How to Cook Indian Cuisine
August 15, 2014 8:32 AM   Subscribe

I know how to cook in general, and I know Indian food relatively well in terms know, eating it. But my attempts to cook Indian dishes myself have never turn out. Where can I find clear, dependable recipes for (primarily Northern) Indian staples? (By "staples," I mean ordinary dishes like: palak paneer, bhurtha, aloo paratha, dal. My favorite foods tend to be vegetarian, but I'm not a vegetarian myself, so either veg or non-veg is fine).

Also, if you're used to cooking Indian dishes: which ingredients will I likely have to buy at a specialty grocer? Which might be difficult to find but that I can use easier-to-find substitutions for or make myself? Are there any brands or other labeling to avoid or to look for? Is there any equipment or other supplies that I'm unlikely to have as someone who doesn't cook these dishes regularly right now but will likely need to buy?

My goal is basically to be able to make a big pot of something like palak paneer (one of my favorite foods of all time) and pack it for lunch for a few days during the week. And to make aloo paratha (with those pickled peppers, yum!) for weekend breakfasts. And to drink chai whenever I feel like it, which is frequently. Most of all, it seems a little unreasonable that I can't cook a fairly passable version of many of my own favorite foods, and I'd like to change that!
posted by rue72 to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 131 users marked this as a favorite
I love Manjula's Kitchen - it's all vegetarian, and she covers most of the dishes you mentioned.
posted by Mchelly at 8:37 AM on August 15, 2014 [13 favorites]

At Home with Madhur Jaffrey

You can get a lot of the spices and things from Amazon if you don't have an Indian market in your area.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:45 AM on August 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

Seconding Manjula's Kitchen. Also, Lord Krishna's Cuisine is a pretty comprehensive and reliable source of vegetarian recipes.
posted by torisaur at 8:49 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

The big thing that changed my homemade Indian cooking (and I'm having it for leftovers in an hour) is buying a single bag of mixed spices, all whole seeds--black mustard, cardamom, cumin, etc.--from a little Indian grocery store. It looks like this once you fry it. If you live in D.C. it shouldn't be hard to find one. I'm not sure exactly what the mix is called--it's not Garam Masala--but basically, you start your cooking by heating oil and then tossing in a few tablespoons of it. Once the seeds start popping, you can add your onions and so on. Your house will smell awesome for days.
posted by Beardman at 8:50 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you have a slow cooker The Indian Slow Cooker has a ton of recipes, a good number of them vegetarian. She also has a nice guide at the beginning to the spices, which will answer a lot of your questions.

FYI, homemade paneer is *ridiculously* easy, so if you aren't doing it already, start! Here's a recipe.
posted by damayanti at 9:01 AM on August 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

Get The Curry Secret by Kris Dhillon (it's on Amazon but a full PDF of the cookbook is also easily accessible via a quick Google search).

The key to getting a great Indian-style curry is to make a base sauce of blended onions, garlic and ginger--this is the foundation of every curry you'll make. It takes a while to make but it freezes well so I tend to make a big batch and freeze portions in mason jars.

Also, paneer is ridiculously easy to make:

- 1 gallon whole milk
- 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (apparently you can also use vinegar but I've never done so)

1) Heat the milk up (slowly, so you don't burn the bottom of the pan!) until just boiling
2) Add lemon juice and stir until fluffy white curds form
3) use a fine mesh strainer to separate curds from whey (which apparently is full of protein and can be used for baking exceptionally hearty bread)
4) Rinse the curds thoroughly to get rid of any residual lemon flavor and knead cheese into a block and wrap in either cheesecloth or paper towels
5) Press your block of cheese for 2 hours under a stack of heavy books (I use my old high school yearbooks for this)
6) Refrigerate or freeze!

What a timely question! I just finished chopping up four pounds of onions to make a new batch of curry base sauce to freeze. Happy cooking!
posted by wondrous strange snow at 9:11 AM on August 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

India: The Cookbook is my favourite.

