Are you overwhelmed with all the spices used for cooking a good old Indian Curry?
In this (rather long) post, I run through the basics of cooking Indian food at home that will make it easier for you to cook that Indian curry your takeaway makes and save you the pounds! (both from your wallet and belly)
Indian food has gained popularity around the world. But when it comes to cooking at home, there is a sense of hesitation. This is because Indian food is considered complicated and time-consuming to cook.
At the end of this post you will learn :
What Google Does Not Tell You About Indian Cooking
When you type ‘How to cook Indian curry’ and google it, what you get is an index of thousands of recipes that are ‘Easy Indian curries for beginners’ or ‘Simple Indian recipes’ and other synonyms to quick or easy.
But does simply following a recipe on youtube or a blog actually show you ‘how to cook Indian food’?
Learning how to cook and following cooking instructions to make a specific dish are two different things.
You sure can follow instructions and make something similar but in doing so, do you actually learn the technique which shows you what you should be doing to get the taste right of any dish …. each time?
I have been teaching Indian cooking for 4 years now and many attendees who attend have cooked Indian at home few times. What makes me satisfied with my job is when they say that they now know the skills needed to make their family favourite Indian curry their own way and also use it for spicing other dishes too!
Indian Cuisine Discovered Through Indian Curry!
Branding Indian food under a common term called ‘ Indian curry’ upsets me and perhaps many other Indians.
India is a large country with many states, languages and diverse regional and religious cultures. Every region, state, household have their own variation of a dish.
The menu in your local Indian restaurant is perhaps a drop in the gastronomical ocean of Indian cuisine. And to be fair it is an impossible task to encapsulate the variety in few A4 pages.
Even for Indians its difficult to fathom its diversity.
India is divided into 29 states and 22 languages each with their own speciality. Cuisine within India is heavily influenced by regional, religious and personal beliefs!
Besides the normal divide between veg and non- veg , Indian cuisine comprises of non – onion – garlic eaters. There is also a large cult of followers who do not eat any vegetables or fruit that grows under the earth, that is any root or bulb vegetables like potatoes, carrots, ginger, turnip to name a few.
On the other spectrum of taste and habits, there are the meat eaters. Chicken and goat meat is consumed in specific regions and available throughout the country. Beef, pork, and lamb are comparably not popular within the subcontinent.
However, they are consumed in particular regions such as North Western and North Eastern Indian states such as Goa, Bengal, Nagaland and Mizoram amongst many others.
So there you see, you name or think of any ingredient or spice and surely you will have one region within India that has a dish made with it.
Although diverse in beliefs and eating habits, the common factor that binds Indian cuisine as one is the use of spices.
Why is Indian food difficult to cook?
If you think that I was a born cook then I apologise to have misled you.
I never made a single Indian dish until I got married and moved to the UK at the age of 25.
So, If today I am writing a blog on how to cook Indian food at home, it’s because I have learned through observing, learning, practising and experimentation.
It’s only recently that I joined a culinary school to formally learn the various cooking techniques which I have adapted to home-style cooking.
Over the years I have tried to simplify the cooking process that saves me time so that I enjoy sipping my wine while I cook and play with my kids at the same time.
You don’t need any professional chef like skills to make Indian food at home.
All you need is to understand how the different elements of the dish come together to make a good Indian curry! (eehh, I said it again)
Let us start by understanding what goes into a basic Indian dish!
Most Indian dishes on an average use a minimum of 7 ingredients, including spices and use a specific cooking process.
Each ingredient has a different flavour or spice level. And to get the taste right one needs to learn to balance the flavours correctly.
The other aspect to practice, is the cooking method. I talk about it in another section but cooking Indian food for beginners can pose a challenge if the correct cooking method has not been applied.
The use of spices, balancing of flavours and following a cooking process makes Indian cooking a bit complex.
Don’t be put off by the word ‘complex cooking’, it is not difficult at all. It just requires a bit of practice, gear up your sense of smell and taste, grab a glass of your favourite wine/juice, play some music and get stuck in.
