Essential Spices in Indian Cooking and Their Benefits

Spices are beneficial not only to your taste buds, but to your health. They contain antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins, which are all essential for optimal body function and the prevention of diseases. Spices are booster foods. Only small amounts are needed, but add numerous health (and beauty) benefits. Even if you do not care about how and why spices are beneficial, they are vibrant and add depth and flavor to foods. Spices really can make bland foods taste amazing.

Spices do not necessarily mean hot or burn your mouth off spicy. There are many spices that give you a burn and those are usually derived from Capsicum family. Capsicum is used medicinally to improve circulation and acts a pain reliever. It also releases endorphins, making some people to love spicy hot food. However, spices have a broad range of flavors- not just hot. For instance, cinnamon is sweet and mild. Nutmeg is bitter and pungent, not spicy hot. Therefore, if you cannot handle spicy hot, you can leave out the chili powder. I always ask for my food to be cooked without chilies at restaurants, because I cannot handle the spicy hot flavors.

Spices are cost-effective, since you only need a couple of teaspoons at a time for lots of flavor. They also last up to a year when stored in an airtight container and in a cool, dark place. Unfortunately, light and heat destroys flavor and beneficial properties of the spices, so keep them far from the stove, microwave, oven, and direct sunlight. When spices start to loose their color, it’s time to toss them out and restock. Buy smaller quantities of spices unless you go through large quantities quickly.

onions and masala

Ethnic stores are the best places to find quality spices at lower prices, but regular grocery stores should carry mostly everything you need. Always make sure to read the ingredients label, to ensure no artificial coloring, sugar, salt, MSG, preservatives, or wheat has been added. Turmeric should only have turmeric listed in the ingredients. Cumin should only have cumin listed in the ingredients and so on. These additives can have a negative impact on your health, alter the flavor of the spice, and are just unnecessary. Spices naturally can withstand extreme temperatures. After all, most of them are grown, harvested, and prepared in scorching, tropical climates.

Spices stay longer when bought in their whole or seed form and ground up into a powder just before using it. A spice grinder, mortar and pestle, or coffee grinder will do the job, However, be sure to wash the coffee grinder well, before using it for coffee. Though, this extra step can add an extra few minutes to cooking and can be enough of a deterrent for you to skip spices altogether. Ground spices are just fine if you can use them within six months to a year. It is usually a good idea to toast the spices before adding them into soups and curries. Authentic Indian recipes will always ask you to cook them for one minute in a dry pan or along with the onions, before adding tomatoes or other ingredients. Spices release their flavor when heated and people often do not like the taste of raw spices.

Just start cooking with spices! Variety is the key to getting all of the different nutrients from spices. They are also naturally low in calories and easily transforms a tasteless to dish into something incredible.

indian food

Invaluable Indian Spices In My Pantry

I have a cupboard full of spices and cannot imagine cooking anything without using at least one or two spices. I think that by not adding spices to a dish, I am missing out on an opportunity for delicious flavor and health benefits. A single Indian dish can contain tens of spices, but I usually stick with only a handful. These are my staples for when I am cooking and I do not limit using them to just Indian food.

Curry Powder– This isn’t truly a staple in traditional Indian kitchens, but it’s a lifesaver. Curry powder is a British invention. It is usually a combination of chili powder, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, and turmeric. Curry powder can vary greatly in taste, depending on the quality, ratios of spices, and types of spices used. For instance, I have found Sri Lankan curry powder to be a richer red and spicier, whereas curry powder from Northern India is golden and sweeter. For serious cooks, curry powder is personal and they usually have their own special blend. My personal favorite is this curry powder. Whenever a dish tastes dull, I add a teaspoon at a time of curry powder to liven up the taste. I always make sure to keep curry powder around, above all of the other spices. This chicken coconut curry is delicious.

Cumin– Cumin relieves intestinal gas, pain, and bloating. When toasted, cumin is aromatic and pungent. It tastes bitter, which helps stimulate saliva. Digestion of food begins with saliva. Cumin can be used in its seed form or ground to a powder. I throw cumin seeds in the rice cooker along with the rice and ghee and call it a pilaf. Guests are always impressed by this trick. This delicious and colorful carrot salad gets its flavor from toasted and crushed cumin seeds. This Moroccan Mint Roasted Vegetables recipe makes use of cumin powder and seeds.

