- Cumin Seeds: Cumin seeds are the building block of many north Indian dishes, and will often be the sole seasoning component. Their warm, nutty, smoky taste can easily stand on its own. Sauté cumin seeds in oil, add practically any vegetable, from cauliflower to carrots to green beans, and you've got an easy sabzi. Cumin seeds tempered in oil (this technique is also known as chhonk) are also an excellent topper for a dal or the beloved savory yogurt condiment known as raita.
- Coriander Seeds: Similar to cumin seeds and typically best used in freshly ground form, coriander seeds are a warm spice that provides an incredible, almost citrusy aroma. Use coriander seeds in any kind of hearty gravy, like the one for saag paneer, or as a seasoning for rice.
- Cardamom: Cardamom pods have a gentle sweetness that works well in both savory dishes (particularly tomato gravy–based ones, like matar paneer) and sweet ones, like shrikhand, a cardamom yogurt. Also of note: Cardamom pods can be munched whole as a natural breath freshener.
- Turmeric: By now, you have probably heard about turmeric. But unlike what trendy coffee shops may lead you to believe, in Indian cooking, turmeric is rarely a flavoring component in and of itself, but rather a means of adding color and an earthy baseline to a dish. Turmeric is the kind of spice that often plays a supporting role in terms of flavor, but without it, dals and sabzis seem to lack the depth that's characteristic of most Indian dishes.
- Mustard Seeds and Curry Leaves: These are separate ingredients, but in my house, they are often used together. Mustard seeds and curry leaves both have an appealingly earthy flavor, and when used in cooking, they provide dishes with a taste that I can only describe as freshly buttered popcorn.