Cooking is like casting a spell and spices are like fairy dust. A piece of it here and a sprinkle there makes all the difference. One may have a variety of exotic vegetables or the freshest of meat but without spices the finest of chefs will fail to create magic! Each cuisine uses a signature combination of spices which differentiates it from other cuisines. Otherwise a potato will remain a potato, no matter where and how it is cooked. The correct combination of even the most common spices with their characteristic flavours & aromas, when added in the right quantity will give your dish the necessary boost. Unfortunately, the opposite is equally true.
Since the beginning, we Indians have been very passionate about our spices. For us spices not only help in enhancing the flavour of our food but they have a very important and intrinsic role in our medicinal and cultural habits. India with its complex and extremely diverse climatic conditions is an ideal place to grow a variety of spices and herbs which justifiably makes it the “Land of Spices”.
Let us take a look at one of our finest treasures – The top ten Indian Spices (in no order of preference).
1. Cumin seeds/ Jeera
Cumin seeds are highly aromatic and slightly bitter in taste. They actually belong to the parsley family and are therefore native to the Mediterranean area. [See I told you that the Italian and Indian food has way too much in common B-)]
Uses: They are extensively used in culinary preparations in the Indian households since ages. Though not terribly popular in South India, people up north use the dry jeera seeds in tadkas while its roasted form is used to enhance flavours.
Benefits: It is a great aid in digestion and helps in relieving acidity. It is highly rich in Iron and good for people who are anaemic and mothers who are expecting or lactating.
2. Mustard Seeds/ Sarson ke daane
These small seeds pack a lot of health benefits and are high in anti oxidants, selenium, magnesium and omega 3 fatty acids. Greens (Sarson ka saag), Seeds (black, yellow or brown) and oil (Sarson ka tel), all have many curative and culinary uses since ancient times. Adding more mustard into daily life would at the very least tantalize the taste buds and warm the body aches. It is widely used in Indian, Mideastern and Asian cuisines.
Uses: The mustard seeds and sauces are used to preserve pickles and spice up anything from salad to hotdogs to idlis. As I am personally associated with a family business of producing mustard oil; I can vouch that it adds special taste to everything from your puris to your sabjis. And it is way better than your regular refined oil or the fatty ghee. Trust me; it’s good for your husband’s heart.
Benefits: Mustard helps speed up metabolism and lowers blood pressure. It is also helpful in reducing the frequency of migraines. It can be applied as oil in hair to reduce hair loss. Mustard plasters are applied to the chest for clearing the sinuses and decongest the lungs, thus good for asthma.
3. Turmeric/ Haldi
Turmeric is an ancient yellow spice with a warm and mellow flavour. It is related to the ginger family and is indispensable when it comes to Indian food. With its inherent qualities, Indian turmeric is considered the best in the world.
Uses: Today, turmeric has found application all over the world in various areas such as medicine, cosmetic, dyeing and colouring. Not many would know but turmeric is a good and cheap substitute for saffron and its oil is used in perfume industry. Western cuisines do not use turmeric directly, but it forms part of several spice mixtures and sauces; for instance, it is used to impart a bright yellow colour to mustard paste.
Benefits: One can say turmeric is more of medicine than spice and hence it’s ancient connection with Ayurveda. Turmeric paste is a natural sunscreen and can be applied before bathing. It heals and prevents dry skin, treat skin conditions such as eczema and acne, and retard the aging process. It acts as a healing agent in many health disorders like liver problems, digestive disorders and wound healing because of its anti-inflammatory properties. It also has a wide range of therapeutic effects.
4. Coriander Seeds/ Dhania
Coriander is one of the oldest herbs and spices on record. Coriander seeds are tan-coloured, ribbed, light weight with subtle flavour and a slight hint of citrus. Coriander seeds are available whole or in ground powder form. Coriander is native to South Eastern Europe and grown extensively all over Europe, Middle East, China, India, and Turkey. It is a good source of iron & magnesium.
Uses: Coriander seeds are used as flavouring agent. In India, ground powder is a common household spice powder that is used in pickling, chutneys, curries and as marinate.
