What makes Indian food so fantastic? Scientists say it’s all in the flavours: hot, fragrant, smoky, peppery, and aromatic notes blend together into an unforgettable culinary experience.
Compared to other cuisines, Indian food relies less on ingredients with “overlapping flavors.” According to researchers at the Indian Institute for Technology in Jodhpur, Western chefs tend to combine ingredients that share flavour compounds. In contrast, each ingredient in an Indian dish will likely be distinct from the others, bringing its own flavour to the final product. Additionally, researchers note that the Indian recipes they analysed used nearly 200 ingredients in total (out of the approximately 381 known ingredients in the world), and the average Indian dish contains 7+ ingredients.
Spices are essential to the complexities and contrasts we savour in Indian cuisine! From cardamom and cinnamon to tamarind and turmeric, spices not only enrich countless dishes, but also boast fascinating histories and impressive health benefits. I’ve assembled a handy guide to some of the most important spices in Indian cuisine. Explore the history behind how these spices ended up in your pantry, learn how to improve your well-being by incorporating more spices into your cooking, and find embedded links to mouth-watering recipes below!
Native to southern India, black pepper comes from a vine that produces small berries. Once dried, these berries are recognizable as peppercorns. Pepper appears in countless dishes, imparting its subtle heat and unique flavour. Tables across the world wouldn’t be complete without salt and pepper shakers!
Like many spices, pepper has both flavoured food and treated medical problems for centuries. Peppercorns were discovered in the nose of the mummified ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, who died in 1213 BCE. Ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder devoted several lines to pepper in his Natural History: “It is quite surprising that the use of pepper has come so much into fashion…Pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation to either fruit or berry, its only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India!”
You’ll find black pepper either whole or ground in multiple Indian recipes. Use it to spice up your biryanis and dals and add warmth to your soups and sauces. The spice is also a common component of garam masala and some curry powders.
Recipe to try: Pepper Chicken, via Swasthi’s Recipes
This enticingly aromatic, citrusy spice is made from the seeds of multiple plants. It hails from southern India, though today, much of the world’s cardamom supply is grown in Guatemala. Cardamom can be purchased in more than one form: either still in its pods or already ground. The pods stay fresher longer and can be ground in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder when you need them.
Cardamom boasts a rich history: the ancient Egyptians are said to have used cardamom both ritually and medicinally, while Greeks and Romans appreciated its aroma and used it in perfume. Medieval Vikings encountered cardamom during their travels to Asia Minor and returned to Scandinavia with it—to this day, Scandinavian baked goods and mulled beverages often include cardamom. The spice also remains very popular in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, appearing often in curries and spice blends.
Cardamom comes with plenty of health benefits as well! Researchers have documented its antibacterial nature, as well as its ability to lower blood pressure. You can reap these rewards by incorporating cardamom into your everyday coffee, tea, soups, and baked goods.
Recipe to try: Chicken Biriyani via Cardamom Kitchen
Chili peppers come from shrubs in the Capsicum family, native to Mesoamerica, from central Mexico down to Central America. For thousands of years, Aztec and Mayan societies cultivated and used chilies for their flavour and medical benefits.
The rest of the world remained ignorant of chilies until the 15th and 16th centuries, when Europeans, and especially the Portuguese, opened new trade routes across the globe. Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama documented the possibility of a sea route from South America, around the Cape of Good Hope, to India. Chili peppers were soon traveling along this route alongside other exports from Brazil, then a colony of Portugal. Chili peppers reached India in the 16th century and were an instant hit. In particular, chilies made an impact on cuisine in Goa, India, which fell under Portuguese control in 1510. Goan chefs enjoyed the spicy chilies and happily incorporated them into their recipes.
As for health benefits, chili peppers have plenty! They contain fiber, vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. According to a study by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, which followed the dietary habits of almost 500,000 people, a penchant for spicy foods (and chilies) correlates with greater life expectancy. Study participants who consumed spicy food one to two times per week had lower mortality rates than those eating spicy food less often. Chili-lovers who ate spicy food six to seven times per week had even lower mortality. Plus, chilies contain vitamins A and C, iron, and potassium. Capsaicin—the compound in chilies that makes them hot—may help boost metabolism, suppress appetite, and therefore support weight loss. Finally, researchers have also uncovered possible links between capsaicin and lowered rates of heart disease and cancer. Bear in mind though that studies on chilies are still ongoing and not yet conclusive! Some experts recommend using chilies in moderation and waiting for further experimental results.
