Thursday, April 20, 2023

12 Ways to Start Cooking Indian Food

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. 
2. Start with a recipe with fewer than 5 ingredients: Sometimes a long list of ingredients is intimidating. 
    • 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.
3. Start with a favorite packaged food: Lentil based packaged meals are very easy to recreate at home. If you're buying Tasty bite lentil packs on repeat, consider making it at home using a recipe that uses similar ingredients. Looking at the ingredient list from the package, here's how I would make this dish
    • 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. 
                4. Start with a favorite restaurant dish: If you find yourself hitting the Indian buffet all too often, try a restaurant dish that is easy to recreate at home. Aloo gobi - a stir fry of potatoes and cauliflower- would be my recommendation for an easy first dish to make. 

                5. Start with a packaged spice mix: In my spice cabinet inventory post, I noted that how a well-made spice mix is a wonderful tool, allowing you to capture the right flavor that just "makes" the dish. Try buying a tandoori masala to make some tofu tikkas or paneer tikkas at home. Or a rasam mix that you add to tomatoes and yellow lentils to make a wonderful rasam or spicy lentil soup.

                6. Start with what you know: If you have established talents in the kitchen, extend them to Indian cooking. For instance, a bread baker could try making some naan at home. If you're a master griller, try grilling some kebabs. 

                7. Start with a semi-homemade approach: If you enjoy chaats in Indian restaurants, try building your own platter of chaat with canned chickpeas, store bought sweet and spicy chutneys, yogurt, packaged chaat masala, chopped onion and cilantro and store bought sev. If you enjoy the result and get comfortable with the process, you could try sprouting some beans or lentils

                8. Start with an appliance you own: If you have an appliance you love to use, look for recipes using it. A blender- even a basic one- can make mango lassi in seconds. If you are an Instant Pot or air fryer enthusiast, there are scores of great recipes out there. 

                9. Start with a book or a blog: If you find a blogger who speaks to you, browse their blog and try a few recipes. Most active bloggers are very happy to assist with questions and advice- I know I am. Books are incredible for flipping through to find tested recipes and inspiration. I wrote a post on a cookbook called 5 spices, 50 recipes. The premise of the book is that the author asks you to stock up on only five spices- coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, ground cayenne (what I know better as red chilli powder) and ground turmeric. Using just these 5 spices, plus other pantry staples like onions, tomatoes, ginger, garlic and perhaps just a couple of others like coconut milk and cilantro, the author offers 50 different recipes.

                10. Start with a video: Watching a video can be very helpful for visual learners, and especially for help with questions like "just how brown should browned onions get?" and the like. I confess that I don't use cooking videos often and don't have specific recommendations for this one. 

                11. Start with a cooking class: Learning in person is a very special experience. The Indian diaspora is everywhere and if you ask around, you're quite likely to find someone to teach you a few simple recipes in a formal or informal class. I know I've taught many cooking classes to friends, and it is always a fun experience all around. I teach a basic onion-tomato-cashew based curry sauce and some of my friends say it is now the basis of their signature dish that they make for company. 

                12. Start with a trip to an Indian grocery store: Visiting grocery stores is my favorite way to be transported in an afternoon, without a passport. Visiting an Indian grocery store- whether a big box one like Patel Brothers or any one of the smaller neighborhood ones- is fun and inspiring. You may pick up a pack of methi parathas and make omelet rolls for breakfast. You might find a tray of freshly made samosas for sale, which you can pair with a few packs of biscuits and chai made with masala tea bags for an instant tea party. 

                Just start somewhere and enjoy the journey! 

                What did I miss? What advice do you have for someone who is new to Indian cooking? 


                1. Start with a trusted formula. Sure, Indian food culture is incredibly rich but you can literally make a 100 vegetarian dishes with the same formula. Brown an onion, caramelize 4 Roma tomatoes, add 1t:1T:1T:1T:1T turmeric, chilli powder, coriander powder, cumin powder, salt, a squeeze of lemon, and a handful of cilantro and voila, it's your base for okra, potato, squash, green beans, paneer, tofu, chickpeas, beans, yellow lentils, what have you. It demystified Indian cooking for me as a grad student with zero cooking skills.

