This post was motivated by an email I received recently by a reader who saw my Madras lentils post and requested a similar copycat recipe for the Tasty Bite yellow lentils. She explained that her spouse is from India and she wants to learn how to cook Indian cook, even though, she said, she's not much of a cook in the first place.
This email exchange got me thinking about how daunting it can be for someone to learn how to cook a whole new cuisine. Especially one that is as complex as Indian cuisine, with its legion regional variations, ingredients and techniques.
People new to Indian cooking may be at different starting points. Some may be familiar with Indian food and flavors because they grew up in India, or grew up outside India but in a family with Indian ancestry. Others may have a Indian partner or friend, or may have simply encountered Indian food in restaurants or the home of friends and be inspired to create it themselves.
I believe in baby steps. You do one small thing, build confidence and go from there, collecting skills and spices, recipes and ingredients along the way. And so - where to begin?
You need to start somewhere and here I present 12 ways to get started. One or two of these will likely resonate with just about every aspiring Indian cook.
1. Start with a no-cook recipe: One way to start cooking Indian food is by not cooking at all! Do some simple chopping and assembly instead.
- Make a raita or yogurt salad by mixing chopped tomatoes and cucumbers and shredded carrots with plain yogurt. Season with salt and garnish with minced cilantro and/ or mint.
- Make chutney sandwiches. Buy mint chutney from an Indian store or zhoug sauce from Trader Joe's. Assemble sandwiches with buttered bread spread with the chutney and loaded with thinly sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. A shower of salt and pepper brings the flavors together.
- Peas pulao is a simple side dish that needs only a handful of ingredients. Rice + Cumin seeds + Salt + Frozen peas + Water -> Cook in rice cooker or on stove top = Peas pulao
- For inspiration, here's a round-up of the Less is More food blog event, featuring dozens of Indian recipes that call for 5 or fewer ingredients.
- Soak 2 cups split peas for 4-8 hours. You could use split yellow peas from American supermarkets or buy chana dal or toor dal from Indian grocery stores or online. They will cook faster when soaked. If you don't have time, just rinse them.
- Heat 1 tbsp. sunflower oil (or any neutral oil)
- When oil is hot, add 1 tsp. each mustard seeds and cumin seeds (seeds will pop)
- Add 2 tsp. salt (or to taste), 1 tsp. each turmeric and ground red chili peppers, and 1-2 tbsp. minced garlic and fry for a minute
- Add 2-3 tbsp. tomato paste
- Add soaked split peas and 4 cups water (or more, water should be a couple inches above the level of the peas)
- Cook until lentils are very tender (falling apart)
- An instant pot or pressure cooker makes it really fast. Cooking on the stove top will also work, of course.
- Ingredients that are not listed could make the dal more flavorful. You could add onion and ginger in step 4 for added flavor.
- After cooking, I highly suggest tasting and adding more salt as needed.
- Add lemon/lime juice and cilantro and a knob of butter or bit of ghee (or vegan butter or coconut oil if vegan) to finish off the dal.
What did I miss? What advice do you have for someone who is new to Indian cooking?