Recipe to try: South Indian-Style Tomato Rice Soup, via Big Apple Curry
Cinnamon (and Cassia Bark)
Cinnamon comes in a few different varieties, including cassia bark and “true” cinnamon (which are often treated interchangeably). Cassia bark is grown in China, Southeast Asia, India, and Sri Lanka, and it supplies much of the world’s ground cinnamon. It also often appears in spice mixes such as garam masala and Madras curry powder. “True” cinnamon, which is cultivated in India and Sri Lanka, has a stronger taste than cassia bark. Its flavour profile may be described as “sweet, intensely fragrant, warm, [and] woody.”
In the ancient world, cinnamon was a favourite ingredient in perfume. In Egypt, Greece, and Rome alike, it often lent its aroma to funerals and embalming ceremonies.
Thanks to a phytochemical called cinnamaldehyde, cinnamon has been shown to guard against viruses, diabetes, high cholesterol, and even neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s. It’s also associated with improved memory and cognitive function! (Okay, so a lot of these studies are done on lab rats rather than humans, but scientists suggest that it has similar benefits for us too).
Recipe to try: Taar Korma, via Michelle Peters-Jones at The Tiffin Box
Cloves are dried flower buds from the evergreen clove tree, which grows well in tropical climates such as Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Brazil. Today, almost 80% of the world’s clove supply comes from Tanzania. The aromatic buds have long featured in food, perfumes, and medicine.
We know that China’s Han Dynasty (207 BCE to 220 CE) was familiar with cloves: court officials were told to use cloves to improve their breath. Clove trees have also grown wild for centuries on Indonesia’s famous Banda Islands, also known as the “Spice Islands.” Medieval Europeans acquired cloves (in addition to other spices such as cinnamon and ginger) from Arab traders. During the 16th century, the Portuguese came to control much of the clove trade, though they were surpassed by Dutch traders in the 17th century. Around this time, cloves gained wide popularity as they became more readily available to the general public. 1914 even saw the creation of clove chewing gum!
Cloves have long been valued as medicine for indigestion, nausea, cough, and toothache. They retain some of these medicinal uses today. Toothpastes and mouthwashes sometimes include clove oil as an ingredient. Extremely high in antioxidants, cloves act as antimicrobials, local anesthetics, anti-inflammatory agents, and antifungals.
Recipe to try: Paneer with Sweet Green Peas and Whole Spices, via Big Apple Curry
Described as both “nutty” and “fruity,” coriander seeds come from the cilantro plant, native to southern Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern Asia. The seeds can be purchased whole or in ground form. Cilantro leaves make a delicious addition to numerous Mexican dishes, while coriander seeds are frequently found in Indian cuisine, including in the spice blend garam masala.
Cilantro plants are said to have grown in the hanging gardens of Babylon, the famously lost wonder of the ancient world. Coriander is mentioned in Sanskrit documents, ancient Egyptian papyri, and the Bible, where the seeds are likened to the manna that fell from heaven. The name “coriander” comes from the Greek koris (bedbug)—crushed seeds and leaves are apparently reminiscent of the smell of bedbugs!
Traditionally used as medicine in India and other locations, coriander is thought to aid in digestion, regulate blood sugar, and lower cholesterol, though according to a UCLA exhibit on spices, “no medical value has been adequately evaluated.”
Recipe to try: Okra with Onions, via Big Apple Curry
One of the world’s most fascinating spices, cumin has been popular since ancient Mesopotamia. Clay tablets dated to 1750 BCE, now held in Yale University’s Babylonian Collection, feature recipes for meat and vegetable stews that include cumin. Written in the Akkadian language, these tablets are known as “the world’s oldest recipe collection.” We also have evidence that the 9th-century BCE Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II enjoyed eating plenty of food flavoured with cumin.
Ancient Greeks and Romans had a healthy appetite for the spice as well; you’ll find numerous mentions of cumin in a Roman cookbook by Apicius (c. 4th-5th century). Ancient and medieval authors alike extolled cumin’s medicinal properties in addition to its flavour. Spaniards eventually brought cumin to the Americas and began planting it in what is now the southwestern United States. And of course, cumin also travelled to India via traders, travellers, and merchants from the Arabian Peninsula.
