Say that you want Indian food and most people automatically think you mean curry. Maybe you do, but Indian food is about so much more than curry. Indian cuisine is as diverse as it is unique, having been influenced by many civilizations and cultures. While Indian food also varies from region to region throughout India – every state and, in fact, every household, has its own style of cooking – they all share a love of healthy vegetables and spices that smell as wonderful as they taste. In India, cooking is an art that is handed down from generation to generation.
If you have wanted to make your own Indian food but feel intimidated by all the different ingredients and methods, don’t be. Indian food has become very popular in the U.S. and it has become easier to find Indian ingredients and spices in supermarkets and specialty stores. Plus, you don’t need any new or special equipment or utensils. What you have will work just fine. All you have to do is try recipes, play with the ingredients and spices and find what makes you happy. Hopefully, this article will help you see that making your own Indian food is fun and easy. Let’s get started.
1. Aromatics, Herbs and Spices
This is my favorite part of cooking any ethnic cuisine – getting to play with all the different spices. All the different colors and fragrances are just amazing. Indian food involves a lot of spices but you don’t need to buy them all. There are some basic spices that get used in many Indian dishes and are also cost-effective because you can use them in other ethnic cuisines as well. If you choose to buy specialty spices that you won’t use a lot, buy them in small quantities as they lose their potency after a while. Many of the spices come in both seeds and powder form. Seeds get cooked in a pan before adding other ingredients while powders get added with the ingredients. If you can’t afford both kinds, you can certainly make delicious dishes with the powdered spices. The important thing is to just get the basics you need to start cooking and add more variety as you can. Check out “10 Indian Spices to Spike Up Your Meal” for more info and recipe ideas.
The basic herbs and spices you are probably familiar with include: turmeric, cumin (seeds and ground), chile powder, coriander (leaves, seeds and ground), mustard (seeds and ground), black pepper, cinnamon (sticks and ground), cloves (whole), ginger (fresh or ground), cilantro, mint leaves and bay leaves.
Some spices that may be new to you include: black cardamom, green cardamom (pods, seeds and ground), asafetida (powder), fenugreek (leaves, seeds and ground), saffron and garam masala. Garam masala is a blend of spices. You can buy it in stores or make your own. It is usually some combination of coriander, cumin, black pepper, ginger, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and bay and every Indian household has their own recipe. Try this recipe for Punjabi Garam Masala.
Aromatics include onions, ginger, garlic, tamarind paste, raw mango powder, dried curry leaves and lots of chiles. Chiles can be fresh green chiles and dried red chiles. Red chiles add color as well as heat to dishes. You could also use paprika and cayenne pepper for this effect.
Indian cooking often uses ghee which is clarified butter. Any vegan butter or vegetable oil will do fine in any recipe.
2. Pantry Staples
Besides spices, there are some common ingredients you will want to keep in your pantry for cooking Indian food when the mood strikes. I use coconut milk, both full-fat and lite, in many of my dishes. Some recipes require yogurt so keep some plain non-dairy yogurts in the fridge. You can buy both these items or make your own Coconut Milk and Coconut Yogurt. Tomatoes are in several recipes so have lots of fresh plum tomatoes available as well as tomato paste. You need some type of sweetener in your pantry. You can use brown sugar, agave nectar, cane juice or whichever natural sweetener you prefer.
A dish I make that utilizes three of these pantry staples is my Indian Eggplant in Chile-Yogurt Sauce. I saute chopped onion, minced garlic and grated ginger in oil and then add chopped red chile pepper and red bell pepper. Those aromatics then get mixed with tomato paste, brown sugar, cumin, turmeric, garam masala and salt. Once everything is fragrant, I add 2 eggplants that have been chopped into cubes and toss to coat them in the spices. Six to eight ounces of non-dairy yogurt and ½ cup of water get added to create a sauce. The pan gets covered and the eggplant cooks until it’s softened, about 15 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and the end result is a delicious, fragrant dish of eggplant that is covered in a thick, creamy and spicy sauce.
3. Rice and Other Grains
Most Indian dishes are served with basmati rice; basmati means “fragrant” in Sanskrit. Read “How to Make the Perfect White Basmati Rice” for perfect, fluffy grains. I tend to cook and eat brown rice and luckily, you can buy brown basmati rice. Try out all your new spices in this Ayurvedic Tomato Rice with South Indian Seasoning. Basmati rice is also used to make this Vegetable Biryani and this Asparagus and Saffron Biryani, vegan versions of the traditional Indian dish. Parboiled rice is used to make Idli, a South Indian favorite that is eaten at breakfast, as a snack or anytime. Try these Idli which are Steamed Sourdough Rice and Lentil Buns. Cooked Poha or flattened rice (also called beaten rice) is a quick breakfast or snack served in most parts of India. This Breakfast Poha is cooked with veggies and nuts.
