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Today: The first step to cooking Indian food is stocking your pantry with the essential ingredients.
Dried Kashmiri chiles (left) and coriander seeds (right).
Cooking anything for the first time can be intimidating. And it can even be scarier when it’s a cuisine that's completely new to you—especially one that belongs to a different country or region.
I have a lot of friends that tell me how much they love Indian food and want to cook it, yet overcoming the hurdle of a potentially long list of spices and how to use them is what freaks them out the most.
Jaggery is a coarse, unrefined sugar made from the sap of palm trees or sugar-cane juice.
I’m here to tell you that cooking Indian food at home is easier than you think. Except for a few methods, most of the techniques are the ones you would use in Western kitchens. And you’re probably already familiar with most of the spices; you might even have them in your kitchen already!
Some ingredients will be new to you, but that's what makes cooking fun. Exploring and discovering ingredients and combinations of ingredients that can create complex and rich flavors is what I love the most about Indian cuisine.
From left to right, green cardamom, black cardamom, and bay leaves.
My pantry is always stocked with a few staples that I use often when preparing Indian food. Once you figure out how each spice functions in a dish and how to use it, you will be an expert at understanding why they’re added to the food.
It’s very common to "temper" spices in Indian cuisine, which is a method of releasing their flavors. Sometimes, I dry-roast specific combinations of whole spices in a pan and then grind them with a mortar and pestle or a small spice mill before adding them to the dish. There are other times when I fry the spices in hot oil or ghee and then add them to the dish. Either way, tempering helps to make the spices less harsh and ultimately produces a tastier dish.
From left to right, cumin seeds, black Indian salt (kala namak), black mustard seeds, and turmeric powder.
When it comes to buying and storing, I keep it simple. Whole spices tend to retain flavor longer and I can use them when I’m cooking anything. If you’re short on space, store your spices in Ziploc bags; otherwise, airtight glass jars are great!
Here are some of my favorite spices that I commonly cook with when I’m making Indian food at home. They provide color, flavor (acidity, sweetness, or heat), and/or aroma.
- Turmeric and saffron give color and aroma.
- Dry mango powder (amchur), dried pomegranate seeds, and tamarind provide acidity to dishes.
- Black and green cardamom, cloves, coriander seeds, bay leaves, carom seeds (ajowan), cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, nutmeg, nigella seeds, curry leaves, bay leaves, black mustard seeds, poppy seeds, and kokam (amsul) add aroma and flavor.
- Jaggery, made from palm or cane juice, gives a rich and deep molasses-flavored sweetness to desserts.
- Kashmiri chilies, red chili powder, and black pepper are great at bumping up the heat level.
Nigella seeds (left) and fresh curry leaves (right)
Besides spices, fresh herbs like cilantro and mint, along with green chili peppers (green Thai chili peppers are a great substitute), are added to brighten flavors and often used as garnish. You’ll also find fresh garlic, ginger, and onion—often used to create thick, rich, flavorful sauces—are very valuable in Indian cooking.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of spices and herbs used in Indian cooking, but it’s a helpful start. You can find most of these ingredients at any local Indian or international food market or in the spice aisle of a well-stocked grocery store.
Do you cook Indian food at home on the regular, or are you intimidated by curries and dosas? Share with us in the comments below!
Photos by Nik Sharma