Google books link
posted by chrillsicka at 9:11 AM on August 15, 2014

I came in here to say Manjula's Kitchen. Glad to see I've been beaten to it, twice!
posted by feste at 9:18 AM on August 15, 2014

Some scattered thoughts on the subject:
I don't remember which Madhur Jaffrey cookbook I have, but I use it more than any other. wondrous strange snow is right about the curry base. It's pretty much caramelized onions, cooked on low for a good 10-15 minutes. There's no good substitute for that. I buy paneer at one of the many Indian groceries in the North Arlington/Falls Church/Fairfax city corridor; if you need a more specific suggestion for a place to shop, I'll dig up an address. I buy paneer and freeze it so I always have some on hand. I often start with one of the shelf-stable palak paneer packets, then add my home-grown greens and extra paneer. Naan also freezes well, and Jaffrey's raita is fantastic made with homegrown cucumbers and herbs. And a 50/50 mix of butter and vegetable oil is a good substitute for ghee.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:20 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Pretty much all the Indo/Pak people I know use various types of Shan Masalas (a particular brand of ready made spice mixes) which they will then adjust to taste. My mom will occasionally grind and roast her own spices but I'm pretty sure she uses ready made masala packs for most things. You can get them at regular grocery stores in Toronto (albeit in the "ethnic food" section).
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:20 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Beardman, I think your spice mix is Panch phoran (literally, 5 spice). Very commonly available.

N'thing Manjula's Kitchen - fantastic - and also lots of practice.

No-one's mentioned the paratha for breakfast component - so I will come out and say that i dont know anyone of my generation in the US who makes parathas at home - I only do it for special occasions or when I"m having a guilt trip about not making home-made. Buy them in frozen packages from the Indian store - aloo and all sorts of other fillings are available (our all time favs - paneer, and muli which is a kind of radish). pull out a package on a sunday morning (or really whenever), warm on the stove (DO NOT microwave) and voila! Likewise with the pickle - impossible to make in small quantities, much easier to buy.
posted by darsh at 9:51 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I really like Julie Sahni, too.
posted by freezer cake at 9:53 AM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

You might want to find an Indian grocer or online source for the spices. They 're much cheaper that way, and you use a lot more of them in Indian cuisine.

The absolute requirements that come up again and again are probably whole cumin, coriander, and mustard seeds, cinnamon sticks, turmeric and cayenne. Things which come up less often but pretty frequently are fenugreek, cardamom, asafoetida (aka hing).

Of course, just getting hold of a good garam masala can sub for a lot of this. And ginger, garlic and onions come up in pretty much everything, but I wouldn't call those spices per se. I'm by no means an expert on Indian cuisine, this is just based on my experience in dabbling.
posted by maggiepolitt at 10:04 AM on August 15, 2014

Agree with everyone above, just wanted to stress the importance of slicing the onions very thinly and cooking them until they are soft and caramelized. It makes a world of difference and can be one of the reasons home cooked Indian food does not turn out tasting like in the restaurant (along w using way less cream and/or ghee)
posted by pravit at 10:04 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't believe there have been 14 answers already and nobody has mentioned Raghavan Iyer's 660 Curries. I had a few Madhur Jaffrey books before I got Iyer's, but I didn't start to feel like I understood how to cook Indian food before I started making random dishes from 660 Curries.

Things I buy at my Indian grocer are fresh curry leaves (but they freeze well) frozen fresh coconut, random dals, occasional spice (asafetida comes to mind) and snacks.

The only somewhat special equipment I find really useful is a small food processor. Lots of Indian-Americans I know own As-Seen-On-TV Magic Bullets. A spice grinder (dedicated coffee grinder works) is also pretty useful.
posted by juliapangolin at 10:22 AM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Here are some recipe websites and video channels you might find useful:

and if you can find an Indian grocery nearby, look in their frozen sections. Aloo parratha are a pain in the ass to make, but should be easy to find frozen.
posted by Runes at 10:33 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Something to note about caramelizing onions: It really does take much, much longer than Jaffrey says unless they're sliced PAPER thin, and even then they can burn unless you're totally on them. More on caramelizing here. Doing it properly will make your Indian (and all food, really) much better.
posted by klangklangston at 10:33 AM on August 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

I make Palak Paneer alllll the time (in the fridge right now), but kind of hate making my own paneer for various reasons of fussiness, fridge space, etc. I find it in odd places - sometimes my Costco has it, my weird quasi-bulk grocery store (Smart and Final in California), some but not all of my area grocery stores. Your favorite grocery store has a product request procedure of some sort, it can't hurt to ask.

But yes, you can make it if that's your only option.

And there are many levels of "absolutely required". In a pinch, I can make a perfectly edible PP with McCormick's Hot Madras Curry powder plus cayenne or ancho powder, cumin powder, onion, a chile if I have one or some sriracha if I don't, coconut milk (which I always have, rather than yogurt which I never have), frozen Dorot ginger cubes, 3lbs of frozen spinach and store paneer. On one hand it's probably not perfectly authentic but it is not a degree of separation different enough for me to feel like I'm eating a pale imitation. It is certainly better than no palak paneer.

