These spices, though not originally from India; are integral to Indian cuisine now
You can’t imagine Indian food without spices, can you? As one of the most diverse cuisines in the world, with possibly the most diverse variations imaginable, India and its food are known for their creative and exceptional use of spices.
However, some of the most commonly used spices in Indian food didn’t actually originate in India. By virtue of trade and foreign invasions, most of these spices were brought to the Indian subcontinent and over time became fixtures in the local cuisine. Today, they are so integral to Indian food that one can’t imagine a functioning kitchen without them.
This article will run through a list of such spices, and discuss where they came from and how they became essential ingredients for delicious Indian meals.
Can you imagine life without Jeera Rice, Dal Tadka or Rasam? Each of these, and many other desi preparations are made delectable by jeera (cumin.)
Cumin originated in the Mediterranean. In fact, seeds found in Syrian excavations have dated the spice back to the 2nd millennium BC. It was also significant to the Greeks; apparently they kept it at their dining tables (like we do with salt and pepper today.)
Its exact journey to India is up for discussion, but what isn’t being debated is its significance in Indian food. It lends a distinctly earthy, nutty flavour at the center of curries, soups, chilli, stews, etc. When fried or baked, it releases a bittersweet aroma with the lightest of citrus overtones. Thus making it a perfect condiment to flavour rice, bread, Indian desserts, and even some cakes and rolls.
Despite its foreign birth, India is currently one of the largest consumers of cumin. It’s prevalence is indicated by the fact that almost every major Indian language has its own word for cumin – Jeera or Jira (Hindi), Jeeray (Bengali), Jiru/Jeeru (Gujarati), Jeeriege (Kannada), etc.
Coriander originated in Italy, but it is now ubiquitous in Indian kitchens as dhania. It is also cultivated and used in numerous countries including North Africa, China, Bangladesh, The Netherlands, Central and Eastern Europe.
Coriander is an irreplaceable ingredient in Indian curry powders. The seeds are usually ground to a coarse powder so as to offer a crunchy texture. When fried or toasted, it releases an earthy, tart but still sweet aroma that pairs perfectly with both vegetables or meat/fish.
It is a mainstay in a massive variety of Indian dishes. From Rasam and Sambhar to endless soups, curries, chutneys, and even some beverages. It is often used in healthy drinks, or drinks meant to detox the body.
Coriander too, is known by many names in different Indian languages – Dhone (Bengali,) Kothambari (Kannada,) Dhane (Marathi,) Kothamalli vidai (Tamil,) Dhaniyalu (Telegu.)
In The Book of Spice, author John O’Connell describes how Mughals first brought asafoetida, or hing to India in the 16th century. According to The Hindu, hing has never been grown in India until as recently as 2020.
Hing has a characteristic pungent scent, but on cooking, it disappears to offer the sleek, caramelized taste of onions. It is a prime choice for adding umami to multiple dishes. In fact, many Brahmins and Jains in India use it as a replacement for onion and garlic, which is forbidden in their diet.
Though it has been given unflattering names such as “devil’s dung” in the West, Indian cuisine has proven that this spice can be nothing short of magical. Can you imagine a good tadka without a pinch of hing dissolving in bubbling ghee on a frying pan?
Hing is trickier than most spices. When added delicately, it magnifies the flavour palate and balances all the other spices in the mix. However, even an inch more than required can overwhelm the taste, and downgrade it to bitterness.
The various names of hing in India – Hinger, Ingu (Kannada,) Yang (Kashmiri,) Kayam (Malayalam,) Hengu (Oriya,) etc.
Indian food wouldn’t be itself without it’s signature undertone of heat. It’s impossible to stir up an Indian feast without chilli, commonly known as mirch or mirchi in the country. It is believed that chillies were first introduced to India by Portugese colonists, with Goa being the site of first introduction.
Chilli travelled to North India when Maratha king Shivaji ventured north to challenge and combat Mughal supremacy. Initially, chillies were primarily confined to pickles and chutneys, boosting the pungent zing they are meant to offer the discerning tongue.
The variations of chilli used in Indian cuisine are truly mind-boggling. Much like everything else Indian, different regions of the country produce different categories or breeds of chilli. A few of the best known types are – Kashmiri Chillies (sought for its blooming red colour,) Bhut Jolokia (considered the hottest chilli in the world), Byadagi Chilli from Karnataka, and Guntur Chilli, from Andhra Pradesh. What’s more, today, India is the world’s largest producer and exporter of dry chillies.
Nutmeg or jaiphal is a mainstay in sweet and savoury Indian recipes, especially in Mughlai cuisine. Certain brands/chefs may even add it in small amounts to their garam masala mixes to bring out specific flavours.
Nutmeg originated in the Maluku Islands of Islands – known as the Spice Islands because nutmeg, clove and mace was, at one point, found exclusively there. Naturally, these islands were the site of colonial interest from Arab and European merchants at various points in history.
Today, nutmeg cultivation in India is mostly confined to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, though it is grown in relatively small amounts in Maharashtra and Karnataka as well.
There’s some conflict around the arrival of saffron (kesar) to Asia, and in particular, India. Early accounts state that saffron was imported to India by Persian rulers who wanted to recreate their homelands’ tastes.
There are a few legends in the mix too. Traditional Kashmiri legend says that saffron arrived in the 11th or 12th century AD, when two foreign and itinerant Sufi ascetics, Khwaja Masood Wali and Hazrat Sheikh Shariffudin, wandered into Kashmir. The foreigners were sick, and sought a cure from a local tribal chieftain. When they were cured, the ascetics gave the man a saffron crocus bulb as compensation and a sign of gratitude.
Traditions from Chinese-Buddhist monastic orders also mention that an arhat Indian Buddhist missionary named Madhyântika (or Majjhantika) came to Kashmir in the 5th century BC, and was the first to sow the Kashmiri saffron crop.
No matter it’s origin story, saffron is still considered a luxury spice that is added to indulgent, festive food to enhance flavour. Since it is harvested by hand, truly superior saffron is usually in short supply and is one of the world’s most expensive spices.
In India saffron is also hailed for its health benefits. But primarily, a sprinkle of saffron can transform both flavour and texture of any dish it is added to. The best biryanis are pointless without a generous drizzle of kesar. They are also particularly wonderful for adding a buttery golden hue, and a mind-bending aroma to cakes, cookies, pastries, puddings and most desserts.
Surprisingly, saffron is also an effective ingredient in marinades, though not ones meant for Indian curries. Mix up saffron, thyme, vinegar and garlic to amp up flavour and zing in your fish.
In the rich tapestry of the Indian flavour profile, spices hold the pride of place. Uniquely Indian combinations of spices are what make commonplace ingredients – fish, meat, seasonal vegetables – utterly irreplaceable in their final form on plates and in bowls.
To quote legendary sci-fi author Frank Herbert, “He who controls the spice controls the universe.” Nowhere is this more true than in Indian cooking (except maybe in the chronicles of European colonialism.) What’s remarkable about the spices listed above is that despite hailing from foreign lands, they have become indispensable to the Indian way of life. As we are a people that love our food, anything that enhances the pleasure derived from food is just as worthy of our love.