The 5 Spices You Need to Stock Your Indian Pantry

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While I’ve always enjoyed eating Indian food, I spent most of my life thinking it was far too difficult to replicate at home. Even living in New York, where most exotic ingredients are just a subway ride away, I happily stuck with my take-out curries for years and years. Until Made in India came along.

As our Cookbook Club’s October book of the month, Meera Sodha’s warm, approachable tome of recipes—many from her family’s kitchen–has completely changed my approach to cooking Indian food at home and it’s done the same for many of our group members as well.

The biggest revelation to me: The secrets to Sodha’s delicious curries were sitting right in my pantry in the form of pre-ground, jarred spices. While it’s nice to have amchur or fresh curry leaves, they aren’t at all necessary to cook up a curry that will put your neighborhood takeout place to shame.

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Here are the five spices (yes, five!) that Sodha primarily relies on and I’d almost all but guarantee that you already have them lurking somewhere in your cupboard.

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Turmeric will stain everything in sight, but the yellow-hued powder is crucial for giving Indian dishes an unmistakable earthiness. While it is very rarely the star of the show, it’s a must when called for. Turmeric is also an important antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.

Find it in the book: Pudla (Gujarati chickpea pancakes), Masoor Dal (daily dal), Fish Moilee (coconut fish curry)

Chili powder was a surprising ingredient to me, when I first began cooking from Made In India. As a native Texan who grew up using copious amounts in homemade Tex-Mex dishes, I didn’t realize that it played such a prominent role in Indian food, too. Sodha recommends a dark, robust red powder. Add it carefully, a 1/4 teaspoon at a time, until you know its potency.

Find it in the book: Baked Masala Fries, Gosht Anna Palak nu Shaak (slow-cooked lamb and spinach curry), Chili Paneer

Cumin—both ground and whole—is abundant in the book, so it’s not surprising that Sodha refers to it as “the most hardworking spice in the cupboard.” Cumin’s nutty, toasty flavor can be divisive, but try it as an accent in a few dishes before discounting it entirely. Cumin and lamb are often found together and it’s also frequently used with coriander.

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Find it in the book: Chaas (buttermilk), Boti Kebab (lamb kebabs with cumin and coriander), Bhat Wara Thepla (leftover rice flatbread)

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Coriander: You probably know fresh coriander better as cilantro, but the two are very, very different. Coriander seeds and ground coriander are bright and citrusy. Even if you’re a cilantro-hater, you’ll love the dramatic punch that coriander can add to a dish. Just by stocking your pantry with coriander and cumin, you’ll have dhana jiru, one of the most popular spice mixes used in Indian cuisine.

Find it in the book: Karahi Paneer (slow-cooked red pepper and paneer curry), Tamatar nu Shaak (tomato fry), Chicken and Coriander Samosas

Garam masala is last on the list of “must-haves.” Just a nip of which can warm up a curry on a chilly day. There’s no standard recipe for this spice blend (which literally means “warm mix”), and each blend is unique, based on the maker’s personal taste. A comparison of the two jars in my own pantry shows that one, the Simply Organic brand, is heavy on cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves, whereas the pungent, brightly-hued mix from my local Indian grocery is laced with turmeric, ginger, garlic, white pepper, and mace. Sodha includes her mother’s recipe in the book, should you wish to grind your own.

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Find it in the book: Lamb Biryani, Taj Anna Loving Wari Gosht (Howrah Express cinnamon lamb curry), Grimsby Smoked Haddock Kedgeree

And if you want to feel especially prepared to cook through Made in India with our Cookbook Club, here are a few “nice-to-haves” to consider: cardamom (ground and pods), fennel seeds, fenugreek, mustard seeds, and cloves.

Psst: Didn’t know about our Cookbook Club? Head here to get up to speed on how to participate.

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