Indian food calls for variety, but "don't overwhelm yourself by buying 30 spices," says Madhur Jaffrey, the doyenne of Indian cuisine. "Start with the most common ones." These are her favorites. We consider them the starting point for exploring Indian cooking.
Dried Red Chiles
Similar to dried Italian red pepperoncini, the most common Indian dried red chiles range from medium-hot to hot. Jaffrey notes that they're milder when used whole. Dried chiles are used in a wide range of Indian recipes from dals to vegetable dishes.
While Americans consider cinnamon a spice for desserts, in India cinnamon sticks are used to season savory meat and rice dishes.
Fenugreek seeds have an earthy, slightly bitter taste that's especially well suited to eggplant and potato. Jaffrey uses this spice in her recipe for dakshini murgh, a southern Indian-style chicken dish.
Cayenne pepper is a spicy red pepper powder made from ground dried Indian red chiles. It's also used in Cajun and Creole cooking.
Jaffrey recommends buying aromatic coriander seeds rather than pre-ground coriander: Grind the seeds at home, then store the powder in a tightly closed container and use within a month.
Roasting brings out the nutty, perfumed flavor of cumin seeds; the spice is a common ingredient in many curries. Jaffrey uses it in a simple potato dish, til ke aloo.
Look for green cardamom pods, they are more aromatic than the bleached whitish cardamom pods. If a recipe calls for cardamom seeds, split open the pods and extract the seeds.
Brown Mustard Seeds
Indians use black or brown mustard seeds, but the yellow variety that's available in American grocery stores is a fine substitute.
Extracted from the rhizome of the Ferula plant, asafetida adds a distinctive garlicky, truffle-like flavor kick to dals and other lentil dishes. Jaffrey uses it in her version of the green bean dish, sem ki sabzi.