Alternately, you can substitute quinoa or other grains for the rice. I make a version of upma, a popular hot breakfast dish from South India. It’s usually made with semolina called rava but I want mine to be gluten-free so I use millet. I also add lots of veggies which makes it a hearty dish for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The veggies – I use different ones each time – and millet are cooked with mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fresh ginger, garlic, green chiles and curry powder for a flavor-packed, healthy meal.
Use white or golden quinoa to make this beautiful Delicious Indian Lime and Peanut Quinoa from Southern India. This Zen Lentil and Quinoa Kitchari is an Indian comfort food said to provide strength and energy.
4. Breads and Flours
Flour or atta is used in many Indian recipes. Chapati flour is a type of whole-wheat flour used to make unleavened flatbreads called roti. Missy Roti are golden yellow flatbreads that are traditional in Northern India. Chickpea flour is also common in Indian food where it is called besan. I use chickpea flour for just about everything. These Herb Roti use both chickpea and whole wheat flour for a high-protein flatbread. Chickpea flour is also used to make Khaman Dhokla, an Indian-Style Soft Steamed Chickpea Flour Cake that is light and fluffy but packed with protein.
Parathas are a stuffed flatbread that can be made with whole wheat or chickpea flour. Like roti, parathas are made on the stovetop. I like to make parathas that are stuffed with kale but you can stuff them with whatever you choose. In a bowl, combine 2 cups flour, ½ tsp. kosher salt and ½ tsp. garam masala. Add up to 1 cup of water until you have a stiff dough. Knead the dough into a smooth ball, cover it and let it sit while you prepare the filling. Saute a diced onion in oil and add 2 cloves of minced garlic and a bunch of stemmed and chopped kale. Season with ½ tsp. each garam masala, ground cumin and ground coriander and ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper. Cook until the kale has wilted. Divide the dough into 6-8 pieces about the size of golf balls. Roll each ball into a flat disc and roll into a flat patty that is as thin as a tortilla. Put ¼ cup of the kale filling into the middle of each disc and fold the edges of the dough over the mixture to form balls again with the kale on the inside. Gently roll out the dough again, being careful not to break the parathas. Heat a little oil in a non-stick pan and fry each parathas for 2-3 minutes or until golden and browned in places. Serve with raita, an Indian dipping sauce. This recipe for Mint Parathas combines mint and caraway seeds for a refreshing taste.
5. Legumes: Lentils, Peas and Beans
Legumes feature prominently in Indian cooking and that is great for our bodies as well as our wallet. Legumes are healthy and affordable, filling and satisfying, easy to store and easy to cook. In Indian cuisine, there are lentils (dals), split red lentils (masoor), green lentils (moong), black gram or black lentils (urad), chickpeas (chana), split gram or split black chickpea (chana dal), black-eyed peas (lobia), azuki beans (chori), kidney beans (rajmah), lima beans (pavta), and pigeon peas (tuvar dal). Whew! That’s a lot of legumes! Instead of me talking about them, let’s get right to the many delectable dishes you can make with them.
Chana Masala is a beloved dish made with chickpeas. My version of it uses black-eyed peas and so it is called Lobia Masala. Saute a large chopped onion in oil for 4 minutes until browned. Add 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1 tsp. turmeric, 1 tsp. ground coriander, ½ tsp. ground cardamom, ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon and 1/8 tsp. ground cloves and mix so the onions are coated in the spices. Add 4 minced garlic cloves, a 1-inch piece of grated ginger, 1 seeded and chopped chile pepper, 1 tsp. garam masala, 1 tsp. kosher salt and ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper. Mix and cook for about 1 minute or until fragrant. Add 1 ½ cups diced tomato to the pan and stir. Scrape up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add 3 cups of cooked black-eyed peas and 1 tsp. agave nectar, stir and cover the pan. Continue to cook 6-7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until you have a saucy mixture. When it bubbles, remove the lid and lower the heat. Simmer 10-12 minutes until the sauce thickens. Turn off the heat and add the zest and juice of one lime. Cover the pan and let it sit for 5 minutes while the flavors get absorbed. Garnish with cilantro and serve over rice.
Red or brown lentils are used to make this Curried Lentil Soup. If you’re in the mood for a light but satisfying salad, try this Spicy Lentil Salad , this Sprouted Green (Moong) Lentils and Peanut Salad or this Sprouted Mung Salad that has mung beans. The word “dal” may mean lentils but it also refers to the thick stew made with them. This Simple Lentil Dal is easy and delicious. Green lentils are used in this Sophie Dal while red lentils are the star of this Masoor Dal. Visit South India via your kitchen with these 3 amazing dishes: South Indian Lentil Stew, Indian Sambar which has lentils and white pumpkin and this Indian Tangy Lentils with Curry Leaves and Red Chiles which uses Tuvar dal or pigeon peas. While usually made with lentils, this version of Dosas is made with baby lima beans and oats.