Today, cumin appears in cuisines around the world, from Middle Eastern to Indian to Mexican; according to social scientist Gary Nabhan, cumin exemplifies “culinary globalization”! In Indian cuisine, cumin is often found in curry powder and in garam masala. The spice comes from the seeds of the Cuminum cyminum plant. Its flavour has been described as “warm,” with a “strong, pungent aroma.” You can purchase either fresh cumin seeds (to dry roast and grind yourself) or ground cumin.
As for health benefits, our ancient and medieval predecessors were onto something! Cumin is believed to promote healthy digestion, combat infection, and reduce inflammation. It may be particularly helpful for those with chronic inflammatory conditions.
Recipe to try: Aloo Phulkopir Dalna, via Mallika Basu
Known as foeniculum (“fragrant hay”) to the ancient Romans, fennel is a bulbous rooted flowering plant that originates from southern Europe and the Mediterranean. Ancient Greeks considered fennel symbolic of victory and called it “Marathon,” since it grew abundantly at the famous battlefield there.
Fennel seed is a prominent ingredient in the spice mix panch phoron, which enhances vegetable dishes, curries, fish, and lentils. The seeds may be roasted to enjoy as mukhwas after a meal. The plant’s stalks, leaves, and bulbs are also edible as vegetables, or cooked in soups and stews. The seeds feature a stronger flavour, resembling the taste of anise or liquorice.
In traditional and herbal medicine, fennel is regarded as beneficial for eyesight, as well as helpful in relieving indigestion and cough. Fennel bulbs are high in vitamins A, C, and K, in addition to fibre, potassium, and carotenoids.
Recipe to try: Meethi Matri, via Manjula’s Kitchen
Fenugreek grows in the Mediterranean region and western Asia. Well-known in the ancient world, its historic uses run the gamut. Ancient Egyptians used it for embalming, while Greeks and Romans grew it for cattle fodder. Fenugreek is also reported to have been cultivated in Charlemagne’s gardens.
In the modern world, you’ll likely find fenugreek in Indian curries—in Madras curry powder, for example. It’s often used in powdered form, as the seeds are very hard and can be bitter. Fenugreek leaves can also be dried to add flavouring to dishes such as butter chicken.
Fenugreek is high in vitamins, minerals, and proteins, making it a simple way to spice up your diet and boost your health. There’s some indication that it is slightly hypoglycaemic, and therefore useful for treating diabetes.
Recipe to try: Mangalorean Fish Curry via Michelle Peters-Jones at The Tiffin Box
Ginger originally hails from Southeast Asia but has been appreciated in Indian and Chinese societies as well for thousands of years. The ancient Romans imported ginger from India. After the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, ginger became much rarer within Europe, though eventually medieval Europeans acquired the spice from Arab traders. Today, you’ll find ginger all over the world, seasoning hearty soups, spiced drinks, and of course, gingerbread houses!
Both fresh and ground ginger are available for purchase. Fresh root ginger has a beige exterior and a juicy, flavourful yellow interior. Whether grated, chopped, or sliced, it adds a distinctive kick to any dish and is delicious in Indian curries. It’s been described as a “fiery root” with “a sweetly pungent taste and a perfume-like scent that makes it suitable for sweet or savoury dishes.”
Ginger is well-known for its anti-inflammatory qualities, making it a great spice for anyone with chronic inflammation. In addition, ginger can help relieve aches and pains, alleviate nausea, and promote memory and cognitive function. If you’re already taking medicine for diabetes or blood thinners, however, check with your doctor before consuming ginger, as they may be incompatible together!
Recipe to try: Mughlai Kadhai Paneer, via Maunika Gowardhan
These round seeds come from mustard plants (there’s black mustard, brown mustard, and white mustard). Seeds are prepared by cooking in hot oil until they crack and release their flavour. The popular condiment mustard gets its distinctive punch from mustard seeds.
Mustard plants are some of the earliest known domesticated crops (dating back 4000 years or more). Though native to Europe, the plants have been grown for centuries throughout Asia and northern Africa. Ancient Greeks, Romans, and medieval Europeans alike enjoyed various pastes made from grinding up mustard seed. The spice is also well-known from the Bible’s Parable of the Mustard Seed: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.” During the 20th century, United States and Canada became major producers of mustard.
