All About Spices and Common Ingredients

Good morning everyone,

We’re all about the spices today.  No recipes, just an explanation/description of the lovely, lovely spices and other common ingredients used in Indian cooking.  I’ve tried to keep the list in alphabetical order for ease of use.  I will add to the list as I am able.

Ajwain/Ajowan – These are also known as carom or lovage.  They taste a little like thyme but look like celery seeds.  I have found these occasionally in Canadian supermarkets and they are available in Indian markets.

Amchor/Amchur – Dried mango powder.  This is quite sour and used in many northern Indian dishes.  The powder will last indefinitely and is used in very small quantities.  I have found this in many Canadian supermarkets easily but it is also available in Indian markets.

Allspice – see Kabab Chini

Anardana – Pomegranate seeds.  These are best stored in a freezer bag in the refrigerator and will last up to a year.  I have not been able to find these where I live but they are available in Indian markets.

Asafoetida – also known as hing.  This is the gum resin of ferula, a plant in the parsley family.  In lump form it doesn’t have a smell and is used to keep bugs out of dry foods and spices.  In powdered form it is yellow and sometimes used to replace or enhance garlic and onions in recipes.  It is also said to be a digestive agent.  Be careful though, some people have had “digestive reactions” to hing, which is my polite term for stomach cramps and constipation.  Use very sparingly.

Atta – a finely milled whole wheat flour used to make chapatis and naans.  I have found this easily in Canadian supermarkets but it is also available in larger quantities in Indian markets.

Badian – Star anise.  This spice is used in a lot of meat dishes but I like a little piece in my chai.  You can store it for about two years.

Bajri – millet flour.

Bay Leaf – see Tej Patta

Besan – chickpea flour.  High in protein and gluten free, it can be used as a binder in place of eggs.  I have found this easily in Canadian supermarkets but it is also available in larger quantities (and less expensive) in Indian markets.

Black Cumin – See Shah Jeera; Jeera

Black Salt – See Kala Namak

Cardamom – See Elaichi 

Carom – see Ajwain

Chaat Masala – a spice blend used to sprinkle on snacks and street food.  Available in Indian markets or with this recipe.

Channa/Chole – chickpeas

Channa Dal – split yellow peas

Cilantro – Not to be confused with coriander, which is the seed of the cilantro plant.  The two are not interchangeable.  Cilantro is available regularly in Canadian supermarkets and in Indian markets.

Cinnamon – See Dalchini

Clove – See Lavang; Laung

Coconut – often used in southern and western Indian recipes, coconut is also a thickening agent.  When buying them fresh, look for heavy coconuts with lots of liquid in them.  If there is no liquid or very little, the coconut is probably rancid.

Coriander – The seed of the cilantro plant.  See Dhania

Cumin – See Jeera

Curry/Kari Leaves – Not to be mistaken for curry powder, which is a blend of up to 40 spices, curry leaves are used in a lot of southern Indian dishes.

Dalchini – Cinnamon is a familiar ingredient for North Americans.  In most Indian recipes, cinnamon bark is used but it is also available in a powder form and as cinnamon sticks.  The stick and bark form last much longer if stored in an airtight container.

Dhania – Coriander seed.  The seed of the cilantro plant but it is not interchangeable with cilantro.  Best bought and stored in seed form and ground when needed for cooking.

Dill – While in the west dill is a popular accompaniment to fish, in India it is used as a green, in vegetable dishes and in dal.

Elaichi – Cardamom.  Cardamom comes in two varieties – green and black.  Green cardamom is more commonly used in cooking Indian dishes.  I’ve found both easily in Canadian supermarkets but they are also available from Indian markets.

Fennel – See Saunf

Fenugreek – See Methi

Garam Masala – a northern Indian spice mixture that is available in many Canadian supermarkets and in Indian markets.  To make 1/4 cup for yourself (I apologize that I don’t know where I noted this recipe from) – Toast 2 tbsp coriander seeds and 1 tbsp cumin seeds in a dry skillet.  Combine the coriander, cumin seeds, 1 tsp peppercorns, 3 sticks of cinnamon (3″ each), 35 green cardamom pods and 35 cloves in a coffee mill and grind.  Store in an airtight container.  My recipe for this blend is here.

Ghee – clarified butter

Haldi – Turmeric.  Will stain everything so be careful with it.  It comes from a plant in the ginger family and because it is antiseptic, it can be used to clean wounds.  Trust me on this, when I accidentally cut through my finger tip with a very sharp knife, haldi saved the day.  Turmeric will keep indefinitely in an airtight container.

Hara Channa – small green chickpeas

Hing – see Asafoetida

Idli – rice cakes served for breakfast

Imli – Tamarind.  I can find this in bricks in most Canadian supermarkets but I’ve also found it still in the pod in Asian markets.  It is sour and used in dal dishes, some chutneys and some relishes.  Soak it in hot water for about 25 – 30 minutes to soften it and make it easier to remove the seeds and thick fibres.

Jaggery/Gur – an unrefined cane sugar that tastes a little like molasses.  High in minerals and commonly used in a variety of Indian dishes.

