How do I make Indian food without access to the same spices?
January 14, 2004 5:47 PM   Subscribe

This small, simple little restaurant in northern Virgina has completely turned me on to the comfort and charm that is Indian cuisine. [more inside]

I'd love to reproduce some of these dishes at home. But many of the recipes are rather intimidating because they're made from lots of ingredients I don't normally keep around the kitchen. I don't mind buying what I need. But I'd like to keep things practical. I'm lost in the Indian spice and grocery store. I can see that if I wanted to, I could buy everything in it's pure state. But I also see convenience products are available... mixes, pastes, etc. But I have no idea what they are or for what they might serve as a substitute. My point is, has anyone else been in this position? What's the best way to get started without spending $100 on ingredients, just so I can have each variety of Dal on hand and big bags of every spice? I want to be able to come home from work and knock-out something for dinner once in a while. What are the must-haves for an everyday Indian kitchen?
posted by Witty to Food & Drink (39 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I second Witty's query. I love making curries, but they're almost all based on "spices in a bottle". What's a cheap way to buy bulk spices?
posted by Jimbob at 6:04 PM on January 14, 2004

Witty: it's very easy and great fun, as you can experiment with different spices. The important thing is to buy them fresh (very small batches; forget bulk as they soon lose their aromas), roast them and grind them. here is a very simple example which works wonders and is ideal to get started. You can then add other spices as you go along. You can also toast the spices in a dry, hot frying pan.

A clear and competent cook who addresses beginners is Madhur Jaffrey. Here are some recipes from her BBC shows. Her books are a delight - I swear by this one.

I should add that Indian cuisine is vast, complex and very varied and this paradoxically makes it easier for foreigners like me to feel freer about giving it a try.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:40 PM on January 14, 2004

Witty: Did you ask whoever was running the store? My best sources for ethnic ingredients are farmers' markets.
posted by mischief at 6:44 PM on January 14, 2004

Spices go bad/stale so buying bulk is a problem for the home consumer. According to a recent test by Cooks Illustrated (the cooking geeks magazine, subscription based) they found most spices last about 6 months to a year on the shelf before loosing potency. If your going to cook with spices, useing fresh spice is all the diffrence in the world.

With that said, here is what I do. Buy a food vaccum machine (recommend the model 550), store the spices in vacuum sealed bags or wide-mouth mason jars, and store in the freezer. The spices will stay fresh many years and you can buy cheaply in bulk. This is true for a lot of things besides spices.

The spice-rack spice bottles most people keep above the stove cooking away from radiant heat for 20 years should also be kept in the freezer and recycled every few years.
posted by stbalbach at 6:45 PM on January 14, 2004

I forgot to say (contrary to what it says in the first link) don'ttry keep the mixed spices. Roast and grind only what you'll need for each dish. This takes two or three minutes and makes all the difference.

Fresh herbs are important too. Don't forget that fresh coriander is different from (and complimentary to) dried coriander (which is the seeds), etc.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:46 PM on January 14, 2004

I'll second the Madhur Jaffrey mention. Last weekend I was lamenting the lack of good indian places in my city to a friend, who just received Jaffrey's vegetarian cookbook for xmas. Saturday night he made an indian meal with three different dishes made from scratch (it was some daal, aloo gobi, and some cabbage thing) that was fantastic, and it was the first time he's ever cooked indian food. I mean it really tasted like food from a fine indian restuarant.
posted by mathowie at 7:20 PM on January 14, 2004

This is the best curry powder I've ever used (I've cooked a lot of curries). It's cheap, so you can experiment. The absolute key to using this powder is to roast/sautee it in excessive amounts of oil.

