Basic Essentials for Indian Cooking

So although many of us may be very familiar with Indian cooking it can be somewhat intimidating for those of us who are not so familiar with it. For this edition of the newsletter I would like to share the things that I would recommend you keep in your kitchen for those days when Indian food is on the menu.
First and most importantly, let’s talk spice. There are a few spices that I recommend every well stocked kitchen cooking Indian food must have.

Mustard Seeds
Mustard seeds are often used in the chaunk for dahl and vegetable dishes. Most recipes require whole mustard seeds, so powdered mustard seed is not recommended for substitution.

Cumin Seeds
Cumin seeds are also essential to many Indian dishes. I also recommend cumin powder. However, the fresher the better so I really recommend grinding you own at home. Sometimes these cumin seeds are roasted before grinding to bring out the flavor.

Coriander Seeds
These seeds are sometimes used whole but are more often used ground. As with cumin seeds, I highly recommend grinding these seeds at home to ensure optimal freshness and flavor.

This spice is most often used by those cooks who choose not to use onion or garlic in their Indian cooking. I prefer to buy the powdered hing which is mixed with some sort of flour and not quite as strong as pure resin hing. I like to keep some hing that is not cut with flour to use on those days that I am fasting from grains.

Fresh Ginger
As far as I am concerned, fresh ginger is crucial to much of my Indian cooking. If I’m really not able to get my hands on some fresh ginger, I do reluctantly use ground dried ginger but will typically ensure that some fresh ginger root is in my refrigerator at all times.

Fresh Chilies
Fresh chilies are essential if you like to cook somewhat spicy food. Fresh chilies are typically used generously in Indian cooking but can be omitted or reduced. It is also possible to use chili powder but nothing quite beats fresh chilies.

Garam Masala
I hesitated to put this in the essentials spice list but did in the end because I just use it so often. You can make this at home yourself but you can also purchase a nice garam masala at your local Indian grocery store. (Garama masala means “hot mixture”, and can vary by the spices mixed to create it. This falls into the category of a curry powder, but the spices used for typical garam masala are unique.)

These are the savory spices I recommend for your kitchen (we will cover spices used for sweets and desserts later on). Here are the grains that should be a staple in your pantry:

Basmati Rice
Basmati rice is a particular type of rice that is traditionally grown in the Himalayan region of India. Basmati is a long grain white rice that is unique in that it is not at all sticky and retains its individual grain when cooked. You can also find brown basmati rice but it tends to be heavier, and takes longer to cook.

Split Mung Beans
Split mung beans are a great dahl to keep at home always. Because it is such a quick cooking bean, it is my go-to dahl if I don’t have a lot of time to cook but want dahl.

Toor Dahl
Toor dahl takes a bit longer to cook than split mung dahl but is one of my favorites. I always keep a bit of toor dahl handy for those days that I just have to have Sambhar.

Chapatti Flour
For me, chapatti flour is essential. I use it to make chapatti, paratha and very occasionally puri. I do know that some cooks mix whole wheat and white flour but in my opinion it is just not the same as using chapatti flour.

You may have additional grains that you like to keep on hand for your favorite Indian dishes. With all grains, it is essential that they are stored correctly. If you have any doubt about the freshness of your grains, please dispose of them and buy new. Fresh ingredients are essential to any meal.

There is one high-tech tool you’ll want to have on hand also, besides the usual cooking utensils, pots and pans. I recommend buying a good quality...

Coffee Grinder
No, not for grinding coffee but for grinding spices. A coffee grinder is a great way to grind spices freshly as you use them to ensure that they are as fresh as they can be.

Although this is not a list of all of the things you would use to cook Indian food, it is a good place to start. I have purposefully omitted the spices used for dessert cooking as Indian desserts are often quite complicated, and I will address them later. I will also address utensils and tools that are unique to Indian cooking, or for specific dishes, as we get into more elaborate recipes. I hope this helps all of you who are new to cooking Indian food, and for those of you who are already familiar with this type of cooking there will be more recipes next week.

I wish you all happy kitchens and happy cooking!