Spice trail of India: A guide to our country's famous spices and related dishes

Spice trail of India: A guide to our country's famous spices and related dishes
Spices. Photo: Shutterstock Images

India is definitely one of the most fascinating countries in the world, with its amalgamation of myths, cultures and traditions. However, what makes India stand out across the globe is definitely the variety of spices, cuisines and dishes they inspire. Of course, the country’s history and trade are all rooted in the Spice trail of India - from middle eastern and Persian influences to the spices exported during British Rule. These spices form the backbone of Indian cuisine and have been cultivated in many different ways across the Indian Subcontinent. So here’s a guide to some of our country’s most famous spices and how they have influenced the dishes we love.

Cardamom - Cardamom is one of the spices that are indigenous to India, and is now primarily cultivated in the Western Ghats Area, along the Malabar coast between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However, it is a spice that is used in cuisines and dishes across the country liberally and in most of the meals you eat - from your morning chai to a flavourful biryani. While biting into a dreaded elaichi when you’re trying to relish your Biryani is a universal irritant, cardamom adds bucket loads of flavour and aroma to any dish it is a part of. Cardamom is also a part of the host of spices that are ground together to make “garam masala” - a mixture of spices used in most North Indian curries.

Cardamom. Photo: Shutterstock Images

Fenugreek - While this spice is a native of Europe and western Asia, (also used for the embalming process in countries like Egypt and Morocco), we stick to using Fenugreek for cooking in India. Cultivated mostly in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, this is a versatile spice used in an abundance of curries and dishes. My favourite dish is aloo methi - or a Potato fenugreek stir fry that is a staple in most Punjabi households. Several families in Maharashtra and Gujarat also use fenugreek in their non-vegetarian dishes with chicken and mutton as well. The ground-up powder is also a part of the “garam masala” concoction used throughout the country.

Saffron - Kashmir is the undisputed capital of saffron production in the country, and this aromatic and flavourful spice is cultivated in many cities and towns across the state such as Pampore, Sri Nagar and Kishtwar. While it is hard to pinpoint the origin of Saffron in India - most myths seem to point towards the introduction of the spice to the subcontinent by Persian and Iranian settlers in the 12th century. As saffron is an expensive spice, it is used in minuscule amounts to add flavour to food and many Kashmiri dishes such as Kashmiri Pulao - a fragrant rice dish, and Rogan Josh - a mouthwatering succulent mutton dish. Saffron also travelled further south to the states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and is used in many desserts such as Kheer - a sweet dish made out of sugar, milk and rice - and shrikhand. A nice cold glass of kesar doodh - or saffron milk is also a popular and beneficial drink in the northern states of India.

Dried saffron spices next to a saffron flower. Photo: Shutterstock/ZhakYaroslav

Cinnamon - While Cinnamon is also a spice that originates from India, it is almost exclusively cultivated only in a few states of the country such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu. While the colloquial “dalchini” is used in a variety of dishes across the subcontinent, it is mostly used in South Indian dishes such as sambar, idli, uttapam and chutney in the form of cinnamon powder. Entire sticks of cinnamon are usually tossed into rice dishes like Biryani, including the most famous version, “Hyderabadi biryani” to add to the amalgamation of aromas and flavours in the dish. While cinnamon is now mostly associated with western pastries and desserts like cinnamon rolls, it also is used in a wide variety of curries and gravies in India.

Cinnamon. Photo: Shutterstock Images

Mustard seeds - While I’m sure everyone can recognise the iconic image of Shahrukh Khan and Kajol embracing in a field of yellow flowers in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge - most people don’t know that those yellow flowers are actually mustard plants, grown extensively in the farmlands of Punjab and Rajasthan. While the mustard plant itself is used to make a tasty “saag” or pureed leaf dish eaten with paranthas in these areas, mustard is also abundantly used in Bengali and South Indian cuisines. Shorshe Maach - a delicious mustard fish curry is one of the most famous and popular dishes in Bengal and it is also used extensively in other seafood and vegetable dishes from this area. Mustard seeds are also a feature of sambar, rasam and South Indian gravies that people enjoy with rice.

Mustard seeds. Photo: Shutterstock Images

India’s spice route is varied and extensive - a culmination of spices grown all across the countryside and consumed in a host of dishes across a variety of cuisines, but that’s what truly makes our country the spice capital of the world! 

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