The 5 Whole Spices for Indian Cooking Beginners


My kitchen cabinets are full of bottles of spices. I like to store these things as you never know what might come in handy for a recipe. Yes, having a well-stocked spice cabinet, is a rather good feeling, especially when you can pull out something at the crucial moment when you need it the most.

If you have ever walked down a store aisle with neatly stacked rows of Indian spices of all sizes, shapes and colours and wondered what they are used for, I don’t blame you. Anyone knew to Indian cooking is bound to be overwhelmed at the number of spices we use in our India kitchens.
Layering many contrasting flavours and spices is at the heart of Indian cooking. Spices not only add beautiful flavour to Indian dishes, they also make each dish distinct and wonderfully aromatic. The use of spices varies by region in India and sometimes you can just smell a dish and know where it’s from. Each spice by itself imparts a striking flavour, but when used together with other spices, the different combinations and permutations magically change the individual characteristics.
The use of herbs and spices has been incredibly important throughout history. Many were celebrated for their medicinal properties, well before culinary use. In this respect, the health benefits of Indian spices have been well documented in several medical journals and publications.

If you’re a beginner Indian cook or just want to try out a few Indian recipes at home to add variation to your dinner table, I suggest that you start by buying a few essential Indian whole spices. To help you with this task, I have provided below the 5 whole spices I think you should start with. These are the basic ones and readily available at most grocery stores like TESCO, ASDA, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, or Costcutter. Holland and Barrett also stocks these spices under the label of ‘The Vital Ingredient.’

There are several other spices too but are used more sparingly. I have used this blog post to discuss the whole spices only. There will be another post about the powdered form of spices that you should keep handy.


Cumin is the seed of a small plant. The seeds themselves are crescent shaped and lend a warm pungent flavour to dishes. While cumin seeds are a staple in a lot of Indian food, they are also used in Middle Eastern, Spanish, and Mexican cooking. The seeds pair well with lentils, vegetables and meat. 

Cumin is a great source of iron and calcium and considered good for digestion and related disorders. 


Mustard seeds come from the yellow flowers of the mustard plant. The seeds are small and round and come in a variety of colours, black, brown, yellow. The black mustard seeds are quite commonly used in Indian cooking and have a lovely nutty flavour.

These seeds are an excellent source of essential B-complex vitamins such as folates, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, pyridoxine (vitaminB-6), pantothenic acid. They are also a rich source of health benefiting minerals. Calcium, manganese, copper, iron, selenium, and zinc are some of the minerals especially concentrated in these seeds.


Cinnamon is one of the most flavourful spices and is also my favourite. Cinnamon is made by cutting the stems of the cinnamomum tree. The inner bark is then extracted and the woody parts removed from it. When it dries, it forms strips that curl into rolls, called cinnamon sticks. The sticks are also ground to form cinnamon powder. The distinctive smell and flavour of cinnamon is due to the essential oils contained in the bark.

Cinnamon is loaded with large amounts of polyphenol antioxidants. Antioxidants can help protect the body from diseases. The antioxidants in cinnamon have been found to have anti-inflammatory effects.

Cinnamon is used in cooking and baking across the globe, from flavouring your tea, cakes and buns to making aromatic rice dishes, mulled wine, and delicious curries.


Cloves are the flower buds of the clove tree. They resemble small nails and have a rather warm and sweet flavour. Besides India, cloves are also used in Mexican, European, and Ethiopian cooking.

Cloves are a key ingredient in many spice mixtures made for use in the kitchen. The popular Chinese Five Spice powder has cloves as one of its ingredients. The famous Indian garam masala also has cloves in it.

Cloves improve digestion by stimulating the secretion of digestive enzymes. They are also good for reducing flatulence, gastric irritability, and nausea. Cloves can be roasted, powdered, and taken with honey for relief in digestive disorders. They are particularly useful for toothaches due to their pain-killing properties.


Cardamom is called the queen of spices and is one of the most valued spices in the world.  (Incase you were left wondering who the king of spices is…it is the ubiquitous black pepper). There are three types of cardamom; green cardamom, black cardamom, and Madagascar cardamom. Cardamom pods have a pleasant aroma with a characteristic, slightly pungent, slightly sweet taste and leave a warm feeling in the mouth. It is the seeds, taken out from the fruit, which produce the warm sensation. They are dried fruits of the ginger family.

The smell of this spice makes it an integral part of Indian cuisine. From biryanis to desserts, green cardamom is popular. My favourite use of this spice is flavouring the Indian masala chai.

In India, cardamom has seen a lot of mention in Ayurveda (the ancient Indian science of medicine and lifestyle). It was believed to be a remedy for teeth and gum infections, throat problems, congestion of the lungs, gastrointestinal disorders, and was also used as an antidote for poisons and venoms.

Simply chew on a pod of cardamom after every meal or whenever you need to freshen up your breath! It works!