Mustard contains fibre, iron, beta carotene, and vitamin C. It also has traditional uses as medicine. Mustard poultices may be applied to alleviate cold symptom and congestion, while mustard powder may be added to a warm bath to soothe sore muscles.
Recipe to try: Indian Chicken Curry, via Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Nutmeg (and Mace):
Nutmeg and mace are two distinct spices that both come from the evergreen tree Myristica fragrans. Mace is the red outer covering of the sweeter nutmeg seed. Today, the trees are grown primarily in Indonesia and Grenada, as well as in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and the Caribbean. In many Western cuisines, nutmeg appears alongside cinnamon and cloves to flavour holiday beverages and baked goods. In Indian cuisine, nutmeg may appear in everything from desserts to curries to garam masala.
Nutmeg has an especially bloody past—“one of the saddest stories of history,” according to food historian Michael Krondl. For centuries, Indonesia’s Banda Islands were the only source of nutmeg and mace. During the Middle Ages, Arab traders brought the valuable spices to Europe, where they fetched high prices. Trouble came with the 17th-century arrival of the Dutch in Indonesia. Seeking a monopoly on the lucrative nutmeg trade, the Dutch East India Company decimated the Bandanese population, killing thousands, and exiling or selling others into slavery.
Nutmeg’s high value derived both from its prestige as a luxury item, and also from its mood-boosting qualities. This spice can help reduce pain, lower blood pressure, encourage relaxation and sleep, and guard your immune system against colds.
Recipe to try: Rice Kheer, via Tarla Dalal
Native to South America, paprika comes from dried red peppers—chili peppers, bell peppers, or both—though its flavour tends to be sweeter and milder than you might expect. Multiple flavour varieties are available to please every palate, whether you prefer your paprika hot, sweet, or smoky!
Paprika made its way to Europe and then Asia during the 16th century. The spice became popular in many European recipes, from Hungarian goulash to Spanish chorizo. In Indian cuisine, you’ll find paprika flavouring curries and tandoori spice blends.
Paprika has antioxidant properties and may be linked to a lower risk for heart disease and cancer. Like chili peppers, paprika includes the phytochemical capsaicin, which is associated with multiple health benefits.
Recipe to try: Indian Raita, via Big Apple Curry
Coming from the Papaver somniferum plant, poppy seeds add texture to breads and baked goods, thicken curries and kormas, and can be pressed into oil. White poppy seeds, rather than black, are typically used in Indian food.
The ancient Egyptians, Minoans, and Sumerians are all reported to have used poppy seeds for various purposes, including as a sedative. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, incorporates poppies and their soporific effect as a plot device: “They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies…Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on forever and ever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep.” It’s worth noting that these sedative effects are vastly overstated! Walking through a field of poppies, or eating delicious poppy seeds, won’t actually make you fall asleep.
Though notorious as the source of opium, poppy seeds shed their narcotic effects as they become ripe. You might enjoy a calming mug of poppy tea to destress in the evening. Poppy seeds contain dietary fibre, and the minerals iron and zinc. They’re also recognized as pain relievers.
Recipe to try: Gosht Korma, via Sailu’s Food
The world’s most expensive spice, saffron is famous for its fragrance, stunning amber colour, and labour-intensive production. It comes to us hand-picked from the saffron crocus, which grows primarily in India, Iran, and Spain. You can buy saffron whole (the deep golden-red strands are called “stigmas”) or powdered. Even a pinch of saffron has the power to flavour, and colour, large quantities of food.
Historians believe that saffron was first used in Bronze Age Greece. Cleopatra allegedly bathed in saffron and mare’s milk to beautify herself for suitors. Saffron was also used as a textile dye and a cosmetic; combined with red ochre, tallow, and beeswax, it formed lipstick. During the Middle Ages, monks who didn’t have any gold to decorate their manuscripts could mix saffron with egg whites as a substitute. Religious icons could likewise be varnished with saffron to resemble gold.
In the past, saffron has served as medicinal treatment for poisoning, dysentery, measles, and dozens of other ailments. Some speculated that its yellow colour meant that it could treat jaundice. Modern research has indicated that saffron possesses antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and may be useful in alleviating inflammatory conditions and depression.