Ginger is referred as the universal medicine and has been used throughout the world for thousands of years for its healing properties. Ginger helps with colds, flues, indigestion, gas, bloating, vomiting, nausea, low appetite, arthritis, headaches, pain, and heart disease. Above all, ginger is widely used as a digestive aid. It is heating and ginger tea is often given to those who are feeling cold. I always have fresh ginger root around. I usually peel the ginger root, throw it in a mini chopper, and store the minced ginger in an airtight container in the fridge for about a week. It’s easier to use this way. Add ginger to juices and teas, soups, stir-fries, curry dishes, and in baked goods. My favorite way to use ginger is in masala chai and in all curries dishes.

Himalayan or Black Salt (Kala Namak) is not a typical spice to keep in the pantry. It is often my secret ingredient and is used in lieu of table salt. Black salt, despite its name, is pinkish in color due to its rich trace mineral and iron content. The taste is distinct and you actually need to use less of it than boring, old table salt. It does have a distinct flavor, so experiment to your liking. Always purchase naturally derived black salt, since synthetically black salt is stripped of most minerals and depth of flavor. Throughout India, black salt is used in chaats, chutneys, raitas, and on fruits. Just try a freshly sliced guava sprinkled with black salt- it’s amazing. Give this Kale Yogurt Raita a try with black salt.

Turmeric (Arad) has long been recognized for it’s natural antibiotic properties and anti-inflammatory actions. Turmeric also acts to improve intestinal flora and numerous studies have shown its superior ability to prevent and fight cancers and diseases. Turmeric is even used topically for facials and skin irritations. The powerful antioxidant in turmeric is called curcumin. You might be tempted to pop turmeric pills, but adding it to your meals will do the job just fine. It comes from a root that looks similar to ginger root. The root can be minced and added to hot water, to make an herbal tea. Whenever I feel a cold coming on, I try to drink one cup of turmeric tea a day. The powdered form is commonly used in cooking. It doesn’t really have a distinctive flavor, but adds a bright, beautiful color to any dish. Add 1/4 teaspoon in soups, salad dressings, curry dishes, marinades for meat, fish, and poultry, or grains. This is one of my more popular recipes on the blog.


In January, I started volunteering at Mission High School as an aide for the school nutrition and leadership program. The class explores all types of cuisines and use their vegetable garden to cook. In May, I got the opportunity to teach the students about Ayurveda and the benefits of using spices. The students made Spring Pea Curry, Raita, Chai, Carrot Salad, Kumquat Chutney (pictured above), and Gluten Free Chai Spiced Biscuits.


The Healthy Pantry

Follow me on Twitter Keeping a well stocked pantry is the most important and basic part of cooking and maintaining a healthy eating lifestyle. I stock my pantry with food that naturally keeps for several months, so I have no … Continue reading

Convivial Table Tour: 331 Cortland

Follow Club Dine In! on Twitter.

I joined Slow Food SF (read side note below) on their Convivial Table Tour to 331 Cortland, a collaborative food marketplace in Bernal Heights. The Convivial Table Tours feature sustainable food purveyors in the Bay Area to educate members about available food choices and to introduce the important people providing our food. During this tour, we met  Debra Resnik, owner of 331 Cortland, and learned of her vision  to have a marketplace of individual food artisans that can operate under one roof. Resnik was inspired after working with La Cocina, to create a community enriching marketplace to help burgeoning vendors. All of the vendors at 331 Cortland focus on local, seasonal, and sustainable practices and either had street food stands, sold at farmers markets/festival, or worked in catering. All of the vendors complement, not compete with each other. The space allows them to inspire each other, with new menu creations and bounce back ideas.  Speaking of community, most of the vendors live within blocks of the market. Each vendor has their own individual kiosk, most accept cash only, and there are no seats.

331 Cortland is a small community marketplace of 7 vendors.

Members of Slow Food SF were greeted with gourmet popsicles from Cranky Boots Cold Confections. East Bay residents, Amanda Yee and Aland Welford, recently started selling their “farm to freezer” popsicles at festivals and events. The couple uses seasonal fruits from local farmers and don’t add excess sugar to their treats.  Cranky Boots will set up shop at 331 Cortland every Sunday. Expect to find flavors such as Black Mission fig with Cream and Balsamic Gastrique, Peach Lemonade, and Strawberry-Basil in two sizes: small ($3) and large ($4). I highly recommend trying the Black Mission Fig popsicle before figs go out of season!

The Black Mission Fig Popsicle- the best, most gourmet popsicle I've ever had!


