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Just 5 Essential Indian Spices You Need To Cook Indian Food

Just 5 Essential Indian Spices You Need To Cook Indian Food

Stop feeling overwhelmed by the long list of Indian spices a recipe claims you need to make an Indian dish. This list of 5 essential Indian spices is all you need to start your Indian pantry. 

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Does the long list of spices in Indian food and other ingredients deter you from cooking Indian food at home? The good news is that you only need to stock up on these 5 essential Indian spices to make a basic Indian dish.

A common confusion for most new to cooking Indian food, is the complexity of many types of Indian cooking spices used to make an Indian curry.

You do not need to have them all. There are few main spices in Indian food that home cooks keep in a round ‘Indian masala dabba’ or an Indian spice box that is frequently used to make many dishes.

An Indian Masala Dabba With Essential Indian spices
An Indian Masala Dabba With Essential Indian spices

Most common or popular Indian recipes will include at least a minimum of 5 spices to be added.

Apart from the spices following a repeated cooking process will help you in achieving the authentic taste.

Here is a  list of 5 must-have Indian spices with tips on how to use these most popular Indian spices to cook a basic Indian base sauce and other dishes without being overwhelmed with all the other spices!

The idea is to start small and built on your Indian spice pantry only after you become comfortable cooking with Indian spices.

Most Common Indian Spices

Spices in Indian food is indispensable.

And if you ask an Indian cook, condensing a spice list to just 5 authentic Indian spices can be quite challenging.

You see Indian food is not just limited to one type of food.

It’s varied, vast and fascinating.

Traditional Indian cuisine and each region within India have their own unique dishes and choice of spices used to make regional dishes.

However, there are few basic Indian spices that are common across the subcontinent and used in all the regions and in almost all households.

So when I was to consolidate a selection of most commonly used Indian spices, I picked these 5 best spices for Indian cooking based on the frequency of their use in cooking Indian food.

If you think that all Indian dishes use an arsenal of spices to get that unique taste then there is a surprise in store for you.

A regular home-cooked Indian meal will normally have a small selection of spices that goes in a dish.

The selection can range anything from using 2 spices to as many depending on the complexity of the dish.

You really do not need to buy every single spice and overload your spice rack.

Start with these basic spices needed for Indian cooking which I classify as best spices for Indian curry.

The 5 Essential Indian Spices List

In my quest to zero on spices most frequently used in Indian cooking, I consolidated the list to the 5 most used Indian spices.

It may surprise you to see that I have not listed Red Chilli Powder in the list.

It is because in my personal opinion using fresh green chillies or birds-eye chilli will give that spicy kick you need for your dish

I am not a great fan of red chilli powder as I don’t think it does much to the taste apart from making the dish hot, an important aspect of Indian food which can be achieved with fresh chillies as they are good on flavour and better for health.

So here’s the list of 5 essential curry spices.

Cumin Seeds (Jeera)

organic whole cumin seeds-buy online
Click image to buy cumin seeds online

Considered as one of the main spices of India and also used in many different cuisines , cumin seeds are whole spice very frequently used to add a characteristic nutty, smoky note to dishes.

They are tiny brown seeds with a very intense flavour.  They can be used whole, roasted or in ground form.

Cooking Process:  Used whole during the very first step of cooking known as tempering in hot oil.

It is also be used to make freshly ground cumin powder for fresh, robust flavour.

It is also very commonly used to blend with other spices to make spice blends.

Used for : Popularly used in rice dishes, lentils, legumes and vegetables. Flavouring for raitas and Indian beverages.

Cooking Tip : You need to be careful when using these tiny seeds as putting them in too hot oil will burn them.

It is best to fry the seeds in oil just before it starts to smoke. Care must also be taken when dry roasting the spices as they tend to burn fast.

Dish to try: This Spinach Mushroom Rice uses whole cumin seeds as the only spice to add flavour to the dish.

Ground Cumin  (Jeera powder)

Ground- cumin-powder-image-jeera -powder-indian-spice buy indian spice online spiceitupp
Click image to buy cumin powder online

This simply is cumin seeds ground into powder another key Indian spice. One of the most common spices in Indian food.

You can buy the already powdered ground spice from the store or make your own from whole cumin seeds.

Ground cumin tends to be smokier in flavour as opposed to the woody flavour when in the whole form.

Cooking Process:  Use directly during the cooking process or sauteing.

Can also be used to make marinades and other spice blends.

Used for: Popularly used for making many Indian dishes such as vegetables, legumes, meat and fish.

Cooking Tip: It is important to make sure that the raw smell of cumin powder goes away during the cooking process. Leaving the spice uncooked will make the dish pungent with a harsh flavour.

