An amateur cook’s guide to get started on Indian cooking

I have zero knowledge of formal cooking . I admire people who do . I have wanted to start a restaurant many times in my life and have either chickened out or been talked out by friends . That said – I absolutely enjoy cooking Indian food (especially from Kerala where I was born and raised) . Since people routinely ask me about how to make Indian food – here is a post to help you get started over the holiday season . My apologies to my vegetarian friends – I will try to do one on vegetarian dishes later .

You need a few basic utensils

1. The best knife set you can afford . At a minimum see if you can invest in a good chef’s knife . At holiday time , you can get one for little over $100 . Pick up a large cutting board as well . A good knife makes cooking enjoyable and a bad one makes you order delivery .

2. At least one each of good quality non stick pan , a cast iron skillet and a non stick pressure cooker . When it comes to frying fish or egg plants – I prefer cast iron .

3. Cooking over gas is infinitely better for the dishes I routinely make . When we moved from our first house – we wouldn’t buy really good houses only because they had electric cook tops 🙂 .

4. You will need two blenders – what we call “mixie” in India . A large one for blending curry bases and a small one for grinding the spice mixes

It’s mostly about the spices

To the best I can say from my 45 years of eating it – Indian cooking doesn’t care for things like the actual taste of meat or fish . I am only half joking here . Smell , taste , color etc that we think of as great all come from judicious use of spices . When we say “this chicken curry tastes good” – it means the poultry is well done and we love all the other things that went into it . If what you remember is the chicken itself – the chef has generally failed . You get the idea 🙂

Also – all meat is well done . Rare and medium rare largely don’t exist for Indian cuisine .

The exception to preference for spice dominance is mostly when it comes to vegetables . They get a lot more care and attention than the meat and is generally considered a first class citizen like spices .

Let’s just say I cook much less vegetables than meat dishes . I don’t have the level of skill to make them as well as I could cook meat and fish .

Basic shopping list

1. Onions and tomatoes – vast majority of dishes use both . Don’t worry about expensive versions – you will cook them so much that it won’t retain much of original flavor when used in meat dishes . It’s for texture and body largely – with a few exceptions

2. Ginger and garlic . Tastes infinitely better when used fresh . But you can get a 25% as good version in bottles at groceries

3. Green chilies , lemon, curry leaves , cilantro and mint . Most cooking will need at least two . Many of us grow all of them in our yard

4. Yoghurt . Again – if you can make at home that’s awesome . But unlike with ginger and garlic , what you buy from stores is fine in this case

5. Cooking oil . Regular canola is fine . For regional cuisine – you will need coconut oil , peanut oil and so on . A small bottle of ghee is a nice to have addition

6. Mustard seeds , cumin seeds , dry red chillies

Optional : Coconut milk , cashew , peanuts , almonds

Minimum spices

1. The holy trinity – Chili powder , coriander powder and turmeric powder . Kashmiri chili powder gives color more than heat . Buy these from Indian stores – the one you get from Walmart doesn’t stand up to Indian cooking

2. Whole Garam masala – a whole mix of assorted spices like bay leaves , cardamom , cloves , pepper corns , coriander seeds etc . Take the help of an Indian friend (ideally become friends with their moms to get a home made mix ) to source this . You can make a small batch of powdered garam masala by lightly roasting the mix and then grinding it . Again – in a pinch you can use the prepackaged version which doesn’t pack even half the punch

Spices don’t last a long time . So buy in small quantities, keep them in airtight containers and throw away what doesn’t give a great aroma when you open the pack .

Remember that dried spices pack more punch than fresh ones . A little goes a long way . You only need half of less of dried spice if you are substituting for fresh ones . If you are new to Indian cooking – err on the side of using less and work your way up .

As you gain experience with spices – you will learn to categorize them such as earthy , medium and aromatic . This doesn’t matter till you gain mastery .

The basic meat dish in ten steps

1. Marinate the meat/poultry in the holy trinity (turmeric, coriander, chili powder) , salt, ginger garlic paste and some acid – lemon juice is my favorite . Yoghurt is great too . Longer you do it the better . Aim for a minimum thirty mins though .

2. Except for beef – cooking with bones is the best way to get maximum flavor . You can pressure cook the meat to gain efficiency – so a cheaper cut of meat is totally fine for most regular dishes . Low and slow gets you lot more flavor – but that only works when you have time .

