How to Start Cooking Indian Food: Techniques

I’ve been on an Indian food cooking journey for awhile now. When I first started, I googled and googled some more and never found an Indian food blog that was the equivalent of The Woks of Life, my go-to Chinese food blog. (Hit me up if there is one!) I needed simplified answers and couldn’t find them, until I remembered the well-spoken and well-written, Priya Krishna. Her videos seemed easy to follow, although I never tried any of her recipes. But I had faith in her so I bought her book, Indian-ish, and decided to do a mini version of Julie-and-Julia-gone-Indian and make as many of her recipes as my distracted brain could handle. I worked my way through her ingredients list and wrote about that in my last post. I made several versions of butter chicken and naan (Priya doesn’t mention these, but they’re some of my favorite). And now I’m going over the cooking and shopping techniques I’ve learned so far. So if you’re somewhere in between liking Indian food but not quite comfortable whipping up an Indian dish without a recipe, we’re in the same boat. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Shopping: Finding most Indian ingredients is actually fairly easy. If you check out my last post about Indian ingredients, you’ll see that many of them you may already have or they are at the grocery store you already shop. Most stores now have coconut milk, turmeric, curry powder, a good rice and lentil selection, and cashews. Don’t be too worried if you’re missing a couple spices from a recipe when you’re first getting started. Once you’re ready to add more pantry items, it’s pretty easy to find an international grocery store with almost everything you need. AND the store doesn’t have to be Indian-specific. I’ve purchased plenty of Indian ingredients at Hispanic and Korean grocery stores. If the store is big enough, which many are, they will have an aisle or two dedicated to Indian (or that general region of the world) ingredients. If you’re still stuck, Amazon usually has everything you need, but the ingredients tend to be in bulk and more expensive. If a recipe calls for a teaspoon of something and Amazon only has it by the pound, just think about how else you can use that ingredient before buying it. Here are some other tips:

  • Purchase whole spices as you run out of ground. You don’t need to go out and buy $40 in spices to get started. Slowly build your spice collections as you cook more.
  • Shop for rice, legumes, and nuts at international grocery stores. This is just good advice in general. I always find incredible prices on nuts and health foods that are sometimes double the price at health-focused grocery stores. Gluten-free flours, like cassava flour and almond flour, cashews, peanuts, sesame seeds, etc.
  • Language barrier: For the most part, Indian ingredients have English writing on them. Many Indians speak English and their labeling isn’t as hard to decipher as other Asian languages. However, if there is a translation issue, just read the ingredients on the Nutrition Facts panel. If you’re in America, those must be in English. You may not know the process of how something is made, but you’ll at least have a better guess that you’re buying the right item.
Standard ingredients

Cooking Rice: In Indian cuisine, rice may only be flavored with a bit of salt or it may be packed with extra flavor from ghee, spices, nuts, meat and more. It can be a standalone dish or a side to many entrees. Besides following the basic instructions on the packaging, consider adding these steps to amp up the texture and flavor.

  • Rinse your rice: By rinsing the rice, you remove the powdery starch on the grains that would hang around and develop into stickiness and make the rice mushy. For most Indian dishes, you don’t want sticky rice. It’s a quick process to rinse. You can either rinse the rice in a colander or do what I do: put the rice directly in the pot it’s going to cook in then add water, swirl it around with my hands, then slowly pour out the murky water, catching the extra grains with my hands. I usually do this three times until the water is almost clear. You’ll get flakier rice every time.
  • Don’t stir your rice: To check to see if your rice is done, simply take a few grains from the top and taste for texture. Giving it one big stir (or better yet flaking with a fork) before you serve is completely okay, but avoid stirring the rice consistently because it will very quickly get sticky and mushy.
  • Give it some time: Most recipes call for the rice to rest for 15 minutes, but even an extra 5 minutes in the pot with the heat off will really develop the texture and ensure you’re not serving watery rice.
  • Add flavor: Unless I’m making a big batch of rice for multiple dishes, I like to add flavor to my rice. For the most part, I like to keep my rice fairly mild to not overpower whatever else I’m making, but I do like to include ingredients like: coconut milk, ghee or butter, broths, onions, garlic, turmeric, or cumin seeds.

Tempering: aka chhonk or tadka, is the process of quickly cooking (like under one minute) spices in cooking oil. It infuses the oil and makes the spices much more flavorful and pronounced. All you do is heat oil, usually ghee in Indian recipes, until it is shiny but not smoking, and add in spices until you can smell them. Many Indian dishes then follow that up with the addition of garlic and ginger cooked for a few minutes, then building the rest of the sauce. Once I learned this technique in Indian dishes, I started to use it in other cuisines. And I bet you’ll start doing the same. I like to heat olive oil in a pan then add red pepper flakes and oregano to start a simple pasta sauce. I’ll do the same with olive oil and Mediterranean herbs, let it cool, then add to yogurt for a quick Medi dressing. Cumin, coriander, and dried red chiles in hot oil make an excellent starter for Hispanic sauces.