Erin Archuleta, co-owner of ICHI Lucky Cat Sushi, excitedly greeted us with two plates of freshly prepared sushi. Erin with her husband, Tim, started ICHI Catering in 2006 and then had pop-up restaurants at local bars at the down-turn of the economy.  They jumped at the opportunity to have their first retail space so close to their own home when offered a spot at 331 Cortland. ICHI  offers fresh and prepared nigiri, maki, and sashimi, as well as specialty snacks. For a more formal sushi experience, you can visit their new sit-down restaurant in the Mission.

ICHI Sushi: good, clean, seafood

Resnik discovered Wholesome Bakery at the La Cocina Street Food Festival and invited Mandy Harper to be a part of 331 Cortland. Wholesome Bakery was created out of necessity for healthier desserts and treats. All of the baked goods are vegan and low-glycemic and are wheat, soy, and yeast free. They are also delicious! Harper had formed a relationship with Desiree Salomon, of Dezy’s Drinks, on the streets after both realized their products completed each other well. Thus, it was only natural for Dezy’s Drinks to come into the space with Wholesome Bakery. Salomon uses mostly organic fruits, vegetables, and spices in her made-from-scratch chais, juices and kombucha tea. Trust me, the Homemade Chai is particularly good and authentic.

The ladies behind Wholesome Bakery and Dezy's Drinks

After filling up on chai, granola, and sushi we sampled three different pickles from Paulie’s Pickling. The wife and husband team, Liz and Paul Ashby, started experimenting with cucumbers  from the farmer’s market until they had the perfect pickle. The Cali-Jewish deli serves brisket, chopped liver, deli salads, quinoa, and of course a variety of pickles available individually or by the jar.

Paulie's Pickling- a Cali-Jewish Deli

Joseph Ahearne, owner of El Porteño Empanadas, passionately told us his story and the beginning of creating the best Argentinian empanadas in town. Listening to him speak takes you to a place where your grandma rolls out her own dough while the cows graze on grass in the backyard. Instead of importing meat all the way from Argentina, he proudly uses Prather Ranch Beef, Fulton Farms Chicken, and fresh organic/local produce and dairy to stuff the empanadas. Ahearne introduced himself to Resnik by leaving a plate of his freshly made empanadas on the doorsteps of 331 Cortland while it was still being renovated. However, the construction workers got to them first as Resnik was not there on that day. (I shamelessly wanted to take one for the road, but somehow restrained myself.) You can also  find  El Porteño at their own kiosk at the Ferry Building, farmer’s markets, and Off the Grid.


Joseph Ahearne is really passionate about the land, empanadas, and tradition.

Josh Donald had operated Bernal Cutlery through others, such as Avedano’s and Drewes Brothers, for five years. Now the casual to professional chef can drop off his/her knives at 331 Cortland and admire Donald’s collection of new and vintage cutlery. Bernal Cutlery may be San Francisco’s only Japanese whetstone sharpening service. Donald also holds monthly educational classes on Japanese whetstone sharpening.

Even if you don't have any knives that need sharpening, visit Bernal Cutlery just to check out Josh's vintage collection.

The new kid in the market is Spice Hound,  a global collection of pure and aromatic spices for everyday use. Tammy Tan travels around the world to collect well-known and exotic spices and herbs. Normally, Spice Hound sells about a 100 kinds of spices at farmers markets and online. Spice Hound is set to open for business in mid-October, just in time for gifts, spiced nuts, and sesame-seed brittle for the holidays.

Spice Hound has familiar spices and exotic ones such as the Thai Coffee Rub.

Side Note:
Slow Food is an international organization founded in Italy to support local farmers and preserve local cuisine and food traditions. Slow Food is good, clean and fair food. The main objectives of Slow Food is to increase people’s interest in the food they eat, educated them on where food comes from, while protecting the biodiversity of the food system and connecting the community through food.  Each regional chapter of Slow Food hosts dinners, tastings, fairs, festivals, workshops, conferences, visits to local food producers, taste education initiatives for its members. Slow Food SF happens to be the largest chapter in the USA Learn more about Slow Food here.

***Slow Food is also have a membership sale for a very limited time. For a gift of just $25 or more you become a member. Join the food fight!

331 Cortland l 331 Cortland Avenue, San Francisco, California, 94110 l Mon-Sun 10 am – 7 pm

Did you know that Club Dine In! is on Twitter and Facebook? Follow @clubdinein for daily health, fitness, and social news, recipes and delicious tips! Join the Club Dine In! community on Facebook to connect with like-minded individuals and find out about exclusive Club Dine! events.