How to Start Cooking Indian Food: Ingredients

I’ve loved Indian food for so long. The diversity, the sauces, all the veggie-forward dishes. But I have never been to India, so it’s harder for me to grasp the layers of flavor that truly make Indian food delicious. In many ways, when I say “I like Indian food” it’s similar to me saying “I like European food.” The regional cuisines are overwhelming to a newbie. I’ve tackled many other Asian cuisines. I can make a mean Thai curry, several killer Sichuan dishes, and can easily work my way around kimchi-ed vegetables. I understand many other Asian ingredients, from dried shrimp to seaweeds to fish sauce. But then I get to Indian recipes and I stumble. I know what it should taste like, so why aren’t my dishes better? Well, probably because I haven’t given the cuisine the effort that I’ve put into other Asian foods. So, I started learning about Indian cuisine and cooking it several times a week for about three months now. I’ve done my research on the basics in this post, worked my way through some naan at home in this post, and now I’m trying more ingredients in this post below.

Adding just a few pantry items have completely changed my homemade Indian dishes. In this post, I’m breaking down what I think you need to get started and level up. After that, I hope you’re comfortable enough seeking out what ingredients fit your favorite dishes and your personal flavor preferences.

What I love about Indian food and why I think I’ve grown to cook it more often is that many of the ingredients last a long time, either pantry items or refrigerated items with a good shelf life. And many of the recipes are vegetarian, so even when I don’t have meat, I know I can easily make a healthy meal with what’s in my pantry plus one or two veggies. If you get comfortable with cooking Indian food, let me know if you feel the same way!

Spices: Spices are what make or break your homemade Indian dishes. Luckily, many spices are common in American pantries. These spices should be pretty easy to find at every grocery store, so first things first, make sure you have the following:

  • Cinnamon. You’ll often see recipes suggest whole cinnamon, but it’s okay to use ground in the beginning.
  • Dried, red chiles. Red chiles come in a variety of different flavors, but if you’re just getting started, it’s okay to use red pepper flakes. The taste isn’t the exact same, but it’ll work just fine.
  • Coriander. Most recipes will request whole, but if you already have ground coriander at home, just use that. I use a ton of coriander in Indian cooking.
  • Cumin. Same concept as coriander, most recipes will call for cumin seeds, but powder will work. I will say, I bought some cumin seeds and man, do they add a ton of flavor of my dishes. So if you’re low on cumin powder, make the switch over to seeds.
  • Turmeric, ground. You may not have turmeric in your pantry if you haven’t made Indian food before, but it should be easy to find at most grocery store now.

Start cooking with those spices first. If a recipe calls for a different spice, don’t worry, the dishes you’re making will taste fine without. Once you feel like you have a good grasp of the above spices and their flavors, add in the below list.

Garam masala, black mustard seeds, green cardamom pods, fenugreek seeds
  • Garam masala: A mixture of spices, but usually a dark brown (no turmeric) mix of savory spices. There are tons of recipes online and each will vary slightly, or you can buy your own. Most health food stores, specialty grocery stores, and international stores will have at least one option for you. Go with a pre-mixed until you get a palate for the different spices.
  • Curry powder: A mixture of spices, usually yellow in color from the turmeric. Although you won’t often see this in more authentic recipes as they will just list the ingredients that would be in your curry powder, it’s a good bang for your buck when starting off. It often has spices you would rarely use or might not have (caraway, clove, nutmeg) so it’s nice to just find a decent mix and add it dishes when you’re missing other ingredients. Most grocery stores carry curry powder.
  • Black mustard seeds: These are one of my favorite new ingredients. They add a wow factor in my cooking; they pop and sizzle in oil and add a wonderful flavor to dishes. Specialty stores and health food stores have black mustard seeds. Mustard powder is not a good substitute, sorry.
  • Cardamom: Used in both savory and sweet recipes. Black cardamom pods are smoky and stronger, and not normally used in desserts. While more recipes call for the milder green cardamom pods. I stick with green pods and cardamom powder for more diversity in cooking. Learn what else you can do with cardamom in our post here. Most grocery stores carry cardamom powder, specialty stores usually carry green pods, and international stores will have the black pods.
  • Fennel seeds: Many stores carry fennel seeds, but it’s not something I see in many American kitchens. They have a very distinct taste that I personally enjoy more in Indian food than I do in other cuisines. I often see fennel seeds baked in bread and used in Mediterranean dishes as well.
  • Fenugreek seeds: Used in several curry powders or added to cooking oil to release their flavor. Some recipes may also ask you to grind the seeds. These are hard to find outside of an international store or Amazon. Fun fact, fenugreek seeds are also used to make fake maple syrup, although the flavor is very earthy.

Asafetida, amchur, curry leaves, and many others are also spices to consider as you expand your spice collection.

Ground and whole coriander. Ground and whole cumin.

Other Ingredients: Ok, we are set on spices and now we need to work on how to build our sauces. Luckily, most of these ingredients are easily found and you may already have in your kitchen for other recipes.

