Sponsored By

Indian Spice BlendsIndian Spice Blends

September 3, 2009

12 Min Read
Indian Spice Blends

By Gauri Thergaonkar, Contributing Editor

From the Queen of Shebas historic visit to King Solomon to the many European conquests of the East, spices have ignited passions and changed the course of history since time immemorial. Their role in our society has transformed many times over the centuries. Once precious commodities accessible only to the very wealthy, spices were used to end sieges, buy brides, pay rent, ensure safe passage and as a trading currency.

Today, corner grocery stores have spice selections numbering in the hundreds, peppercorns grace every restaurant table and home pantry, and cinnamon shakers are ubiquitous in coffee shopsand this more-adventuresome spirit is carrying over into manufactured foods.

Broadening with blends

If we hold that observation to be true of spices in general, it is especially true of spice blends. The conjuring up of a spice blend requires a certain comfort with spices and a certain degree of flair, skills which remain the stronghold of the Eastern cultures where the most common spices of the world find their origins.

Of the tried-and-true spice blends of the East, some are better known than othersfive spice powder from China is better known than seven spice powder from Japan. Zaatar from the Middle East is gaining popularity while advieh remains obscure; garam masala from India is practically a household word, but sambhar powder is known only to the most-avid enthusiasts of Indian food.

A quick survey of the culinary landscape would indicate a rapidly growing interest in the spice blends of India. An educated guess might place the reason for this interest as stemming from the fact that of all the Eastern cultures, Indian spice blends tend to be comprised of 10 or more spices, whereas those of the Middle and Far East tend to be more restrained and employ 4 to 5 spices, leading the Indian spice blends to be an alluring combination of complexity and inaccessibility.

While a blend of 10 or more spices in specific quantities, each toasted individually and then powdered, may seem daunting, it is important to understand that they came out of kitchens that routinely contained at least 25 spices as part of the pantry. They were wielded by cooks who had an intimate familiarity with spices, having grown up in kitchens and households where spices have been expertly used for generations, centuries, eons.

Inside the Indian kitchen

A quick, if reductionist, overview of Indian cooking is required to understand the nature of spice blends. In the first step, oil is heated, seasoned with whole spices, typically including mustard and cumin, and then the main ingredientvegetable, meat or poultryis added to the seasoned oil. This step is called the tarka or the bhuna. Spice blends usually go in toward the end, when the main ingredient is almost cooked and then the entire dish is cooked through so that the spices become one with the main ingredient.

It is because they go in at the end that most of the ingredients in spice blends are dry roasted in a pan before they are ground. Besides waking up the flavors of the spices themselves, the heat also removes the raw edge on the spices, allowing them to be quickly integrated with the main ingredient and preserving a bright, fresh flavor that would be lost from too much exposure to heat or liquid.

Even today, in an average Indian kitchen, when a spice blend is being prepared, nothing is measured. Traditionally, spice blends were made on the fly, the quick roasting and grinding being as common a step in the preparation of a meal as the peeling of garlic or the chopping of onions.

Typically, each spice is individually dry roasted on medium to medium-high heat. This is because the time-temperature balance needed for each spice varies. The hardier ones, like peppercorns, need more heat, so they should be roasted for longer than most others. Cumin seeds are similarly sturdy and can withstand high temperatures, but their shape and size renders them a little more fragile and quicker to burn. Cloves and cardamom seeds are much like cumin seedssturdy to higher temperatures but requiring attention.

In general, the size of a spice is a good way to judge how much exposure to heat it needs to heighten its flavors. The best way to determine whether a spice is sufficiently roasted is by staying alert and attentive to its aroma, which will be quite distinct. As a rule of thumb, preheat the roasting pan to medium before you add the spice. A minute or so of roasting is sufficient for most spices.

Regional preferences, availability of a given spice, the main ingredient and the seasons defined the contents of each spice blend. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that in a typical kitchen no two spice blends were ever exactly the same and that even when the main constituents of a spice blend were the same between two cooks, an unquantifiable aesthetic, the so called cooks hand, would make the quantities used by each slightly different.

