In Indian cooking, it's the combinations of spices that transform ordinary ingredients into one of the world's most distinctive culinary...

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In Indian cooking, it’s the combinations of spices that transform ordinary ingredients into one of the world’s most distinctive culinary traditions.

Each individual spice, though, adds something unique — a hint of sweetness, a touch of texture or a flash of heat — to the mix. Here’s a brief glossary of the most commonly used spices in India.

Brown or black mustard seeds: Cousins to the more bitter yellow seeds, these varieties are in many curry mixtures, adding texture and an unmistakable flavor. Although the black seeds are less common, both are toasted in hot oil until they pop and release their flavor.

Cardamom: With touches of clove, citrus, pepper, sassafras and allspice, “Where else could you get the whole of India in a convenient little green package at any cost?,” writes Tony Hill in “The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs & Spices.” The green pods come from a bush in the ginger family and hold about 20 seeds each. Pulse the pods in a coffee grinder to split them and remove the seeds for cooking.

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Chilies (small dried red ones, such as the cayenne variety): Break off the stem ends and shake out the seeds and discard. The chilies can be toasted dry with other spices, or heated in very hot oil to intensify their flavor. Crushed red-pepper flakes can be used as a replacement if needed.

Cinnamon: One of the spices used in garam masalas, the currylike preparations with slightly sweeter flavors. The Indian variety in stick form is thinner and easier to grind, so it may be best to use the freshest ground cinnamon available as a replacement.

Cloves: Garam masalas are often enhanced by this sweet, distinctive spice. It’s rarely used in Indian desserts as it is in the West.

Coriander seed: Remove any bits of straw and tiny rocks if present. Then toast in a dry skillet over medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until the seeds become fragrant and are just beginning to brown.

Cumin seed: This spice is used throughout India and has an unmistakable flavor similar to a milder caraway. It’s often paired with citrusy coriander seeds.

Curry leaves: The name is misleading, as these leaves are more reminiscent of bay than curry. The fresh leaves are very aromatic and freeze well.

Fennel seed: Their flavor is similar to anise seed, only milder. In India, “you’ll get (them) in everything from Kashmir curries to Madras potato stews,” writes Hill. “You’ll find them as widely as, and frequently in concert with, cumin seeds.”

Fenugreek: Common in curries and flatbreads, the hard seeds are toasted and ground to accentuate their nutty flavor.

Peppercorns: Black Tellicherry, one of the finest peppercorns grown, is native to India. This variety provides lemony-heat that stays on the palate longer.

Poppy seeds: Although a white variety is also grown in India, its flavor is almost identical to the more-familiar blue-black seeds. They’re often used for texture and thickening. Poppy seeds can turn rancid quickly, so if your supply is more than six months old, toss and start with a fresh batch.

Turmeric: Not only does it add the beautiful golden color that we associate with curry but the freshest powdered form adds clear notes of ginger and mustard.

CeCe Sullivan, Seattle Times food staff

Sources: “The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs& Spices: Seasonings for the Global Kitchen” by Tony Hill; “Cooking Along the Ganges: The Vegetarian Heritage of India” by Malvi Doshi; “From Curries to Kebabs: Recipes from the Indian Spice Trail” by Madhur Jaffrey

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