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Indian Cooking: The Essentials


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Culinary riches

Indian essentials

by Roopa Gulati

Ask for a chicken tikka masala or Madras curry in India, and chances are you'll draw a blank response. 'Going for a curry' is hardly a South Asian tradition. With literally thousands of vibrant masalas (spice blends), hundreds of rice dishes, and a wealth of regional classics, there's little need to improvise with new-wave flourishes and embrace an entire cuisine under the catch-all of 'curry'.

British-style Indian takeaways may be cheerfully cheap, but the price of using ready-made pastes, as many places do, can mean that authenticity takes a knock in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach to cooking.

The real thing

For a taste of the real thing, check out home-style dishes. Most are made with a minimum of fuss, and use very little oil - a world away from average restaurant offerings. Making an Indian meal is often thought of as a culinary challenge, cloaked in an aura of mysterious eastern promise.

The truth is, it's actually a simple affair. Most supermarkets stock the main ingredients and once you've grasped the main cooking techniques, you'll soon be making signature curries from scratch.

Getting started

There are a few bits of hardware that make preparing Indian food easier and less time-consuming. A sturdy karahi or wok should be top of your wish-list. Because of its narrow base, the cooking oil sits in a small pool at the bottom of the pan, which means you use a lot less fat than you would in a saucepan. If you're not a dab hand with a mortar and pestle, use a coffee grinder for grinding spices. A micro-plane grater makes light work of grating ginger.

A beginner's spice box

Spices are to India what basic stocks, sauces and dressings are to the West. Whether familiar or exotic, they add warmth, pungency, heat, and subtlety to dishes. Cooks are judged on their skills in blending seeds, powders and pastes. Extravagant chefs may juggle a dozen or more spices in one dish, but most home cooks do a fine job with around six mainstays, although you may want to keep other spices handy for adding extra flavour dimensions to particular dishes.


  • Cardamom pods, small
  • Chilli powder
  • Cumin seeds
  • Garam masala
  • Mustard seeds
  • Turmeric powder
Handy spices

  • Black peppercorns
  • Cinnamon or cassia sticks
  • Cloves
  • Coriander seeds
  • Fennel seeds
  • Fenugreek seeds
  • Nigella seeds
  • Nutmeg and mace
  • Dried red chillies

Buying and storing spices

Spices are at their best when used within three months of purchase. To ensure maximum freshness, buy whole spices rather than powders, and grind only what you need. Buy spices from an ethnic grocer rather than a supermarket. Prices are surprisingly low and quality is top-notch. Store whole spices in tightly lidded jars or in the freezer.

Cooking with spices

Toasting whole spices before grinding them intensifies the flavours. To toast, or dry-fry, heat a griddle over a moderate heat, add the spices, and shake the pan until you catch a warm, nutty aroma - it doesn't take long, about 30 seconds. Similarly, dropping whole spices into a spoon of hot oil also releases essential oils. And, if you like the sharpness of chillies, but can't take fiery heat, remove the seeds and white pith before use.

Key ingredients

Every region has its favourite ingredients. South Indian cooking celebrates the versatility of rice, coconut and curry leaves. These three ingredients pop up in various tasteful guises in almost every meal. Dishes from this part of India tend to be made with wettish spice pastes, moistened with water, while north Indian dishes are more often based on dry spice additions.

North India

A cook from north India stakes his or her reputation on stacks of flatbreads such as chappatis and parathas. Earthy, creamy lentils, vegetables made with onion-ginger-garlic combinations, and yogurt-based marinades for meaty kebabs are other winners.

Vegetarians have their own set of dietary requirements. Many don't cook with onions, garlic and eggs, but their pickles and relishes are packed with flavour and are famed throughout India.

West India

Gujarati cooking, from India's west coast, has its own distinctive character. Jaggery is often added to sweeten spicy staples such as chilli-flecked lentils and to add a sweet-sour tang to vegetable preparations.

  • Coconut - Used grated or ground, mainly in south Indian dishes. Coconut milk and cream are available in cans and cartons from supermarkets.
  • Coriander leaves - Coriander leaves and seeds have very little similarity in taste. The citrus-like fresh flavour of fresh leaves makes them an invaluable garnish and flavour enhancer. When ground to a paste with mint leaves, it's used as a popular base for fresh relishes.
  • Curry leaves - Aromatic leaves used mainly in south Indian dishes. Available from ethnic grocers. They freeze well.
  • Fresh ginger - Although dried ground ginger is used in a few north Indian dishes, it's more usual to cook with fresh ginger root. When buying, look for unwrinkled roots.
  • Ghee - Used across the Indian subcontinent, ghee is clarified butter, which can be heated to a high temperature without burning. It's often used at special celebrations such as wedding feasts and prayer meetings. Because it's so indulgent, vegetable oil is the preferred cooking medium for everyday meals, and is a healthier option.
  • Gram flour - Chickpea flour, used for bhajis, yoghurt-based curries and sweetmeats.
  • Jaggery - Sweetening agent made from cooked-down sugar cane juice. Muscovado sugar works well as an alternative.
  • Saffron - Dried stigmas of crocus flowers, noted for its deep auburn colour and sweet flavour. Used in biryanis. Soak in water before use.
  • Tamarind - A tart fruit used as a souring agent. Available in pods, blocks, or as a concentrate.
  • Yoghurt - A cooling contrast to spicy dishes, and a palate cleanser.

Expert advice

Follow a few simple pointers, and you'll find that making an authentic Indian meal is rewarding, and much less of a grind than you originally thought. Simple steps, such as making sure pastes are really smooth, browning onions to a deep russet colour and using freshly ground spices make all the difference between an average meal and a memorable experience.

  1. Flour is rarely used as a thickening agent in India. Many dishes depend on pastes such as cashew nuts, onions and coconut to thicken sauces.
  2. Practise toasting spices. You can't miss the acrid aroma of spices as they catch and burn on a griddle. If this happens, best to dump them and start again. Similarly, if spices are not cooked enough before grinding, you'll miss out on their full-bodied, almost nutty-tasting flavours.
  3. When making a paste, grind ingredients such as onion, ginger and garlic with a dash of water. This ensures a silky-smooth finish.
  4. For lighter curries, swap the cream for whipped Greek yogurt or crème fraîche. Instead of ghee, use groundnut oil for cooking.
  5. If you like a smooth-textured dhal, blend plain-cooked lentils in a liquidiser before returning to the pan.
Browned onion paste, added at the end of cooking to thicken and add depth of flavour, is a cook's best pal. To make it, finely slice a couple of onions, lightly salt, and leave on one side for 30 minutes. Rinse and pat dry with kitchen paper. Deep fry in hot oil until russet brown, before draining. Tip into a food processor, moisten with hot water, and process until smooth. Freeze in ice cube trays and use from frozen when making dishes such as kormas.

BBC - Food - Recipes: Food and ingredients - Indian essentials

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