Yet, over the years, tried-and-true combinations have stayed with cooks, eventually to be codified by names, even recipes; although a comparison of the recipes for garam masala from five different Indian cookbooks would more explicitly illustrate the point being made. In todays India, where the pressures of time and money are changing the nature of the daily preparation of food, prepackaged and store-bought spice blends are sadly becoming more common.

Regional preferences

To understand the range of Indian spice blends, it is best to divide India into broad regions: North, South and East. While such an oversimplified view of the cuisine does some disservice to the many state cuisines, each proudly independent and starkly or subtly different from the next, it serves the purpose of creating a useful entry point for further study. Note that the omission of the West is not an oversight, merely a recognition of the powerful North-South divide that characterizes India.

North India was influenced by the Arab invaders (Mughals)they were meat eaters, their diet was richer in fat to accommodate the cooler climate. The spices most commonly used, such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and peppercorns, were not only easily available, but were considered heat-inducing. The use of saffron marks the spice blends of the North, for it is grown in Kashmir. The food of the North is also marked by the influence of Islam, a departure from the Hindu and Ayurvedic traditions that still characterize the foods of the South and West, and sometimes the East.

Owing to its geography, the South remained somewhat protected from invaders. Its cuisine is marked by the products of the coast and its lush green farmlands: rice, coconut, fish and lentils. The use of spices in the South is a little more restrained, but no less skilled. The flavor profile leans a little toward the pungent end of the spectrum, perhaps to compensate for the fact that so much of the food of the South is vegetarian.

The East holds a place of its own in the commonly acknowledged North-South divide because it is a truly unique melting pot. It is the site of the largest estuarine delta in the world, the first point of arrival of the British colonizers and influenced by its proximity to China and Nepal. The spices of the East are also more pungent than those the North, dominated by mustard, fenugreek, turmeric and long pepper (a plant native to Northeast India, and the first pepper ever used), later replaced by black pepper.

In considering the spice blends of each of these regions, its useful to note what some might consider a glaring omission: There will be no discussion of curry powder. It is a misnomer, a product of colonization and errant codification that is best translated as, well, spice blend. It has no other meaning in the kitchens of India.

The most prominent spice blend of each region is listed below with their key ingredients and proportions:

North, garam masala (translation: hot spice mix). This ingredient list comes from Moghul Cooking by Joyce Westrip, an authority on the subject. Garam masala is most commonly used at the end of a dish, for both meat and vegetarian dishes.

  1 tablespoon light-colored cumin seeds

  2 teaspoons black cumin seeds

  3 teaspoons cardamom seeds, extracted from their pods

  1½ tablespoons black peppercorns

  20 cloves

  1 teaspoon fennel seeds

  3 cinnamon sticks

  1 teaspoon mace powder

East, panch phoron (translation: five spices). Note that while being toasted as usual before use, the spices are left whole. This ingredient list comes from The Calcutta Cookbook by Minakshie Dasgupta, et al. Its most commonly used to season dry curries, such as a potato curry.

  2 tablespoons cumin seeds

  2 tablespoons fenugreek

  2 tablespoons fennel seeds

  2 tablespoons mustard seeds

  2 tablespoons nigella seeds

West, kala masala (translation: black spice mix). This ingredient list comes from Ruchira by Kamalabai Ogale. Its most commonly used to season dry vegetable curries and lentil dishes

This ingredient list comes from Ruchira by Kamalabai Ogale. Its most commonly used to season dry vegetable curries and lentil dishes

  2 cups coriander seeds

  ½ cup dried coconut pieces

  ¼ cup sesame seeds

  ½ cup cumin seeds

  3 teaspoons black cumin

  2 teaspoons cloves

  4 1-in. pieces of cinnamon

  2 teaspoons asafetida

  5 to 6 bay leaves

  1 teaspoon turmeric

  ¼ cup chili powder

  ½ cup oil

  ½ cup salt

  1 teaspoon mustard seeds

  ½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds

South, sambar masala (translation: a spice blend for sambars). This ingredient list comes from Dakshin by Chandra Padmanabhan. Its used for sambars, a traditional lentil-based dish of the South of India.

