How to Make the Most of Your Indian-Inspired Spice Cabinet

Making your own spice blend is not for everyone, but here’s a list to add to your pantry and expand your palate.

indian-inspired spices
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist

Like many Indian families, we’ve always made our masalas (spice-blends) from scratch. Over the years, my mother and I have browsed spice dealers’ wares like kids in a candy shop, and made our own blends for family, friends, farmers markets, and special batches to pair with my cookbooks. But when my annual India visit was cancelled this summer— along with our annual spice making—we relived our spice-making adventures and fine tuned my chai masala recipe for my upcoming book on ayurvedic teas and brews.

Making your own spice blends is not for everyone. Thankfully there are many ready to use masalas available. These may seem too dish-specific at first, but they are all incredibly versatile. Add these to your pantry, and you’ll be broadening your tastes many fold.

A regional tomato-based spice mix from Northern India, its unique fragrance and flavors come from the unmistakable sweetness of fennel seeds. Various brands provide the sauce version or the dry spice version of this blend. Classically, Kashmiri curry masala is used to cook meats, potatoes, and sauce-based dishes made with peas, paneer, and mushrooms. However, if you are looking to mix things up, toss some into freshly made ravioli. 

Many East Indians feel that their kitchen would be incomplete without panch phoran, a blend that combines five seeds: fennel, nigella, cumin, fenugreek, and black mustard. Traditionally favored in quick vegetable stir fries or while cooking whole fish, it is best used when the flavors bloom in hot oil. To use it like a pro, begin with sesame oil or mustard seed oil. This seasoning adds a special zing to homemade Indian pickles (especially those with grape tomatoes, cape gooseberry or tomatillos).

Traditionally used to balance out the flavors of sambar, the iconic lentil-based dish from Southern India, this one has a unique selection of robust spices. Use it to season your next batch of potato hash browns, stir-fried cauliflower, scrambled eggs like Monica Bhide, or as chef Preeti Mistry does in their pork and seafood recipes.

Another blend of spices from Southern India, this one combines the unmistakable aroma of fenugreek seeds and mustard seeds. This mysterious blend is earthy and warm when it is dry, but sweetens as you cook with it. Use it as part of a marinade when cooking meats, either as an oil-based or a yogurt-based marinade. Alternately, spice up your grilled cheese with a dash of this fragrant blend.

A gift of earthy flavors from the west coast of India, goan masala offers rustic flavors from coastal India. Its unmistakable warmth comes from a blend of black cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, and is balanced with coriander seeds and dried coconut. This spice blend is most often used to season sauce-based seafood dishes, or a sauce-based lentil dish as the spices are too delicate for a dry roast. It also makes an excellent marinade for lamb kebabs.

This spice powder offers spicy flavors that cannot be replicated in any other form. A traditional accompaniment to dosa and idlis as well as a range of other vegetarian delicacies from southern India, this spice powder is surprisingly versatile. Mix it in with some butter and panko, and take inspiration from Chef K N Vinod’s kitchen to create a flavorful crust for baked or pan-fried fish and meats or baked mac and cheese.

Though it feels this spice is only popular during fall and winter, it is an all-season spice in many Indian kitchens. It is primarily used to add warmth to chai and even milk-based brews as its spices like ginger, pepper, and cinnamon bring their ayurvedic properties to the preparation. For greatest versatility, find a masala that does not include tea leaves. Chai masala does wonders in chai, but just the masala itself lends its flavors well to pancakes, waffles, and banana bread.

A touch of spice

For those short on pantry space, or venturing out cautiously, ras el hanout is a good addition. It mimics the flavors of Indian garam masala with an added kick of cayenne pepper. Some ras el hanout blends include allspice, some don't. Stand-alone barbecue spice blends and Italian seasonings also perk up quick vegetable stir-fry’s and flavor butter or olive oil for a quick bowl of steaming pasta. For a dash of heat, a tablespoon of Hatch chili powder does wonders. Apart from Mexican dishes, it can perk up a hummus and crudité platter in no time.

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Nandita Godbole is a Thrillist contributor.