Preparing authentic Indian food from scratch doesn’t always seem easy. The fearsome prospect of masala, ghee and amchoor, those mysterious goods in relatively huge bags, can have the would-be chef running for the takeaway menu or the jar of Uncle Ben’s.
The truth, however, is that it’s not as complex as it looks. Indian food uses a wide range of spices, seasonings and seeds, but the same ones are used across a great many of the dishes. A little preparation and a well-stocked cupboard will leave you with everything you need to hand, no matter what the recipe.
Stock up on spices…
The first thing to think about is your spice rack. These sixteen basics will cover the majority of Indian meals, and most of them can be found in a decent-sized supermarket or bought in bulk online.
The yellow powder’s what you’re looking for here. Some recipes might demand black cumin, which is a little more expensive and a little less commonplace, but nine times out of ten the regular kind will do.
- Coriander (ground, whole seed and leaf)
Coriander is the most versatile and most widely-used herb and spice in Indian cooking. The green leaves, chopped finely, add flavour to curries and a warm garnish to finished meals; the ground beige seeds are a spice in their own right and a key ingredient in garam masala.
- Mustard seeds
- Garam Masala
- Chilli powder
Buy your red chilli powder pre-ground; grinding your own isn’t worth the hassle and sneezing.
- Green chillies
The smaller they are, the hotter they’ll be. Grind them with water and freeze them as ice cubes if you’re buying in bulk; they’re past their best after a week or so.
- Cardamom (green and black)
- Black pepper
Buy cinnamon sticks; they can be ground to powder for seasoning, or broken to bits and added straight to dishes
Fresh ginger is best if it’s plump and taut to touch. As with the chillies, you can grind this, mash it with water and freeze it for later; otherwise, keep it somewhere dark and airy.
- Bay leaves
- Methi (fenugreek)
Buy them whole for freshness’ sake. When you need some, whack one with a rolling pin and grind it down.
With those laid in, you’re ready to make garam masala, the bedrock of Indian cooking. Garam means ‘hot’ and masala ‘mixture’, but the heat here isn’t one you taste; it’s derived from the philosophy of tridosha, which teaches that some foods have a warming effect on the body as a whole.
Take a tablespoon of coriander seeds, a tablespoon of cumin, a teaspoonful each of cloves, black pepper and green cardamom. Add two sticks of cinnamon, two bay leaves, half a small nutmeg and four black cardamoms. Grind the whole lot together – restaurateur Kris Dhillon suggests a coffee grinder – and you’ll have about three tablespoonfuls of a basic garam masala, ready to go. (Don’t tie yourself to this one forever, though; there are hundreds of regional variants, old family recipes and glorious spicy experiments to try.) Double or treble that up and you’re pretty much covered for spices.
For the rest of your pantry, check out the list of flours, legumes and fats that Zoe Perrett recommends, and don’t think you have to have everything. Quick masoor and versatile urid will be fine for lentils; gram, white and wholewheat flours will cover you for bread. Basmati rice and egg noodles provide your carbs, and ghee, coconut milk and a couple of nut oils (peanut and sesame are your esteemed author’s choice) the base for your sauces. Have vegetable oil and tomato paste on standby, and you’re practically done already.
It seems like a long list, but the beauty of Indian cooking is that nine tenths of the effort’s in the preparation. Once you have the stores laid in, an afternoon’s work can leave you with a week’s sauces, marinades and sides. The combinations are endless and the results well worth the effort.