Anyway, approximate is fine to start with, and I nth Manjula's Kitchen for learning technique. You may prefer to use an actual recipe from another source, but watch Manjula make it just to get a feel for the process. Also, she's awesome.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:48 AM on August 15, 2014

Something to note about caramelizing onions: It really does take much, much longer than Jaffrey says unless they're sliced PAPER thin

Yes, seconding this; every cookbook in the world just flat out lies about caramelizing onions and I'm puzzled as to why. I think it's just so effing boring that they wishful-think it into "a few minutes." The real secret with caramelizing onions is pretty much always "no...not done yet." They just get better and better and better, but you need to stick with them and you need a good well-seasoned pan.
posted by yoink at 11:26 AM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maunika Gowardhan's Cook in a Curry. It's genius.
posted by meerkatty at 11:53 AM on August 15, 2014

I've been making Indian food at home for 30 years. The core spices you'll want include ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne pepper, and a good garam masala blend; many dishes call for whole spices to be fried for a short while at the start of a dish, and these are most often cumin seeds, and black mustard seeds. Authentic recipes tend not to use the American-style curry blends one finds in supermarkets. That panch phoran blend someone mentioned already can be useful but I often find I don't want all of those at one time (particularly not the fenugreek and fennel). A few "American" baking spices you might already have in your kitchen which are commonly used include cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom.

Many/most dishes start out with frying a mince or puree of onion, garlic, and ginger, with other ingredients added after that has reached a certain caramelization, so it's good to have those on hand at times you want to be cooking Indian food, as well as a good supply of mild vegetable oil like canola (I long ago decided ghee was a hassle to keep on hand or make; also crazy high in fats) and basmati rice (make sure you leave enough time for it to cook). I do not use olive oil with Indian dishes, to me the flavor clashes.

Most good cookbooks for Indian cuisine will have a pantry list and you can use that as a guide for the initial spice stock-up, and just fill in the less common spices when you come across recipes that use them. The initial stock-up can run you a bit of money.

In terms of technique, I find that the most common mistake I made when starting out was under-cooking curries. (See comments above about getting those onions or onion pastes nice and golden.) It's a balance between frying the aromatics enough to really bring out the flavor, versus not burning them. You get the hang of it after a while. Dashes of water keep the frying mix from drying out, if you don't use crazy amounts of oil. Dishes with crushed or pureed tomato in them need to simmer a long time for the tomato and spices to really meld. I think a lot of recipe writers use the minimum times for each step perhaps in fear of intimidating beginning cooks. Done right, it often takes hours to make a meal.

For dishes with meats, an important step Americans sometimes neglect is often to marinade the meat overnight in garlic/ginger, a little oil, and spices that are in the dish. Also, if you and your guests like coriander leaves (and not everyone does), adding a handful of chopped coriander before serving lends an authentic burst. If you cook dishes with chicken, thighs and legs tend to make tastier dishes than breasts.

Also bear in mind that if you're trying to make dishes taste like American restaurant Indian food (I don't know that you are, but sometimes that's what people aim at), Indian restaurants (much in the way all restaurants do) have tricks to make the flavor of dishes pop, such as extra salt or spices just before serving, or finishing by mixing in extra butter/cream/yogurt or some slivered nuts. Generally the fresher ingredients of the home cook balance out not using the commerical cook's flavor tricks, I think.

The cookbook authors whose books I have used over the years include Julie Sahni and Madhur Jaffrey (I have three or four of her books), filled in with recipes off the web in recent years.
posted by aught at 1:39 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite] can be dangerous and throw your minced onion into really hot oil. That'll caramelise them if it don't burn them first...depends on how reckless of a cook you are. Stir em like hell and sniff that toffee-flavoured mist as it penetrates every corner of your house.
posted by glasseyes at 2:23 PM on August 15, 2014

5 spices. That's it. Buy these and use in proportions given

.25 tsp Chilli powder
pinch of Turmeric
1 teaspoon Cumin
pinch of Asofetedia (use very sparingly)
1 teaspoon Corriander power
Salt (as desired)

Arrange in this container. For any indian dish follow this proceedure-

Put oil, add garlic, when it heats up, add a mix of the above spices, saute for a second (do not burn) add veges, meat etc. Saute on low heat for 3 min, add water, cover, simmer. Done.
posted by jellyjam at 2:48 PM on August 15, 2014

Manjula's Kitchen is ok, her coriander chutney recipe (just watch the salt!) is my go-to-recipe though, you might want to keep in mind her recipes are modified to exclude onions and garlic for religious reasons. Which imho is a travesty if you want to cook dishes from the north.

