10 Spices You Need for Indian Cooking That Aren’t Curry Powder
Some of these may become your new spice rack staples.
If you’ve tried your hand at Indian cooking, you’re probably familiar with a few basics: Garam masala, turmeric, and chili powder are ubiquitous in many of the Indian recipes you’ll find, and make a great base to start with. We’re leaving out a few of the obvious ingredients that are probably already among your kitchen staples—you’re most likely familiar with garlic, ginger, and cumin in their various forms. But if you’re ready to level-up on your Indian cooking and try out some of the diverse flavors that differ dramatically from region to region, you’ll want to snag some of these spices from your local South Asian grocer or international market.
Amchur / Amchoor
Also labeled as “mango powder,” amchoor is dried unripe green mango that’s been ground into a powder, and packs a tartness that tastes almost citrusy. Use it to add a hint of fruity tang to sauces and gravies, the same way that you may use a splash of lemon juice or vinegar for brightness. You can use it in these chickpea Vegetable Burgers to get started.
This incredibly pungent spice is the resin of a plant similar to fennel that grows in Iran and India. You can find it in a pale yellow powder, or in brown crystal-like blocks, sometimes labeled by its Hindi name, hing (pronounced “heeng”). It doesn’t smell the greatest raw—but when cooked with a blend of other spices it lends a pleasant umami oniony-garlic flavor that’s difficult to replicate.
You’re probably familiar with small green cardamom pods—we use them in tons of sweet dessert recipes like this Maangai Pal Paysam, a comforting rice pudding. But black cardamom is its earthier, smokier cousin that works better for savory dishes. It’s more common in North Indian recipes (but it’s also used in Vietnamese food, as an addition to pho).
Sulfur compounds in this salt give it a sulfuric flavor similar to boiled eggs—so much so that some vegan recipes call for it to mimic the flavor for egg-free recipes. It’s an integral part of chaat masala, a spice blend used for snack food (and a personal favorite) that consists of a combination of sweet, spicy, tangy, umami, and savory. Try some sprinkled on top of this Papaya-Kiwi Chaat with Pistachios.
Black stone flower
This lichen is used in Indian meat dishes like chicken or lamb biryani to give a woodsy, truffle-y, and almost cinnamon-like flavor and has a distinctive brown-black color. It’s sometimes included in Garam Masala blends, and its earthy flavor is better released after roasting in hot oil.
Coriander seeds are the fruit of cilantro plant, and have a very delicate citrus flavor, but also an earthiness, almost like sage. You can usually find them toasted and ground, and they’re used widely throughout Indian cooking. Try adding some to the filling of our Spiced Potato and Cauliflower Samosas.
This herb is used extensively in South Indian cooking—and no, it’s not what curry powder (a blend of many different spices) is made from, so you can’t substitute one for the other. Curry leaves are from the same family as citrus fruit, so you’ll get aromatic, herbaceous flavors, almost like lemongrass. Store these in the freezer for optimal freshness.
This spice is part of the nutmeg plant, but it’s more subdued, sweeter, and more delicate than nutmeg—it even has hints of cinnamon and coriander. It’s used in both savory and sweet dishes, traditionally in the North Indian cuisine, and it’s bright red in color. You can find these in dried packets in spice stores, and it’s worth buying the spice whole, not ground, for the best flavor.
Panch phoron is a blend of five different spices used often in East Indian food—not to be confused with Chinese Five Spice. It’s made up of fenugreek seed, nigella seed, cumin seed, fennel seed, and either mustard seed or wild celery seed, depending on who’s making the blend. It’s incredibly versatile, but to get the most of the flavor, you’ll want to toast or temper the seeds in hot oil before adding to everything from lentils, roasted potatoes, or meat.
This pod-like fruit is used in South Indian cooking for its mouth-puckering sour-sweet taste, and is a popular base for gravies, sauces, and chutneys. Try it out in our Tamarind Chickpea Curry, or in the glaze of Indian Barbecue Chicken. You’ll be able to find tamarind paste in jars at Asian or Latin markets.