Indian-Fare Guru Rinku Bhattacharya’s Spice Starter Kit

The author’s list of essential spices for an Indian cook’s kitchen.

Valhalla-resident Rinku Bhattacharya is a Journal News food columnist, cooking instructor, blogger ( and cookbook author (Spices & Seasons: Simple, Sustainable Indian FlavorsThe Bengali Five Spice Chronicles). Following is her list of essential spices to cook up quality Indian cuisine.

Cilantro: Coriander or cilantro leaves are a very versatile, with a haunting citrus flavor and a strong dose of antioxidants and minerals—all while being low in calories (throw some into that morning smoothie!). It is the herb of choice in the Indian kitchen, with mint being a close second. I joke that we use cilantro as a green vegetable in our house.  

Coriander: These small brown seeds, used either whole or crushed, are native to Europe and North Africa and belong to the coriander or the cilantro plant. Coriander seeds are rarely used as a sole flavoring, but work well as a complement to other spices, most commonly cumin and black pepper. I use it for spice rubs and crusts where it holds center stage. Coriander seeds are also rich in anti-oxidants and help with digestion and are rich in Vitamin C.

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Cumin: Cumin is native to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean regions and is my all-time favorite spice, as it is extremely versatile. It was grown in ancient Egypt where the seeds were used in rituals and to season food. In my kitchen, I typically use the brown variety, which has anti-carcinogenic properties and is great for digestion.

Red cayenne pepper powder: Cayenne peppers are the chilies most commonly used in Indian kitchens, but are actually native to the Americas. These long slender chilies are usually ripened until red and then dried and ground into what is known as red chili or red cayenne powder. Its heat makes an Indian dish complete. Cayenne pepper powder is portable and convenient to keep around since it does not spoil. Cayenne helps with nausea, colds and headaches, and increases the body’s metabolism. 

Garlic: Dating back over 6,000 years, garlic is native to central Asia and has long been a staple in the Mediterranean region, as well as a frequent seasoning in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Garlic can be ground with ginger in equal portions to create a ginger-garlic paste. Fresh ginger-garlic paste will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, and it can also be frozen almost indefinitely. Garlic helps with digestion, good skin, and is also anti-inflammatory and said to have aphrodisiac qualities.

Ginger: Fresh ginger root is usually grated or ground into a paste. I find that the sharpness of ginger offers a nice contrast and complement to fruity sauces. Ginger also works as a twin spice with garlic in Indian cooking. Ginger helps with colds, flatulence, and good skin. It generally perks up your spirits and I like to throw some in my morning tea.

Turmeric: Turmeric is popularly used in Indian cooking in a dried and powdered form. I like to call it trendy turmeric as it seems to be the happening spice these days because of all its health benefits. Indeed, it is an anti-inflammatory spice that supposedly prevents cancer, offer the skin a glow, and of course, add flavor and color to your food.

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