IMG 1712 asafoetidaA dried resin gum extracted from the rhizome or taproot of two species of a giant fennel plant. It is sold as a resinous gum but is sometimes available as a dry yellow powder. Raw, it has an unpleasant, pungent aroma and tastes extremely bitter. However, cooked it tastes like fried onions

Bay Leaves

IMG 1762 bay leavesThe European bay leaf comes from the sweet bay, a member of the laurel family but the Indian variety comes from the cassia tree. It is sold dried and is a dull sage colour and fairly brittle. When cooked, Indian bay leaf gives off a pungent, warm aroma, and have a mellow but spicy taste. One ort two leaves are enough to scent a dish.

Caraway Seeds

Caraway is a biennial herb, a member of the parsley family, and is popular in north Indian cooking. The seed is brown, hard and sharply pointed at either end and tastes of fennel or aniseed. Caraway can be used to flavour Indian cheeses. It is also used in hot spice mixtures and to flavour meat and rice dishes. Store in an airtight container away from direct sunlight.


IMG 1714The dried seed pod of a herbaceous perennial of the ginger family native to south India and Sri Lanka, it is known as the ‘queen of spices’. The pods are used either whole or split to release the seeds. Green cardamom has an intense, pungent, sweet scent and flavour and is widely used. The black variety tastes rather medicinal and is used mainly in northern Indian cooking to flavour meat, pulao and rice dishes. It’s also an important ingredient in many hot spice mixes or garam masalas

Cassia Bark

IMG 1760Is also grown in north-east India. It is often confused with cinnamon because of its appearance and aroma, which are similar. It tastes strong, woody and bittersweet, with a slightly sharp edge. In India, cassia is substituted for cinnamon, although not in sweet dishes because of its astringent quality. Cassia is sold either as pieces of bark or as a powder.


Chillies are the pods of an annual plant of the capsicum family. There are hundreds of varieties but they all have fire power. Fresh unripe chillies come in various shades of green and in all shapes and sizes. The ripe ones are red and vary according to type in taste and heat. Chillies are always most pungent when raw, and mellow when cooked. When chopping chillies, make sure you don't rub your eyes as they will smart.


cinnamon250px IMG 1775The peeled and curled inner bark from the slim young stems of a tropical evergreen tree of the laurel family. Cinnamon has a sweet, woody fragrance, either ground or whole. When it is broken or ground, the volatile oils are released giving off their warm, sweet, aromatic and pungent flavours.

Cinnamon is used in cakes and desserts throughout the world. Its sweet-spicy flavour enhances vegetables and fruit and is an important ingredient in garam masala.


IMG 2576 clovesThe dried flower bud of an evergreen tree. Cloves come from Madagascar, Brazil, Penang and Sri Lanka and are native to the Molucca Islands, which are now part of Indonesia. Cloves have a rich spicy aroma. Their flavour is strong, pungent and sweet. Used in excess, they will overpower other spices. Cloves are used in rice-with-meat dishes, such as biryanis and pulaos, and in garam masala.

Coriander Leaves

A herb in the parsley family, similar to anise. The leaves come from the young plant, Coriandrum sativum, and look similar to flat-leaf parsley, but are thinner and lighter green. They are sold in bunches in Asian shops, and smell fruity and vibrant. They have a distinct, strong flavour, of ginger and citrus. You can use the stems as well as the leaves in Indian dishes, but make sure you wash them thoroughly first to get rid of any grit. They feature in curries chutneys, soups, sandwich spreads and relishes.

Coriander Seeds

IMG 2584 corianderThe seeds of the Coriandrum sativum plant, a member of the parsley family. It is globular, brown to yellow red, with alternating straight and wavy ridges. It has a mild but distinctive flavour similar to a blend of lemon and sage. Coriander seeds, whole, crushed or powdered are used widely in Indian cooking, and are one of the main ingredients in the many Indian hot spice mixtures or garam masala.

Cumin Seeds

IMG 2580 cuminThe seeds of an annual herb of the parsely family, and a major constituent of curry powder. Cumin seeds are long and oval, and yellowish-brown in colour. They have an earthy warm, pungent aroma, and taste pungent, spicy and sweet, with a bitter edge. Dry-roast the seeds lightly to enhance their unique flavour and scent and use them in meat and vegetable curries, spicy salads and yogurt.

Curry Leaves

curryleaves250px IMG 1831Curry leaves lend a lingering aroma to the dish, and are discarded before serving. They come from the curry plant, a shrub native to India and Sri Lanka. They are slender, dark green and similar to a small, narrow bay leaf.

The leaves smell fresh and pleasant, remotely reminiscent of tangerines, and add an aromatic curry flavour to any dish. They are the trademark of southern Indian cooking, used to flavour meat, fish, vegetables, lentils, rice and bread. They are also used in preparing Madras curry powders.