  • Ghee: Ghee is clarified butter, which means when regular butter is heated, the bit of foamy solids are scooped away, leaving just the yellow liquid. It’s one of the most popular cooking oils in Indian cuisines. It is easy to make, but many grocery stores carry it now too (it’s known as a healthier fat alternative). If you don’t have ghee or don’t want to make, try not to use regular butter as it may burn too easily with the fat solids. Pick a neutral oil (not olive oil) instead.
  • Garlic & ginger: Both are used a ton in Indian dishes. You might see recipes ask for them separate or as a paste. Here is a basic paste recipe that you can make a head of time. Some ratios are 50/50, but I tend to prefer 75/25 garlic/ginger as I like garlic more. It’s completely up to your pallet.
  • Coconut milk: You will see many southern Indian recipes use coconut milk, instead of cream or yogurt. I always keep a couple cans of full-fat coconut milk in my pantry. It makes it so easy to whip up an Indian or Thai curry or coconut rice for a Caribbean dish.
  • Canned diced tomatoes: Another thing you should just keep in your pantry at all times. Many Indian curries are made with diced tomatoes and keeping a few cans on hand make it easy to plan a last-minute Indian dish.
  • Yogurt: I always keep a tub of plain full-fat European or Greek style yogurt in my fridge. It usually last three weeks and I use it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If an Indian dish asks for heavy cream (which I don’t normally keep handy), I always sub with yogurt. You can use the yogurt to make homemade naan or a cooling raita, a yogurt-based Indian side usually with cucumbers.
  • Cashews: Often grounded into a paste for dishes, like korma, or added to a rice dish like biryani.

Basic Veggies: I won’t go into much details on these, but here’s what I usually stock and 90% of the time I have the right vegetables to easily create many Indian dishes. All of these can easily be used in tons of other cuisines as well.

  • Onions: in almost every Indian dish I make.
  • Spinach: Sometimes used in a curry as the shining star (like saag paneer) or mixed in with other vegetables.
  • Cucumbers: Used in salad and yogurt sides.
  • Green chiles: You will usually see recipes just call for ‘green chiles.’ Those chiles are long and skinny, but jalapenos work just fine if you don’t want to go to an international grocery store.
  • Potatoes: Besides onions, probably the second most used vegetable for Indian dishes at our house.
  • Cauliflower: Usually mixed with potatoes or other vegetables, like in aloo gobi, or stuffed into a flatbread.
  • Tomatoes: you can usually get away with using canned, if you’re not a big tomato person, but tomatoes are a big part of many curries and Indian dishes.
  • Peas: fresh or frozen. Great with many potato and cauliflower dishes.
  • Cilantro: My go-to fresh herb. Top rice, curries, breads, etc. Or make a cilantro chutney. Also nice and versatile for many other cuisines. If you’re from the states, know that coriander and cilantro are the same, so cilantro chutney = coriander chutney.

Legumes: Pigeon peas, gram, dal, peas, beans. Indians love their legumes, and it can be a little overwhelming to get started picking a recipe. So here are my basic tips for ingredients that are easy to find and will work in most recipes:

  • Lentils. There’s an insane amount of types of lentils in Indian cooking. Although I think most can be substituted for each other in the beginning of your cooking journey, steer clear of French or European style lentils in Indian recipes. Those are usually green and don’t have the same taste and texture as some of the more popular Indian lentils. If you’re at your every day grocery store, find yellow or red lentils. If you’re at an Indian grocery store, masoor dal is my pick for a starter lentil.
  • Chickpeas: Canned or dried, whatever you’re comfortable with. Chickpeas are so versatile that I always keep a few cans in my pantry. They’re mostly used in vegetarian dishes, but their texture makes you forget that you’re not eating meat.
  • Kidney beans: Another easy legume to find and stock. Try making rajma masala, think bean chili with Indian flavors.

Rice: The most popular rice you’ll see for Indian dishes is basmati rice. It’s slightly longer and skinner than your normal white rice and the key ingredient in biryani, an Indian rice dish. Basmati is easy to find, but most other rice will work if you don’t have basmati at home. In general in savory Indian dishes, you want to steer clear of overworking the rice, no matter the kind, to not develop its stickiness. You fluff Indian rice with a fork, versus stirring with a spoon. So if you have regular white rice, just try not to overwork it. Jasmine rice is my suggested sub. It’s a little shorter and thicker, but will work just fine in your home dishes. I usually just keep a bag of jasmine or basmati rice at home and use them interchangeably.

See, nothing too crazy right? Pick up some chicken or lamb (or just keep it veggie and legume focused) from the store and stock some of the ingredients above and you’ll have countless options for dinner. It’s easy to switch from a dark, thick curry one night to a mild, coconut forward dish the next. I love the versatility and the emphasis on vegetable and plant protein. As long as I can control myself with the bread and rice, I always feel so good after eating an Indian meal. Any go-to Indian ingredient I missed? What’s your favorite, pantry-friendly Indian recipe?

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