The trick to mastering the Indian cuisine is simple – get the ingredients right. Known for its aromatic dishes, Indian food is often described as spicy, rich in flavour, and colourful. Of course, each dish is unique in its own way, but there are some base notes of flavour which are common to the Indian kitchen.
If you seem too confused by the range of the Indian home pantry, we approached two people who share the same passion for food – Executive Chef Sonu Koithara, Taj JLT and Mamata Bandyopadhyay, a homemaker and food writer (special to Gulf News).
As they walked us through the must-haves of every Indian kitchen, each of their expertise helped us put together a list of sugar, spices and everything nice.
While the North uses tomatoes and aamchur (mango) powder, the South prefers to use tamarind for its sourness. Meanwhile, in the West kokum (a kind of souring fruit) is a prized ingredient. There’s also various new additions to the Indian pantry, to cater to modern tastes and preferences such as gluten-free and vegan. Hence, oat flour is used to make dosa, and broccoli and asparagus used to make vegetable curries.
One of the highlights about Indian food is that each state has a distinct flavour – which means 28 different states have 28 different flavours. But the cuisine doesn't stop with that. Flavours and dishes vary from region to region within the state, making it one of the most diverse cuisines in the world.
While the North of India sees the use of spices like saffron, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, the South uses mustard seeds, curry leaves, red chillies and coconut a lot. The East being near so many fresh water rivers depends on a lot on fish and rice. The use of onion and garlic also sees a variation throughout India. In the Eastern parts they are regarded as part of a non-vegetarian cuisine whereas that is not the case in the South.
On that note, ready to stock up? Take a look into the core of the Indian cuisine:
The three musketeers
1. Ginger (Adrak)
A root plant, ginger is widely used both in vegetarian and non-vegetarian cooking. It is used as a paste in curries and in salads when cut thinly. Often used along with garlic, ginger-garlic paste seem to form a happy duo eagerly used by cooks dabbling in Indian cuisine.
2. Garlic (Lahsun)
This is mostly used as a flavouring agent, whether in meat, fish or salads. It can be made into a paste, chopped or even burnt to a degree – although it is largely used with ginger as a paste.
Note: Ginger-garlic is often used as the base for a lot of Indian dishes. Two portions of garlic and one of ginger are used, as garlic enhances flavour.
3. Onion (Pyaaz)
A staple ingredient in Indian cooking, the addition of onion gives any gravy a unique taste, making it thick and rich at the same time. This can be used as a paste or chopped, or even ground into a paste ofter slow caramelisation.
India is often described as the 'Land of Spices', and these spices were once valued at a higher rate than gold. As time progressed, these spices have found its place in various housesholds. That being said, take a look at all the spices you need if you're cooking Indian food:
1. Turmeric (Haldi)
Fresh turmeric – a member of the ginger family – is less used. What is usually used in curries is the dried, powdered form. Initially bitter in taste, once added to oil it mellows out, adding both flavour and a golden colour. Turmeric is also used due to its medicinal properties and eliminates any bacteria present in food. For instance, fish is often cleaned with turmeric, salt and vinegar, before marination.
2. Cumin seeds (Jeera or Zeera)
The seeds of cumin are used as a whole and as a powder. When roasted and crushed it acts as a topping on chaats or snacks, dishes such as alu dum and chicken korma. Drop a bit of cumin seeds in oil, you will get a warm and earthy flavour.
3. Coriander seeds (Dhaniya)
Like cumin, this is used both as a powder and as a whole. It tastes slightly bitter, but goes well with other spices and is generally used to thicken the curry a bit.
4. Salt (Namak)
The essence of every meal, salt is often used to improve the sensory properties within each dish. Cooking food without salt makes it bland, whereas when salt is added – the overall dish tastes better. Avoid using too much of salt, as it could affect your blood pressure. Though white iodised salt is generally used, black salt is also used, especially while making chaats.
5. Red chilli (Laal mirch)
This again is used in dried, powder form, as a whole or crumbled to release seeds. The red chilli comes in several different forms. For example – Kashmiri Chilli powder is known for its crimson red color, although it isn't as hot as it looks.
Ghost peppers (Bhut Jolikia), Kandhari Chilli (Kerala), Khola Chilli (Goa), Mundu Chilli (Tamil Nadu) and Byadgi Chilli (Karnataka), are some of the other kinds of red chillies as well.
6. Black pepper (Kali mirch)
Pepper often has a spicy, smoky flavour. Though not used as regularly as the above spices, whether in exotic meat dishes or simply on a poached egg, black pepper has made a place for itself on the spice rack.
7. Bay leaf (Tej patta)
As opposed to adding to taste, bay leaf is used to give a subtle aroma to the dish. It gives a flavour similar to fennel. Known for its floral hints, the bay leaf has a sharp, bitter taste, and is somewhat similar to oregano and thyme.
8. Mustard seeds (Sarson or Rai)
Black and white mustard seeds are used as a whole or as a paste. As a whole, they are added along with other whole spices in the beginning. As a paste, it is used to give curries the tangy, slightly hot flavour and definitely a thicker curry. It is used in dishes with fish, chicken and vegetables as well.
9. Nigella seeds (Kalonji)
Also known as black onion seeds, these additions are mainly used as a whole to give the dish a nutty flavour. It has a bitter taste, which is a mix between oregano and onions, and is also sometimes used to garnish flatbreads. It can also be powdered and added with ghee.
10. Fenugreek seeds (Methi)
These seeds definitely taste bitter so should be used in a limited proportion while cooking. But it adds a grainy flavour to the dish cooked, and is used for tempering dishes such as sambar.
11. Fennel seeds (Saunf)
These seeds again are used as a whole. They are generally of a sweet taste (similar to that of licorice), and are popular in North Indian cuisine, and also has a sweet aftertaste.
12. Garam masala
A spice blend that is made by toasting spices such as both green and black cardamom, nutmeg, cloves and peppercorns. Garam masala works best when you cook meat, and smells sweet, spicy, and bitter all at the same time.
13. Asafoetida (Hing)
It is a digestive aid and used as a tempering in lentils. It is pungent when raw but releases flavour and aroma in oil. This special ingredient is added is very less quantities, and has a very rich flavour. It is often used in gravies, chutneys, and to make deep-fried flat breads called puris. In South India, asafoetida or hing is used for (almost) everything from sambar to lentils.
14. Dried fenugreek leaves (Kasuri methi)
This is widely used while making tikka masalas or a certain type of dal called the tarka. Has a great aroma and slight bitter-sweet taste.
15. Nutmeg (Jaiphal) and Mace (Javithri)
A ground spice, Nutmeg is made from grinding the seed of the fragrant nutmeg tree into powder form. Nutmeg is often associated with a strong, woody fragrance, although it has a partially sweet taste. Mace – known for its more delicate flavouring – is made from the reddish seed covering of the nutmeg seed.
16. Cloves (Laung)
Flower buds of the clove tree, these additions add a rich flavour and also heightens the smell of the Indian dish. It is also used as a contributing element in the composition of Garam masala.
17. Cardamom (Elaichi)
Often found in biryanis and other Indian desserts, cardomom is used to either spice or sweeten dishes. Due to its complex aroma, cardamom often tastes and smells musky. If used too much, it could result in a bitter taste.
18. Cinnamon (Daalchini)
The sweet, yet woody spice is often used in its powdered form, or even as a stick. Cinnamon adds earthy notes to gravies and biryanis, and is also used to blend spices.
19. Star Anise (Chakriphool)
Known for enhancing the flavour of meat gravies or biriyanis – Star Anise is used mainly for its sweetened flavour – which blends well with other Indian spices.
20. Bishop's Weed or Carom seeds (Ajwain)
This spice is known for its digestion properties and is also sprinkled on flour while making parathas. It has a unique pungency to it.
Other pantry regulars
While they may not be used as often as the above ingredients, these additions are just as important.
1. Yoghurt (Dahi)
Known for its sour taste, yoghurt is used to tenderise meat and as a base in light gravies that need a slightly sour taste. Yoghurt can also be used as an alternative for tomatoes.
2. Clarified Butter (Ghee)
Ghee or clarified butter is widely used in Indian cooking. Spices are roasted in ghee often instead of oil for added fragrance. Sometimes ghee is melted and used to fry breads or simply added at the end of cooking to give the dish a mouth-watering aroma. Being lactose-free, it can be used by people with allergies too.
3. Tamarind (Imli)
The use of tamarind is (almost) exclusively used in South India. It has a very sour and tangy taste. But it is also used in the Noth and East to give a tang to chutneys.
4. Oil (Tel)
Common for all dishes, oils are essential to turn raw ingredients into cooked masterpieces. Indian food uses different types of oil, ranging from mustard oil to coconut oil and vegetable oil. Butter is also used, and so is vegetable shortening.
5. Tomatoes (Tamaatar)
Either pureed or chopped - almost does the same work as yogurt except it is not used to tenderise meat. It is also often sliced into a salad, or added in curries (as an alternative to yoghurt) to increase the thickness of the gravy.
6. Cottage Cheese (Paneer)
This cheese or paneer is popular as one of the main vegetarian items in India. Paneer is usually soft in nature, although it is often toasted to give it a crispy feel, depending on an individual's preference. Cut into cubes, paneer is used to make a curry, a paratha, or even a tikka (or as a starter) after grilling it.
7. Coconut (Nariyal)
Common to South India, the use of coconut amplifies the flavour of dish. Coconut is used in various forms such as oil, desiccated, finely chopped pieces or even milk.
Lentils (dal) and beans
Various types of lentils are used in India, and are generally enjoyed with roti (flat breads) or rice. But the three most used ones are moong dal (split green gram), masoor dal (red lentils), and tuvar dal (yellow pigeon peas).
Besides those, urad dal (black gram), chana dal (split Bengal gram) and matar dal (split pea) are also common ones. Lentils are often also used as thickening agents in curries.
Beans like chole (chickpeas), kala chana (Bengal gram) and rajma (kidney beans) are also used. Like the lentils, they too are eaten with either rice or roti.
Rice forms the staple carb for almost the whole of India, and is a sure find in any Indian kitchen. Rice can be long, medium or short grained. Almost as many as 50 varieties are found all over the country. Every region has its own speciality, from small-grained Jeerakasala or Kaima to long-grained brown rice. Basmati is mostly eaten in the North, while sona masoori is eaten in the South.
Fragrant and long-grained, Basmati is the most heard of and the most readily available, and the most popular option as the grains don’t stick together when cooked. Rice is used to make everything from biryani and pulao to kheer (rice pudding).
Like rice, flour in India is also region specific. But whole wheat flour or atta, and all-purpose flour or maida, are the two flours that are sure finds in almost every Indian pantry.
Apart from that millets like Jowar, Bajra and Ragi are also ground into powder form and used as flour. Besan (powdered Bengal gram dal) is used to make batter, and so is rice flour. Corn flour is also a common sight these days.
Semolina, puffed rice, flattened rice and tapioca are the other carbs that are seen in the Indian kitchen.
While whole wheat flour or millet flour are used to make rotis, parathas and puris are generally made with all-purpose flour. Though bread is now found in every home, its roots are not Indian, nor was it used in the earlier days.
Maida is now seen as more of an unhealthy option, so wholewheat flour is increasingly used for Indian breads. In an increasingly vegan world oat flour is an upcoming flour, used even to make dosas (poured flatbreads).
Almost all vegetables are used in Indian food, with tomatoes being the key to many dishes. A wide range of vegetables are used, such as potato, carrot, beetroot, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, radish, gourd, bottle gourd, bitter gourd, ladyfingers, flat beans, French beans, and so many more. As a result the daily diet consists of at least one vegetable curry.
And if you don’t like the regular ones, broccoli, asparagus and French beans are used in modern Indian cooking.
Poultry and seafood
As for meats, mutton is the choice meat for kebabs, curries and biryani, followed by chicken. King fish and pomfret are widely used. So are small fishes like riverwater fish in Bengali and South Indian cuisine. Prawns, squid and crab are mostly used, rarely scallops.
Some Indian dishes use sugar and or jaggery to lend a sweet taste to their curries, mainly the vegetarian ones. Sugar cubes or rock sugar is also a must in an Indian kitchen.
1. Coriander leaves (Dhaniya)
Also known as Cilantro, coriander leaves has a warm smell with a tinge of citrus. The leaves are variable in shape – stems which are broad at the base, slender at the top – and is known for its fan-shape or feather-like make.
2. Curry leaves
Native to India, curry leaves are used in almost every dish. With a smell similar to a freshly cooked gravy, curry leaves resemble a miniature version of a lemon tree's leaves.
3. Mint leaves (Pudina)
Quite hard to describe these leaves without using the term 'minty', mint leaves often invoke the taste and smell of something fresh, sweet, and cooling at the same time.
Nuts and dried fruits
Cashew nuts, almonds, pista, walnuts, peanuts and dried fruits such as raisin, dried plum, dates and prunes (alu bukhara) are used while making exotic dishes such as biryani, pulao or korma. They are also used to thicken the gravy and make it rich.
Essences are flavouring agents which can be used to change the course of how a dish to taste. It can be termed as a 'culinary strength', but is different from an extract. Essences are made using artificial colours and flavours, whereas extracts are more "raw" in their taste.
Rose water: Created by distilling rose petals with steam, rose water is fragrant and especially used in desserts. The essence has a sweet, floral taste and smell.
Kewra water: Extracted from the screw pine flower, this flavour is used in South-east asian cooking, and is added to desserts, biryani and other Mughlai dishes. Although diluted, this flavouring agent has a slightly citrus smell and taste.
Indian cooking is generally done on a low flame and requires patience. As a result, the ideal equipment is deep-bottomed and heavy so as to avoid burnt ends or edges.
As food in India is region specific, the utensils required are also different in different states. However, some of the common ones include:
- Kadai (these are like a wok but with handles on both sides and are steeper). Since these are in different shapes and sizes, each Kadai has a different purpose. For gravies, a deep-potted one is used, whereas for pan-frying a shallow-based Kadai is used.
- Tawa (non-stick, cast iron, or made out of stone),
- A pressure cooker, a steamer, and an idli cooker (with moulds to fill batter in),
- Earthenware for fish curry (especially used in South India),
- Rolling pin and chakki (to make flatbreads),
- Mortar and pestle,
- Different kinds of spatulas, ladles and a slotted spoon,
- Strainers: 2 or 3 of various sizes,
- A mixer grinder, and/or a grater,
- A whisk, often to beat curd and as Indian cuisine requires a lot of blending,
- Knives for cutting vegetables and to chop meat, and a cutting board (of course),
- Glass jars for storing pickles.
- With inputs from Sharon Benjamin, Feature Writer for Food
Would you like to add to this story? A kitchen tool you cannot do without? Tell us about it at firstname.lastname@example.org