The 6 Taste Elements, Cooking Methods and Techniques
Indian cooking flavours and methods are not different to other cuisines, however, it is the technique that is applied which differs.
What I mean by ‘the technique’; it is the process of cooking food to get it to the right consistency.
Cooking anywhere in the world use a universal method, which is the use of some form of heat, spices and herbs to bring raw food to an edible consistency.
Frying, boiling, sauteing, grilling are some of the most popular methods used to cook food. Indian cuisine too uses all the methods and few more.
Important Indian flavour and taste you need to be aware of
Traditional Indian cooking is influenced by Ayurveda, the study of natural science. According to the Ayurvedic principle, there are 6 elements of taste to every Indian dish. They are
The tastes are combined in various ways to create the incredible diversity of flavours we experience through food.
If you’ve ever wondered about why certain spices and herbs go into a particular dish and the role each one of them plays in creating the overall flavour profile, the answer is the use or combination of all the 6 elements of taste.
Cooking methods can be broadly divided into 2 categories, Dry Cooking Method and Moist Cooking Method:
Dry Cooking Method
This is where heat or flame is used directly to cook food without the use of water or its compounds like steam.
Moist Cooking method
Moisture such as water, stock, steam is the medium to cook food.
You can read about each method in detail here. But for now, let’s stick to basic methods you need to begin with.
1.Tempering the spices
Tempering is a term used when whole spices are roasted very briefly either in oil or without for few seconds.
It can be done either at the beginning of the cooking process or as a final flavouring at the end. For example, when making a meat dish, whole dry spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves are added to hot oil to release the flavour and the process of cooking continues.
Tempering at the last stage of cooking is when whole spices, such as cumin seeds, whole red chillies etc are heated in some form of fat and added to the dish, such as boiled lentils cooked vegetables or even meat.
It’s also a very popular household method to blend different spices and make spice mixes such as garam masala, curry powder and others.
Most Indian restaurant surely have ‘bhuna’ classified dishes on their menu, like Lamb bhuna, chicken bhuna etc.
‘Bhuna’ in hindi means to saute.
Spices and fresh aromatics like onion, ginger, garlic, tomatoes are sautéd on low to medium heat in hot oil to make it into a paste like consistency.
While sautéing a little sprinkle of water is added from time to time to prevent the ingredients from burning and sticking to the bottom of the pan
This is one of the most important cooking methods that you need to become familiar with if you wish to make a proper tasting Indian dish. This is the process that forms the base of your gravy or sauce. Just like a jus does for thickening and enhancing the flavour of a sauce.
When you start to saute you will realise that it is the most time-consuming of all the cooking methods. So it is essential for you to learn this technique to get an authentic Indian flavour.
This method is similar to boiling but uses half the quantity of water.
It is normally applied as the end process of cooking after sautéing the spices. Adding a cup or 2 of water aids to cook the protein or vegetables used as well as thicken the gravy.
One needs to make sure the quantity of water should be just enough to cover the veg or meat so that it does not get overcooked and loses all the flavour.
Cooking Indian food is a stage-wise process. Each stage of cooking involves finishing the present and then moving to the next.
For example, if the recipe asks you to brown the onion, you must brown it first, till its cooked and the rawness goes and then move to the next step which may include adding ginger garlic paste or tomatoes or spices depending on the recipe.
This is the process you must follow each time you make an Indian dish.
There may be many steps to follow to complete a dish, so you must allow time to cook each ingredient at every stage before moving to the next.
This is where your patience comes to test. However, if you are hard pressed for time then simply try recipes that do not involve using onions. You will save about half the time.
Indian Cooking Spice List and Cookware – Starting your Indian Pantry
Modern times and smaller workspace mean a limit on what you can keep in the kitchen.
You do not need a space ship looking shiny pot to cook Indian. But if you do intend to become regular with cooking Indian food at home then it may just help you to have few basic cookware and spices to start with. Most can be used for your daily cooking anyway.
