Essential Indian Spices

I recently received an email from a reader, who asked if I would do a post on “essential Indian spices”.  I wrote a similar post about Essential Equipment for Indian cooking and it is high time I do one for spices.

I love the idea of a quick-start guide to Indian cooking.  I have had many people tell me they haven’t tried Indian cooking because the list of spices is too intimidating, and it can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.

To show you how easy it really is, I would like to share with you a picture of my mother-in-law’s spice box.  This box contains only three spices:  1. Salt   2. Turmeric  3. Garam masala

Salt, turmeric and garam masala are the only spices my Mummy-ji uses on a day to day basis. Occasionally she uses red chili powder for color (such as in her chole recipe).  These same three spices make a wonderful array of dishes, all with their own unique flavors.

Of these three spices, salt and turmeric are the most available.  It should be easy to find turmeric in the spice isle of most mainstream grocery stores (much cheaper at the Indian store though).

If you are just starting out with Indian cooking, you are probably less familiar with garam masala.

I‘m including garam masala as one spice on my essentials list, when in actuality garam masala is a blend of spices (about seven spices, depending on the recipe).

The easiest way to get garam masala is at an Indian grocery store but if you don’t have one of those around, try looking for it at a natural foods store (I’ve seen it at Whole Foods).

You may want to try your local neighborhood stores, as Indian spices are becoming more and more widely available.

If you don’t have an Indian grocery store and you cannot find it at any of your local stores, you can make your own garam masala at home using commonly available spices.

Many of the recipes on this site use an array of spices. However, if you want to keep things real simple, you could cut out all the other spices and just stick to these three.  I personally love my spice cabinet, which is stocked full of colorful and great smelling spices, but I only use turmeric and garam masala for day to day cooking. For anyone who like it short and simple, just keep the “essential three” on hand.

How To Simplify Any Recipe On This Site:

To simplify any recipe on this site, you can replace the spices in any recipe with a ratio of:

  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric.

Taste and adjust before serving.  These are the amounts I’ve observed Mummy-ji using in the recipes we’ve made together.

To start cooking right away, take a look at the cooking videos Mummy-ji and I have made together, all of which use only the “essential three” spices (except the chole, which includes some red chili powder for color).

Easy Indian Recipes

Related posts:


  1. 12-28-2012

    Hi Colleen,
    I like to read your posts very much. Your videos are very good and easy for anyone to follow. Wishing you a happy New Year! Please find some time to browse my website.

    • 12-29-2012

      Thanks Gayatri, Happy New Year to you as well.

  2. 12-29-2012

    Really!? Only salt, tumeric and garam masala!? How encouraging. How easy. How affordable. Thanks for the tips.

    • 1-1-2013

      Your welcome Jess 🙂
      …if you don’t count salt, it’s really only two 😉

  3. 1-21-2013

    Whew!! and here i was stressing out about the other spices i “needed” to make all my faves.. i have to confess though that when i first started out i was following a different “easy indian home cooking” website and ended up buying a bunch of spices that i have yet to use! Someday i’ll figure them out and find recipes that use them…

    • 1-22-2013

      Hi Lupe, it is so great to hear you say that. I’m going to get a lot more recipes from my Mummy-ji using just these spices. We could make a whole cookbook using only three spices!

  4. 6-8-2015

    Hi Colleen,

    I found this post super helpful and can’t thank you enough for all the recipes you have posted! I love the spice rack you are using and was wondering you where got it 🙂

    Thanks again!

    • 6-10-2015

      Hi Jola, Thanks so much for the great compliment. The spice rack is from India, I have a metal one with small bowls. They are available at World Market (Cost Plus), but way over priced. I think those kids lunch boxes with the 3 separations would be great as you only need Garam Masala, Turmeric and Salt for everyday cooking.

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