Indian ingredients guide
Indian cooking uses a myriad of herbs, spices, seeds and powders to add the heady aromatic, sweet, sour, bitter and salty notes to dishes. Here is a guide to some of the main ingredients used in this cuisine, plus some tips on buying, storing, roasting and grinding spices.
Tips on buying and storing
Buy small quantities at a time as the flavour and aroma of many ingredients dissipate over time. Seek out shops that have a high turnover to ensure you are buying the freshest of ingredients. Store seeds and spices in a cool, dry spot in airtight containers. Some ingredients such as saffron need to be refrigerated to retain its flavour and colour - so get friendly with your Indian grocer and ask for storage tips if you're unsure.
Tips on roasting and grinding
Many ingredients in Indian cooking are either dry-roasted or roasted in oil to release its essential oils - this process brings out the aroma and/or flavour of the ingredient. When making cumin powder or coriander powder from its seeds, it is recommended that you roast these seeds beforehand and then grind them. The roasting creates a deeper, richer and roasted flavour that will improve the taste of the dish.
You can grind spices either using a mortar and pestle or a large grinding stone (harder to find in New Zealand). An electronic spice grinder is a perfectly suitable alternative, or you can use a coffee grinder - but do not use it to grind your coffee beans afterwards as the flavour of the spices are strong and will remain in the grinder.
Where to buy
We source our spices mainly from Sandringham in Auckland - this suburb has a number of Indian spice shops and grocery stores where you can track down most of the Indian herbs, spices and produce available in New Zealand.
Khyber Food & Spices, 164 Stoddard Road, Mt Roskill
Mahadeo's Spices & Produce, 14 Virginia Ave, Eden Terrace
Oum Pillaiyar Trader, 585 Sandringham Road, Sandringham
RRK Foods, 687 Sandringham Road, Sandringham
Spice Supermarket, 539 Sandringham Road, Sandringham
Valley Fruits & Veges, 576 Sandringham Road, Sandringham
If you have any suggestions on where to find good quality Indian ingredients in other areas, drop us a line and we'll add it to this list.
Known as queen of the spices, cardamom has a uniquely floral aroma and flavour. It comes as a pod and inside it are small, shiny black seeds that hold the flavour. There are two main varieties; the large black cardamom (pictured, also known as false cardamom) is used whole in mainly North Indian curries and has a smoky flavour. The small green cardamom, with a stronger floral aroma and flavour, is used in both sweet and savoury dishes. It is especially good with lamb and mutton. Cardamom pods are not meant to be eaten and should be removed before serving the finished dish. For a more intense flavour, remove the black seeds from the pod and grind them with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
Chillies are spicy peppers that come from the same family as the capsicum. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colours and heat levels. Indian cuisine mainly uses green chillies, dried red chillies and chilli powder. Green chillies deliver heat and herbaceous notes and they're eaten raw, or cooked in curries. Store fresh chillies in the fridge. Dried chillies (sundried long red chillies) are used in many meat curries and dishes with rice and pulses. If you want the flavour without the heat, cut the chilli to remove the seeds. Dried red chillies are ground to make chilli powder. As well as delivering heat to a dish, chilli powder adds a warm red colour.
Cinnamon quills or sticks are tan-coloured curled strips from the bark of the cinnamon tree. This bark is ground to make ground cinnamon. Cinnamon has a highly perfumed aroma and flavour. It is used in Indian cooking to deliver a sweet note to spice mixes used in curries (especially meat curries) and rice dishes, and is one of the spices used in the making of garam masala. The cinnamon quill is often dry-roasted or fried in oil to release its flavours before adding it to a dish and is not meant to be eaten, so remove before serving.
Cloves are the unopened flower buds of a tree native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. This dark brown spice is commonly used in Indian and Chinese cooking. The French call them clou de girofle (translates to 'nail of clove') because their appearance resembles nails. A powerful, pungent and warming spice, cloves are used whole to impart an aromatic flavour to curries, meat or rice dishes. Powdered, cloves are one of the main ingredients in garam masala. To accentuate the flavour, whole cloves may be dry-roasted. They take less than 2 minutes, even quicker if roasting the ground form. Whole cloves are not meant to be eaten so are best removed prior to serving, if possible.