5 Essential Indian Cookware
Indian cookware also depends on the kind of regional cuisine you cook.
North Indian cuisine use straightforward cookware which most non-Indian households may already have.
However, Southern Indian cuisine uses very specific cookware which is a must for cooking South Indian food.
Since we are talking about beginners we will stick to the basics and list cookware and gadgets that help in easier and faster cooking.
Listed below are few of my recommended cookware which you may already have and if not can be bought from any big store or online store.
For slow cooking lentils and meats, making gravy based dishes, rice and biriyanis. Buy those with comes with fitted lids.
2. Deep bottom frying/saute Pan
They are useful for making semi-dry dishes at relatively medium temperature. Non – stick, anodised or Teflon coated frying pans are good for sauteing at low to medium temperature. A small and medium-sized pan is recommended to fit the quantity of cooking. The small one can also be used for roasting spices.
Kadai is the most essential and traditional Indian cookware in all Indian households. They are wok-shaped deep pans perfect for sauteing, deep frying and making all kinds of Indian curry and sauces. You can also use it to make pulao rice and saucy gravies. My personal preference is an anodised aluminium wok.
You may already have this at home for making omelettes and pancakes. They are also used for making Indian flat breads such as roti’s, paratha’s , naan and chilas (whole grain Indian pancakes). A non-stick pan is preferred for faster heating and easy cleaning.
Definitely, not a must have but if you really want to reduce cooking time by half and still have perfectly boiled rice, lentils or succulent pieces of meat then I would ask you to invest in one. A 3 to 4.5 litre size would do.
I use mine to saute meat to seal the juices in or stir fry veges before cooking it on slow pressure for very quick dishes.
The only downside is that you really do need to know the required pressure duration, depending on the kind of ingredient you have used. Each ingredient i.e. rice, lentils, meat, veg take different times to cook. So you need to follow the cooking guide as per the make of the pressure cooker to use it effectively.
5 Essential Kitchen Gadgets for Indian Cooking
Indian food is synonymous to spices so if you can get your hands on a decent spice grinder or even a coffee/nut grinder then I would ask you to buy one. They are just so much easier to make your own freshly ground spice mixes and keep for instant access.
I absolutely swear by a good food processor which makes chopping, grating and blending all done in a blitz! They are also fantastic for making lump free creamy gravies, marinades, ginger garlic paste and amongst other uses.
For quick pounding of small amount of spices, ginger, garlic or herbs I would recommend using a mortar and pestle. They break the spices down releasing the oils and give spices and herbs a great deal of freshness.
You may already have one. They come handy when you need to grate ginger, garlic, onion or tomato in small quantity without the need to bring out your food processor.
5. Rolling Pin
Indian breads are loved by most, so having a good easy flowing rolling pin is an absolute must.
I like the narrower and smaller compared to the large bulky ones. You can choose to buy any you wish and are comfortable with as long as it glides smoothly to roll the dough flat and evenly.
Cumin seeds is a whole spice very frequently used in Indian cooking to add a characteristic nutty, smoky note to dishes. They are tiny brown seeds with a very intense flavour.
They can be used whole, roasted or in ground form. Add it to temper with oil to make tadkas, saute vegetables.
Made from cumin seeds one can buy the already powdered ground spice from the store or make your own from whole cumin seeds.
It is smokier in flavour as opposed to the woody flavour when in whole form. It can also be used directly in the cooking process or to make marinades.
Made from dried coriander seeds, this powdered spice is a must have in an Indian kitchen. My recommendation would be to make it fresh from whole seeds just like cumin powder but stick to the powdered version if that of convenience to you.
Woody and aromatic, it lifts the flavour of the dish . Use straight into the dish during the cooking process and saute well.
Can also be used to make marinades and other spice blends.
The King of Indian spices. This is one spice that no Indian kitchen can do without. It’s simply a must have to start your Indian pantry.