Recipe to try: Shrikhand, via Monisha Bharadwaj’s Indian Spice Kitchen
Tamarind trees grow wild in their native tropical Africa, but they were also introduced to southern Asia millennia ago. From India, tamarind spread to Persian and Arab cultures, as well as to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. In more recent centuries, tamarind reached the Americas. In Indian recipes, tamarind is frequently used to season meat, fish, and rice dishes.
In various forms, tamarind has been used to treat a vast array of medical problems. Pulp from the tamarind tree is traditionally applied to sprains and inflammation, gargled to soothe sore throats, and used to alleviate digestive problems—tamarind is even reported to be an effective digestive for elephants! Leaves and flowers from the tamarind tree may be dried or boiled, then applied as a poultice to sprained joints, inflammation, and boils. Various medications contain tamarind to treat conjunctivitis, dysentery, jaundice, and leprosy. Tamarind tree bark also works well as an astringent.
Recipe to try: Tamarind Chutney, via Manjula’s Kitchen
Who doesn’t recognize this distinctive bright yellow spice? Almost 4000 years ago, turmeric was already in use, both to flavour food and to heal various illnesses, in Vedic society, located in present-day northern India. Over the centuries, it spread to China (c. 700 CE), East Africa (c. 800), West Africa (c. 1200), and eventually Jamaica (c. 1700s).
Turmeric is frequently included in curry powder, and it’s a popular addition to dishes such as fish curry, dhal, pilaf, chutney, and more. Today, India continues to supply most of the world’s turmeric supply, and to consume roughly 80% of it. It comes from the Curcuma longa plant, native to South Asia.
Turmeric has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities, which may help people suffering from autoimmune disorders or conditions involving inflammation. It has been used to treat people with asthma, COPD, rheumatoid arthritis, and conjunctivitis, among other things. The spice has long been used medicinally in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine.
Recipe to try: Turmeric Rice with Cauliflower, via Dr. Nandita Iyer at Saffron Trail
Spice Blends and Curry Powders
When preparing Indian dishes, you’ll often find that you need more than one spice. Common spice mixtures include: garam masala, sambar masala, tandoori masala, and panch phoron. Garam masala often consists of cumin, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper—precise ingredients and ratios subject to change at the chef’s whim! Sambar masala, a versatile blend traditionally used in sambar, contains fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, red chilies, and other spices. Tandoori masala adds warmth and smokiness to Indian dishes such as tandoori chicken and butter paneer. Panch phoron, popular in eastern India and Bangladesh, is a mix of five seeds: nigella, black mustard, fenugreek, fennel, and cumin. You can either purchase these spice blends pre-made or create your own—the embedded links above will take you to some recipes for homemade spice mixtures.
You may also want to mix together some homemade curry powders. You can find one curry powder recipe via Hari Ghotra, and three more recipes via My Indian Food: one “all-in-one,” one “simple and aromatic,” and one “spicy.” Ingredients include coriander, cumin, fenugreek, cloves, and more. As you’ll see from reading through these recipes, you can easily customize your curry powder to suit your taste.
Hungry to learn more?
This list, while fairly comprehensive, is by no means exhaustive! It’s simply meant to acquaint you with the most important spices of Indian cuisine, giving a brief account of their histories and medicinal uses, while also pointing you to recipes and practical cooking tips.
If you love cooking, take a look at Monisha Bharadwaj’s The Indian Spice Kitchen; Madhur Jaffrey’s At Home with Madhur Jaffrey; Mridula Baljekar’s Complete Indian Regional Cookbook; Sanjeev Kapoor’s How to Cook Indian; or Jane Lawson’s The Spice Bible.
If you’re fascinated by the complex and often turbulent history of spices, you might enjoy reading: Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans; Paul Freedman’s Out of the East; John O’Connell’s The Book of Spice; Lallanji Gopal and V.C. Srivastava’s edited volume History of Agriculture in India (up to c. 1200 AD); Mark Miller’s The Great Chile Book; and Vikram Vij’s Vij: A Chef’s One-Way Ticket to Canada with Indian Spices in His Suitcase.
Finally, if you want to learn more about incorporating spices into a healthy diet, check out this guide from the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt University and this guide from the University of Kentucky.