On my trip to India I'm visiting Kerala about mid way timewise and since that state is pretty famous for its spices, I'd like to know which spices are the most famous (and the best) ones which I absolutely must buy there and not elsewhere in India.

I mentioned that Kerala is mid way during my journey because I don't intend to travel across half of India with a couple of kilos of spices in my backpack and will therefore buy only certain spices in Kerala and the rest in Delhi, right before my return flight.

Image by horst72 from iStock photos.

I understand that this question is kinda subjective but I think it can be answered since there must be some spices such as saffron that are much better there. I do cook a lot and use different spices all the time but I don't know even the hundredth of all the spices India has to offer so need some suggestions on that front.

  • If you are traveling to US, back from India, please be aware that the CBP ( Customs & Border Protection ) is very strict about seeds. Yes some of them are just spice, but Cardamom & Pepper are considered seeds and if the find these out in your luggage, be ready to shell out $300+ as fine, and losing the stuff. Happened to me, but the officer was kind enough to let me go without any fine ( of course he put the seeds in trash) – Saagar Elias Jacky Mar 24 '15 at 3:04
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    I am voting to close this question, even though it is an a) old one, and b) already has an accepted answer. It is a list question, and it is subjectively written. Now that it appears to have been necro-ed up to life again, it is a precedent setter (imho) we don't need. – CGCampbell Nov 25 '15 at 12:31

The two I would say you must get: peppercorns (black, green, white, or mixed) and cinnamon. Yes, these are very common spices that are widely available around the world, but the pepper and cinnamon that I got in Kerala are the best I've ever had. (Bonus: You can buy cinnamon bark in a fresher state; flat bark pieces rather than the curled, stick-like cinnamon that is the final product of a full drying. The flat bark works great for infusing cinnamon flavor - throw pieces into hot apple cider, rice when you're cooking it, any curries. It's delicious.)

The Wikipedia page for cuisine of Kerala lists cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, green and red peppers, cloves, garlic, cumin seeds, coriander, turmeric as the most common spices. (I don't know why green and red peppers are listed there; I think I'm not sure whether they mean bell peppers or chili peppers.)

This Kerala tourism site has a similar list, but it provides more information about the varieties available and which reasons they're grown in.

Cardamom, clove, vanilla, tamarind, and turmeric are all popular, too. It looks like Indian saffron is usually grown in Kashmir, so you might be better off buying that in Delhi. Many Indian spices are grown widely throughout India, so you could theoretically purchase all of your spices in Delhi; I lived there for a short while and every spice that I found in markets when I visited Kerala were also present in Delhi spice markets. Merchants in Delhi often market their spices as being from Kerala. However, I would definitely buy pepper and cinnamon in Kerala still. Try eating fresh peppercorns (not cured/dried) if you get a chance, too!

  • Great, thanks for the bonus advice on saffron. I'm going to Jammu and Leh so I'll probably get those up there. What pepper are you talking about? There's a lot of different types, is there any you were thinking of in particular? – rlab Feb 2 '12 at 20:03
  • I think this answers my question but would like to see whether others agree or have something to add. – rlab Feb 2 '12 at 20:03
  • @rlesko Whoops, sorry. I even pointed out that the Wikipedia page was unclear, then I did the same thing myself! Edited my answer, but I'm talking about dried peppercorns - black, green, or white (they all come from the same plant). – Laura Feb 2 '12 at 20:09
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    Green peppers / red peppers are called capsicum in India. – Ankur Banerjee Feb 4 '12 at 19:43
  • @Laura: Green and red peppers are bell peppers, not chili peppers. In Australia they are called capsicum just like in Indian English. – hippietrail Feb 5 '12 at 5:29

You mention that will be travelling for a long time. This makes the possibility that the spices you're carrying will get damaged in transit (moisture leaking into containers). None of the spices mentioned in Laura's answer are particularly that expensive so if you're ultimately flying out of Delhi, you might just want to buy them from open-air vegetable markets in Delhi itself which in itself is a unique experience. (For lower prices, shop in areas of Delhi with higher concentrations of South Indian population, such as RK Puram.) The exception is saffron - while saffron is used in many different Indian cuisines, it's mostly grown in Jammu & Kashmir, and it's definitely cheaper to buy saffron there if you're going.

And while they aren't spices, I would also recommend buying tea or coffee if you're into that. Normal tea is better in Darjeeling (east India) but in Southern India, you can get really good flavoured teas such as cardamom tea for cheap.

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    Yeah, tea is one of the reasons why I'm visiting Darjeeling although I've read that Nilgiri teas (from Ooty and Coonoor) are great as well. I'm a sucker for teas so I plan to get a bunch of different breeds. There's always a risk of something going wrong in transport but I wouldn't mind buying some of the spices in Kerala and if they do get spoiled in some way, I can always get some more in Delhi then, thanks for the market suggestion. Is saffron much more expensive in Kashmir or are the prices tolerable for a backpacker. I won't have to sell a kidney or something, will I? – rlab Feb 4 '12 at 20:19
  • In Ooty you can actually visit tea factories and plantations too to see the process of making tea. It's a bit touristy but the in-house shops there do sell tea at cheap rates. All your flavoured tea, I would definitely recommend you to buy down south. Darjeeling is much better for its 'standard' teas. Spices are part of staple everyday cooking that's why you can still get it cheap in Delhi. – Ankur Banerjee Feb 4 '12 at 20:31
  • Saffron, it depends. Even in home cooking saffron is used sparingly, a pinch of it per a dish. So if you were planning on taking a whole jar of it back, then you may have to sell your kidneys then. – Ankur Banerjee Feb 4 '12 at 20:33
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    INA Market near AIIMS is a definite place to look for quality and mostly original Kerala spices in Delhi. – Jamess Aug 20 '12 at 13:10

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