How To Make The Most Out Of Your Indian Spices

by Bernadette Machard de Garmont


From biryani to vindaloo, Indian food consists of a diverse collection of spicy goodness including curries, soups, and breads that can vary between regions within the country. While this long list can be intimidating, multi-dimensional Indian blends are what make this subcontinental cuisine so flavorful. That’s why it’s crucial to keep your spices organized. To master this, many Indian homes use the great Masala Dabba, a popular spice storage box comprised of several metal containers within one larger tin. It makes the spices easily identifiable and accessible to the cook.

Curious as to what goes into a Masala Dabba? It’s entirely up to the cook, says Chitra Agrawal, cookbook author and founder of Brooklyn Delhi.

“I have two that I use, one for North Indian and one for South Indian cooking,” she explains. “I choose the spices I use most often to store in my Masala Dabba, (but) I usually do not put spices in the dabba that have a very strong odor that need a more airtight container, like my asafoetida.”

The Masala Dabba can be customized depending on frequency of use, much like a mise en place, the collection of prepped ingredients at a chef’s station in a restaurant. Agrawal’s most utilized spices include:

Cumin Seeds: These seeds are part of the parsley family and are similar in appearance to caraway seeds (the kind you find in rye bread). Bitter, earthy, and slightly nutty in flavor, they are often used in curry powders and stews. Cumin seeds can also be ground into powder.

Black Mustard Seeds: More pungent than their yellow counterparts, these seeds are often tossed in hot oil to release their nutty aroma and mild, slightly sweet flavor. They belong to the same family as wasabi and horseradish, giving them a similar spicy character.

Coriander Powder: This slightly sweet, aromatic spice is the ground seed of the Coriandrum sativum plant (also known as cilantro), part of the parsley family. If you’re averse to cilantro, not to worry. The seeds taste completely different than the leaves.

Garam Masala: A staple in Indian cooking, this spice blend can vary between regions (and kitchens). Common ingredients can include cumin, cardamom, coriander, clove, black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. Variations can also incorporate turmeric, saffron, ginger, garlic, fenugreek, bay leaf and more. Translated at “hot spices,” garam masala isn’t necessarily hot, but it could be depending on the blend.

Red Chili Powder: Also called “lal mirch,” this is simply made of dried, ground fiery red peppers that pack some heat. Indian chili powder is spicier than its American counterpart, which is often a blend of cayenne pepper with paprika, garlic and other spices.

Turmeric Powder: Made from the powdered root of a plant in the same family as ginger, this spice adds bright yellow color to curry, and is said to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Black Pepper: The dried fruit of a flowering vine, black peppercorns are a spice staple you may already be familiar with. Once ground, black pepper keeps for about three months.

Asafoetida:  Made from the resin of the Ferula assafoetida plant, this very pungent spice has a very strong sulfurous odor that dissipates when cooking. Also known as ‘hing’, asafoetida is often used in place of onion and garlic in Ayurvedic cooking. Again, because of its strong odor, Agrawal advises against storing this in a Masala Dabba.

Buying Spices

Even though dried spices can last for quite a while, Agrawal notes that freshness is important.

“I usually shop for spices where there is high turnover to ensure the spices have not been sitting on the shelf for a long period of time,” she shares. “Always inspect the bag or bottle of spices closely to make sure there are no bugs or discolorations.”

Getting the Most Out Of Your Spices

“There are two ways that I use to coax the flavor out of spices; one way is to roast my spices dry in a pan or on a tray in the oven at a very low heat and the other way is to fry them in oil,” advises Agrawal. “These two processes allow the flavors of the spices to bloom.”

Spices Have a Shelf Life

Unfortunately, dried spices start to lose their potency over time, even more quickly if the spice is ground.

“Typically, I keep spices around for about six months,” says Agrawal. “For freshness, store your spices in airtight containers, preferably in a cupboard away from sunlight, heat and any moisture.”  

Savor The Taste Of India

Want to try your hand at a crowd-pleasing Indian favorite? This simple and vegetarian-friendly recipe for Aloo Gobi comes from our Taste of India cookbook, available until October 31st! 



2 garlic cloves

500 g water

40 g vegetable oil, plus 1 tsp

500 g waxy Charlotte potatoes, scrubbed, diced (3 cm)

200 g cauliflower florets (3 cm)

1 tsp fine sea salt

1 tsp ground cumin

1½ tsp ground coriander

¼ tsp ground turmeric

¼ tsp chilli powder

2 dried red chillies

200 g tinned tomatoes

½ tsp lemon juice

Place garlic in mixing bowl and chop for 3 sec/speed 8. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.  

Place water and 1 tsp oil in mixing bowl. Insert simmering basket and weigh in potatoes.

Place Varoma dish into position, and weigh in cauliflower florets. Cover then steam them for 14-16 min in the Varoma at speed 1 until potatoes are just cooked. Next add salt, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and chilli powder to chopped garlic. Check to make sure that the potatoes are cooked (see tip).

Set Varoma aside and keep warm. Remove simmering basket with the aid of the spatula. Then transfer the steaming water to a jug and reserve.   

Place the oil and dried chillies in mixing bowl then fry for 7 min/120°C/stir.   

Add reserved spices and garlic, tomatoes and 80g reserved steaming water. Then cook for 5 min/100°C/speed 0.5.   

Add reserved steamed potatoes and cauliflower. Then stir with spatula to coat in sauce. Cook for 10 min/100°C/(/stir. 

Stir in lemon juice gently with the spatula. Transfer to a serving dish, and serve hot as a vegetarian main course or side dish.

For the entire month of October, receive a copy of our Taste of India cookbook and an authentic Masala Dabba when you purchase a Thermomix® TM5. Book a demo today!