indian spices guide

The Beginner's Guide to Indian Spices

India: the name alone evokes spice, colour and exoticism. Wherever you travel across this wonderful and diverse land, you’ll encounter local people preparing food using time-honoured methods passed down through generations – and spices are an essential part of the country’s best-loved dishes and cuisines.

indian spices guide

We all have an understanding of Indian spices, and UK supermarkets now stock a great range of ingredients that are perfectly acceptable for recreating the country’s bold Asian flavours. But, however well versed you are in India’s spices, nothing can prepare you for seeing and tasting them in their country of origin; it’s a spectacle of colour, fragrance and flavour that enlivens all the senses.

Discovering Indian spices is a must on your visit to the country, with bazaars and markets being among the best places to get to grips with the variety of ingredients and produce on offer. Spices are also one of the best souvenirs you can bring back home with you, giving you the freedom to recreate local delicacies just like a local.

Discover India’s Essential Spices

From cardamom to turmeric, join us we as take a culinary journey through India’s cornerstone spices – showing you the ingredients to have on your spice rack if you want to recreate delicious Indian food at home.


indian spices guide

Cardamom is one of the most popular spices used in Indian cooking, delivering a sweet, spicy flavour reminiscent of eucalyptus and menthol. You’ll typically see two types of cardamom pods available at India’s spice markets, green and black, with the green variety being better suited to everyday Indian dishes. Green cardamom pods are often used to make spice mixes, like garam masala, and can be also used to flavour desserts (in a similar way to pistachios). Unless you’ve mastered balancing spice and heat, black cardamom pods are best avoided – as fiery and potent as they are.


Indian Spices Guide

Clove is used in lots of popular Indian dishes, with its delicate anise taste balancing sweet, coconut-based dishes such as korma and makhani. Derived from flowers, clove is packed with essential oils which are squashed out (often to make home fragrances and perfume) before it can be dried and used for cooking. With its distinctive fragrance, you should have no trouble finding clove among the spices and ingredients of India’s colourful markets. A word of caution, however, because clove can easily overpower other tastes and flavours if you use too much.


spices guide

Coriander is among the longest-used spices in the world, and has been an integral component of Indian cookery for centuries. Producing an aromatic flavour, coriander seeds are used in a variety of curries, and are usually toasted and ground before use to release their warm, citrus-like flavour. When toasting coriander seeds, there are two ways to know they’re ready: they should start to turn slightly brown in colour and will also ‘dance’ or pop in the pan, showing that they’re toasted through. Crush and add them to your favourite Indian dishes for an aromatic boost of flavour.


indian spices guide

Smoky and aromatic, cumin has a distinct smell that’s instantly recognisable. Often, in everyday cooking in the UK, people tend to use ground cumin, but in India the whole seeds are preferred. As with coriander, cumin seeds are toasted to release all of that wonderful smoky flavour, before being ground in a pestle and mortar. The thing to remember when preparing whole cumin seeds is that they can burn very easily, and this can ruin the flavour. A light roast is all that’s needed to release the fragrant spice of these quintessentially Indian seeds.

Mustard Seeds

indian spices guide

One of the most common spices used in the cuisines of North India, mustard seed adds a nutty, smoky flavour to dishes, and can be used to heighten the spiciness and warmth of curry powders. There are lots of different types of mustard seeds available, in a range of colours, with the most common varieties being brown, black or yellow. As with cumin and coriander, it’s better to toast the seeds before use to release their natural flavour; you can also fry the seeds in oil for the same effect. Use them in your favourite curry to add depth of flavour and a distinct savoury taste.


indian spices guide

Nutmeg is one of the most distinctive spices used in Indian cookery, and one which can quickly ruin a dish if you use too much. Nutmeg is a wonderful addition to creamy curries or those featuring paneer, as it’s known as an excellent pairing with cheese. Most people buy nutmeg ground, but it’s better to buy it whole and grate it as and when you need it, as it can lose its flavour quickly in powdered form. Unlike other spices such as cumin and coriander, nutmeg doesn’t need to be toasted before use, so it’s a great throw-in-at-the-end spice which can really heighten many Indian dishes.