If you cannot get hold of fresh curry leaves, try the dried variety. You can buy either from Asian shops.

Fennel Seeds

Fennel seeds are the dried ripe fruit of the perennial herb. They resemble cumin seeds but are green and plumper with yellow ridges. Good quality fennel seeds have a warm, aniseed flavour and aroma, which turns slightly bitter when roasted. Fennel seeds are used in many Indian spice mixtures to enhance meat dishes and sweeten desserts. It is also one of the ingredients used in tea spice or chai masala.


fenugreek250px IMG 1726The seed of an annual herb related to clover. It is small, hard, oblong and dull in colour; ground fenugreek is a warm yellow-brown with a bitter flavour that often dominates curry powders. Once it is cooked the flavour mellows. It is used in a wide variety of spice mixes – for example sambhar powder which flavours southern Indian vegetable and dal dishes.

Garam Masala

garammasala250px IMG 1717The name means a mixture of spices, and the blending of spices is fundamental to Indian cookery. There are infinite different combinations, and every one imparts its own distinctive flavours. Blends of garam masala vary enormously, according to local or regional tastes. Each Indian household produces its own unique blend of spices to produce a garam masala. However, commercially blended garam masala is available in most major supermarkets. Store garam masala in an airtight container for upto 6 months.

Mustard Seeds

IMG 2591 mustard seedMustard seed comes from three large shrubs, Brassica juncea, (brown mustard), Brassica nigra (black mustard) and Brassica hirta (white mustard). All three produce bright yellow flowers that die off to leave small round seeds. The brown mustard seed is more pungent than the white and is used predominantly in Indian cooking.

Mustard seeds are small, matt, hard, spherical, and either brown, white or black. When heated, they taste bitter, nutty, hot and aromatic. They are a key ingredient in some vegetable dishes and in pickles. In Bengal, they are often ground to make sauces for fish. Cooks in southern India fry a small quantity with other seasonings, such as cumin and curry leaves, before eating them – take care when you do this: the seeds pop in the hot oil and fly about with a life of their own. The spiciness of mustard seeds, no matter how pungent, does not linger, and they impart a rich, earthy taste to any dish.

Onion Seeds

nigellaonionseeds250px IMG 1728Nigella is grown predominantly in India and is used extensively. Although the seeds are also known as onion seeds they have nothing to do with onions. They are tiny and jet black, a bit like chips of coal, and smell slightly acrid when rubbed between your fingers. They have a nutty, bitter flavour. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months.


paprika250px IMG 1735Paprika comes from sweet, mild peppers and capsicums that are sun-dried then ground to a fine brilliant red powder. It smells and tastes sweet and lightly pungent, then faintly bitter. The combination of turmeric and paprika adds the vibrant orange red colour to many Indian dishes. Store in a dry, dark place for upto 2 months.


peppercorns250px IMG 1731Native to India, the peppercorn is the king of spices. Black peppercorns are the fermented green berries of a perennial vine plant, piper nigrum, sun-dried to turn them black and hard. Green, white and pink peppercorns are from the same plant as the black variety, picked at varying stages of ripeness. Black peppercorns should be large, even in size and a deep rich brown. They smell earthy, warm and pungent. Their flavour is released on grinding and enhanced by heat. However, once ground, the volatile oils soon evaporate so add pepper towards the end of cooking.

Good-quality black peppercorns will keep for many years in a cool dark place in an airtight container.


saffron250px IMG 1742Saffron is the dried stigma of Crocus sativus, an autumn-flowering plant. More than 75,000 crocus blossoms are needed to produce a pound of saffron. It is very expensive but, fortunately, a little goes a long way. It adds a rich golden colour to rice dishes. Saffron is sold as the whole stigmas, wiry strands or threads in a deep vibrant, orange or red colour. It should have a strong, penetrating, clinging aroma, and an aromatic, warm rich flavour.

Saffron supplies the characteristic flavour and colour in Indian dessert sauces and milk puddings. Steep the stigmas in water for a few minutes before using them to extract as much as possible of their flavour.

Store wrapped in Cellophane in an airtight container away from sunlight for 2 months. Buy small quantities as it loses its flavour quickly


Turmeric comes from the root of Curcuma longa, a leafy plant in the ginger family. The roots are boiled or steamed then dried and ground (the most widely available form) to a deep yellow powder. It is mildly aromatic and tastes pungent, bitter and earthy. Don't use it as a substitute for saffron as the colour might be similar but the flavour is entirely different. Turmeric is one of the most versatile spices in Indian cooking. Its rich orange yellow colour adds to the appearance of any dish, and it is a vital ingredient of so called curry powder. Store it in a cool, dark and dry place for 4 months.