Indian food is filled with healthy and tasty vegetables that are flavored with fragrant spices. Whether those veggies are put into a soup as in this Ayurvedic Spinach-Mung Detox Soup or baked into a pie like this Tikka Masala Pot Pie, they taste fresh and delicious. Stir-fries are not just for Chinese recipes. Try this Stir-Fried Crunchy Bengali Bok Choy, this Asparagus and Carrot Stir-Fry, Stir-Fried Brussels Sprouts with Ginger and Curry Leaves, Stir-Fried Beetroot with Ginger, Lime, and Toasted Spices and this Bitter Melon, Potato and Eggplant Indian-Style Stir-Fry.
Choose a vegetable and there is an incredible Indian dish made with it. Love mushrooms? Try this Mushroom Mutter Masala with Green Peas or this Masala Mushroom Bhuna made with spicy sauteed mushrooms. Potato lovers will be in heaven with dishes like Indian Spicy Potatoes and Broccoli, Potato Samosas and Spicy Indian Sweet Potatoes. Potatoes get cooked in a poppy seed paste to make Alu Posto. Potatoes and greens are a perfect match as in this Saag Alu and Alu Palak or Curried Potatoes with Spinach. One of my favorite dishes is Alu Gobi which is curried potatoes with cauliflower and peas but if you just want cauliflower, you must try this Methi Gobi Cauliflower with Ginger and Fenugreek. Enjoy your dark, leafy greens by indulging in this Indian Cashew Swiss Chard, Sauteed Spinach in Fennel Tomato Sauce and these Amazing Indian Onion and Kale Fritters. Yes please!
I make a simple but incredible dish of Indian-Spiced Eggplant Steaks. Simply cut 2 eggplants into a total of 8 thick slices. Sprinkle a spice mix of garlic powder, cumin, coriander, curry powder, kosher salt, garam masala and turmeric over the eggplant. Drizzle some oil over the slices and distribute the spices over the slices with a pastry brush. Roast the eggplant on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper in a 400 degree oven for 15-20 minutes until tender. It’s a perfect side dish to any entrée.
7. Tofu, Tempeh and Seitan Dishes
Not all Indian dishes are vegetarian but we can certainly make plant-based versions of the dishes that usually contain meat. Tempeh fills in for chicken or lamb in this Tempeh in Spicy Onion Curry and for the beef in this Goan Curry. Tofu in a roasted red pepper and coconut sauce is the star in this Tofu Tikka Masala while tofu that has been broiled to perfection makes up this Tandoori Tofu dish. There is no need for eggs and dairy when tofu and cashews come together in this Tofu Paneer Bhurji, an Indian-style tofu scramble. Vindaloo is a dish usually made with chicken or lamb but this Seitan Vindaloo from the Goa region is so much better. I love making pakora which are usually deep-fried and battered vegetables but these Tofu Pakora are high on my favorites list too. The award for “most creative dish” goes to these Ayurvedic Lentil-Crusted Tofu where dried lentils are ground to make the coating for this tofu dish.
8. Dips, Chutneys and Condiments
Besides all the main dishes, there are many Indian dips, chutneys and condiments. Raita is my favorite dipping sauce for pakoras or any dish that needs some cooling down. I make Cucumber Raita by blending together 1 block of silken tofu, 3 Tbs. vegetable oil, 2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice, 2 tsp. brown rice vinegar, ¾ tsp. kosher salt, ½ tsp. ground coriander, ½ tsp. ground cumin, 1 tbs. fresh cilanto and 2 cucumbers that have been peeled, seeded and diced. Pulse until all the ingredients are thoroughly combined but still chunky. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Chutneys are also dipping sauces and you can get as creative as you like when making them. Try Mint Chutney, Mint and Cilantro Chutney with Ginger, Coconut-Mint Chutney or Roasted Beetroot and Ginger Chutney. Indian Baigan Bharta or Char Roasted Eggplant Dip and spinach-filled Indian Saag Dip are delicious additions to any table. For a lovely side dish or condiment, serve these Indian Radish Pickles and wow your guests.
9. Drinks and Desserts
No meal is complete without dessert and something to drink. End your meal or just snack on these Savory Lentil Doughnuts or Medhu Vada. Gajar Halwa is a traditional carrot fudge pudding that is enjoyed in colder weather. Make this version of Carrot and Date Pudding with Coconut and Cardamom or this Carrot Halwa that has cashews and slivered almonds. Ras malai is a rich concoction of cheese, cream and cardamom. This vegan Tofu Malai has all the sweet chewiness of the traditional version. The first Indian drink I ever had was this cross between yogurt and a milkshake. This Mango Lassi is made with coconut milk and Indian spices for an exotic and sweet beverage.
This is just an introduction to the all the amazing Indian dishes you can make yourself. It really is easy. In no time you will be enjoying the amazing flavors and dishes of India in your own home.
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Lead Image Source: Delicious Indian Lime and Peanut Quinoa