indian spices guide

Among the most potent spices in Indian cuisine, Fenugreek is a small, kernel-like seed that’s strongly fragranced and spicy if used in too great a quantity. Fenugreek is one of the main spices used in hotter curries like Madras, bringing heat as well as a distinctive, earthy flavour. Like clove, it should be used sparingly, but when you add just the right amount, it can really elevate a dish with elegant flavour and warmth. If you’re using whole seeds, toast them beforehand to unlock the full flavour of fenugreek.


indian spices guide

Revered for its fresh, earthy flavour, intense colour and supposed health benefits, turmeric is ubiquitous with the spice and intensity of Indian cuisine, and is used in many of the country’s signature dishes. Grown locally as a rhizome, like ginger, it can be used fresh (grated) or dried and ground to create a brightly-coloured powder. Unlike other spices, turmeric actually gets stronger in flavour when it’s dried, so we’d recommend using ground turmeric over fresh. Whichever variety you choose, make sure you use it with caution, as turmeric is well known for ruining kitchen worktops, utensils and clothing.

Shopping for Spices in Old Delhi

As well as discovering centuries of history and unique cultural traditions, one of the best things to do in Delhi is to visit the city’s spice market, which is regarded as the biggest in the world. Here, in the heart of the evocative Old Delhi, you’ll find vendors selling spices of every colour, taste and variety, which are often piled high in vast bowls for you to scoop up yourself. As you can imagine, the smell is incredible, and you’ll quickly be swept up in the hustle and bustle of the place, bartering with traders like an experienced local.

indian spices guide

To help you get the most from your experience at Old Delhi’s wonderful spice market, we’ve enlisted the help of two expert food and travel writers to share their tips on where to shop for spices, and how best to barter with the locals. Find out what helpful guidance they had to hand below.

“Within Old Delhi, you will find one of the biggest and oldest markets in the city, dating back to 1650. In between the lanes of Khari Baoli, you will find many retailers selling spices, dried fruit and other food products. This market is the biggest wholesale spice market in Asia. Indian spices make the perfect souvenir for anybody who likes to cook. If you buy them from this particular market you will be getting them incredibly cheap and from the sources.

indian spices guide

“A great shop to buy them from is Mehar Chand & Sons. Here, they package the spices and label them clearly so you will have no problem taking them back home. Many countries won’t allow food if it’s not packaged correctly so always check with your local customs when bringing them back. The shopkeepers also speak good English and can help you pick, smell and even taste the spices you are about to buy!

“The good thing about this particular market is nearly everything has prices so there’s no need to bargain, however you will find at the shop I recommended above that the prices are a little higher. If you want them even cheaper then you will have to go to the neighbouring stores which don’t speak English and maybe don’t package the food professionally for customs. At these stores, the prices are not inflated for tourists.”

“I highly recommend looking at different curry mixes as well as chai blends. Chai is the most popular hot drink in India and here you can find incredible blends to take back home with you.”

– Anita Hendrieka of travel blog Anita Hendrieka
indian spices guide

Haggling at Indian markets can seem really daunting, but it’s all part of the process. In fact, many vendors in India look forward to the whole thing. The trick is to treat it all as a game. Do some research beforehand if you can, so you have a rough idea of what the right price for certain items should be. It’s impossible to haggle if you don’t know what you’re aiming for.

Another great tip is to shop early. Many vendors in India believe that the first sale of the day is lucky, so they might give you a discount in order to get your business. Go in with a price that’s much lower than what you actually want to pay, so that you have room to negotiate and meet in the middle (hopefully). And don’t be afraid to walk away to seem disinterested – it’s a useful haggling tactic that will help lower the prices!”


– Emily Luxton of travel blog Emily Luxton Travels

Experience India’s Exoticism with Scenic

Whether you’re a passionate foodie or you love exploring local markets, a visit to the great spice markets of Delhi is the perfect way to immerse in the culture of this incredible city. At Scenic, our Jewels of India, Golden India and Grand Discovery of India gives you the chance to experience the wonders of Old Delhi for yourself, so you can immerse in a world of spice and put your new-found bartering skills to the test.