Ragini Dey
14 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Jana Liebenstein

Roasting and Grinding Whole Spices

Some recipes call for spices that are already ground. These recipes tend to require a subtler mix of flavours. Some recipes call for whole spices that then have to be ground freshly – the result is a greater freshness and a greater intensity of flavour. Then there are recipes that require whole spices to be roasted and ground. This is the process of dry-roasting, or dry-toasting, whole spices before grinding them. This intensifies the colour, flavour and aroma of the spices, and brings a greater richness and depth to the taste of the finished dish. Using spices that are already ground will save a bit of time, but they will not give the same result.

To dry-roast whole spices, heat a small frying pan over a medium heat. Add all the whole spices that the recipe requires to the pan and heat them gently, stirring continuously, until they are warmed through and have started to release their aroma. This should take about 2–5 minutes, depending on the quantity and type of spices you are working with. Take care not to overheat the spices, as this will destroy their colour and flavour. If the spices are too hot to touch, they have been burnt.

Remove the spices from the heat and leave to cool, then grind in an electric grinder or use a mortar and pestle to get the desired coarseness or fineness.

The word masala is a generic term that refers to a combination, or mix, of spices. The following spice mixes are commonly used blends.


Here is a guide to twenty of the most important spices used in Indian cooking.

Ajwaiin Seeds:

These tiny grey seeds come from the same family as cumin and parsley. In taste, they are similar to celery seeds with overtones of thyme. In Indian cooking, they are used to flavour deep-fried foods, fish and vegetables. Try ajwaiin seeds stir-fried with garlic, prawns tomatoes, coriander leaves and chilli.


This berry comes from the Pimenta dioica, a small tree native to the West Indies. The fruit is gathered when green and unripe and dried in the sun, where the berries turn black. Allspice has the flavour of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. It is also known as Jamaica pepper, and in India as kababchini.


Green mangoes are dried and ground to obtain this sour tangy spice, used to lift the taste of popular snacks such as samosas and pakoras. Amchur is especially useful if you want to achieve a sour taste like lemon or tamarind without the liquid content.


A very sharp-tasting spice derived from a resinous gum of the fennel family, asafoetida is used sparingly in vegetarian dishes and with lentils. North Indian recipes, especially from Kashmir, include asafoetida but always in very minute amounts. The gum is said to aid digestion and gives a unique taste, which you may either love or hate. Its aroma after cooking has been compared with that of truffles. For a simple recipe, add a tiny amount to hot ghee with julienned ginger and fresh green peas.


Also known as the Queen of Spices, cardamom is the fruit of a reed-like plant from the mountains near the Malabar Coast in India. Two types are commonly used in Indian cooking: the small and more delicate green cardamom pods with thin black seeds inside, and the large brown cardamom pods, which are at least four times the size of the green. The pods release a beautiful fragrance when crushed and the seeds have a strong, sweetish flavour. Cardamom is an essential ingredient of garam masala, and is often used to flavour sweet dishes such as custards, ice creams and rice puddings.


In Indian cooking chillies are generally fresh green (unripe), dried red or ground as red chilli powder. The three cannot be interchanged in recipes as they all have different flavours. Fresh chillies also vary in pungency. A good guide is often the size: the smaller the chilli the hotter it is.


Cinnamon is the bark of an evergreen tree belonging to the laurel family, native to Sri Lanka, the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia and Indonesia. The outer bark is stripped away, and the inner bark is loosened and dried. Often confused with cassia bark, true cinnamon is softer and has a more subtle aroma. Cinnamon leaves are used to flavour curries, stocks and rice.


One of the oldest-known spices, cloves were regularly used by the Ancient Egyptians and the Romans. The clove tree can grow to heights of six metres and its unopened flower buds are carefully harvested. Known for its preservation qualities, cloves are used in both savoury and sweet Indian dishes.


The small round or oval brown seeds of the coriander plant are one of the most popularly used spices in Indian cooking. The seeds are usually roasted and ground before use. Fresh coriander leaves are used for flavouring curries, salads, chutneys and as a garnish.


Used either whole or as a powder, cumin is widely grown in Europe, India and Mexico. Cumin is said to stimulate the appetite and aid digestion. It is frequently used in curries, biscuits, couscous and fried rice. Fry whole cumin seeds in ghee and add to cooked vegetables, lentils and rice.

Fennel Seeds:

The dried fruit of a perennial herb of the parsley family, fennel is grown in Europe, India, the Middle East and Argentina. The seed resembles cumin in shape but is green and slightly fatter with a licorice-like flavour. Fennel is used whole and ground in breads, pickles, sauces, and in fish and South Indian meat curries. It is also an ingredient of the Indian five-spice mix, panch phoron. Cook rice with fennel seeds and whey for a really aromatic dish. Garnish with Indian panir cheese.


These squarish, yellowish-brown seeds have a slightly bitter flavour. They are used either whole or ground to flavour vegetables and curries. The leaves are used as a vegetable, and dried fenugreek is essential for certain recipes such as butter chicken. Add a few seeds to soup stocks or, with curry leaves, to vegetable soups for that special South Indian taste.


An ancient spice grown in most parts of the world, mustard seeds are used in both Western and Indian recipes. The pungency of the seeds is fully released when they are ground and mixed with water. In India, both the yellow and black seeds are used in cooking. Vindaloo is a popular example of a dish that uses mustard. Mustard oil, made from ground mustard seeds, is used widely in East and North India. Mustard seeds and mustard oil are used frequently when pickling fruits, and in vegetable and seafood dishes.

Nutmeg and Mace:

These two spices are from the same fruit grown in Malaysia, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia and the West Indies. Nutmeg is the seed, protected by a thin shell. The shell has a coat of orange flesh which, when dried, becomes mace. Although the aroma of mace is similar to that of nutmeg, mace is sweeter. Nutmeg is used finely grated in sweets, curries and sauces, while mace is coarsely crushed and used to flavour soups and stocks, as well as sweet dishes and rich Mughal curries and biryanis. When buying nutmeg choose seeds that are round, compact, have an oily appearance and feel heavy for their size.

Onion Seeds:

Sometimes known as black cumin, these tiny black seeds have a sweet flavour. An ingredient of the Indian five-spice mix, panch phoron, onion seeds are also used as a pickling spice and to flavour breads.


The seeds or berries of the plant Piper nigrum, native to the Malabar Coast of India, are dried to make both black pepper (the whole berry) and white pepper (husk removed). Pepper is used whole, crushed coarsely or finely ground, and is also an ingredient of garam masala.

Poppy Seeds:

In India, white poppy seeds are mainly used for their nutty flavour and thickening quality when added to rich curries such as kormas and vegetables dishes. They are usually soaked in hot water for at least two hours and then ground to a paste. Add to cooked potatoes for a delicious vegetable accompaniment.


The world’s most expensive spice is made from the dried stamens of a type of crocus that grows in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and India. A quarter of a million plants are required to yield 450 g of saffron. Buy only from reliable sources as fake saffron is often sold as a cheaper substitute. Saffron has an e thereal fragrance with a pale yellow colour and should be infused in warm milk to obtain the best results. Use in stocks, soups, rice and desserts.


A ginger-like rhizome grown in India and the West Indies. In India it is usually dried whole and ground to a powder. The hard resinous flesh of the dried root varies from a dark orange to a deep reddishbrown. In its powder form it is usually bright yellow. Turmeric is not only used for its colour and flavour but also as a preservative.

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