Garam masala powder is essentially a blend of different spices. Different regions of India have their own garam masala blends but its the North Indian Garam Masala blend which is broadly used in most dishes.
It can be used directly during the cooking process or sauteing or right at the end of cooking to impart flavour to the dish. Can also be used to make marinades.
This is the famous ‘yellow spice’ which gives most Indian Curry the characteristic yellow colour.
More of a colouring agent than a flavouring agent, this spice is now considered the new ‘Super Food’.
An off shoot of the ginger family it is known for it’s anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.
Turmeric is used directly during the cooking process or sautéing to add colour to the dish along with its additional health benefits.
Besides the above 5 main spices, I have also made a list of Indian spices most commonly used here.
How to Use Spices In Indian Food
One of the distinctive and perhaps confusing elements of Indian cuisine is the use of spices.
Spices form an integral part of cooking which makes it very different from other cuisines. If you are new to cooking Indian food you will need to begin with using it often and become comfortable with its form and flavour.
It is not difficult to work with spices. All you need is to understand the type of spice and use your sense of taste and smell.
Form of Spices
Let us simplify spices and break them down into its most basic forms. They are primarily 4 forms of spices, which are:
- Whole – Like whole seeds, pods, or flower for example – cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cloves etc
- Grounded – The powdered form of the whole spices like cumin powder, coriander, turmeric powder.
- Toasted or Roasted – When whole seeds are roasted lightly on direct heat to release their oil. Like roasted cumin seeds, roasted coriander seeds, roasted sesame seeds etc
- Roasted and ground – When after toasting the spices they are ground into powder form. This form is generally used to make spice blends such as Garam Masala Powder, Kadai Masala Powder etc.
Spices work in Proportion – Taste classification
Similar to the taste classification of Indian food as per Ayurveda, spices too have distinctive tastes. They are mainly characterised as :
Hot or sharp, sweet, pungent or bitter or a colour enhancer.
Because of their distinctive taste, the over use of spices can have a negative impact on the dish. So instead of being a flavour enhancer, it can be an overkill!
Therefore, spices need to be used in relative proportions to get a balance of flavour and taste, instead of randomly adding it to a dish.
This method needs to be especially followed when making spice blends.
By now I am hoping that you may have a better picture of the basic knowledge, cookware and skill you need to cook Indian food or your favourite Indian curry at home.
Let us begin to spice them up in a stepwise process.
Step 1 Understand the form and type of spices
Now you know that spices come in different form and taste. Each spice has a definite role to play in a particular dish.
The key is to achieve the underlying taste of the dish, that makes the base taste sweet, hot, sour, bitter etc.
And the best way to do this is to smell or perhaps taste just a tiny speck of the spice you will be using. This will give you an idea of how much or how little or what kind of spice you need to make the dish.
Step 2 – Anticipate the change in form
Spices undergo changes during the cooking process.
As the form changes so does its characteristic flavour and its overall impact on the taste of the dish.
So, once you have selected your spices, think about the following two points:
- The form you will be using it in that is whether whole, ground or roasted form and;
- How it’s going to be processed further during cooking i.e. tempered, sautéed, simmered.
Step 3 – Consider the combinations during the cooking process
As mentioned above spices have both a distinctive form and taste.
When working with spices consider the underlying taste of the spice and the end taste of the dish which you wish to achieve. For example, sweet spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom will give a subtle sweetness to the dish and impart flavour.
Sharp or hot spices such as chilli powder, pepper, garam masala will give it the heat.
Pungent spices such as coriander powder, cumin powder, asafoetida are primarily the taste enhancers giving the dish a distinctive taste.
When using spices, it’s always a good idea to bear in mind the combination of taste with other ingredients in the dish. This will help you to get a balance of taste and flavour.
Step 4 – Less is More – when cooking spices
Spices are delicate with volatile oils at its core. So you need to use them with care and as per your individual taste. You should not be laden a dish with spices just because the date is getting over and you need to use it up!