Thus, to cook an Indian curry sauce quite quickly:
- Finely chop an med-large onion, fry on medium-high heat in plenty of olive oil (should use ghee). Fry until the onion goes quite brown
- Add finely chopped cloves of garlic (3-4, I use more cuz I like garlic), fry for 1-2 minutes more
- Add *more* oil and then spoon in 1-2 ounces of the powder (i.e. about half a tin). As you do, stir everything around, wok style. The trick is to have the powder absorbed and roasted by the hot oil, while it coats the onions.
- Add more powder/oil until the chopped onions are mixed together with the curry/oily paste; but don't roast the powder for more than 2-3 minutes altogether. You can smell when the powder is burning too much.
- Quickly dump in a can of (organic) chopped tomatoes, or if you want to be fancy, fresh chopped toms (tastes better), and add additional water, to get a soupy consistency (if you do use fresh toms chop them small)
- Add, to taste: salt/soy sauce; instant stock (I use classy Swiss vegetable instant bouillon); honey in small amounts
- Boil. Reduce. Blend.
- Add bay leaves and bring back to boil.

You can then use the sauce with whatever you want. It tastes much better the next day. You gotta practice with it though; YMMV ;-)
posted by carter at 8:21 PM on January 14, 2004 [1 favorite]

Start small. If you can fry onions and curry powder in oil, dump in boiled chickpeas, turn off heat, and stir in sour cream, you're off and running! For some junior-grade recipes, check out some hippie cookbooks (Laurel's Kitchen, Moosewood, etc). These freqently draw on Indian cuisine, but cater to a more white American audience. This one has a fantastic Naan recipe.
posted by scarabic at 8:46 PM on January 14, 2004

I love curry.

I made a batch of homemade curry powder for a friend for Christmas.

Here's my favorite curry recipe. It's super easy.

Peter's Butter Chicken

First, toast your curry powder mixture in your pan, then set aside. I like to use the Maharajah mixture from Penzeys. Fry one small onion in about 4 tablespoons olive oil or ghee until translucent. Lightly coat two chicken breasts with some garam masala, a little curry powder and some salt and pepper, then grill it on a small grill. Then cut your cooked chicken into small pieces. Add to the onion. Add about a half cup peas. Add in your toasted curry powder and a little garam masala. I prefer Priya brand garam masala. Then add 2 cups plain yogurt, 2 cups chicken stock, and 4 tablespoons of V8 juice. Believe it or not, that's the secret. It adds a light hint of tomato without going overboard, which is nice for this dish. Cook for about an hour over a medium heat. Serve over jasmine rice or with some naan.
posted by geekhorde at 9:30 PM on January 14, 2004

Ok, I am an Indian, born and brought up in Bombay, so please bear that in mind as you read the following.

In my opinion none of the popular Indian authors do any justice to the Indian cuisine. Personally I'd recommend avoiding Tarla Dalal's cook books, her recipies are um very Martha Stewart-esque.

Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks are ok, but her stuff is too westernised, and for most Indians it would be too bland.

Not all Indian food is spicy, and not all Indian food is healthy.

There is no such thing as a "curry" in India, we have curry powder, but what Americans, Brits and everyone else calls curry is just gravvy back home. You can't really pick one and say "This is curry." Growing up in Bombay, the only thing that was called "curry" was a Sindhi lentil soup that they have with rice and potato fritters, and I know for sure that it's not the curry everyone else refers to.

My mom, when using pre-mixed spices, usually uses MDH brand powders such as Sambar powder (South Indian lentil soup), Pav Bhaji powder (Popular junk food from the beaches of Bombay, it's like chilli, but vegetarian), Cholay (Spicey chick peas), etc. If you can't find MDH, use Everest.

Buy a pack of "Chat masala" powder mix, you can use it for so many things, add a pinch to your lemonade to make it Indian style, sprinkle some on top of salads, or raita (yogurt with vegetables or crisps mixed into it).

Go to Indian run grocery stores in your area, and buy the ingredients there. It might be daunting at first, but you'll get the hang of it eventually.

The green sauce (depending on the place, made from mint or corriander) that they serve in restaurants is just that a sauce, you use it to dip appetizers and papad (prior to your main course) in it. The same applies to the sweet red sauce (made from dates). Don't dip your Indian bread in that! :)

Use your hands when eating Indian food, there's no shame in using your hands. Traditionally you only use your right hand (left hand for lefties), and use the left hand (right for lefties) to serve food to your plate or pass the food around. You break the Indian bread into little pieces and scoop up the veggies with it.

Most Indian desserts are meant to be consumed during the main course. This especially holds true for gulab jamun, ras-gullas, halwa, kheer, etc.