  1 tablespoon oil

  2 cups red chiles

  1¾ cups coriander seeds

  4 tablespoons cumin seeds

  1½ tablespoons fenugreek seeds

  1½ tablespoons black peppercorns

  1½ tablespoons brown mustard seeds

  2 teaspoons yellow split peas

  2 teaspoons pigeon peas

  2 teaspoons poppy seeds

  2 large sticks cinnamon bark

  A few curry leaves

  2 teaspoons ground turmeric

There are hundreds more spice blends, thousands more interpretations by cooks, slight changes as one moves through states of the South, North, East or West India, but for a brief introduction, the four we have met are illustrative of the flavor profiles and influences of each region.

Why use spice blends?

While some cuisines highlight single ingredients and bring out the subtle complexities of flavor within a single ingredient by letting it shine, others create complexity by blending myriad ingredients, each with its own characteristic, being employed in service of the whole. Spice blends are invaluable tools in the latter aesthetic of cooking. A musical analogy would be apt here: a solo pianist vs. a symphony  orchestra, and each has its own beauty.

To master spice blends, its best to start by making small batches of spice blends and testing them in applications. This practice will help you become familiar with the spices and what each contributes to the blend. Over time, tweaks to the original recipe will come naturally: a little less mace in the summer since it makes a spice blend hot; a little more cardamom if you plan to dust scallops with the blend so the two kinds of sweetness will play off each other; or perhaps, a little less fenugreek if youre using the spice as a rub with pork but want to serve it with apples because the fenugreek will make the pork too pungent.

Uncooked spices or overspiced dishes invariably have a bitter finish. If you encounter that in your testing, use less spice the next time.

When it comes to spices, salt is magic. Salt is what brings out the flavors of spices. A dish using a spice blend will most likely require more salt in order to help the flavors of the spices stand out. More importantly, the salt will help the spices come together as a single, but complex, flavor experience.

Indian spice blends should not be limited to Indian cuisine. They are easy to use in many other ways, requiring nothing more than an understanding of their flavor and a sense of creativity. As you experiment with Indian spice blends, you will develop an intuitive understanding of their personalitiessome are sweet, some pungent, some spicy, some nutty.

Garam masala can nicely flavor salad dressing. Panch phoron works as a crunch topping on a bowl of polenta. Add a little acid (lemon juice or vinegar) and some olive oil to a spice blend like garam masala to transform it into a rub for grilled meats or fish. Add a spoonful of a spice blend to a soup or stew in the end to add a little hint of complexity. Spike a classic sauce, such as buerre blanc, hollandaise or mayonnaise, with a smidgen of a spice blend. Add a tiny bit of spice blend to a fat you are heating up to sauté greens in, just before you throw in the greens. Use spice blends in cream-based desserts, such as ice creams or crème caramel (simmer the cream with the spice blend).

Once you understand the nuances of spice blends complexity, the possibilities are endless.

Gauri Thergaonkar was raised in India and is currently apprenticing at Tracklements, a fish smokery in Ann Arbor, MI. She previously worked as the retail manager for Zingermans Deliafter nearly 10 years as an automotive engineer. This fall, she plans to travel to India, Indonesia and Vietnam in search of food and adventure and the inspiration for further writing. Thergaonkar is a member of the Research Chefs Association.

Spices Inside a Typical Indian Pantry


  Black cumin

  Fennel seeds

  Coriander seeds


  Green cardamom

  Black cardamom


  Black pepper


  Mustard seeds



  Chili powder





  Poppy seeds

  Star anise

  White pepper

  Bay leaves

  Black onion seeds


Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the healthy food and beverage industry.
Join 47,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like