Spicing it up — Cooking Indian spices the Indian way

by Linda Lynton

Some years ago, my then boyfriend and I went trekking in India’s western Himalayas. We were in an area that had no roads; rice from the lowlands was transported in canvas sacks on the backs of sheep being herded into the hills, while the local nomadic tribes were moving their cattle down the mountains to warmer climes. This was not an area where one might expect highly spiced food.

We set out every morning after a large home-​​made breakfast of chapattis and peas and did not eat again until we reached the next village, often a good 10 hours hike away. At one village they could only offer us potatoes to eat. What bliss! Apart from Himalayan potatoes being delicious in their own right (think new potatoes), they were bland and, good British girl that I was, I liked bland. So imagine my shock when the boiled potatoes arrived with two handfuls (yes, handfuls) of chilies added to the mix, even though we’d asked for “no masala” (no spices). For my northern European palate, the potatoes were inedible. I actually cried because I was so hungry, and had to wait for my morning chapattis before I could eat again.

Yet this story reveals a secret of Indian cooking. Ordinary people in India cannot imagine cooking food without some form of spice in it, even when they think “bland”. And when they add spices it is always by the handful or the cupful — no mingy teaspoons or pinches of something here or there. So any Westerner hoping to get close to creating Indian-​​style cuisine has to think about spices in bulk. No fancy little jars from the supermarket, thank you, one must find an Indian grocery store and buy flavorings by the pound (it’s cheaper that way, too).

Despite my early inauspicious experience with Indian spices, I went on to cook Indian food for more than 20 years; my teachers were Indian housewives (the main cooks in Indian society) and observation. In addition to changing one’s mindset about using spices, I learned that several other elements help the would-​​be Indian chef.

Indian Spices

The four basic spices of Indian cooking, in clockwise order: turmeric, coriander, chilies, cumin. They rest on a home-​​made chapatti. Photo: Linda Lynton.

For instance, every Indian dish, without fail, contains the following four spices, plus salt and pepper:

Chilies, as many as you and your guests can stand.
Cumin, seeds whole or ground.
Coriander, seeds whole or ground. The green leaves of the plant are regarded as a garnish to be added for looks at the end of the cooking, but not as a spice.
Turmeric, which is always ground.

Many dishes are spiced with just these four ingredients, but there are many more you can add and, once you become familiar with the routine of Indian cooking, you can mix and match the rest at will and according to your taste. Here are the usual spices often found in addition to these four “anchor” flavorings:

Bay leaves
Green cardamom
Black cardamom (very different flavor to green cardamom)

Indian Spices

Photo: Linda Lynton.

Just as with coffee, if you want the true full flavor of your spices in your food, they should be bought as whole seeds and ground in a coffee grinder when needed. Most Indian cooks keep a coffee grinder in the kitchen specifically for grinding spices and all spices listed in a recipe should be ground prior to cooking. Spice preparation takes some time, so it is much simpler to have them all ground, chopped, and ready to use before starting to warm the pan. Once ready, the cook will “marinate” the spices in order to jump start the flavor process prior to adding them to the food. Depending on the region and the recipe, ground onions, oil, yogurt or even water may be used as the base medium to let the spices start to release their flavors.

While the spices are marinating in your chosen medium, the other ingredients of the meal should be prepared: chopped, skinned, grated, etc., for cooking. Every ingredient should be ready at hand to be thrown into the pot, wok, or frying pan when needed.

Some recipes require the taste of a specific spice, say, ginger or cardamom, and that spice is often fried in oil before anything else is added to the pot: to enable the oil to absorb its unique flavor.

Also, onions are usually added to most recipes about the same time as the main spices. Indians traditionally use ghee (clarified butter) as the cooking medium, but I’ve found olive oil to work just as well. It should be heated, and if no specific spice is to flavor the oil, then the chopped onions and the main spices are added next, usually at the same time. Everything else in the dish that is to be cooked follows from here.

Indian cooking is often an interesting mix of fast frying followed by slow simmering. The onions and initial spices are cooked over a high flame until soft, then the rest of the ingredients are added and everything allowed to simmer, often for several hours.

The cooking mix of oil, onions and most (if not all) spices is sometimes created separately from a dish’s main ingredients, and they are added when the food is well on the way to being cooked. This maintains the integrity of the flavors in the spices, and it is a very successful way of beefing up the pungency of what might otherwise be a bland dish. The dhal recipe below uses this technique.

Although dhal, a mainstay of the Indian diet, uses water to cook the split peas or beans (“dhal” means “dried beans or peas”), most Indian dishes do not require the addition of water at all. It is the slow cooking of the main ingredients that enable the natural juices to be released to provide the moisture required for the dish. And, you guessed it, a lot of onions are used―again, don’t think Western volumes, think handfuls of whole Spanish or red onions.

Indian Cuisine

Photo: Linda Lynton.

It is believed that the spices and lack of added water help keep the food fresh in India’s hot, humid climate. But it is difficult to say whether that was the reason for the way Indian cooking developed, or whether it was a useful side effect resulting from the sophisticated palates of South Asian peoples creating some of the most delicious food in the world.

Here are two simple vegetarian recipes to get you started on the path to Indian cooking:

North Indian Dhal
Every region in India has its own culinary version of this staple of the South Asian diet. This is the simplest, most basic form.

1 lb. split peas or beans
Onions, four or five, depending on size
Garlic (entire head)
Chilies (as many as you wish)
Cumin, at least one desert spoon
Coriander, at least one desert spoon
Turmeric, at least one desert spoon
Olive oil

Leave the split peas soaking overnight in water with the garlic and chilies chopped in the water.

Next day, add salt and pepper and bring the mix to the boil and simmer until thoroughly cooked.

Meanwhile, in a separate pot (the stainless steel Indian wok is the best vessel for this), start frying the onions and other spices. Sometimes a tomato (for color) can also be added.

Fry the mix until the onions are cooked (water can be added to this if it gets too dry) and the spices settling in.

Add the spice mix to the dhal which should be well on the way to being cooked.

Stir frequently to prevent the peas/​beans from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Fried Cauliflower (Ghobi)
This is a north Indian dish, which requires the use of a wok, as it is cooked as rapidly as possible. Note that the cauliflower is chopped finely, to enable quick cooking. This dish is often eaten with Indian bread (naan) or chapattis.

Cauliflower, finely chopped, a whole head
Onions, finely chopped, two or three onions
Ginger, finely chopped, at least 3 – 5 inches of root
Cumin, at least one desert spoon
Coriander, at least one desert spoon
Chilies, as many as you can handle
Turmeric, at least one desert spoon
Olive oil

Heat the oil in a wok and add the ginger.
Fry the ginger until golden, add the onions, stir.
When onions begin to cook add the rest of the spices.
When everything is cooking well, add the cauliflower, and stir fry until golden and cooked.

If you don’t know of a store in your area to purchase spices, try searching online for “Indian grocery stores” plus your town and state. Alternatively ask your local Indian restaurant where they get their spices. You can also go online to find spices, but I would recommend supporting your local store if there is one, in part because it is good to support local businesses, but also because Indian store keepers are usually friendly and may give you extra advice about cooking the Indian way.

Featured image by Linda Lynton.

Linda LyntonLinda Lynton is a British-​​born writer, painter, and business person. She has written for such publications as Elle, Travel & Leisure, Cigar Aficionado, Art & Antiques, Arts of Asia, Advertising Age, Backstage, and The Journal of Commerce. Her book on Indian textiles, The Sari, is available worldwide

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