I know what you might be thinking. Indian cooking requires too many hard-to-find spices. It's somewhat true. And in response, I often try to simplify recipes and leave out spices that don’t seem strictly necessary. But I’ve also come to realize that Indian cooking is like baking in this respect. If you’ve never baked before, the first time can be a total pain because you have to stock your cupboard with flour, baking powder, baking soda, vanilla extract, and who knows what else—just to make a batch of cookies! But what happens? Weeks later, when you are expected to show up somewhere with a cake, you’ve already got everything you need. Indian cooking is the same way—just think of it as a little up-front investment.
Once you get the basics, you can make almost anything. Here's is a quick guide to a minimal (but well-stocked) Indian spice cabinet, including a list of online options to find what you need. Stick with me and we’ll get through this painlessly.
In my kitchen I have two categories of spices: whole spices and ground spices. These are the “whole spices” that I use most often:
Black/Brown Mustard Seeds
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
You can find most of these spices in the regular grocery store, but some are a bit more obscure. For example, you’ll have better luck finding black mustard and fenugreek seeds at an Indian grocery store or online. Yellow mustard seeds are easier to find in regular grocery stores, but they have a spicier, tangier flavor, so they’re not a great substitute. And although not exactly considered a “whole spice,” I also keep dried lentils in my spice box, including white lentils (urad dal) and sometimes little dried chickpea lentils (chana dal). These lentils can be roasted together with whole spices to add a little extra crunch, but I usually consider them to be optional.
Ground spices are easier to find in supermarkets. These are the ones I use most often:
Ground Red Pepper
Garam Masala Powder
Curry powder and garam masala powder are spice blends that save you a lot of time but can be tricky to use at first because they come in many varieties, with varying degrees of intensity and heat. I’m not picky about the exact type I use. You’ll get familiar with your product of choice and can adjust the amount you use accordingly. Curry powder generally contains some combination of turmeric, cumin, coriander, and red chili powder. Garam masala is a dark brown spice mixture that has a sweeter, more Christmasy-blend flavor than curry powder. (Okay, so that’s probably not how they would describe it in India, but it’s got more of the cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon, so you get the picture). For ground red pepper, you can use ground cayenne pepper or ground red pepper/chili powder. These are sometimes made from a blend of different types of red chilies and may helpfully be labeled “mild” or “hot” in Indian grocery stores. I also sometimes use asafoetida powder (also called “hing”), which is found in Indian grocery stores. It provides a mild onion-like flavor, and in a pinch, you can usually substitute in ginger powder.
Online places to shop: