Do you find cooking Indian food complicated and feel overwhelmed with all the spices used for making an Indian Curry? This stepwise guide explains the basics of Indian Cooking from spices, methods to cookware. Everything you need to know to start cooking Indian food at home.
When I started giving Indian cooking classes, I became aware of the confusion and lack of confidence in people to cook Indian at home.
The first question asked was ‘How to cook Indian food, so that it tastes authentic?’
The questions emerged partly because of the unfamiliarity of the ingredients primarily the spices.
Most found the recipes and method too lengthy, time-consuming and complicated?
In this (rather long) post, I run through the basic tips for cooking Indian food at home.
This A-Z beginners guide to Indian cooking will explain in detail how to cook Indian food by first introducing the must-have Indian spices, simplifying the use of spices and follow the Indian cooking methods.
The aim of this post it to make it easier for you to cook that Indian curry your takeaway makes and save you the pounds! (both from your wallet and belly)
Learn The Basics Of Indian Food
Before we embark on the basics of Indian cooking, let me clarify that if you have made a soup before, you can surely cook a curry.
Whether you are cooking Indian food at home or eating at the restaurant, most Indian dishes on an average use a minimum of 7 ingredients.
These include the raw ingredients, spices and herbs all brought together by following a specific cooking process.
To make it easy for you to understand how to cook Indian food at home, I have broken the guide into 3 parts:
- the use of spices in Indian cooking
- the need to balance flavours correctly and
- following the Indian cooking process
Cooking Indian food requires a bit of practice, so gear up your sense of smell and taste, grab a glass of your favourite wine/juice, play some music and get stuck in.
How to Use Spices In Indian Cooking
One of the distinctive and perhaps confusing element of Indian cuisine is the use of spices.
Spices form an integral part of cooking which makes it different from other cuisines.
If you are a beginner to cooking Indian food, I suggest you begin with using spices often and become comfortable with them.
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.
Type 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.
Each spice is categorised into primary flavour and taste.
That is some are hot, sweet, strong, mild, etc.
What is important to remember is that each spice has an underlying bitterness.
Because of their distinctive taste, the overuse 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
If you are new to using spices or want to know how to cook with spices then this guide shares many tips on working with spices.
5 Essential Indian Spices Used to Make Indian Food
If it is the list of spices that deters you from making Indian food at home then I suggest starting with these 5 basic Indian spices.
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.
Flavour and Cooking Uses – 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.
Flavour and Cooking Uses – 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.
Flavour and Cooking Uses – 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.
A note to remember is not to confuse Garam Masala with Curry powder.
They are two different spice blends with different uses. This post clarifies the difference between garam masala and curry powder.
Flavour and Cooking Uses – Robust and strong in flavour. Garam masala 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 offshoot of the ginger family it is known for it’s anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.
Flavour and Cooking Uses- An earthy woody flavour, 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.
Need To Balance Flavour
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.
Each ingredient in a dish can be classified under a flavour profile.
- tomatoes, lemon juice, yoghurt are sour
- pumpkin, carrots, sweet potatoes, sugar are sweet
- courgette (some), leafy green vegetables , all spices and herbs have a bitter undertone
- Salt is salty
- soya sauce, cheese, leafy green vegetables, legumes and pulses fall under pungent and astringent category.
In cooking you bring all the elements of taste together for a balanced flavour.
And one of the best ways to get the right balance is to taste your way at every cooking stage.
If it tastes good to you, it is good to be served.
Indian Cooking Methods Used
Indian cooking methods are not different to other cuisines, however, it is the technique that is applied which differs.
What I mean by ‘the technique’; 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.
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.
Dry tempering is a 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 for an authentic Indian curry.
It is the process that makes the base of your gravy or sauce. Just like a jus does for thickening and enhancing the flavour of a sauce.
Sauteing is the most time consuming yet important part of Indian cooking. This is were it starts to push your patience levels.
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.
The Cooking Process To Follow For Authentic Taste
Now that you know about the different spices used in Indian cooking, the cooking methods, its time to bring it together and follow the cooking process.
Cooking Indian food is a stage-wise process. Each stage of cooking involves finishing the present and then moving to the next.
It is following the process what makes cooking Indian food different from other cuisines and taste authentic.
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.
This may involve adding ginger garlic paste or tomatoes or spices depending on the recipe you are following.
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.
Here are few easy Indian recipes for beginners to inspire you.
Recommended Cookware For Indian Cooking
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 food.
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 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
A good sauteing or frying pan is 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.
A small pan 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 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 Kitchen Gadgets That Helps To Reduce Cooking Time
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 store for instant access and making Indian food.
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.
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.
Online Indian Cooking Classes
If you wish to get stuck in and get a real feel of cooking Indian food at home, then do consider joining an interactive online Indian cooking class.
Watch this video to get a feel of how an Online class works.
The classes are more than just following a recipe.
They guide you through a stepwise process and share the many cooking tips you can only learn from an expert cook.
Check the latest online classes on offer here.
Easy & Quick Indian Recipes for Beginners
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.
Recap Of The Beginner Tips To Cook Indian Curry
I do hope that this guide has explained much of your questions on how to cook authentic Indian food at home.
The difference between cooking Indian food and other dishes is the use of spices and the applied cooking method.
Once you become comfortable with the idea of what type of spices and when to add spices to a dish and how long to cook with the right process, cooking Indian food becomes easier and simpler.
The list of cookware will help you have better control over cooking, while the essential spices list is a good point to get started with some of the most popular and easily available spices in the market.
Equipped with these cooking tips on cooking Indian food, you will be on your way to please your pallet!
Please do post your comments and questions here so that I can help you further.
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