I enjoy eating from across the globe and trying out new cuisines, but living in rural France means that I have had to master a wide range of cuisines to satisfy that curiosity. Indian food is easier than most to perfect as we can usually get most of the spices here. And what you can’t get at the market you can order online from specialist stores.
That said there is a huge list of spices used within the wide range of dishes found across India and I doubt that most of us have them all. However I think that it is not unreasonable to suppose that (even during lockdown) most ‘cooks’ would have the following in their pantry – garlic (I think this is a legal obligation in France!), ground cumin, ground coriander, turmeric, paprika, dried red chilies, cinnamon, fennel seeds, black pepper and fresh ginger (bio-coop and most supermarkets stock it all year round).
The following might be more of a stretch, but something to build on as and when possible. Saffron, fenugreek, cardamom, mustard seeds (black, brown and yellow), cassia bark*, curry leaves**, asafoetida, anis, nigella seeds, cumin seeds, tamarind (the bio-coop sell it fresh but I get the paste online), clove, coriander seeds, nutmeg and mace***.
That list is far from exhaustive, but a good start. I recommend buying your spices from the markets for the range, quality and freshness. Supermarket spices sold in bottles that have sat around on the shelves for heavens knows how long, tend to taste dusty and you end up using far more than the pungent market versions. If you are in my area there is a wonderful spice stall at both the Narbonne and Lezignan markets, but most markets have a spice stand.
The second thing worth the effort is grinding your own spice mixes rather than buying pre-made mixes. This can be done by hand with a pestle and mortar, or if you have a coffee grain grinder, that works well too just make sure you wash it thoroughly before and after!!! If you are a spice fan it is probably worth investing in a separate grinder especially for spices you can pick up electric coffee grinders for around 12€.
Note though that if you are going to make up a spice mix this is not the moment to bulk mix, freshly ground spices are best ground fresh as they quickly loose their pungency. So just make enough for the dish that you are preparing.
The internet is full of spice recipes so I am not going to compete with that. I will share my garam masala mix as it is very versatile and can be added to many dishes.
Heat a heavy based frying pan over medium-high heat and toast the coriander, cumin, cardamom, black peppercorns for about 10 minutes. Shaking from time to time to ensure that they cook evenly and do not burn.
When the spices have darkened slightly and your kitchen is full of the fragrant waft of spices, remove from the heat and cool.
Grind the spices, either by hand or in a coffee grinder.
Grate in the nutmeg, mix and use.
If you have made too much store in an airtight container away from light.
*replace cassia bark with cinnamon sticks
**replace curry leaves with bay leaves
***replace mace with nutmeg
I have it on good authority that in India there is no such thing as ‘curry powder’!!