Beyond Curry Powder: 7 Rare Spices That Define Indian Cooking
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Indian cuisine is a true bowl of spices and flavours and can be described as colourful both in terms of its culinary and health offerings. Indeed, constantly gaining popularity in the world market, the most popular spice for Indian cuisine, perhaps, is curry powder; however, numerous more exotic spices can express the unique taste of Indian cuisine. Starting from street food stalls in the market to fine dining restaurants, the smell and flavour of Indian cuisine are rich in history and cultural differences. 

Spices play a central role in this culinary landscape, each one contributing to the intricate symphony of tastes that define Indian dishes. While curry powder has become synonymous with Indian cooking globally, it represents just a fraction of the spices used in Indian kitchens. These spices not only enhance the flavours of the dishes but also carry with them a deep cultural and historical significance.

While curry powder offers a convenient one-stop solution, it often fails to capture the depth and complexity of flavours found in authentic Indian cooking. Let's venture beyond the mainstream and explore the world of rare spices that truly define the culinary landscape of India. By uncovering the secrets behind these spices, we reveal the depth and richness of Indian culinary traditions that go far beyond the ubiquitous curry powder.

Exploring Rare Indian Spices

  • Kalpasi (Black Stone Flower): Chettinad

Kalpasi, also known as black stone flower, is a lichen used predominantly in Chettinad cuisine in Tamil Nadu. It has a strong, earthy aroma and adds a deep, musky flavour to dishes. It is often used in spice blends like garam masala and rich gravies and curries. Its use in traditional recipes like Chettinad chicken curry showcases its ability to impart a unique depth of flavour that is hard to replicate. In other places, it is also used in the preparation of biryani, especially in the nati-style cooking of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

  • Radhuni (Wild Celery Seeds): Bengal

Radhuni, often mistaken for ajwain or celery seeds, is a spice with a strong, pungent flavour. It is a key ingredient in the Bengali spice blend panch phoron, which is used to temper dals, vegetables, and pickles. It is an essential component in dishes like shukto (a mixed vegetable curry) and various fish preparations, highlighting its importance in regional cooking.

  • Lakadong Turmeric: Meghalaya

Lakadong turmeric is renowned for its deep orange-yellow colour and high curcumin content, which can reach up to 7-9%. This makes it one of the most potent varieties of turmeric. It is commonly used in Indian cooking to add colour and flavour to dishes such as curries, dals, and rice. Hailing from the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, Lakadong turmeric is considered one of the finest and most prized varieties in India. Its cultivation is deeply rooted in the traditional agricultural practices of the local tribal communities, making it a significant economic resource.

  • Tejpatta (Indian Bay Leaf): North India

Tejpatta, or Indian bay leaf, is distinct from the Mediterranean bay leaf. It has a cinnamon-like aroma with a slightly sweet and peppery taste. It is widely used in North Indian cooking, particularly in biryanis, pulaos, and rich curries. Its aromatic quality and flavour-enhancing properties make it a staple in many traditional recipes.

  • Mace (Javitri): South India

The lacy red covering of nutmeg mace possesses a warm, slightly sweet aroma with hints of pepper and clove. It is used sparingly in biryanis, korma curries, and even some lentil dishes, adding a touch of warmth and subtle sweetness. Its inclusion in festive and ceremonial foods underscores its importance in Indian culinary traditions.

  • Jaiur(Prickly Ash Seed): Assam & Manipur

Jaiur, or prickly ash seed, is known for its unique numbing and tingling sensation on the tongue, similar to the Sichuan pepper. Jaiur is often used in spice blends and marinades, particularly in meats and pickles, to enhance flavour and provide a sensory experience that is both refreshing and complex. This spice is predominantly found in the northeastern states of India, particularly in Assam and Manipur. It plays a crucial role in regional cuisines, where it is used to add a unique flavour to traditional dishes.

  • Jakhiya(Viscosa Seeds): Uttarakhand

Jakhiya seeds, also known as viscosa seeds, are tiny, black seeds with a crunchy texture and a mildly peppery flavour. They are primarily used for tempering (tadka) in Indian cooking, adding a distinct crunch and subtle spice to dishes like curries, vegetables, and lentils. The use of jakhiya in traditional recipes highlights the region's culinary heritage and the local preference for fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Its cultivation and use are integral to the agricultural practices and dietary habits of the local communities.

The Significance of Rare Spices

The use of rare spices in Indian cuisine extends beyond just enhancing flavour.  These precious ingredients hold cultural significance and even offer potential health benefits.

  • Spices in Ayurveda: Many of the rare spices used in Indian cooking also have significant medicinal properties, as per Ayurveda. For instance, Kalpasi (Black Stone Flower) is one of the best treatments for renal diseases, especially kidney stones. These spices are integral to the Ayurvedic practice of using food as medicine.
  • Rituals and Traditions: Spices often play a role in Indian rituals and traditions. For example, certain spices are used in religious ceremonies or as offerings at festivals. The cultural significance of these spices extends beyond the kitchen, embedding them into the social and religious fabric of Indian life.

Recipes Featuring Rare Spices

Chettinad Chicken Curry With Kalpasi


  1. Chicken pieces
  2. Onions
  3. Tomatoes
  4. Ginger-garlic paste
  5. Kalpasi
  6. Freshly ground Chettinad masala (including star anise, fennel seeds, cloves, and cinnamon)
  7. Coconut milk
  8. Curry leaves 


  1. Sauté onions, ginger-garlic paste, and kalpasi until fragrant.
  2. Add the chicken pieces and cook until browned.
  3. Add tomatoes and ground Chettinad masala, and cook until the oil separates.
  4. Pour in the coconut milk and simmer until the chicken is fully cooked.
  5. Garnish with curry leaves and serve hot with rice or roti.

Bengali Shukto With Radhuni


  1. Mixed vegetables (bitter gourd, potatoes, radish, eggplant)
  2. Radhuni
  3. Mustard paste
  4. Milk
  5. Ghee
  6. Poppy seed paste


  1. Fry the vegetables in ghee until partially cooked.
  2. In the same pan, add radhuni and let it splutter.
  3. Add mustard paste, poppy seed paste, and milk, and bring to a simmer.
  4. Add the fried vegetables and cook until they are tender.
  5. Serve hot with steamed rice.

By incorporating these spices into modern cooking, we can preserve and celebrate the intricate heritage of Indian cuisine. So, next time you cook, venture beyond the usual spices and explore the hidden gems that truly define the essence of Indian cooking.