Coriander seeds (also called dhania) are small round, creamy-brown (stronger flavour and aroma) or greenish (milder flavour) seeds which are actually the dried ripe fruit of the coriander plant. They have a fairly mild and sweet citrus flavour (of orange and lemon) and tend to balance other spices in a dish. They are used as a principal spice in Indian cooking mainly in ground form. Like cumin, the aroma and flavour of this spice is enhanced with a little dry-roasting. It is preferable to make your own freshly ground coriander by dry roasting and grinding the seeds with a mortar and pestle or with a spice grinder. Store-bought ground coriander is fine to use but less flavourful. Fresh coriander leaves are a favourite herb used to flavour and garnish many Indian dishes.
Cumin (also called jeera) seeds come from the fruit of the herbaceous plant which belongs to the same family as caraway and parsley. Considered to be a digestive, cumin - both in its seed or ground form - is used extensively in Indian cooking, offering a strong and slightly bitter and peppery taste. The seeds are oblong in shape with ridges and are brown in colour. Whole seeds retain their flavour much better than ground. The aroma and flavour is enhanced with a little dry-roasting. It is preferable to make your own freshly-ground cumin by dry roasting and grinding the seeds with a mortar and pestle or with a spice grinder.
Curry leaves (not related to curry powder) come from a citrus tree found predominantly in the South Asian region. Also known as sweet neem leaves, this herb is used extensively in Indian and Sri Lankan cooking to impart herbaceous flavour and aroma to curries, soups, dhals and fried dishes. Curry leaves can be used fresh and are often fried in oil (to release the volatile oils) to add to a dish while it is cooking, or as a finishing touch or garnish. If fresh leaves cannot be sourced, dried curry leaves can be used, although their intensity is diminished slightly in the drying process. The curry leaf plant can be grown in New Zealand – but do not confuse it with the curry plant. Leaves can be frozen.
Curry powder is a ground spice mixture that can include cinnamon, cloves, cumin and coriander, mustard seeds, black pepper, chilli, fenugreek and turmeric. Similar to garam masala (which is more popular in Northern Indian cuisine), the ingredients that go into curry powder vary depending on region and personal taste. It may also include nutmeg, curry leaves, fennel seeds, chilli, ginger, cardamom and asafoetida, to name a few. Curry powder comes in numerous varieties with its own unique blend of spices, so each will produce a distinctive character. Curry powder is added as a spice base to add flavour and aroma to Indian dishes, along with other spices. From mild yellow curries, to red hot ones, there'll be a curry powder that you can buy to suit the dish.
Fennel (also called saunf) seeds comes from the fennel herb plant (part of the parsley and celery family) and it imparts a sweet aroma with an aniseed flavour. The seeds look similar to cumin seeds only a little rounder and larger with a greenish-brown tinge. It is commonly used in Indian cooking - especially meat, fish and vegetable dishes - and is one of the key ingredients in a popular Indian spice mix called panch phoran. Fennel is used mainly in ground form (pictured) but also as whole seeds and, like cumin and coriander, the flavour of fennel seeds improves when its volatile or essential oils are released through dry roasting.
Fenugreek (also called methi) are yellow square-shaped hard seeds with a strong earthy flavour and aroma. Used in pickling and curry powder, this spice is especially good with vegetarian (particularly dhal) and fish dishes. The ground version is commonly used. Fenugreek offers a bittersweet flavour and perfectly complements other Indian spices such as cumin, coriander and fennel. Roasting fenugreek in a pan does reduce its bitterness, but use fenugreek sparingly as it can give off a bitter aftertaste. Fenugreek leaves (dried or fresh) is a herb used in some curries - it's especially good with leafy greens and potatoes, and as an addition to curries, soups and sauces.
