When should I add whole spices and when should they be ground?

August 24th, 2011

Spices. We all know what they are, we all use them but do we really know how to get the best out of them? With all due respect to the spice masters in the world, here is my advice on how to get the best out of your spices.

But before I get onto that, a short aside. . .

In 1986 at The Taj Residency Hotel in Bangalore, I was told that I was being sent to a place called Baltistan as a reward.

What? Baltistan?! Most chefs are rewarded by a sojourn in France or Switzerland or England . . . and I was being sent to a north-western frontier province?

Well, I was told that this was the birthplace of Balti food and I was being sent there to learn the art of Balti, also known in India as kadhai cooking.

That was all well and good, but why me?

Do you know, I never got an answer to that question and 25 years later I still don’t know!

Thank G-d, however, the war had other plans and the region was declared out-of-bounds so I never got to learn the art of Balti cooking.

It was not till I started working with Chef Shiva at the Taj Residency that I realised I had missed an opportunity of a lifetime. Shiva was expert at kadhai cooking and watching him cook was like being at a concert; the only difference being that you could eat his performance.

Here is what I learnt from Chef Shiva about a classic Balti, or kadhai, dish called kadhai murgh. 

To make kadhai murgh you need five spices: dried red chillies, black peppercorns, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and dried fenugreek leaves, called qasoori methi.

dried red chillies

Now, these are used in two different forms, the first as whole spices and the second, ground.

According to Chef Shiva, the first step in making kadhai murgh is to heat the oil and then add the whole spices to create an infusion known as a kadhai aroma or chonk: so, you add the dried red chillies followed by the black peppercorns, cumin and coriander seeds. (As the fenugreek leaves have no ‘body’ they are left out at this stage to prevent them from burning, and they are added right at the end of cooking.)

Now that the oil had been aromatised with the whole spices, add some chopped onions along with salt and cook until the onions have caramelised.

Then add some crushed garlic, which is also cooked until it’s caramelised and then add some freshly crushed ginger and cook until its natural sugars appear. This is the SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for making a classic kadhai dish!

Pieces of diced chicken are then added to the kadhai, either ‘on’ or ‘off’ the bone, depending how haute your restaurant is.

In Sydney I want my restaurant to be seen as casual, with a sort of ‘home away from home’ feel to it and so I do leave the bones in, as we would when we’re eating/cooking at home. Leaving the bones in also keeps the meat more moist and gives it more ‘oomph’.

Once the meat has been sealed in the aromatised oil, remove it from the pan and set aside.

Crushed tomatoes are added to the pan at this stage (you can either chop your own tomatoes or use cans of chopped tomatoes, the only problem is that canned tomatoes, whether crushed or puréed, contain a h-ll of a lot of sugar and/or salt). So why not spend a relaxing and absorbing Sunday at home making your own superb tomato purée, or crushed tomatoes, safe in the knowledge that you don’t have too much extra salt or sugar added?!

The tomatoes are cooked until the oil starts to rise to the surface and then the chicken is returned to the pan to be slow-cooked in the ‘sauce’ till tender. Then the second set of kadhai spices is added.

So, for this second set of kadhai spices we will have dry-roasted our dried chillies, black peppercorns, cumin and coriander seeds and our qasoori methi and then we will have ground them just before using and added them to the pan full of our slow-cooked chicken and tomatoes. Nothing is finer than this.

coriander seeds

I hope you are following my spice trail!!

Now that we’re nearing the end of the cooking, it’s time to add some freshly chopped coriander leaves along with some lemon juice which will bring out the taste and appearance of the dish.

The kadhai murgh is now ready to be served, accompanied by your favourite bread which might be naan, kulcha, roti, parantha, the list is long and delicious and my favourite accompaniment is a roomali roti.

So, what have we learned? Well, in a nutshell the following points need to be remembered when cooking with spices:

1. Use whole spices at the beginning of the cooking process to create an aromatised oil or chonk infusion. This is your cooking medium.

2. Use ground spices (which have been dry-roasted) towards the end of the cooking process. This gives the dish extra flavour, as freshly crushed spices have all the ‘volatile’ oils on the surface, whereas the chonk will have added to the taste earlier as the spices will have permeated the chicken. This is a characteristic feature of the kadhai style of cooking.

3. Grind your spices when you need them, just like you do with coffee beans. This is something that’s often forgotten. Spices contain volatile oils which start to oxidise once they are ground and left in the open. Left-over ground spices in my kitchen are called sawdust because they are oxidised and contain no d-mn flavour at all. So, clear out those ground spices on your kitchen shelf and buy whole ones. Ground spices do look pretty in all their earthy colours displayed on your kitchen shelves, but who wants sawdust in their food?

4. Now that I’ve just said all the above, of course, there are exceptions to this rule in the forms of chilli and turmeric. Both are best bought already ground, as grinding dry chillies at home is not easy; you will sneeze too much! Turmeric, on the other hand, needs to be completely dry to get the best out of it, and when it’s dry it is as hard as stone which makes it very hard to crush unless you happen to have a ‘stone crusher’ nearby!

5. If you do have any left-over ground spices, place them in an anti-oxidising container, such as glass or ‘food grade’ plastic so that they remain fresh and the plastic smell does not permeate the spice. You may also cover the ground spices with oil to prevent oxidation from taking place, just as you would for keeping marinades fresh.

6. Furthermore, place any left-over ground spices in the refrigerator, just as you do with your ground coffee beans. My father-in-law has kept his chutney podi in the fridge for ages and the bl..dy thing tastes as if it has just been made!!!

7. Dry-fry the whole spices, let them cool and then keep them in an airtight container. Then you can grind them as and when you need them (or leave them whole). This keeps the spices fresh as the volatile oils are on the inside of the spice, just waiting to burst out, but they can’t explode till they’re ground. This is my favourite moment!