Benefits: It aids in digestion and helps settle the stomach. It is an anti-inflammatory spice that may alleviate symptoms of arthritis and protect against urinary tract infections. It is also known to bring blood sugar and bad cholesterol (LDL) under control while raising good cholesterol (HDL).
5. Fenugreek Seeds/ Methi
The yellow colour methi seeds are small in size and hard in texture and have a slightly bitter taste.
Uses: Fenugreek seeds are used in tadkas and to prepare “Methi ki chutney” – a strong flavoured tangy spread. They can also be sprouted and used in salads. The fresh fenugreek leaves is a common green vegetable available in the winter season while the dry fenugreek leaves also known as “Kasoori Methi” is a popular spice used to enhance flavour of Indian curries.
Benefits: Fenugreek is beneficial for people with diabetes and cholesterol. They also aid in curbing gastric problems. People who have problems of joint pains and arthritis should take a teaspoon of fenugreek seed powder twice a day. Its paste is also used to cure acne. Expecting mothers should avoid fenugreek as it leads to relaxation of uterus walls.
6. Carom Seeds/ Ajwain
Ajwain seeds are pale khaki in colour and look like a smaller version of cumin seeds. They are highly fragrant and light in weight. They have been used for ages as a medicinal ingredient in Ayurveda.
Uses: Ajwain is often part of the tadka in a dish. Ajwain is also used in vegetable dishes (for its distinctive taste) and pickles (for its preservative qualities). It also aids in digestion.
Benefits: Ajwain seeds are used as a cure for diarrhoea, dysentery and indigestion. It is helpful to relieve symptoms (like blocked nose, etc) of a cold. One can add 1 tbsp of Ajwain to a bowl of boiling water and inhale the steam.
Also it helps in easing rheumatic pain. Ajwain oil must be applied on affected part of body.
7. Chilli (Powder and whole)/ Lal Mirch
Red chilli with its hot and spicy flavour is one of the favourite Indian spices used around the globe. Alongwith with the spicy flavour, red chilli also gives the tempting red colour to the food.
Uses: Red chilli is used in powdered and whole form. Powdered form is genrally sprinkled to the cooking food. The whole red chilli is used for tadka in a dish.
Benefits: If used in moderation red chilli can prove beneficial to health. Red chillies are rich in Vitamins A, B, C, E and in mineral like potassium, manganese and iron. They are anti-bacterial and analgesic. They can help in controlling diabetes and cholestrol levels.
8. Cinnamon/ Dal chini
Cinnamon is a flavour enhancing spice. It lends great aroma to the food as well.
Uses: The dried cinnamon bark is used in tadka alongwith other spices. The powdered form is used more for baking. Cinnamon is widely used in Chinese and Ayurvedic remedies.
Benefits: Cinnamon regulates cholestro ad blood sugar. It is very beneficial for health because of its anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-clotting properties. It relieves headaches, muscular pains, cold and indigestion.
For weight loss: Soak half teaspoon of cinnamon powder in a glass of water overnight. In the morning boil this water. When the water is lukewarm, add a teaspoon of honey. Drink this mixture empty stomach every morning for about 2 months. You will definitely benefit from this.
9. Cloves/ Laung
A popular spice for its flavour and fragance, is an important part of gram masala. When used in prolonged cooking it evaporates its essential oils.
Uses: It is used as whole spice in tadka. Also, it is used as a part of gram masala to add flavour and aroma to food.
Benefits: It is a sure shot remedy for tooth ache. Also, it acts as mouth freshner. Clove oil is a muscle pain reliver and keeps body warm.
10. Black Pepper/ Kali Mirch
Black pepper is rightly called ‘king of spices’ for its strong pungent flavours. Like cloves, black pepper also is an important spice used in making gram masala.
Uses: Used as whole in tadka. Also, used in powdered form to marinate meat and in most curry preparations.
Benefits: Black pepper helps in absorption of nutrients from the food. It is a great anti-oxidant and helps in regulating cholestrol and blood sugar.