Garam masala is a mixture of ground spices including cinnamon, cumin, cloves, black cardamom, cloves and nutmeg, and sometimes also incorporates coriander, turmeric, fennel and ginger powder. This aromatic and flavourful spice mix is an Indian pantry staple. It is used as the spice base in curries, dhals and stews, and to add a finishing touch. You can buy it, however best flavour results from making your own batch regularly. The recipe for garam masala varies regionally in India, and even from household to household - it's all about personal taste. Grind your toasted spices with a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Once the spices are ground into a powder, store the garam masala in an airtight container for up to three months. Depending on the quality of your spices, the garam masala mixture packs a powerful punch so it needs to be used sparingly.
Ginger is one of the most used ingredients in Indian cooking, adding its distinctive and warming flavour to both savoury and sweet dishes. In its fresh root form, ginger is either minced, crushed or sliced into dishes. Ground ginger has a slightly different flavour and is usually added towards the end of cooking to add a different layer to the fresh ginger or it is used in making biscuits, desserts and chutneys. Store fresh ginger in a cool airy spot with your onions and garlic. It freezes well.
Jaggery (palm sugar)
Also called gur or vellam, jaggery is a sweetener used in Indian cooking. A golden to dark brown unrefined sugar, it is sold as chunks, blocks or discs and is made from boiled palm sap or cane juice. The flavour of jaggery is similar to caramel and small amounts are used in savoury dishes, such as curries and sambars, to balance out salty, spicy and sour flavours. Jaggery is used in traditional Indian desserts such as ladoo, halwa and payasam.
Mustard seeds are one of the oldest spices used in European and Indian cuisine. These little round seeds come in three varieties (yellow, black and brown) from three different plants that belong to the cabbage family. Mustard seeds are crushed to make the various mustards you find from around the world. In Indian cooking, particularly in the South, the small black variety (actually a dark reddish-brown) is extensively used - the whole seeds are fried in hot oil for about 10-15 seconds until they crackle and pop. This releases a deliciously toasty or nutty flavour into the oil that goes particularly well with dhals, vegetarian dishes and most curries.
Pepper is one of the oldest and most extensively used spices in the world. Pepper comes in black, green and red varieties and it delivers a gentle heat and piquant flavour. In Indian cooking, whole black peppercorns are used especially in curries - either dry-roasted for a minute or as is - adding warm notes that go particularly well with meat, poultry and fish dishes. Whole pepper is not eaten but rather left to the side, or removed from the dish before serving. Pepper is also used in its ground form in garam masala or as part of the mix in spice-rich dishes - the best flavour is achieved when it is cracked or ground from the whole seed.
Star anise is a star-shaped, dark red-brown pod containing shiny oval seeds. It is a spice used in Chinese (a main ingredient in five-spice powder) and Indian cooking, delivering a deep and earthy aniseed or liquorice flavour. Primarily used in meat and rich curries, the star anise pod (like cardamom pods and cinnamon quills) deliver an aromatic flavour but is too pungent to be eaten - leave it aside when serving the dish.
A sweet and sour-tasting legume (or pod) with a hard, brown shell and a fleshy pulp that is used in Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern and Mexican cuisines. Fresh tamarind can sometimes be bought in New Zealand at greengrocers, Asian grocers and some supermarkets but tamarind pulp and paste are more widely available. Sold in a block in all Asian grocers and in the International section of supermarkets, the pulp is mixed with hot water, mashed to a paste and then strained to remove the seeds. If the pulp is not available, use tamarind paste (also known as concentrate) that comes in a jar. The pulp, however, has more flavour.
Also known as haldi, turmeric is the root of an herbaceous plant and is a spice used to make Indian food yellow. It is used in its fresh or dried form (similar in appearance to ginger) or more commonly, as ground turmeric which is golden orange in colour. Its yellow pigment is staining so take care when handling it. It is slightly bitter to taste. Indians use it to marinate fish, or add it to meat, fish or vegetable dishes by pan-frying it for a few seconds to release its flavour. Sometimes used as a cheap substitute to saffron, turmeric is also used in rice dishes, curry powder and pickles.