An Introduction to Indian Food

I've been slowly teaching myself the basics of cooking Indian food. I'm a little confused about recipes that call for curry power. I am of the impression that it is somewhat of a faux pas in Indian food, and that traditionally masala is used. Additionally, I believe that most curry powders are an arbitrary blend of tumeric, cumin, and ginger. So my question is how do you substitute for curry power. Should you substitute an equal amount of garam masla, or should you just add slightly more of your other spices?

Also there doesn't seem to much in the way of good blogs that focus on Indian cooking. Any recommended websites or cookbooks?

  • Posted by: NealB
  • May 23, 2012


Melusine May 24, 2012
I'm on the Madher Jaffrey band wagon. I started with her books, and graduated to more complicated recipes, but seem to keep coming back to her, at least for techniques. My two pantry/fridge staples of hers -- the garam masala blend, and the apple/dried fruit chutney. (I double the amount of apples -- it's a fabulous fusion with old-fashioned German cheddar beer cheese dip.)
The S. May 24, 2012
Unless the author specifically addresses why they are calling for curry powder (exs: Raghavan Iyer in 600 Curries calls for it in some British curries) I would be rather suspicious of any "Indian" recipe calling for curry powder. Curry powder has a time and place--neither of which are Indian. :)
susan G. May 24, 2012
The Internet has a wealth of blogs from Indian cooks. First start here on food52. You'll pick up who they are (Indian and Pakistani, and others who cross over from complimentary cultures). There are excellent recipes on the site, and from their cook's page you can see if they have blogs. On Hotline there have been excellent cookbooks recommended, such as those above.
I have cookbooks written by Indians living in America which date back to the 1960's and 70's, which seem very tame and disappointing. They come from a period when most Americans were afraid of the true distinctive taste of Indian food from a wide range of regions. Some of them used curry powder because it was easily available, but many of the whole spices were not. The model of Indian food was North Indian because most Indian restaurants served the food with rubber stamp menus. I had just about given up on home cooked food that was 'real.'
Start by finding sources for genuine ingredients -- either local specialized groceries or internet/mail order. It's more than spices too. You want a variety of dals, grains, flours, and if you can, vegetables too.
Some of the blogs have videos, which are helpful. You could also check youtube for more. I have found many wonderful resources by locating a blog I like, then following links within the blog, either from a 'blog roll' or to people who comment. The resources are there -- keep experimenting!
Reiney May 23, 2012
Just to clarify, I didn't advise to burn the garlic, only the onions. :) Certainly there are exceptions to my suggestion, but the reason so many people get disappointing results when starting out with home-cooked Indian is they don't take the onions far enough. "Brown the onions" is interpreted to mean beige, not dark brown, and so the result is missing out on the intense caramelization of sugars that is necessary to develop the flavour profile in many curries.

Few ready-made curry powders are just as good as whole spices blended - because once a spice is ground it loses its potency. Most spice blends (curry or otherwise) are basically sawdust a few months after being opened, whereas whole spices keep much longer. Thus, if you're going to get really into making Indian food it's not really that much more trouble to grind whole spices.

And, many garam masala blends are heavy on the cheaper spices (cumin, coriander seeds) and light on the expensive ones (cardamom, clove). That said if you find a brand of curry powder you like, go for it.

Either way, make sure to toast them before adding liquids to start the braise.
Lost_in_NYC May 23, 2012

Curry powder is just the western name of garam masala powder. If you have an indian grocery store in your area, you can pick up the Baadshah brand of regular or Rajwaadi garam masala powder. You can make it by there is no need to go thru all the hassle when the ready made stuff is just as good. They also have Madras curry powder but that is for South Indian cuisine mostly. I'm Indian and make a lot of indian food at home.

Also I have to disagree with Sarah on burning the onions & garlic mixture. Depending on the recipe - vegetables vs a meat dish, you don't want to burn the onions & garlic till their blackened. For instance, if you're making bhindi masala - aka Okra (one my favorites!) - you'll want to keep the onions translucent but still have some bite so you can actually taste the flavor of it with the rest of the okra. Since you're starting out, experiment on how far you want to go with it.

Some great cookbooks are: Flavors First (Vikas Khanna - I"ve eaten at his restaurant Junoon in NYC many times); Rasoi (Vineet Bhatia - well known British chef); How to Cook Indian Food (Sanjeev Khanna - well known Indian chef in India); Vij's at Home (Vikram Vij, well known Indian Canadian chef); Modern Indian Cooking (Hari Nayak - another well known Indian chef). Skip Madhur Jaffery and go with these guys.

Hope this helps!
Quinciferous May 23, 2012
Hooray for learning to cook Indian food! I don't think I've ever used a recipe that calls for curry powder -- that is, outside of the sort of multi-cuisine vegetarian cookbooks I still love, like Moosewood. I'm curious how it's supposed to be added in these recipes.

As for Indian cooking blogs/websites, I absolutely LOVE Sharmila at Kichu Khon -- she doesn't update her blog regularly anymore, but it's a treasure trove. Definitely try the aloo posto and the mustard eggplant, oh my. She shares a lot of Bengali food but also gives recipes for North Indian food as well.

Others use and love Madhu Jaffrey, but I can't say that I've actually cooked a ton of her recipes.
Reiney May 23, 2012
You're right that what we in the West know as curry powder isn't really used in India - though you will find British versions that do mean the highly turmeric-sweetish version (such as in a mulligatawny). "Masala" just means spice mixture ("chai masala" = spiced tea) and there are a number of different masalas depending on the region you're cooking from.

As for substituting curry powder, find a recipe that doesn't ask you to use one. For getting started, Madhur Jaffrey does some great stuff and will get you reliable results.

Number one rule of cooking Indian curries: burn the absolute living daylights out of the onions. I'm not kidding, you want them dark, dark, dark brown. If you think you're done, keep going. If you think you've burned them, use them anyway. You don't want a slow caramelizing, you want crispy fried.

For best results, use whole spices and grind to use. Also toast the spices first, as this releases the aromas.

Indian food varies wildly by region and there is a stark difference between North and South. Paul Joseph is a regular contributor on this site and is based in the south. You can find a few of his wife's recipes here:
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