                  1. I love this! #13: Start with a trusted formula. You are so right that it is easy to learn variations on a basic recipe formula.

                  2. This is a very practical idea and I will pass it on to my kids too!

                2. I love all of these :) 5 spices, 50 dishes is great - my favorites are the Everyday Yellow Dal, Cabbage Stirfry and the Creamed Greens (basically palak paneer). I was also lucky enough to learn from you, and I still make the baked spiced okra and the greenbean potato patties!

                  1. Bek- It was so much fun cooking together! I do want to teach regular Indian cooking classes here. I need to fit it into my schedule somehow.

                3. Terrific post Nupur- one idea that I found helpful was using canned low-salt lentil soup and sauté the onions and spices and add to the soup. Easy and encouraging. ❤️

                  1. Thanks :) Glad you enjoyed the post. I love your idea of doctoring canned soup. From there it is easy to take the next step to dried supermarket lentils.

                  2. Forgot to add my name- Hi, it’s Terry here

                4. Hello Nupur! A big hello. I came to this post via a facebook post (to see how I might induce the bitter half to cook for me) only to realise it’s a blast from our past. Might you remember me? This is Jahnavi from H-11.

                5. Very nice post, Nupur. I'd also recommend that they start with foods they link and use 'indian' twists to it- for instance, make an omlette but indian style with onion, tomato, coriander etc. 'Indian-ish' by priya krishna is a v nice cookbook written for an American audience. Some of her recipes like dahi toast and the way she recommends integrating tadka to a variety of non indian dishes are very accessible for someone new to indian cooking

                  1. #14: Start with a familiar food and give it an Indian twist! I love your suggestion, Hamsini. Thanks for the book reco too.

                  2. How would you do an Indian twist to American/Western dishes? I've thought of this but feel like I sometimes fail in execution.

                6. Thank you for this, Nupur! Since your response to my initial email, asking about the Tasty Bites Yellow Dal, I've gotten quite comfortable making it, and it has made my husband quite happy. We actually made it together tonight :). I am grateful for your help and your enthusiasm for it. I plan to continue to follow you for sure.

                7. This is such a helpful list of ideas. I still feel a bit intimidated at cooking proper Indian food. I have made some amazing dishes but they are such a lot of work that I usually do something like dahl or curried sausages. I cook more Indianish food than Indian food.

                  I really like the person in the comments who suggested a formula of spices to begin with - I tend to do that if I am doing a lazy dahl or curry but I find that really good recipes often have different spice mixes, which is why they challenge me but also are so satisfying.

                  One thing that I find helpful if I wanted to impress with an Indian meal is to make a curry and buy lots of trimmings like naan bread and pickles and pakoras and yoghurt and chopping some simple tomato and cucumber.

                  1. Johanna- there's no such thing as proper Indian food and honestly it is a vast country and just about everything goes. Indianish food is great! I love how experimental you are in the kitchen anyway :)

                    Like you, I also like to put together semi-homemade meals where one or two dishes are made from scratch and augmented with easy sides and store-bought components.

                    Curried sausages- now that is new to me! Although Goa is a place in India where I am sure they make curried sausages.

                8. Lovely post as always with lots of useful information. I personally love the ideas of cooking simple dishes with less than 5 ingredients as you don't need to stock your pantry with a variety of spices etc., Some simple dishes like pulao, raita, papad, maybe a veggie/meat stir fry with basic ingredients (like a thoran etc.) can make up a wholesome meal. Come to think of it, khichdi is an easy option too. My go-to meal when I was living in a share-house fresh out of college was an everything khichdi which included lots of veggies, and was so easy to put together in a pressure cooker.

                9. Indian-ish is the book I would have written if I had written a cook book!

                10. Sounds like a grand old.time ! 9nyears to be away is a very long time! My sis and family are currently in India and been getting similar missives. One thing my nephews are obsessed with is trying American food in India.. things like the vegetarian " maharaja" Mac 🙄.indian subway etc. I guess they're familiar American staples yet so much closer to our spice spoiled lol palate ..the older fellow is obsessed with mangoes 🥭 in india ! Nothing to compare anywhere in the world I think to indian mangoes


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