Indian cuisine is broken up by regions. The Bengali cuisine is fish based. The Konkani (Goa and coastal Maharashtra) cuise is also fish based.

South Indian cusine tends to be rice based. Idlis, dosas, medu vada, uttapams and umpa are part of South Indian breakfast, and are served with sambar (lentil soup) and a coconut chutney (chutney = sauce), that act as dips. Although originally meant for breakfast, they are incredibly popular as lunch and dinner too. I love South Indian breakfast.

North Indian cuisine is wheat based, you have naans, parathas, kulchas, rotis and pooris (various Indian breads) with vegetables (curries) such as Malia Kofta, Dum Aloo, Aloo Palak, Aloo Matar, Aloo Gobi, Navratan Korma, etc. Non-veg dishes (curries) like Tandori chicken, Tandori ghost (Ghost = lamb), etc.

Gujarati: Gujarati cuisine is incredibly popular amongst Indians, although I am not sure why! :) I am a Gujarati, and I've never been a fan of Gujju food. If you find a place that serves "Undhiyu" do try it! Also "Dhoklas" are great.

Undhiyu is a dish made from a mix of I think 7 vegetables, everyone but me seems to love it.

Dhoklas are chickpea based steamed um soft puffs, usually yellow or white.

Gujarati phulka rotis are by far the best form of rotis in India. The Gujarati rotis are thinner than their North Indian cousins, and they puff up when cooked, they're topped with ghee, and they're absolutely delicious with Alphonso pulp (Alphonso is the king of mangoes, and mangoes are the king of fruits).

Gujarat is a state north of Maharastra, where Bombay is located. Gujarat is where Mahatma Gandhi was from, and his ashram is based there, in fact it's state capital is Gandhinagar (Gandhi's town). Post independence, Gujarat and Maharashtra were one state called as Bombay, with Bombay (city) as it's capital, but in the '50s they split into two, with Gujarat being the northern region, consisting of people whose mother tongue was Gujarati, and Maharashtra being the southern half, which is home to Bombay, and Pune, and all the people whose mother tongue is Maharashtrian. Gujju is an Indian slang for Gujarati, might be offensive to some, but it's just a short form of Gujarati.

Another quick brief explanation about the Indian ways: While I was born in Bombay, in the state of Maharashtra, I am not a Maharashtrian, I am a Gujarati, because my mother tongue is Gujarati. So it's not like how everyone living in New York is a New Yorker.

When ordering at an Indian restaurant, if you're not used to spicy food, add the suffix "Mildly spicy" to every entree ordered. "Medium spicy" is usually just right, but it might too much for Western palates.

Um if you have questions about Indian food, vegetarian Indian food, feel free to email me, I should add that while my mom's a great cook, I don't cook um at all, so I don't know recipes, but I do know what stuff my mom uses in her preparations, so I could help you out with that! And of course help you figure out what to get at an Indian restaurant :)
posted by riffola at 9:53 PM on January 14, 2004 [8 favorites]

That should be Gosht not Ghost for lamb :)
posted by riffola at 9:56 PM on January 14, 2004

Regarding powders, MTR is another acceptable brand.
posted by riffola at 9:59 PM on January 14, 2004

Now that's comprehensive.Nice one riffola.

If you like a short cut I recommend Pataks
posted by johnny7 at 1:02 AM on January 15, 2004

I use Pataks, and would recommend it also.

I bow before Riffola's superior knowledge.
posted by Blue Stone at 4:47 AM on January 15, 2004

I highly recommend buying small quantities of individual spices to familiarize yourself with their tastes, but if you want to try out some pre-blended spices, I can also vouch for MDH. They're good quality, well balanced, and lend themselves very well outside of Indian cooking, too.

One word of warning - "hot" in Indian cuisine may be brain-searing to many Westerners. Keep that in mind as you purchase any dish or ingredient.

