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Hot topic - spices

Written By Reena on 23 Apr 2010 | 05:00

If you haven't cooked Indian food before it is highly probable that you won't have the ingredients you require to cook one of my dishes. Don't let this put you off. Even though the ingredients have funny sounding names (I can't pronounce the Indian words properly and my family all still laugh at me when I try...) you can generally find them in most supermarkets. Where an ingredient is more obscure and I think you will need to actively seek it out I will mention it in the recipe. Unless it is a critical ingredient I will suggest an easier to source substitute. This won't make the dish you are creating any less authentic - quite often my mum will use the substitute just because she has it lying around at home.

Although I am saying that you can buy most spices in supermarkets I am not actively advocating you do this. When you pay £2 for 50 grams of chilli powder, bear in mind that you can buy 400 grams in an Indian grocery store for the same price. The downsides of using an Indian shop are that you will need larger jars to store your spices (unless you arrange to share them with a like-minded friend) and you need to find a shop. The positives are that while you are there you can pick up all of the other spices, lentils, rice and flour you need and a whole heap of super-fresh (and super cheap) fruit and vegetables to boot! If you have never wandered around an Indian grocery store I highly recommend it. You will have no idea what 90 per cent of the stock is but it all smells unusual and evocative of India and you'll come out thinking that you have just had a vacation on the subcontinent.

Anyway I have listed below each of the ingredients that recur in my recipes and tried to demystify each one in turn.


I tend to use the seeds which have a distinctive licorice-like flavour. Indians will often eat a palmful of the seeds as a digestive after a meal.

Canned tomatoes

I love canned tomatoes - they are convenient, quick and juicy. However feel free to substitute these for fresh tomatoes in any of my recipes.

Chilli powder

This is made from powdered dried chillis. The heat varies depending on the type of chilli used to make the powder. You can add more or less chilli to your recipes depending on your heat tolerance without affecting the flavour.


Cinnamon is one of my favourite spices. However I know a few people that really dislike it including my father. As a result I have found that you can omit this spice easily from all of my recipes without any issues. I almost always use the dried bark as opposed to the ground spice.

Coriander-cumin powder

Coriander-cumin powder is literally coriander powder and cumin powder mixed together. My mum has always bought these two spices as a ready mixed blend and it was only after I started writing this blog and having to answer questions about it that it occurred to me that other people have the two separate powders in their spice cupboards (okay, okay I realise in retrospect that it should have been obvious...). Anyway I have no idea what the ratio of coriander to cumin is in coriander-cumin powder but my best guess would be 2:1. My advice to you is just use half of each if you have them separately. Indian cooking is not a science in the way that baking is. If you use slightly different ratios you will get a slightly different flavour. You never know, it might even taste better than my version. Just relax and throw in the spices. I am sure that it will taste wonderful.

Cumin seeds

I typically add whole cumin seeds to hot oil in the early stages of cooking as they impart a nutty, peppery taste. Take care when you add these to the oil as they will spit quite violently.

Fenugreek ('Greek hay' in Latin)

I use both the leaves and the seeds in my cooking. The uncooked seeds have a strong bitter smell that mellows with cooking. The leaves are wonderful with meat especially dishes such as karahi methi chicken.

Fresh chillis

The Chilli Conundrum is a hot topic amongst cooks of Indian food; Big chillis don't have any heat and bird's eye chillis are too hot. What we really need are the long, thin, green, Indian chillis that supermarkets don't seem to stock. You can generally find these in Indian grocery stores but if (like me) you don't have one of these nearby it can be a problem. In my recipes I refer to the small Thai chillis that you can get in most supermarkets. These aren't quite as hot as bird's eye chillis but are pretty spicy. If you are concerned about how much chilli to add then add a little at a time. You can always add more chilli during the cooking process. The last thing that you want is a dish that is too hot to enjoy.

Fresh coriander

I use fresh coriander (the stalks and leaves) in the majority of my recipes. My mum often claims that "you can never add too much coriander." but I have tested this assertion and she's wrong. As in most cooking balance is the key.

One tip is to chop the coriander prior to washing it. Once you have chopped it, pop it in a fine-holed sieve (or tea strainer!) and then rinse it. If you try to wash it first you will find that the coriander leaves become soggy and textureless as you try to chop them.

Garam masala

Garam masala translates as "hot mixture" in Gujarati. The "hot" refers to the intensity of the spices rather than a chilli type heat. It is made from a blend of ground spices that varies depending on the brand you buy. In India the blend varies by region and where a family blends their own masala by family.


I use fresh cloves of garlic. The majority of dishes that I have inherited from my mother are light on garlic as my parents do not like the smell emanating from their pores. Steve and I have no such qualms and you will notice that in my own recipes I use garlic quite liberally.


I use fresh root ginger rather than the dried powder or very lazy ginger. Be careful when using ginger as it can completely dominate a dish if you use too much of it.

Mustard seeds

This is the other main spice that I add to hot oil early on in the cooking process. You can buy black, brown or white mustard seeds. I generally use the brown Indian variety.

Star anise

I love this spice mostly because it looks so pretty. It has a similar taste to aniseed although they are unrelated. Generally speaking if I use this in a recipe and you don't happen to have it in your store cupboard then feel free to omit it.

Turmeric powder

This is dried powdered turmeric rhizomes and gives a distinctive yellow colour to food. Take care not to get this on your clothing or work surfaces as it stains immediately and is very difficult to remove .

In Gujarat a paste made from gram flour, turmeric and other random ingredients is applied to a bride and groom during a pre-wedding ceremony called "Pithi" to give an attractive yellow glow to the skin. Unfortunately at our wedding Steve with his pasty white skin turned a bright yellow colour and developed a rash instead.

Vegetable oil

Generally when I use oil in my cooking I am not using it for its flavour. As such I usually include it in the ingredient list as "light tasting vegetable oil". I tend to use rapeseed oil as it is produced locally to me nd does not alter the flavour of my cooking but any oil that has little flavour and a high smoke point is fine. Olive oil is an example of an oil that is very flavoursome and can completely dominate a dish - I really don't recommend it for Indian cooking.

About Reena


  1. Thanks so much for this post! I will keep it in my files for future reference!

  2. Hi Taste of Beirut - you are very welcome. Actually I should be thanking you for introducing me to sumak. Take care. Reena