Indian spices shouldn’t be as intimidating to you as it was to me. I think I now understand why I thought Indian cooking was this foreign realm that I wouldn’t be able to touch: because of the foreign flavors.
A simple solution to understanding cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom is to start adding it to black tea (with milk and sugar). It’s funny, but I had always known about this “spiced” tea and the Chinese in me refused to believe that it would possibly taste good compared to my straight green and black teas without milk or sugar. You can isolate all of them, or you can start with one then keep adding so you understand each one and have a good memory of what is what! (fundamental for figuring out which is which when you are cooking, and what you still need to add into an incomplete dish)
Oh man… “chai” is so delicious and one easy way to acquaint yourself with these spices. Everyday you feel like drinking tea, only use one of the ingredients (a little at first, and more in future batches if you like it). I have it down to a science that I actually prefer mine with only cardamom and a small amount of clove.
As for cumin, tumeric, coriander, and mustard seeds, I recommend trying them with chicken if you are a meat eater one at a time similar to the chai concept. One of my favorite chicken dishes is just the chicken smothered in coriander powder, salt, pepper, and garlic.
Spices Used at the Destination, not in the Journey
Something I realized about my approach to these spices is that I don’t expect the flavor to seep in over long cooking times–if anything most everything is ground up so I expect to have a bit of the flavor in every bite, or I use so much of it that I will definitely taste it. It’s not like cooking down chicken to get the chicken flavor in a soup, nor is it using tons of peppercorns or basil to flavor a stew only to take out the peppercorns in the end. This is probably because I am mostly cooking vegetarian dishes with strong vegetable flavors, and not necessarily creating a stew where the chicken needs to absorb the flavors.
It is definitely possible my approach isn’t right, but so far in most of the recipes I’ve read for basic vegetarian dishes, I haven’t been very wrong.