Jaiphul – Nutmeg.  It is best to buy nutmeg whole and grate when needed as it loses its qualities quickly in powdered form.  It is harder to find whole but it is available in Indian markets.

Javitri – This is the outer layer of nutmeg with a milder flavour, used in some Indian dishes.

Jeera – Cumin or Black Cumin (shah jeera) The small grayish form is more commonly used in Indian cooking that the thinner, black form.  These will last indefinitely and are considered a digestive aid.

Jowar – sorghum flour

Kabab Chini – allspice.  Allspice berries look a little like peppercorns but smell more like cloves.  The dried berries will keep several years and are only gone bad once they lose their aroma.

Kala Channa/Kadala/Kulthi – brown chickpeas

Kala Namak – this is black salt mined in the Himalayas.  It contains a lot of sulfates/sulfides, and so has the odour of bad eggs.  However, it’s flavour is salty (obviously) and tangy and is delicious when cooked in a dish.  I have not found this in regular supermarkets but it is available in Indian specialty grocers.

Kesar – Saffron.  This is a very expensive spice grown in Kashmir.  It is the stigma of the crocus flower and harvested by hand.  It is sold as powder or threads.  Purchase the threads as they are much better for cooking with for the same cost.

Kewra Extract – an extract from the pandanus plant used in some rice dishes in northern India.  Available in some northern Indian markets.

Khus-Khus – Indian poppy seeds.  These are white in India but the black variety available in Canada is as good.  These will stay good for up to a year in the refrigerator.  I have never had any trouble finding the black variety.  I have found the white variety in Indian markets.

Kokum – This is a fruit from the west of India.  In Canada, it is available in some Indian markets as a seed that looks a lot like star anise.

Lal Mirch – Red chilies.  These are different in different places in India.  Kashmiri chilies are bright red but not very hot while some others are very, very hot.

Lavang/Laung – Cloves.  Cloves, like cinnamon, are a familiar ingredient for North Americans.  They are best bought and stored whole and ground when needed.  Clove oil is available but not used in cooking – it is a medicine used for toothache.

Lobhia/Chawli – Black-eyed peas

Mace – see Javitri

Mango Powder – see Amchor/Amchur

Masoor Dal – red lentils

Methi – Fenugreek.  Both the plant and seed are used in Indian cooking.  The two are not interchangeable though.

Mung Dal – yellow mung beans

Mustard – See Rai

Namak – Salt.  Black salt is known as Kala Namak and has a musky, almost unpleasant odour.  It is commonly used in northern India.  At home in Canada, I use Himalayan or kosher salt while cooking.

Nigella – Also known as Kalaunji.  This is sometimes mistakenly called onion seed though it comes from a different plant.  It is common in northern Indian cooking.  The seeds can be stored indefinitely.

Nutmeg – See Jaiphul

Papad/Papadum – a thin lentil based cracker

Phool Makhana – puffed lotus seeds

Podis – An Andhra Pradesh spice mix that is sometimes used in idlis and dhosas and other Andhra rice dishes.  Available in some Indian markets.

Poha – rice flakes.  These are available occasionally in some Canadian supermarkets and in Indian markets.  You can buy them in two forms that I’m aware of – thin and thick.  Be careful which you choose for your recipes as each type gives a different texture.

Pomegranate – see Anardana

Poppy Seed – See Khus-Khus

Rai – Mustard.  A variety of mustard seeds are used in Indian cooking and in making Indian pickle.  Mustard greens are called sarson and are popular in winter at home in Punjab.  Mustard oil is also a common Indian cooking ingredient.  The seeds will last about two years stored in a cool, dry place.

Rajma – kidney beans

Rava – Cream of wheat (finer than the North American variety of cream of wheat)

Red Chile – See Lal Mirch

Sabat Masoor – brown lentils

Sabat Mung – Green mung beans

Sabat Urad – Indian black beans

Saffron – see Kesar

Salt – See Namak

Saunf – Fennel.  Tastes like anise, these small seeds are usually crushed or powdered for cooking.  These are used as a mouth freshener and a digestive aid in India.  The seeds will last indefinitely.

Sesame – see Til/Gingelly

Sevian – a thin vermicelli used in Indian dishes.  It is available in some Canadian supermarkets and in larger Indian markets.

Shah Jeera – Black cumin, smaller than regular cumin and very strongly flavoured.  Shah jeera is mainly used as a medicinal ingredient but is also called for in sparing amounts in some recipes.  I have only found this in Indian specialty groceries.

Sooji – Semolina flour

Star Anise – see Badian

Tamarind – see Imli

Tej Patta – Bay leaves.  In Canada, they are from the laurel tree and in India from the cassia tree.  So they are two different types of leaves which perform essentially the same function in any recipe.

Til /Gingelly – Sesame seeds can be stored for up to two years in an airtight container.  The seeds and the oil are both common ingredients in Indian cooking.

Toor Dal – yellow lentils

Urad Dal – split white lentils

Vermicelli – see Sevian




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