Spice it Up with Indian Spices

By Shoba Nair - Friday, May 15, 2015

Many people associate Indian food with fiery-hot curries, but Indian food is more than about chillies. In fact, Indian food offers an amazing explosion of flavours that come from the blending of unique spices.
There are several key spices that provide the ‘oomph’ to Indian dishes, and provide them with that delicious complexity.


What makes these spices more interesting are the health benefits that they naturally offer, from treating indigestion to preventing cancer.


Indian Spices


Here are five Indian spices you can easily find in a traditional Indian kitchen.


1. Fenugreek (uluva or methi seeds)
Fenugreek seeds have a strong aroma, and are used to make sambar curry masala powder, added to tomato-based dishes and even grinded as part of the rice mixture to make thosai batter.
The lightly bitter taste of the fenugreek seeds deepens the taste of the dish, but too much of it can make the dish unpleasant.


Fenugreek seeds


Fenugreek is a mother-to-be and a new mother’s best friend. As the mucilage in fenugreek helps to sooth gastrointestinal inflammation, to a pregnant woman experiencing heartburn. After the baby is born, if the mother has insufficient breast milk, fenugreek tea (fenugreek soaked in boiling water) can be given to the mother to increase the production of breastmilk. And when the new mother wants to lose weight, including fenugreek in the diet helps to suppress her appetite and moderate carbohydrate metabolism.


Besides, fenugreek helps reduce cholesterol and prevent diabetes. It contains saponins that help to reduce the body’s absorption of cholesterol, and an unusual amino acid found in fenugreek has been found to increase insulin secretion and prevent diabetes.


2. Turmeric (or manjal)
This mildly-aromatic, bright yellow spice, in powdered form, is often sprinkled in most South Indian curries, and for good reason. Besides providing colour to the dish, the turmeric, a member of the ginger family, is an excellent companion to your stomachs. The National Institute of Health in the United States has found that turmeric greatly aids the digestive system, like treating stomach pain, diarrhoea, intestinal gas and stomach bloating. The compound, curcuminoids found in turmeric, also has powerful antioxidant properties. What this means is that turmeric can also prevent cancer: the curcuminoids in turmeric have been clinically proven to block the activity of free radicals that create cancer-causing cells.




Turmeric also has antiseptic properties and can be used as an effective disinfectant. Applying some turmeric powder on the affected area can help to heal cuts. Interestingly, this spice is also used for beauty enhancement, in Indian tradition. When applied on the face, turmeric gives a natural glow to the face and lightens the complexion.


3. Cumin (jeeragam or jeera)
As you leave Indian restaurants, you may find small aluminium or wooden bowls of seeds at the cashier’s and you may see many customers popping these seeds into their mouths as they leave the restaurant after a heavy meal. These are cumin or jeera seeds.




With an earthy and a slightly bitter taste, just like turmeric, cumin has long been known to aid digestion, and that is the purpose of this after-meal “medicine”. The presence of thymol and other essential oils in cumin seeds stimulate the salivary glands, thereby helping in the digestion of food by strengthening the digestive system. Cumin is also a natural laxative and helps alleviate constipation.


Similar to turmeric, it has antioxidant characteristics too. The compound, ‘Thymoquinone’ in cumin is known to prevent the spread of prostrate cancer cells. As it is high in potassium, it is great for regulating the blood pressure and heart rate. Everyday inconveniences like cold and cough can also be cured with cumin seeds.


Cumin is the ingredient in most curry powders and many savoury spice mixtures, and the seeds are also sprinkled on some everyday dishes. Another excellent way to incorporate cumin into your diet is to drink jeera tea. Just add a teaspoon of cumin seeds to a glass of boiling water, let it steep for five minutes till it turns golden, and your jeera tea is ready.


Golden-yellow jeera tea


You can easily sniff out these spices as you take a leisurely walk along Little India, or if you walk past any Indian grocery stores in the neighbourhood. Try adding them to your Indian-inspired dishes and savour the sophistication.


4.Cardamom (or elakka)
You may have known that cardamom seeds are crushed to include in your masala tea or chai. However these seeds are also used in cooking dishes, to add fragrance and a complex taste to biryani rice and curries as well as spice up sweet desserts such as ‘rice payasam’ or ‘rice kheer’ (an Indian rice dessert).




Cardamom seeds come as green pods. The papery pale green exteriors contain tiny, aromatic black seeds inside – which is what you want.
If you have bad breath, chewing on a cardamom pod would help, like a mint. Just like the others in the family of spices, cardamon also enables digestion, fixing bloating and gas problems. Being high in potassium and iron, it also helps regulate your heart rate and is a rich source of iron.


If you have bad breath, chewing on a cardamom pod would help, like a mint.


5.Mustard seed (or kadugu)
The small round unsuspecting black seeds which you sometimes see floating on your dal curry or on your chutneys are packed with anti-cancer agents. Selenium, phytonutrients called isothiocyanates and curcumioids (like in turmeric) in these tiny seeds work to keep cancer at bay.


Mustard seed


When mustard seeks are fried in hot oil, you will literally hear (and see) them popping. Upon so, the mustard seeds have to be removed or other ingredients have to immediately be added to prevent over-heating of the mustard seeds. Mustard seeds lend a pungent, earthy flavour to your dish, but overheating the mustard seeds or burning them can cause your dish to become bitter.