India is the seventh largest country in the world and as a result, its climate varies greatly in different parts of the country. This changing climate means that a wide range of spices is produced all over the country, many of which are native to India and some which have been imported from countries with similar climates.
Indian spices are used in some different forms. They can be used whole, chopped, ground, roasted, sautéed, fried and as a topping. When cooking, they are mainly used in dishes to enhance flavour and give the dish an extra ‘kick’. They are also used in medicine, magic and cultural traditions.
Even before the Roman and Greek civilisations came into being, spices were being traded with neighbouring lands and many armies have fought with each other over centuries for access to the trade routes. Indian spices have been exported around the world for centuries, and they are as popular today as they have ever been.
There are too many spices to mention them all, however below is a guide to many of the most common Indian spices:
Cinnamon derives from the bark of an evergreen tree. It is native to India in the eastern part of the country, and as well as its common use in food it is also used regularly for medicinal purposes.
In cooking, it is used in some curries with Biryani being the most common and it is also used as a flavouring in sweet products such as muffins due to its distinctive aroma and non-spicy properties.
Ginger can be found all over India, and its pungent taste distinguishes it from many other spices. In addition to its more common use in various foods, it is also used for medicinal purposes such as ginger tea. In cooking it is mostly used in its grounded form to give an extra ‘bite’ to curries.
Black pepper is arguably the most common Indian spice used in cooking. Grown mostly in Southern India, it is most commonly used as a condiment throughout the world and is regularly used to give additional flavour to some savoury dishes and snacks. Pepper is derived from the berries of the pepper tree, and whereas white pepper is just the seed, black pepper is the dried berry.
Native to India, cumin can be found in a variety of curries and is mainly used as a flavouring agent and a condiment in certain dishes. Cumin seeds are usually used at the beginning of a dish when preparing a meal, because as the seeds heat up, the flavour and the aroma is given off.
Saffron is mostly used as a colouring agent as well as a seasoning one. Often used as a colouring agent in sweets, the use of saffron also varies around the world. In India, where it originates, it is always added at the end of the preparation of a dish, however, in Europe, it is usually added at the beginning or midway through preparation, such as in a paella.
A member of the ginger family, Tumeric is used to add flavour and colour to dishes. Bright orange in appearance, it gives the dishes that it’s used in a distinctive appearance. Like many other Indian spices, it is also used for medicinal purposes, and it has been proven to help with arthritis, stomach pain, heartburn and loss of appetite.
Coriander can be used both ground and whole and its seeds are commonly used as a condiment in dishes. Deriving from the dried fruit cilantro, coriander leaves are often used as a garnish to finished dishes, and they have been proven to help aid digestion.
Fennel seeds are small, oval and greenish brown in appearance. The plant they come from is part of the parsley family, and they have a somewhat sweet flavour to them. When preparing a meal they are used sparingly as this gives the meal a warmth and sweetness which would be spoiled if too much was used.