Basic Curry: Indian curries don’t have a particular list of ingredients. It’s basically just a word for a spiced gravy with either protein or vegetable, usually served with rice or bread. Once you’ve made a few Indian dishes following a recipe, you’ll start to notice some trends. You may not make the most authentic dishes, but it gets fairly easy to layer ingredients and make simple Indian-ish dishes without a recipe that take little time to make and are really flexible on ingredients. Here’s what I normally do:

  • If you’re using meat, try marinating the meat with yogurt and ground spices. I like ground coriander, turmeric, cumin, and salt. Add ground chile powder if you like spice.
  • Heat ghee or another cooking oil in a pan and add spices until they’re fragrant. Many recipes call for whole spices, like cumin seeds, mustard seeds, dried chiles. If I’m cooking a heartier dish, like lamb, sweet potatoes, or dark meat chicken, I like to also add spices like cinnamon or cardamom. If I’m cooking something lighter, I’ll add turmeric. If you are using ground spices, just cook them for less time. It all goes quickly though. The whole spices need about a minute to become fragrant; ground spices, even less. Curry leaves and asafetida (a very pungent spice, like if garlic and ginger had a super baby) are also really common.
  • Cook fragrant veggies, like onions, garlic, ginger and/or green chiles. I like a lot of flavor so if I have all of these, I’ll use them. I dice the onions into about 1/2 inch pieces, finely dice green chiles (which for me is just jalapenos or serranos), and mince garlic and ginger. Some recipes will call for a garlic-ginger paste, which you can make in a small food processor or a cool grater plate, like this one. If you don’t have those things, just finely mince. All of these ingredients can burn easily, so keep an eye on them and make sure nothing browns too much. That bitter flavor will unfortunately carry on throughout the dish.
  • Cook your main ingredient in your fragrant oil. Vegetables (like spinach, potatoes, cauliflower), chicken, fish, legumes (lentils, kidney beans, chickpea), or lamb are standard options but feel free to try others.
  • Add tomatoes if desired. Not all Indian dishes use tomatoes, but I usually add for flavor and volume. Try tomato sauce or blend the sauce for a smoother sauce.
  • Turn heat to low and add something creamy or tangy. Depending on the flavors you like, try heavy cream (or even some milk), yogurt, or coconut milk. Add just enough to make creamy and not watery. Want more tang? Add some lime juice.
  • Top with fresh cilantro.
Basic butter chicken. This dish is usually extra saucy, but you can easily make it into a thick sauce.

Basic Dal: Dal is a common lentil entrée. If you haven’t had dal before, you might be like me and think that sounds incredibly boring. I’ve always seen it on menus but passed to try some meatier and saucier dishes. I finally made some dal at home and now it’s one of my favorite dishes to make. Especially in the cooler months, I make dal almost every week. It’s savory with the perfect texture. Plus lentils have so much fiber and protein that it’s an incredibly filling and healthy meal. I like to make a simple version for lunch, but if I have it for dinner, I might throw in some spinach, tomatoes, sautéed onions, or other veggies I have laying around. You can easily find tons of dal recipes online, but I wanted to list out the basic steps. Most lentils cook in about 15 minutes, so it’s a quick recipe. The only downside is the number of pots and pans you need. If you’re making rice with it, you’ll need a pot for the rice, a pot for the lentils, and a small pan for the tempered spices.

  • Make the chhonk: Heat ghee or another cooking oil in a pan and add spices until they’re fragrant. Most recipes call for whole spices, like cumin seeds, mustard seeds, dried chiles. (Turmeric is usually added into the lentil water) If you are using ground spices, just cook them for less time. It all goes quickly though. The whole spices need about a minute to become fragrant; ground spices, even less. Curry leaves and asafetida (a very pungent spice, like if garlic and ginger had a super baby) are also really common.
  • Add garlic and ginger to the spiced oil if desired.
  • Cook lentil according to instructions. Cooking lentils in a fragrant broth will elevate the dish so much more than plain water. Many recipes call for turmeric, salt, vegetable or chicken broth.
  • Cook rice according to instructions.
  • Cook veggies if desired. I like sautéed onions, spinach, or tomatoes. But honestly, just the lentils with the seasoning is perfect.
  • Pour the spices and oil you prepped on top of the lentils and give them a quick stir. I usually don’t mix all the way as I like the see the spices and melted ghee on top of the lentils.
  • Add lime juice and cilantro for a fresh touch.
Easy dal recipe. Yellow color comes from the turmeric.

Once you’ve tried some of these tips, it will be easy to step up your cooking game to more advanced dishes, like a lamb korma or tandoori chicken. If you want to keep it simple, try making a raita, a yogurt-based side, or whip up some delicious chutney. I always like to try dishes at restaurants before making them at home to better understand the textures, spice levels, and what other sides and dishes they are commonly served with. Nevertheless, if you are just cooking for yourself, family, or friends, know that dishes don’t have to be perfectly executed. Be creative and enjoy the process. That’s the beauty of cooking. Every home has a way to make a dish. You’re allowed to play with ingredients and recipes and create meals that fit your palate, diet, and schedule.

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