Herbs and Spices in India

A lot of care and thought goes into the preparation of every Indian dish. A study into their recipes reveals a lot of surprises. Every single ingredient of the dish is there with a purpose and compliments each other. In fact, the succession of dishes also keeps in mind the flavor and 'nature' of the spices, whether hot or cool.

¤ The Use of Spices and Herbs

Spices and herbs used in Indian cooking are either fresh or dried – in which case the flavor changes for each form. However, that is not all: the dried spices and herbs are used in various ways. They can be used whole or grounded (more often than not still pounded at home!) and they may be roasted, fried, deep-fried, half-done, well-done … all according to the taste that the cook wants to give to the eventual dish.

Some of the commonly used ingredients in Indian food are as follows:

The spicy curries of Indian cuisine are flavored by hot fiery red and green chillies. The red chillies are usually dried, ground and then sprinkled into dishes as they are being prepared. The green chillies may accompany the food, as part of the salad, or can be dunked whole into curries, so as to flavor them without making them too spicy. Except when you mistakenly put them in your mouth, of course!

The coconut is popularly used in the south Indian and Goan cuisine. Freshly grated coconut, coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut oil, the clear liquid inside it – almost all parts of it are used to give an interesting and unmistakable flavor in various dishes. You can't be indifferent to coconut, either you like it or lump it.

The distinctive pungent flavor of garlic flavors most of the Mughlai food. This is a 'hot' ingredient and is generally cooled down by other spices.

The flavor of ginger might be delicate but it manages to stand out in a crowd of other ingredients in any dish. It is used widely in both vegetarian and meat-based dishes. Ginger tea is drunk all over India to cure sore throats.

Basil, coriander (cilantro), mint and parsley
These herbs are usually used fresh, in leaf form, in Indian cooking. They are usually used as cool-downs to balance other 'hot' ingredients in a dish. Dried versions of these herbs – both grounded and whole – are also used to give food completely different flavors.

Called methi, these seeds are square, flat and yellow in color. They are used sparingly and are never allowed to burn as they have a slightly bitter taste.

Another common spice, saunf, looks and tastes like anise seed, but is slightly plumper. Apart from as part of a meal, they are also roasted and eaten after meals (usually with sugar) as a mouth freshener and digestive.
Garam Masala
Hundreds of spice mixtures are used daily in kitchens all over India to give surprisingly different flavors to food. The garam masala is one of the commonest. It gives a strong distinctive aroma and taste to the food. It combines cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom seeds, dried bay leaves, cinnamon stick and dried red chilli. There’s no fixed `recipe’ as such, which will tell you exactly how much of each you have to use; every house has its own mix. All the ingredients mentioned are, by the way, commonly used in Indian cooking.

Mustard Seeds
These little reddish-brown seeds are used more often in the southern and eastern Indian cooking. They give a nice perky flavor to even the blandest of things. They are usually popped in oil before use; except of course when they are used to flavor pickles, which they often are.

is used to give its characteristic sour flavor in many ways in Indian cooking. As a sauce, it makes a chocolate-colored sweet-sour mixture which is poured over chaat (Indian snack), yogurt and so on to make quick nutritious snacks. On its own it is used to flavor sambars and rasams, to give lentil that sharp taste so associated with the food down south.

Kesar, zafraan… saffron is known by many pretty names in India. And whatever the moniker, it is always expensive. Undeterred Indians use saffron very commonly in cooking – what helps of course is that even a pinch of the spice goes a long way in flavoring and coloring dishes. The use of saffron became popular in India with the coming of the Persian cooking, so it laces most Mughlai food like those dreamy pilaus, raans and kormas. These dishes are quite spicy and hot and saffron, known for its cooling properties, was probably added for balance. Saffron is also used commonly in north Indian sweets, like kheer (thickened milk with dried fruits, to which rice, semolina and so on are added).

Rose water and extract
The rose, by any name, is very popular in Indian desserts. Rose extract is called gulkand and is very strongly recommended as a 'cooling' food in India. Laddoos (sweet balls) and paan (betel leaf; also see Delhi, Food & Drink) often contain gulkand. Few drops of the aromatic rose water are often used to flavor delicate sweets like rasgullas (light cottage cheese dumplings floating in syrup) and so on.