I first met Canadian Chef Cameron Stauch when I wanted to stop spending so much money on Indian takeout by making my own Indian food, and I had no idea where to start. Cameron went as far as to bring me recipes and guide me around three different mini-marts where I could find Indian ingredients that had been brought into the country in the shop owner's suitcase. His enthusiasm to share other cultures' cuisines and ability to make Indian cooking accessible for me was a huge kindness, and I've since discovered that making Indian food can be quick, filling, and even easy. I even make better aloo jeera than my favorite restaurant now!
Here is Cameron's beginner's guide to Indian spices that shows you don't need to buy out your local Indian market to start cooking flavorful Indian dishes (that are better than takeout).
First, change your thinking about spices.
Contrary to what your mainstream grocery store's spice aisle would have you believe, there's no one specific "curry mix" used in Indian food. Different regions use their own distinctive, characteristic blends of just two or three spices, which means homemade Indian food tends to use less spice than the restaurant dishes that North Americans are used to.
Cameron's advice: "When introducing family members (such as younger kids) or friends to these flavors, I find it’s best to have some restraint with the amount of spices or heat (chilies or ginger) used in a dish. It’s always easier to add than take away flavorings to a dish. These spices add both flavor and fragrance to a dish and can become second nature with little practice."
So, starting out using fewer spices is fine. Don't be intimidated when a recipe calls for 10 different spices. If you don't have a certain spice, skip it; you may actually prefer the dish with fewer.
Learn how to find good spices.
When you're looking for Indian spices, Cameron recommends going to an Indian market or South Asian market if possible. Aside from better prices, these grocers "will have a high turnover, increasing the chance of better freshness." For ground spices, which lose their flavor faster, freshness is especially important.
If an Indian market isn't an option for you, take Cameron's advice: "When I visit a grocery store, I take a look around at the people or communities who shop there, look in their baskets, and also look at shelf space allotted to ingredients in the "international/ethnic" aisle. Then I tend to have an idea of what type of food is sold and turns over quickly." For instance, a shop that caters to Mexican or Latin American customers will probably offer fresher dried chilies.
Buy these 8 spices to get you started.
Cameron recommends starting with small quantities of spices — just three or four ounces of more common spices, like cumin and coriander, and about two ounces of other spices.
If possible, he recommends buying whole spices rather than ground. It's easier to read the quality of whole spices, which should be unbroken and free of other debris. Plus, recipes may call for whole spices, and you can always grind them yourself to make your own spice blends and chai.
"Slightly bitter and sweet, cumin is perhaps the most important spice in the North Indian kitchen. It’s earthy flavor rounds out the flavor in dishes. Sprinkle some roasted ground cumin over raita, a yogurt salad, to add a wonderful nuttiness."
2. Coriander, ground and seeds
"Coriander seeds are part of the parsley family and have light lemony undertones. Look for light brown seeds that are slightly larger than a black peppercorn. The ground powder also helps to thicken sauces."
3. Turmeric, ground
"Turmeric is the main ingredient used in a prepared curry powder or prepared mustard. Best not to cook with it while wearing a favorite light-shaded shirt or dress, as it is known for its staining powers. Look at turmeric as a foundational spice, like primer on a canvas, that you can build other flavors onto. It's often used to add a tinge of yellow to dishes, such as a simple dal, lentil stew, or marinades, and it blends well with other spices."
4. Ground paprika
"A ground red pepper, with a sweetish tone similar to an oven-roasted red pepper but with a slight kick of heat. From the state of Kashmir, paprika is known as deggi mirch and is easily found in South Asian grocers. It lends a brilliant red color to dishes such as butter chicken, murgh makani. Sweet paprika with a generous pinch of cayenne powder is a good substitute.
5. Mustard seeds
"Small, purplish-brown mustard seeds are used in north Indian dishes to flavor pickles and vegetables. They are widely used in southern and southwestern dishes such as vegetable karis, a simple stir-fry of small pieces of vegetable with grated coconut, sliced chilies, and a pinch of turmeric."
6. Cloves, ground and whole
"Regularly associated with warming winter-spiced desserts, the dark brown nail-shaped buds have a strong, pungent flavor. Use cloves sparingly, as their flavor can overpower a dish such as a rice biryani."
7. Cinnamon, ground and whole
"Found as 3-inch-long sticks, a whole piece adds a sweet-spicy fragrance to biryani, along with cloves and cardamom. Cinnamon also rounds out the complex flavors in spice blends.
8. Green cardamom seeds
"Sweetly pungent and fragrant, the 1/4-inch-thin pods with pale green skin are used in delicately flavored poultry and meat dishes. Cardamom is also used commonly in Indian desserts. A favorite use of mine is to crush a couple of pods and add them to a black milky tea for a mild form of masala chai."
Other things you'll need to cook Indian food
To round out your spice cupboard, you'll also need these things to get a dish on the table.
"Many North Indian dishes rely on a combination of aromatics — diced or pureed onions, minced garlic, ginger, and sliced green cayenne chilies — as a foundation for a braised dish."
"Some roughly chopped fresh coriander and mint add a refreshing herbal flavor to many finished dishes."
The beauty of this starter spice kit? It lends itself well to other world cuisines, including Mexican, Spanish, African, and Middle Eastern. Get cooking!