Spices are the foundation for Indian cooking. They can transform any dish into a tasty meal and give life to even the simplest ingredients. Indian food encompasses several centuries-old culinary traditions from all over the broad subcontinent. Pulling from these traditions to produce beautiful cooking is an almost spiritual act. Certainly exploring Indian food will greatly expand your cooking repertoire. Below are the 5 top spices used in Indian cooking:

1) Turmeric (Haldi)- Turmeric is enigmatic because its flavor is subtle. Turmeric's flavor contribution is distinct yet in the background. Perhaps more than flavor, turmeric's real contribution is its health benefits and color. It is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant and helps with heart disease, depression, and arthritis. Turmeric is typically added, as a powder, to a curry sauce after the wet ingredients have been added. Typically, turmeric takes only a teaspoon or two to flavor and color a dish for a family of four. If you’re using it for health purposes, (i.e., if you want to soak up the curcumin), make sure you include some black pepper in your recipe!

2) Cumin (Jeera)- Cumin derives from the parsley family and is used to add a smoky note and a robust aroma to most Indian curries and vegetables. Fried in its dry form and roasted before use, cumin seed is usually the first spice added while cooking Indian dishes. It is also dry roasted and converted to powder before being added to dishes like pudding and buttermilk. It is used to flavor rice, stuffed vegetables, many savory dishes and curries. Since it burns easily and can become overpowering, it is used sparingly.

3) Coriander (Dhaniya)- It is a member of the parsley family, and its seeds are oval in shape, which turn from bright green to beige as they ripe. These seeds are toasted and then grounded with other spices for many popular spice blends. Ground coriander is known for adding texture to dishes. With a hint of citrus, this spice is widely used in sambar, and rasam dishes.

4) Red Chili (lal mirch) – Although there are many kinds of dry red chills used in Indian cuisine, I prefer mild Kashmiri red chili, both whole and ground, which has a brilliant red hue that adds natural food coloring and smoky flavor.  Indian red chili is a ground spice with a heat similar to cayenne pepper, though it may be hotter or milder depending on where the chilies come from and how they're grown. Typically, its flavor is more floral than cayenne, and it is a brighter red. This is also a good ingredient to add slowly at the end, when you're adjusting the heat of your dish.

5) Garam Masala- Garam masala is the quintessential Indian Spice Blend. It gives warmth and depth to dishes and pairs perfectly with red/green chili. Interestingly, every region across India has its own version of this spice. A mix that literally translates to 'warm spice mix,' garam masala can warm up our body and therefore, is used in many dishes including chana masala, meat items, pulao, etc.

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