Dish to try: The Next time you make a chilli beef or something similar try adding a teaspoon of cumin powder and lift the flavours like this recipe of Corned Beef Hash 

Coriander Powder (Dhania powder)

Ground coriander powder
Click image to buy coriader powder online

Made from dried coriander seeds, this powdered spice is another essential curry ingredient.

My recommendation would be to make it fresh from whole coriander seeds but stick to the powdered version if that is of convenience to you.

Coriander powder is woody and aromatic, this gives the dish a very typical Indian taste.

Cooking Process:  Use straight into the dish during the cooking process and saute well.

Can also be used to make marinades and other spice blends.

Used for: Just like cumin powder, it is also used in many Indian dishes such as vegetables, legumes, meat and fish.

Cooking Tip: Like most ground Indian spices, coriander powder too can leave a pungent strong raw smell to the dish if not sauteed well.

Dish to try: Try adding coriander powder in your quinoa and taste the difference. Here is a recipe of Quinoa stuffed peppers for you to try.

Garam Masala

Garam-Masala-by-Gewuerzland-buy spices online Switzerland
Click image to buy Garam masala online

The King of Indian spices.

This is one of the authentic Indian spice blend that no Indian kitchen can do without.

This Indian spice is a must-have to make your Indian pantry.

Garam masala powder is essentially a blend of different spices not to be confused with curry powder. Garam masala powder and curry powder are two different Indian spice blends.

Different regions of India have their own garam masala blends but its the North Indian Garam Masala blend which is broadly used in most dishes.

Cooking Process:  It can be used directly during the cooking process or sauteing or right at the end of cooking to impart flavour to the dish.

Can also be used to make marinades.

Used for: Popularly used in many Indian dishes such as rice, vegetables, legumes, meat and fish.

Cooking Tip: As Garam masala is a blend of spices adding too much of the spice will overpower the dish and make it taste quite sharp.

Do not exceed more than 2 tsp of this spice in your recipe if making a dish for a minimum of 6 people.

Dish to try: This Spicy Spinach and Cannellini Beans Fritters use Garam Masala and lift the taste.

Turmeric (Haldi)

turmeric-powder-haldi-image-indian-yellow -spice buy indian spice online spiceitupp
Click image to buy turmeric online

This is the famous ‘Indian yellow spice’ which gives a dish the characteristic yellow colour.

More of a colouring agent than a flavouring agent, this spice is now considered the new ‘Super Food’.

It is an offshoot of the ginger family, known for its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties that makes it one of the most important spices to have.

Cooking Process: To be used directly during the cooking process or sauteing.

Also used to add colour to dishes.

Used for: Popularly used to give a vibrant colour to dishes such as rice, vegetables, legumes meat and fish.

Cooking Tip: Just like Garam masala adding too much of Turmeric powder will lead to strong colour in your hands and also give the dish a pungent taste. Care should be taken not to overuse the spice.

Dish to try: Adding turmeric powder to this Egg Curry with cashew paste gives the dish a pleasing yellow colour.


5 essential Indian spices

Tips To Buy Best Indian Spices

Spices come in many forms; whole, ground, roasted and roasted ground.

My suggestion for buying spices to add some fresh long lasting flavour to your dishes is to buy whole spices instead of ground spices.

Grinding fresh whole spices have a much better, robust taste and stronger flavour than the already ground one.

But if you are new to using spices for cooking then buying ground spices too is good and maybe easier for you.

You can easily buy these spices in any superstore or online from


This list of 5 must have spices in Indian kitchen is a good starting point for you to cook home-style Indian dishes.

If you are new to using spices, my suggestion would be to stock up on these essential everyday Indian spices.

Prepare simple easy dishes using them and slowly work your way into using other popular Indian cooking spices listed here.

This will help with getting familiar with spices and understand what the primary flavour is and their usage.

It will help you with understanding the texture, smell and the overall impact of the flavour on the dish when cooking with spices.

Once you overcome this initial hurdle of ”Spices are confusing’ you are on your way to Spice Haven!

All you need is a bit of practice with spices.

Starting simple often leads to greater things!!

Basic Indian spices list pinterest image

Your Favorite Indian Spices

There are many Indian spices that you will find in any Indian kitchen. Not all are used everyday.

I am sure you have some of your favourite that you like to use in your dishes?

Do let me know your favourites and share this post and join me to break the myth that cooking Indian food requires an arsenal of spices!

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Linda Colandrea
Linda Colandrea
2 years ago

It has taken several years, but after cooking Indo-Pakistani foods for sometime, I’ve developed a love for many Indian spices. They are so rich in flavor, & the sweet aroma fills the air. My favorite is lentil dal. I’m so grateful for your outstanding website! Thank you!

GiGi Eats
6 years ago

I never really ever cook with an INDIAN FLARE and I need to change that because the flavors are awesome and intense and the spices are also super healthy for you!

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