficult to replicate at home. Even living in New York, where most exotic ingredients are just a subway ride away, I happily stuck with my take-out curries for years and years. Until Made in India came along.

As our Cookbook Club’s October book of the month, Meera Sodha’s warm, approachable tome of recipes—many from her family’s kitchen–has completely changed my approach to cooking Indian food at home and it’s done the same for many of our group members as well.

The biggest revelation to me: The secrets to Sodha’s delicious curries were sitting right in my pantry in the form of pre-ground, jarred spices. While it’s nice to have amchur or fresh curry leaves, they aren’t at all necessary to cook up a curry that will put your neighborhood takeout place to shame.

Here are the five spices (yes, five!) that Sodha primarily relies on and I’d almost all but guarantee that you already have them lurking somewhere in your cupboard.

Turmeric will stain everything in sight, but the yellow-hued powder is crucial for giving Indian dishes an unmistakable earthiness. While it is very rarely the star of the show, it’s a must when called for. Turmeric is also an important antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

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“While not exactly Indian, it sure highlights a great curry and rice meal.! ”
— judy

Find it in the book: Pudla (Gujarati chickpea pancakes), Masoor Dal (daily dal), Fish Moilee (coconut fish curry)

Chili powder was a surprising ingredient to me, when I first began cooking from Made In India. As a native Texan who grew up using copious amounts in homemade Tex-Mex dishes, I didn’t realize that it played such a prominent role in Indian food, too. Sodha recommends a dark, robust red powder. Add it carefully, a 1/4 teaspoon at a time, until you know its potency.

Find it in the book: Baked Masala Fries, Gosht Anna Palak nu Shaak (slow-cooked lamb and spinach curry), Chili Paneer

Cumin—both ground and whole—is abundant in the book, so it’s not surprising that Sodha refers to it as “the most hardworking spice in the cupboard.” Cumin’s nutty, toasty flavor can be divisive, but try it as an accent in a few dishes before discounting it entirely. Cumin and lamb are often found together and it’s also frequently used with coriander.

Find it in the book: Chaas (buttermilk), Boti Kebab (lamb kebabs with cumin and coriander), Bhat Wara Thepla (leftover rice flatbread)

Coriander: You probably know fresh coriander better as cilantro, but the two are very, very different. Coriander seeds and ground coriander are bright and citrusy. Even if you’re a cilantro-hater, you’ll love the dramatic punch that coriander can add to a dish. Just by stocking your pantry with coriander and cumin, you’ll have dhana jiru, one of the most popular spice mixes used in Indian cuisine.

Find it in the book: Karahi Paneer (slow-cooked red pepper and paneer curry), Tamatar nu Shaak (tomato fry), Chicken and Coriander Samosas

Garam masala is last on the list of “must-haves.” Just a nip of which can warm up a curry on a chilly day. There’s no standard recipe for this spice blend (which literally means “warm mix”), and each blend is unique, based on the maker’s personal taste. A comparison of the two jars in my own pantry shows that one, the Simply Organic brand, is heavy on cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves, whereas the pungent, brightly-hued mix from my local Indian grocery is laced with turmeric, ginger, garlic, white pepper, and mace. Sodha includes her mother’s recipe in the book, should you wish to grind your own.

Find it in the book: Lamb Biryani, Taj Anna Loving Wari Gosht (Howrah Express cinnamon lamb curry), Grimsby Smoked Haddock Kedgeree