Oh, and Riffy's being rather modest. Not only is his mom a great cook, but she's also authored multiple cookbooks. His knowledge is vast and bona fide.
posted by boomchicka at 5:53 AM on January 15, 2004

There's a pretty non-intimidating Indian grocery I can refer you to. They have lots of pre-mixed stuff, chutneys, spices. Plus they have a small restaurant in back that offers cooking classes for cheap. I haven't been able to find a listing for it, though. It's at Loehman's plaza on Arlington Blvd., just inside the beltway. The store is at the extreme opposite end of the strip mall from the Loehman's, near the movie theater (that most people don't even know exists).
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:39 AM on January 15, 2004

Not sure if I can adequately follow riffola, but am also ehtnically Indian and cook indian food most every day, so here goes.

I use and recommend the MTR brand of mixed spices, and buy them online when I can't get to the Indian store. I would steer people away from using a standard 'garam masala' (literally, hot spices) or curry powder (as riffola said, there's really no such thing)- Pav bhaji, Chole or Chat masalas are a good place to start.

The key to Indian (any?) cooking is fresh ingredients. A favorite quick spicy side is a gujju dish called 'Sambharo'
Heat canola or maize oil (not olive oil) , and when it is very hot, drop in a pinch of mustard seeds. When they start to pop, add a chilli pepper (choose a spice level to suit you) slixed lengthways. fry for a couple of mins, and add
fresh thinly sliced cabbage and carrots. Add salt to taste and a pinch of tumeric powder, and serve with any meal. It jazzes up rice/daal, makes a sandwich filling... and it's healthy
posted by darsh at 9:21 AM on January 15, 2004

To start yourself off, why not just identify the dish (or perhaps 2) you want to cook and just get the ingredients specific to that? If they keep great (and using the tips already given of course), you have the basis for your collection, if not then well there's no disadvantage in comparison with having bought everything at once.
(I'm smugly going to mention that I'm off to India in two weeks and intend to find out for myself just how different Indian food is to the stuff we get in restaurants here in the UK by stuffing myself like a pig.)
posted by biffa at 9:38 AM on January 15, 2004

Off-topic, but I don't really want to start a whole thread for it, and since riffola is here already (great comment!):

Traditionally you only use your right hand (left hand for lefties)

Is this true? My impression was that in eat-with-the-right-hand societies, it was socially unacceptable to use the left, and since there's no way to know who's a lefty (and lefties tend to be stigmatized and forced to convert early anyway), I would have thought that lefties would have to eat with the right to avoid glares or worse.
posted by languagehat at 10:17 AM on January 15, 2004

languagehat, all the lefties I've know back home eat with their left hand. I guess it might also be because I am from Bombay, where traditions are easily bent to fit the times. I don't know really, I always thought it was etiquette based on hygiene.

As for my mum's cookbooks, they are only sold in India, and all previous books are currently out of print. Her next book will be out in a month or so, but it's in Gujarati, we're not yet sure if it will be published in English later on.
posted by riffola at 11:01 AM on January 15, 2004

People in Chennai (formerly called Madras, on the southeast coast) definitely thought I was weird for eating with my left hand. I thought they were weird for not using toilet paper. We came to an understanding -- it's certainly a practical tradition.

Thanks riffola for the food insights. I was going to list the stores in Boston where I've purchased spices, but I found this site which lists Indian groceries all over the country. Hopefully that will be helpful to some in their Indian cooking pursuits.
posted by VulcanMike at 1:48 PM on January 15, 2004

Response by poster: Awesome thread folks. I appreciate everyone's input. I can probably use a piece of advice from each of you... which I think is pretty neat. Thanks!

Feel free to keep it going.
posted by Witty at 7:40 PM on January 15, 2004

I would love to know how to make the green (tastes like coriander to me) and red (sweet) sauces that comes with my samosas when I order Indian food. I've poked around looking for recipes for a few years now and had no luck. Do the restaurants buy them already prepared?
posted by Melinika at 3:05 AM on January 16, 2004

There's a bunch of ways to make green chutney. Some like to use coriander and peanuts, some like to use coriander and coconut, and some prefer all three. The red (date/kahjoor) chutney is also fairly easy, once you get past preparing the dates.