Someone awhile back asked what goes into a well stocked Indian spice cabinet and here was my suggestion.

Some of my go to sites include:

veg recipes of india.
Blend with Spices.
Vah Reh Vah

To be honest, much of my I've learnt over time has been hit and miss. I do google image searches for an ingredient using search terms like, "bengal gram" instead of chickpeas, to find Indian cooks with food blogs and get lured in by the fabulous food photography I find.

And, Madhur Jaffrey? You can't go wrong with her recipes. She has a few recipes on BBC Food ... I don't think I've eaten so much cauliflower since I found this Instant Punjabi Pickle by her, you'll want make lots it's really good!

For carmelized onions? if you add some salt at the beginning to help draw out some of the moisture in the onions they'll brown a little faster.
posted by redindiaink at 5:22 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

We've made some really good stuff out of Made in India, but I don't think it's actually out in the US yet (that's the UK edition). There are quite a few recipes on her website though and in various online places - here's her recipe for chai.
posted by featherboa at 5:33 AM on August 16, 2014

Good advice here. My go-to cookbooks are already mentioned (Julie Sahni, Madhur Jaffery) and the best YouTube resources are probably Manjula's Kitchen (note the lack of onions/garlic though!) and VahChef/VahRehVah. There's really no one spice blend that will make things great, that idea is pretty much antithetical to good Indian cooking. Panch Phoron is a very specific regional mix (Bengali I think?)

I've been cooking Indian for twenty years and I've never thought of "carmelizing onions" to be a core technique. I get that lots of [North] Indian recipes use long-cooked onions along with ginger/garlic paste to build the body of a sauce, but the goal isn't really the super-sweet jammy onions you want for French Onion Soup or a sandwich/pizza topping.
posted by werkzeuger at 6:19 AM on August 16, 2014

I want to add that when it comes to technique-intensive recipes like Indian breads and Dosas, watching Manjula can be a revelation. This is an Indian grandmother, in her own kitchen, rolling out dough and watching exactly what she does is worth a dozen cookbooks. If you grew up baking western breads there is a whole fine-grained difference in incorporating ingredients, kneading, rolling etc. For example, Manjula almost always does her kneading in a bowl with oiled hands.
posted by werkzeuger at 6:25 AM on August 16, 2014

darsh: Yup, you're right, panch phoran is the stuff.
posted by Beardman at 11:34 AM on August 16, 2014

I'm seconding 660 Curries. It is phenomenal.
posted by robstercraw at 7:53 AM on August 18, 2014

I'm Indian, and have been surrounded by authentic homemade Indian cooking all my life. Here's what I can offer you...

1. Chai: See this earlier question; it includes a response from me detailing how to make it.

2. Paratha: As darsh mentioned above, the variety and convenience of frozen parathas make it almost unnecessary to make parathas from scratch anymore. There's nothing like homemade and I do make them occasionally, but I would say they are somewhat advanced. I'd recommend trying the frozen ones and seeing if those are good enough for you.

3. Staples:

Ginger-garlic paste (found in Indian grocery stores or make your own 50-50 mix; garlic alone will not give you the same flavour)

Fresh coriander/cilantro - can't believe no one has mentioned this. It's essential. It adds a certain depth of flavour when cooked into the food. Can be sprinkled on top as a garnish, but needs to be cooked in in order to release the proper flavour. Adding coriander powder or seeds does not substitute for adding the fresh greens.

Curry leaves (buy fresh, air dry and store in your cupboard; or, keep fresh in your fridge)

Plain yogurt

Dry spices:
Ground coriander
Ground cumin
Cumin seeds
Black mustard seeds
Garam masala mix, but only for certain dishes

4. Curries like palak paneer: I agree with werkzeuger; the base you're trying to create does not need soft, creamy, caramelized onions like those found in Italian cooking. We brown our onions quickly on fairly high heat. The general technique is as follows:

warm the vegetable oil
add the seeds, if needed (NOT needed for palak paneer)
add diced or sliced onions, brown over 5-7 minutes
add the ginger-garlic paste, stir to combine
add salt and spices, stir to combine
add the vegetables, stir to brown a bit
add the liquid and cilantro
reduce heat and simmer until cooked

This is a general technique and will need to be tweaked depending on the recipe. Memail me if you have any specific questions!
posted by yawper at 8:33 AM on August 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

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