Indian Pantry 101: Aarti's Spice Essentials

Not sure where to start when it comes to cooking Indian food? We asked Aarti to share her top five spice-rack staples — plus how and when to use them.

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Not sure where to start when it comes to cooking Indian food yourself? Let Aarti be your guide. With her favorite spices, shortcuts and swaps, you’ll be well on your way to flavor-packed Indian dishes straight from your own kitchen.


Squash with Turmeric Butter

Squash with Turmeric Butter

Aarti’s Top 5 Spices


"Turmeric is one of the most essential Indian spices," Aarti says. "It comes from the turmeric root, which looks like a smaller, grubbier gingerroot. It has a bitter aroma in its raw, powdered form, but once you add it to oil, it releases this pungent perfume that you will recognize as distinctly Indian. It also adds a lot of bright golden color to your dishes. And it has great healing qualities: It's been used as an anti-inflammatory in India forever. Be careful though — it will stain!"

Use turmeric in Aarti's Summer Squash with Turmeric Butter (pictured).

Read on for more of Aarti's must-have spices.

Sloppy Bombay Joes

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

Sloppy Bombay Joes

"In India, most cooks use ground red chiles (various varieties) both for their color and their heat," says Aarti. "Since some of those chiles are hard to come by here, I use paprika, primarily for the color it gives our food; then, if I want to add heat, I use cayenne pepper or serrano chiles."

Aarti uses paprika in her Sloppy Bombay Joes (pictured), a recipe she recommends as a great introduction to cooking with Indian spices.

Read on for more of Aarti's favorite spices.

Tri-Tip Tacos

Tri-Tip Tacos

Garam Masala
Aarti says: "Pronounced 'GUH-rum ma-SAA-laa'. Masala means, more or less, spice mix — and don't confuse it with maRsala, which is a sweet fortified wine. Two different things entirely! Garam means "hot"; this particular blend of spices punches up whatever you have going on already. Every garam masala mix is different, and all Indian cooks have their own blend (my mum's is strictly cinnamon and cloves, nothing else). The kind you find at the supermarket has a lot of coriander and cumin in it, which I don't like, but it's great if you're just starting out or you're in a pinch. I make a version that uses cinnamon, cloves and cardamom."

Aarti uses garam masala to give Tri-Tip Tacos (pictured) some Indian flair.

Read on for more of Aarti's top spices.

Green Chicken Curry

Green Chicken Curry

Ground Cumin Seeds (or whole, which you can then grind yourself)
"You probably already have some cumin in your pantry. I love the smoky, solid base that cumin adds to dishes," Aarti says. "I especially love using whole cumin seeds to start dishes off or to finish them off. They add a lovely pop of flavor."

Ground cumin adds depth of flavor to Aarti's Green Chicken Curry (pictured).

Read on for Aarti's final must-have spice.

"Friday Shrimp"

"Friday Shrimp"

Coriander Seeds (ground or whole)
Aarti says: "These are the seeds of the cilantro plant, but they don't taste anything like cilantro. They are more lemony in flavor and aroma — so don't try substituting fresh cilantro for either whole or ground coriander seeds. They taste oh so different! I usually buy the seeds, dry toast them in a pan, then grind them myself."

Ground coriander goes into the flavorful spice rub for Aarti's "Friday Shrimp." (pictured).

Read on for Aarti's super easy swaps.

Super Swaps

No time to make ghee, the clarified butter frequently used in Indian cuisine? Don't worry about swapping it for regular butter or oil. "We only used ghee for special occasions, so I use oil usually," says Aarti. "If it's for slathering on naan, then I use butter."

Speaking of naan, the delicious Indian flatbread, Aarti suggests subbing pita if you can't find it and don't have time to bake. "It's not the same by any means, but it's a good last-minute substitute," she says. "I'm still working on my perfect naan recipe."


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