One of my favourite snacks is green chutney sandwich with slices of tomato, cucumber, and boiled potato, sprinkled with just a lil fresh chat masala. The green chutney sandwich is India's equivalent to peanut butter sandwich, while meant for snacks, often had as dinner or lunch. You can make really great veggie club sandwiches with it too. The best veggie club in Mumbai is available from a streetside vendor near Mithibai college, they use 3 slices of bread, green chutney, boiled and mashed potatoes, finely chopped bell peppers, onions, tomato, some cheese (if needed), butter, and chat masala. Oh and tomato ketchup. In fact as odd as it sounds, regular green chutney sandwich with one little drop of tomato ketchup on top of each piece tastes great.
posted by riffola at 3:49 AM on January 16, 2004

I forgot to add that you lightly butter the bread before applying the chutney to it.
posted by riffola at 3:52 AM on January 16, 2004

I'm not sure what chutney is being served with your samosas, Melinika, but I'd recommend Mint chutney (it's got coriander in it too). Apart from the obvious smell, mint chutney is light green, and more liquidy than regular coriander chutney, which has a definite texture to it.
posted by riffola at 3:58 AM on January 16, 2004

Witty, I was in your situation once. Rather than buying a million ingredients at once, I'd suggest finding a few recipes that you want to try, then buying what you need to make those. After a few rounds of that, you should have a well-stocked spice cabinet.

One useful resource is The Indian Grocery Store Demystified, which lists and describes the unfamiliar ingredients that you're likely to encounter. I can't really vouch for it, though; I had an Indian coworker take me to his favorite grocery and show me around.

Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking has some very nice recipes that are easy and fast to prepare, including several dals that I cook all the time. The recipes in this book are reasonably authentic, according to the aforementioned Indian coworker, and very tasty.
posted by Hegemonic at 9:24 AM on January 16, 2004

Anyone know a good recipe for chai?

Lately, I've been trying to make a good cup of chai and found a recipe at the Enthusiast's Online Chai Resource. I used green cardamom pods, whole black peppers, cloves, cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds ginger and assam tea, all of which I bought in small quantities at a natural food store. It wasn't very good; too much of something and not enough of another. I went to Nagina's, a really great Indian restaurant in Ottawa, and asked how to make a decent cup of chai. For one cup, I was told to put in 1 cardamom and 1 clove in water to boil. Add milk and heat. I tried it and it was only okay, it didn't have the "depth" of chai that I've tasted before.
posted by KathyK at 9:35 AM on January 16, 2004

If you don't have easy access to Indian spices, The Spice House is an excellent source for your needs. Everything is fresh-ground and sent to you.
posted by me3dia at 10:15 AM on January 16, 2004

Kathy, chai should be simple, in my opinion. Start with a good tea (Assam is a good choice), fresh cloves and coriander. Crush the coriander and clove. I prefer to use whole milk or even light (5% mf) cream, but I'm a sucker for milk fat. A pinch of palm or demarra sugar doesn't go wrong either. I've tried adding nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon, but they don't too much for me. A little pepper can be interesting.

Nagina's eh? I'll have to remember it. My favourite Indian in town is the Little India Cafe on Richmond Road. Reserve if you go, 'cause they're always full.
posted by bonehead at 2:11 PM on January 16, 2004

coriander for cardamom. darn, darn, darn.
posted by bonehead at 2:15 PM on January 16, 2004

Riffy, the green sauce I'm talking about is like green watery applesauce in texture, with a definite overpowering cilantro scent and flavor. I had to get used to it but once I did, I really dig it in small doses.

Sorry about being so vague with the sauces, but I've been to a handful of Indian spots in a couple states and they all served the same sauces with my samosas (mmmm addiction) and I thought they were sort of universal. Like how you can usually find the same menu items in different Chinese take-outs.

Thanks so much for the info and recipe links! =) And I really want to try that sandwich. It sounds intriguing.
posted by Melinika at 6:30 AM on January 17, 2004

It's the mint and coriander/cilantro sauce. They water it down a lil more than the home made kind. You don't get it in bottles, because I don't think it's got a long enough shelf life.