Spices can be used to flavour up a dish such as boiled broccoli and beans and cover up some unpleasant or overwhelming odors from particular ingredients such fish, eggs etc.
There has to be a purposeful need for adding spices to a dish. Therefore you need to, first understand the spice, its form and work on the combinations.
The best way to do this is to follow recipes which calls for simple and minimum spices. Start with small amounts like ½ to 1 tsp of spice and slowly work your way. Over spicing simply kills the taste of other ingredients used and does more harm than good.
Step 5 – Experiment with spices
There is no set rule for using spices which in actuality makes it easy to work with. Over the years of using spices, I have realised that experimenting with them in your daily food is the best way to learn.
So here is your chance of putting on your chef’s scientist coat and start creating flavour packed, pot sized potions.
This is not limited to making Indian dishes alone. You can spice up your steaks, stews and soups too! The advantages of doing this is that spices give an instant lift to any dish and also have health benefits.
Indian Cooking Tips for Beginners
Here are few pointers for you to consider when cooking Indian food:
- Buy small batches of the 5 basic spices mentioned above to start your spice collection.
- Get a good quality food processor or at least a mortar/ pestle that will help you in grinding spices, and make ginger garlic paste.
- Choose a dish which has no more than 7-9 ingredients including spices. They are relatively easy to work with and will give you a head start to understand spices.
- Cook in small quantities. That way if it does not come out as well then there is less wastage.
- Do not substitute curry powder instead of Garam Masala powder. They are completely different in flavour and taste. Curry powder is less flavourful and has more turmeric while Garam Masala has robust grounded whole spices without any additionally added turmeric.
- Taste as you cook. Familiarize yourself with the spices you have used and adjust the seasoning and spices to your liking.
- DO NOT add a whole lot of chilli powder to the dish. The heat index of any Indian dish is as per personal preference. Keep it to what suits you and not add it simply because the recipe calls for it.
- Cook rice properly. Most Indian dishes go well with plain boiled rice. If the rice becomes too mushy or soft then the flavours of the spices used get compromised! If not sure about cooking the perfect rice then simply buy cooked rice from a store or Indian breads like Naan to go with it.
- Most Importantly enjoy what and when you cook. Prepare and organise a bit ahead of time before you start cooking. In that way you can follow the recipes without getting distracted with prepping while cooking.
Now that you and your kitchen is well equipped with the essentials for cooking your favourite Indian curry at home, let’s get started.
I have selected the top 10 easiest and simplest Indian dishes that have been tried by me and others.
I would recommend you to first start with these recipes and slowly build on your recipe bank.
Treat a Dish as a Masterpiece When Cooking Indian Food at Home
If you are just starting out cooking Indian food at home, you may perhaps feel a bit overwhelmed by all that has been written about spices, flavours, techniques, and methods.
I want to reassure you that it is not all that complicated. No one learns to walk and talk straight after birth. We all start with gurgling and squatting! So hang in there!
To my daughter’s annoyance, I can’t help her much with her arty work at school because I am not good at artwork or drawing. But I still know what colours are, I can make combinations and perhaps draw few strokes here and there. The end result is ….. well, something akin to Modern art perhaps!
It is my own interpretation of what adding few colours on a blank sheet of paper can do!
But the drive is a vision of what I wish the end result of the project to be. Simply squirting paint all over may simply be all too garish! The idea is to create something which has an aesthetic appeal!
This is just like cooking. Be it any food or any cuisine.
You have a variety of ingredients to choose from. The goal is to make something that you enjoy the process of doing and be proud of what you have made!
Begin your Journey of Cooking A Perfect Indian Curry
I do hope that this guide has provided you with an insight on why Indian food is considered complex to cook and different to other cuisines.
The essential cookware and spices you need to get started.
Clarified the process of cooking any Indian Curry you wish to make and use spices accordingly.
Please do post your comments and questions here so that I can help you further.
If you find this guide on Cooking Indian food for beginners helpful, then please do take a second to click the share button below!