Happy October 1st!!! I am so excited for the Made In India Cookbook 📚 for our October selection by Meera Sodha... I love ❤️ Indian Food and it's always been something I wanted more familiarity with in the kitchen! I love the Spices, the complex balanced flavors, the textures and use of ingredients... For my first recipe I made Roasted Cauliflower with Cumin, Turmeric and Lemon 🍋 (Masala Phil Kobi) and wow! I will cook this dish time and time again!! I want to try this with Potatoes, Broccoli etc and probably will do this dish with Sweet Potatoes 🍠 for Thanksgiving! First, blanching the Cauliflower for one minute to start the cooking process and then completely drying the veg helps them crisp slightly while roasting as per the author's instructions. Also, grinding the Cumin Seeds with Salt & Chili Powder in a Mortar & Pestle was a step that really heightens the flavors. Opening up the oils in the seeds and developing the spices together with the Canola Oil is a sure fire 🔥 way to add color and heat to your veg. They roasted about 35 minutes and then POW 💥 this aromatic flavorful side dish was ready! I can't wait to make this again!!! Thank you Meera for this incredible recipe!!! I am looking forward to cooking more from your book!! Also, thank you again @mmclay_ceramics for these adorable gifts for the @ful.filled workshop in San Francisco!! I use them all the time!!!😊📚 🍛 ••• ••• ••• #f52cookbookclub #food52 #madeinindia #indianfood #newbook #october #roastedcauliflowerwithcuminturmericandlemon #mii @meerasodha @food52 @lindsayjeanhard @johnbarton_chef @mmclay_ceramics @murlifestyle

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And if you want to feel especially prepared to cook through Made in India with our Cookbook Club, here are a few “nice-to-haves” to consider: cardamom (ground and pods), fennel seeds, fenugreek, mustard seeds, and cloves.

Psst: Didn’t know about our Cookbook Club? Head here to get up to speed on how to participate.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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    Khalil Akhtar
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Laura Ratliff

Written by: Laura Ratliff

A life-long lover of food, I spend my weekends at farmers' markets, , shaking up cocktails (currently obsessed with tiki), and generally making a mess in my Brooklyn kitchen.


ern October 22, 2017
one of my fav recipe books (and you can even make your own garam masala, she provides a recipe) !
Greenstuff October 16, 2017
Ruta Kahate, in her book "5 Spices, 50 Dishes," has pretty much the same list of 5: coriander seeds, cumin seeds, ground cayenne, ground turmeric, and mustard seeds rather than the garam masala spice mix. Worth checking out.
Khalil A. October 15, 2017
It is important to note that 'chili powder' used in Indian cuisine is not the same product as the 'chili powder' used in American cuisine. American chili powder is a blend of several spices. It includes oregano and cumin. Some brands even include powdered garlic, sugar and salt. Anytime you see the term 'chili powder' in an Indian context, it is referring to a the bright red powder simply made by grinding chillies. The closest approximation on the standard American spice rack is cayenne pepper, not the Tex-Mex chili powder.
judy October 15, 2017
Love my spices. I have all of these as staples in my spice drawers (the produce bins of my refrigerator). Love Indian food and make some form several times a month. I have a great chutney recipe that i have been making for decades, and I love to use tamarind as well. Recently made kedgeree from this site, using my own curry mix. While not exactly Indian, it sure highlights a great curry and rice meal.!
BocaCindi October 14, 2017
I'm thrilled, through this book, that there are so many new fans of Indian cuisine. The spices you have listed are the basis for any number of delicious Indian recipes without even needing recipes.
George H. October 13, 2017
Chili is not native of India, as everyone knows. So this is odd.

As you pointed out, Garam masala is not a spice, but a "blend" or "mix".
Laura R. October 13, 2017
Hi George! I certainly wasn't pointing out spices that are native to India, but rather the primary spices that Meera Sodha relies on upon her book, which includes many recipes from her family in Britain and Uganda, among other places. And yes, while garam masala isn't a dedicate spice, many home cooks might choose to buy a pre-mixed version from the store as opposed to grinding their own.
Sucheta M. October 14, 2017
And yet, now, an essential part of ANY Indian cuisine. Welcome to old globalization by the Portuguese, Dutch, Brits and French.
I can't imagine Indian food without tomatoes, coriander, cilantro, etc. either.
Or Thai food without chilies either.