For the sandwich just use the coriander chutney. For the samosas, pakoras, etc use the mint and coriander chutney.
posted by riffola at 9:11 AM on January 17, 2004

The best vegetarian north Indian food in Northern Virginia is at Haandi on route 7 in Falls Church. For tasty, cheap south Indian food check out Amma Vegetarian in Vienna. You may hear good things about Bombay Bistro, but the vegetarian stuff is nothing to write home about. Maybe the meat is good, but I can't figure out what the big deal is. You'll also find tasty dishes at Connaught Place in Fairfax City that you won't see at your average north Indian restaurant.

I'm going to reiterate the praise for Madhur Jaffrey's cookbook, quoting at length a review that captures all of its strong points:
It's not just that the recipies are outstandingly yummy, nor is it that they are generally easy to make, it's not even that they are surprisingly robust and take well to substitutions and's all of these!

Everyone I've introduced to this book has a favorite that they'll whip out for special occasions as much as for a hurried dinner. Each person found at least one (typically more) recipie that they really like to eat and really like to make and can make and modify with ease.

The best part is that there's almost no overlap. Invariably, the first time someone cooks for me after getting this book, they're favorite is something I hadn't noticed before.

It works especially well for starter chefs. Jaffrey is a warm, lively, and friendly writer, who resonates well with people unsure of their cooking ability. And, with those who are, for that matter.

I can't overstate the robustness and flexibility of her recipies, which is essential for a chef like me. I am definitely not one of those finicky, precise, level measure type cooks. I'm much more the "Oh, was that only ateaspoon of cayanne? Oh well." sort.
And finally to get answer the question: You'll find that with some ground cumin, ground coriander, garam masala, brown mustard seeds and powdered cayenne pepper on hand, you will be able to turn any reasonable combination of onions, garlic, potatoes, peas, cauliflower, eggplant, chick peas, spinach, and tomatoes into a delicious entree. (Don't forget to put the rice on.)
posted by sudama at 8:51 AM on January 18, 2004

Oh, and turmeric of course.
posted by sudama at 8:52 AM on January 18, 2004

Indian food from scratch takes some learning, but it can be done. For shortcuts, I agree with the others about Pataks. Generally, I will "doctor" a Patak's a little, by putting about a tablespoon of curry powder and about a teaspoon of garam marsala in the butter/oil mixture I'm frying my onions and meat in. Curry powder is meant to be fried for a couple of minutes for it to taste right. I'm not sure if it's really authentic to toss in the garam marsala with the curry powder - but it's good (garam marsala is basically just some extra cardamom, cloves, cumin, and cinnamon - maybe with a bit of nutmeg and/or fennugeek.) Personally, I like a kick, so I also add a good sprinkle of dried chile flakes near the end of the cooking.

I also can recommend the Culpeper range of curry mixes. They are a British herbalist who deal only in fresh and natural ingredients. Most of their curry mixes call for you to fry the spices and then add yogurt. The recipes are on each box, and haven't changed since Victorian times.
I also agree about The Spice House - great shop, good quality, and good prices. Even the Whole Foods curry powders sold in the bulk section are fairly decent and fresh.
posted by sixdifferentways at 10:34 PM on January 18, 2004

I'm very fond of "Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian," too--not just Indian but all kinds of cuisines, with clear instructions and almost invariably tasty results (to my slightly timid American palate).

Also, the advantage of Indian groceries is that they tend to be incredibly inexpensive--you can get enormous bags of staples for a dollar or two.

When I make Indian-based food, I find myself often reaching for turmeric, mustard seeds, fresh curry leaves, and (sometimes) dried coconut and/or fenugreek seeds.
posted by 88robots at 2:51 PM on January 19, 2004

My Chai:
Bring 2 cups of water to boil
Turn off heat, and add 8 cloves, 8 cardamon pods, one cinnamon stick. Let steep 10 minutes (10 whole minutes--don't rush it).
Add one cup whole milk, and bring slowly back to boil. That's the secret, I think--to cook the milk.
Turn off heat, rip open two packets of tea and pour in, and let steep 4 minutes.
Strain, sweeten, drink, repeat!
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:56 AM on January 20, 2004 [6 favorites]

The Bradford Curry Guide
posted by vbfg at 9:26 AM on January 22, 2004

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