8. Finally, store your whole spices away from contact with water and direct sunlight; if you do they will last longer. I can’t tell you exactly how much longer they will last, just like I can’t tell you how long each of us will live, but I can say that if you look after yourself (and eat healthily) you will certainly increase your shelf life!!!

Anah daata sukhi bhava!!

kadhai murgh

To cook your own chicken dish using the kadhai method, click kadhai murgh recipe. Also, this recipe uses kadhai masala that is so simple to make. To make your own kadhai masala, click kadhai masala recipe.


  1. Ajoy Joshi

    Hi Ravi,
    Good to hear that you had a great result with your cooking.
    As a general rule I prefer to use a neutral oil, one which has no flavour of its own. This way I get flavours form the spices. It’s just my way of cooking. I prefer to use poly-unsaturated vegetable oil which has a high smoking point.
    Happy cooking!!

  2. ravi

    Hi Ajoy,
    Thanks for the reply and great recipe 🙂 . Made it with musturd oil and tasted great :). Which oil you have found to be best for recipes similar to this?
    and one more thing..it tastes even better the next day 🙂

  3. Ajoy Joshi

    Hi Ravi,
    Thanks for the query.
    As a general rule I always add the salt with the onions.
    It prevents the onions from burning and also helps in even caramelisation of the onions.
    Again I add the chicken after the tomatoes are added as it cooks better after the tomatoes are cooked by not disintegrating. Alternately you may sear the chicken after the onions are caramelised and remove it from the pan before adding the tomatoes.
    Cook the tomatoes and the spices, then return the chicken to the sauce. This is a very ‘European’ way of cooking chicken.
    Happy cooking!!

  4. ravi

    Hi Ajoy,
    I went through kadhai murgh recipe and had few questions..
    does adding salt with onions in beginning makes any difference?
    is adding chicken before tomato needed? or can we first add tomato then chicken in it?

  5. Ajoy Joshi

    Hi Isabell,
    Sorry for this delay in getting back to you, have been in India since the 30th march.
    With regards to our questions, there is no one spice mix or a formula that you can use. Having said this try some spice mixes, i call them ‘garam masala’ and have written a blog on this.
    Keep trying and you will hit the right chord that will suit your needs.
    Happy cooking!!

  6. Isabell

    Hi, I want to make my own seasoning blends and rubs at home, but I am not sure which type to use, is it better to use ground herbs and spices for seasoning blends-Jamaican Jerk, Butter Chicken, BBQ, Ras El Hanout etc or the seeds?

  7. Ajoy Joshi

    Hi Lucinda,
    Thanks for the feedback. When it comes to using whole spices it is important to leave them in the dish. This does not mean you serve the dish,( if you dont like to bite into them, with the whole spices), remove them before dishing it out. I believe the longer they stay the more you get out of them, meaning the more chance of the volatile oils going into the dish. I have done a blog on “spices, how to use them and when to add whole or ground spices. if you get a chance check it out.
    Happy cooking!!!

  8. Lucinda

    Great post with very useful tips! Just another question… after cooking the whole spices in the oil should these then be removed and discharded of or removed and grinded? Or do you leave them in throughout the whole cooking process whole? I have shyed away from many recipes with whole spices as it is very unpleasant to find them when eating the end produce eg. gloves and cardamon pods and never have this problem in restaurants etc so wondered…what do you do with them?
    Hope you can help and then I can get back to using many recipes that use cloves, cardamons, peppercorns etc without the worry of biting into one whilst eating a meal!

  9. Ajoy Joshi

    Hello Anu,
    Thanks for your comments.
    Will keep bringing out a new dish every week. Hope you get a chance to try out some. John and I are planning on going ‘regional’ after the current series is over!
    Happy cooking!!

  10. Anu

    Really inspirational, loved this article and the narration style. And thank you for the comprehensive write up on the techniques as well, this is very helpful, makes me want to run to the kitchen and cook up a Kadhai Murgh right away, but alas, I am in the middle of work!

  11. Ajoy Joshi

    Hi Manju, loved reading your recipe on kadhai Paneer. Like the idea of making Paneer at home. Maybe you can keep the ‘whey’ aside and use it along with the vinegar toque your next batch. I normally add just a tablespoon of whey to the vinegar. This will give you a softer Paneer and when used over and over again will become a ‘culture’. The one I use in my restaurant is 20years old! Also try to add 100 ml of cream to the milk before you add the vinegar. I have done a blog on Paneer making you may want to take a look.

  12. Manju

    A BIG fan of your blog and writing. Love reading about the science and reasons behind the various techniques used. Reading your blog always makes me want to cook, I guess that’s what good blogs do to you right? 🙂
    I made Kadhai Paneer following this recipe and I have to say it is probably the best I have ever eaten. I have posted in on my blog as well.
    Keep writing more such inspirational posts!

  13. Kadhai Paneer with Bell Peppers — Mirch Masala

    […] for the next post. Till then, enjoy this amazing recipe! And don’t forget to go check out the blog where this was inspired […]

  14. Dhawal Gadani

    Ajoy, I feel priviledged reading your blog… Have always been a fan of your cooking…. Keep writing, and sharing your experience…
    Thanks again…

  15. Nayantara

    Thanks so much. Really enjoy your blog – please keep writing – and your enthusiasm for and knowledge about Indian food. And the recipes are fantastic!

  16. Anonymous

    superb , will try soon ………….
    Very informative + practical

  17. Anonymous

    Hi Ajoy,
    That is wonderful, quite amazing techs and specs…
    Madcat 85

  18. Nicky

    Ajoy! This was amazing as usual!

  19. frugalfeeding

    Very informative. Thanks!

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