3. Most normal cooking is easily accomplished in a non stick pan with a lid . When temperature nuances come into play – you may need cast iron .

4. Add two spoons of cooking oil to the pan and put some mustard seeds into it . When it splutters , you know it’s time to start adding the rest . You generally should avoid the max flame setting when cooking with non stick pans

5. Add green chilies , and ginger garlic paste first . Optionally add some curry leaves if you like the Kerala version . Do it on low flame – if you burn things it will taste really bad . This is where you can add some whole garam masala .

6. Then add chopped onions . How you slice is totally up to you . Don’t worry about knife skills if you are going to blend the gravy anyway . A bit of salt at this stage will help draw out the moisture from the onions . Don’t brown the onions – you only need them to change from their original color to a translucent level .

7. Now comes the holy trinity – which all should be added with low heat . Start with a very small amount of turmeric . Cook it for less than a minute . Then hit it with coriander powder – which is what really gives the curry flavor . For a whole chicken of three pounds , the most you will need is about three teaspoons . Cook it down . The mix will turn brown at this point . The last part is where you add red chili powder . If you cook it for long – your dish will be largely brown in color . The later you add the Kashmiri chili , the redder the end result . If you need more heat – don’t bet of Kashmiri chili to bring it . Use the hot version first and then add the Kashmiri chili

8. At this point – add the chopped tomatoes . Tomatoes bring a sour note to balance out the heat .

Judging the water content – you may want to add a half cup of water to the mix at this point . Close the lid and let it simmer till the whole thing is a red liquid with cleared oil on top – which will take maybe less than ten mins . Depending on whether you like the gravy smooth or with more texture – you can decide to blend it at this point . With red meat – I also add some chopped mint at this point . Now will be a good time to add more salt as needed .

9. To this mix – add the marinated meat . If you have the time – you can brown the marinated meat for a few mins before adding the red liquid you created for gravy . Now cover and cook till meat is done . Again, if the meat is a tough cut – you can pressure cook the marinated meat before you add it to the liquid . Finally add a little bit of freshly roasted and ground garam masala and stir it in .

Your basic curry is ready at this point !

10. Now you have a few options for “value add” to your basic curry . You can thicken the gravy with coconut milk . If you prefer a richer flavor – you can soak some cashew and/or almonds and blend it to a paste in water or milk and add it to the finished curry and cook for a few mins . The third option is adding heavy cream . Always remember that these things all bring down the heat level as well . So if you like it spicy – you may want it extra spicy to begin with then bring it down a notch with the cashew paste or cream . If you like a bit more of sweetness – soak raisins and blend it with cream and add to the dish .

If the heat level went down a bit – don’t try to add chili powder again . You will ruin it . Switch to crushed pepper . Pepper used early in cooking tends to burn – so if at all I am using it , I use it at the end .

Now comes the magical finishing touch . Warm up a little ghee – add some cumin seeds to it (optional additions – curry leaves and red whole chillies in those cases where you don’t add cream etc ). When it splutters , put it on the curry . The aroma goes through the roof ! Chopped cilantro on top is a nice garnish for all dishes . Adds to the aroma too !

A simple pilaf to go with it

1. Warm up some ghee , add some cumin seeds, whole garam masala and sauté some frozen green peas and carrots . You can pick up a bag of mixed peas/carrots/corn from the local grocery .

2. Add left over rice to it . I prefer basmati but any rice is fine really . The point is that it shouldn’t be freshly made or hot . Add some salt and pepper to taste . I do this at high flame for a few mins

3. Optional : dump a small can of coconut milk into it and stir it in . Also from the value add category – add lightly roasted cashew on top , fried onions and chopped cilantro

The whole thing takes ten minutes and smells and tastes heavenly .

Give it a try and let me know how it turned out . Happy holidays !


Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

7 thoughts on “An amateur cook’s guide to get started on Indian cooking

  1. Fantastic blog on how to prepare Indian cuisine with explanations of traditional.. you are rocking in everything not only with technology 👏👏👏


  2. Vijay, who says you have zero knowledge of formal cooking. Amazing recipe’s, I am ready to fly to Phoenix for tasting 🙂 🙂


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