While there is a lot more to Indian cuisine than spices, it would be incorrect to say that spices are not a fundamental aspect. Similarly, curry dishes make up a significant part of Indian food culture even though there is vastly more to Indian cuisine than curry. While many spices can show up in a curry, some are more popular than others. Here are some of the most beloved spices for curry dishes.
Arguably the most important of all the curry spices, cumin brings a nutty earthiness to any dish in which it is used. It also has a slight bitterness that accentuates the savory flavor profile of curry dishes. There is a subtle lemony note to the flavor profile as well as a light peppery heat. Like all of the spices used in curry dishes, cumin pairs well with other strong flavors.
The mustard seeds used in curries are the brown or black ones, not the yellow ones that show up in Western recipes. Black mustard seeds are more pungent than their yellow counterparts and offer a good deal more heat. Typically the mustard seeds are fried in hot oil until they pop open and that oil and the seeds in it are used in the dish.
Coriander seed is the seed of the cilantro plant but tastes nothing like cilantro leaves. Before being used in curry dishes, coriander seeds are usually toasted and ground to a powder or tempered in oil. The toasting brings out the aroma and allows it to give more flavor to the curry. Coriander’s flavor profile is often described as being earthy with a little nutty sweetness. It is a milder spice that works best in the background of other spices. It is often said to aid in digestion.
The turmeric plant is in the ginger family and its root — which looks like ginger — is dried and powdered to make the turmeric spice. Turmeric is used mostly for the vivid yellow color that it gives to food. It is what gives curry powder its distinctive shade. If you want to give your curry a bright and appetizing color, turmeric should be one of your go-to spices. While the flavor is very subtle, it can enhance the dish with a very mild peppery heat.
Red chili powder
The spicy heat from chili peppers is among the essential flavors in Indian cooking. Curries don’t have to be hot but many are and most of those rely on red chili powder for heat. Chili powder (like cayenne) also gives a bright red color to many Indian dishes.
Unlike the other spices on this list, garam masala refers to a blend of ingredients rather than a single one. The components of a garam masala mix can differ depending on who is making it and where they are since this combination can vary from location to location and even from family to family. While it often has the same foundation spices like cumin and cloves, the proportions can vary and different spices may be added in or omitted. In India, garam masala is typically added to cooked food instead of earlier in the cooking process.
Highly fragrant, green cardamom brings a sweet note into a curry dish. It is strong enough to overwhelm milder flavors, which means that you need to use it carefully. The flavor is complex and incorporates fruity citrus notes as well as floral and minty ones.