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Spices needed for an authentic Indian curry .

Most people associate Indian curry with a powder purchased from the grocery store for dishes that call for curry. The word “curry” came from the Tamil area in Southern India. The French colonized southern India, and the word “kari,” which means sauce, was used when the French introduced Indian cooking to Europe. 

Indians use spices to make curry based on the different regions in India; West India, North India and South India are the main regions that provide spices that vary flavors in different types of curry preparation.

There are many spices readily available to those who want to make their own curry sauces. 

All the spices listed can be purchased in powder form, but the flavor is lost.  If possible, buy the spices by seeds, pods or roots.  The following will give the main spices to have on hand, how to bring out the flavor in the roots, seeds and pods. and an overview of spices used in individual areas within Indian regions.  

The main spices to have on hand 

For preparation of the spices to use in curries, it is best to get the spices in seed form and grinding them before using in recipes.  Most Indian curries use a method called tempering or “tadka.”

Tempering (Tadka) spices to bring out flavor 

Tempering can be done at the beginning of cooking or at the end. The process is heating spices in hot fat or ghee (clarified butter). This helps to retain the aroma and flavor of spices. Tempering unlocks the oils in the spice.

Tempering tips:

Use the right size pan – usually a small pan works.

Tempering is bringing out flavors in the spice before adding them to the sauce.  It is important not to add any liquid to the tempering pan.

Frying the spice in hot fat or ghee must be done quickly. Heat the oil or ghee on high heat. Turn the heat down to medium high before adding spices. Add each spice separately and not all at once because some will fry quicker than others. For example, cumin seeds will take longer than chopped garlic.  You would add the cumin first and then the garlic.

Add the spices to the base as soon as the sputtering stops.  

Cardamom (pods) – Elletaria cardamomum (Zingiberaceae)

Cardamom belongs in the same family as ginger so it gives a zing to an Indian curry. To remove  the seeds from the pod, use a pestle and mortar.  Put the pod in the mortar and lightly pound it with the pestle. The seeds will fall out as the pod breaks open. Put the seeds and the pod into the curry. The pod will dissolve and add richer flavor to the sauce. 

Caraway (seeds) – carum carvi (umbelliferae)

Caraway seeds are not really seeds but fruit of the plant.  The seeds are ready to use. The flavor they add to the curry is a nutty taste and have warm sweet undertones.  It adds a nice aromatic fragrance to the curry.  

Clove – Eugenia caryophyllus (Myrtaceae)

Whole cloves are potent and should be ground.  A coffee grinder is the best tool.  A blender can be used, but if it is made of plastic, the grinding may pit the plastic. 

Fennel (seeds) – Foeniculum vulgare (Umbelliferae)

The feshness of the fennel seed can be seen by the color.  A fresh fennel seed is bright green. As it grows older, the green darkens. When tempering, the flavor becomes spicier. If added straight to the curry, the flavor is milder.

The Curry Spice Trio

All curries contain these spices and are known as the “holy trinity of Indian spices.”

Tumeric (root) – Curcuma longa (Zingiberaceae)

Cumin (seeds) – Belong to the same Family as Caraway seeds (Umbelliferae) 

Cumin is the main ingredient in curries and gives it the bright yellow pigment.  The seeds are ground with a mortar and pestle.  The flavor is most noticeable when tempered in hot oil.

Mustard (seeds) – Cruciferae (Brassicaceae)

Mustard seeds, when tempered, bring out the sweet flavor of the spice.  The seeds do not need to be ground.

Many recipes call for garam (hot)  masala (mixture of spices).  Most Asian stores carry this in powder form, but it can be made fresh to use just before adding to curry.  The following is a recipe for garam masala.

Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dry ginger
  • 3/4 teaspoon cardamom (3 to 4 pods)
  • 3/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon (2 sticks x 1″ pieces)
  • 3/4 teaspoon crushed bay leaves

Preparation – tempering the spices

  • Heat a skillet on a high flame until skillet is hot. Lower the heat to medium and gently roast all together. Do not include ginger. Leave cardamom pods whole. Stir occasionally until the ingredients turn darker.
  • Allow the mixture to cool. Remove cardamom seeds from the pod. Return seeds and pods back into the roasted mixture.
  • Grind in a dry coffee grinder until they are a fine powder.

Spice overview of regional areas of India

The different regions use different spices.  Authentic regional types of curry recipes are found on this website and have many recipes. Some areas within each region are totally vegetarian, other areas are seafood and vegetables.  

West India Region 

Spices:  Ajwain seeds (carom seeds), asafoetida (the odor of this spice is repugnant and has earned the name, “devil’s dung), bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, chili powder, chilies, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek, ginger, mustard seeds, paprika, pippali, red chilies, sesame seeds, tamarind, tumeric.

North India Region 

Spices:  Anise seed, bay leaves, black pepper, cardamom, cassia (a bark very similar to cinnamon), chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, garlic, ginger, mace, nutmeg, red chilies, saffron, tumeric.

South India Regions 

Spices:  Saffron, coriander, lemon, curry leaf, ginger, sesame seeds, chili powder, mustard, asafetida (“devil’s dung”), tamarind, fenugreek, tumeric, chili peppers, black pepper, clove, mustard seed, cilantro, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, rosewater.

Indian spices vary from regions and areas. The spices flavor the vegetables, meat, and seafood. There are many ways to use the spices that can allow the cuisine to be spicy hot to mildly spicy. Indian curry is an adventure for taste buds if spices are used rather than ready-made curry powder.