Want to learn how to cook your favorite Indian dishes? You’re in the right place! Let me share the basics of Indian cooking to help you start exploring the vibrant and aromatic dishes of my childhood.
I love Indian food! I grew up cooking loads of Indian food – curries, biryani, pilau, vegetables – with my mum in our kitchen. The smell of spices reminds me of home.
Indian cooking is often seen as intimidating for beginners, but honestly, it’s a very comfortable, go-with-the-flow sort of cooking style that I thoroughly enjoy. There are a few basics that you need to know, and once you do, Indian cooking becomes easy and fun.
Just as many roads lead to Rome, there are many ways of cooking the same dish. Every Indian household does it a little differently depending on which part of India their ancestors are from, what produce is available locally, and personal preference.
My grandparents were from Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. In the 1930s, they migrated to Malaysia. I was born and raised here in Malaysia, but the food we cook and eat at home is still heavily influenced by South Indian flavors.
Thosai, idli, string hoppers, and fish curry are common staples in our household. North Indian delicacies such as chapati and naan are rarely made at home. Instead, we indulge in these treats when we eat out at North Indian restaurants.
So let me walk you through some basics of cooking Indian food, specifically South Indian food, the way my family and I do it at home. Armed with the basic of Indian cuisine, you can start to make your favorite Indian dishes right at home!
The Basics of Indian Cooking for Beginners
Why learn Indian cooking
If you’ve been thinking about learning how to cook Indian food, here’s a little motivation for you.
Here are some of the many reasons why I love cooking Indian food.
1. It’s vegetarian & vegan-friendly.
Vegan cheese and other dairy alternatives can sometimes cost a bomb. A handful of spices and fresh vegetables are a far more affordable option! Vegetarian Indian cooking is budget-friendly and incredibly flavorful.
This is the perfect cuisine to learn how to cook if you want to incorporate more plant-based meals into your diet without breaking the bank.
2. Cooking Indian food at home is cheaper & healthier than take out.
Restaurants tend to use a lot of oil and salt in their dishes. Cooking at home gives you more control over the amount of oil and salt that goes into your food.
Plus, Indian food can be pretty pricey, especially if you go to one of those posh Indian joints. Cooking your favorite dishes at home with humble, affordable ingredients allows you to save more.
3. It’s a great option for meal prep.
Did you know that a curry you make today tastes even better reheated tomorrow? By giving all those flavors time to meld and marry, you create the ultimate taste bomb!
In fact, I used to meal prep over the weekend back when I was in college. I’d make a big batch of chicken curry, and enjoy it throughout the week with rice and vegetables.
What you need for Indian cooking
Of course, to cook Indian food, you need aromatic spices!
You can get these spices at your local supermarket or Indian grocer.
Here are some of the key things you’ll need:
1. Whole spices
When it comes to the basics of Indian cooking, having the right spices in your pantry definitely tops the list.
Whole spices are usually used for tempering, and they impart great flavor.
The combination of spices that you should use will depend on the dish you’re making. We’ll talk more about this later. The whole spices you need in your pantry include:
2. Spice powders
You’ll also need a few ground spices, including:
In addition to the above spices, you’ll need a few other staples for Indian cooking, namely:
- Dried bay leaves. These are great in curries and biryani.
- Fresh coriander (cilantro). Added at the end as a garnish for a pop of color and flavor.
- Curry leaves.
- Red onions.
- Ginger & garlic. Ginger-garlic paste is used a lot in Indian cooking. You can make this at home by throwing in equal amounts of peeled garlic and ginger into a blender and blitzing. Store the paste in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.
- Yogurt. Yogurt is often used in marinades as it helps to tenderize meat. It’s also used to make raita (a popular Indian salad with vegetables, herbs and yogurt) as an accompaniment to biryani.
- Lentils. Lentils are another staple in Indian cooking. It’s the primary ingredient in dhal curry, popularly known as sambar in South Indian households. There are different types of lentils used in Indian cooking. However, to make things easier for myself, I often just get mysore dhal (red lentils). It cooks relatively fast, and I use it for everything!
- Rice. Basmati rice is great for making biryani or pilau. Parboiled rice is a healthier choice for everyday use.
What spices to use
Once you stock up on spices in your pantry, the next step is to learn which spices to use for different dishes.
When I was younger, my mum taught me a number of spice combinations that I use to this day. The whole spices that I use vary for meat, seafood, and vegetable dishes.
For meat dishes such as chicken or lamb, I use:
For vegetable dishes, I use:
- Mustard seeds
- Urad dhal
For seafood dishes such as fish and prawns, I use the same spice combination as vegetable dishes, plus a little fenugreek.
People often find Indian cooking intimidating because it involves a wide variety of spices. But once you know what spices to use, Indian cooking becomes less stressful and enjoyable!
How To Cook Indian Food For Beginners
Most Indian recipes follow certain basic steps. Once you master these steps, you’ll start to feel more confident experimenting in the kitchen and making each dish your own.
Here are the 5 basic steps of cooking Indian food for beginners.
1. Temper the spices
This is a crucial step in Indian cooking. To temper spices, heat some oil in a pot and add your whole spices. Sauté until fragrant. This step flavors the oil and lends a wonderful aroma to your dish.
When using mustard seeds, wait for them to pop before moving on to the next step.
2. Brown the onions
Next, add chopped onions and some salt. This is where patience is truly a virtue. You’ve got to let those onions brown!
I’m not the most patient person, so my mum always has to remind me to give it time.
“Onions are the base of the dish. Be patient and let it brown. It will taste better,” she would say whenever I impatiently want to move on to the next step.
So give your onions a good 8 to 10 minutes to nicely brown before adding the tomatoes.
3. Add tomatoes & spice powders
Once your onions have browned, the next step usually involves adding chopped tomatoes and spice powders.
I usually add tomatoes and a little more salt. When the tomatoes start to break down and become mushy, I add the spice powders.
If the mixture looks dry, add some water to prevent the spices from burning, and cook for a few minutes.
4. Add other ingredients
This is where you add other ingredients – meat, fish, or vegetables along with water/coconut milk – and allow to cook.
Once cooked, taste for salt and add more if needed.
5. Garnish with coriander
For me, this step is sacred! Nothing gives me greater joy than sprinkling heaps of chopped coriander onto a finished dish. It gives the dish such a wonderful pop of color and a fresh, earthy flavor.
These are the 5 steps that I follow for most of the Indian dishes that I cook at home.
Once you get comfortable with these basic steps, you can play around with the spice combinations and mix things up every time you’re in the kitchen.
How to make Indian cooking easier & quicker
Indian cooking often has a reputation for being tedious and time-consuming.
Sometimes, it can be. But as a lazy, impatient person, I’ve learned a few shortcuts to make cooking faster and easier for myself.
Here are some tips to make Indian cooking easier for beginners:
1. Adapt Indian cooking techniques to make one pot meals.
A traditional Indian meal usually consists of rice, curry, and a few vegetables. Making a variety of dishes on a busy weeknight can be pretty overwhelming.
Instead, use the 5 basic steps described above to make quick one-pot meals.
For example, my husband and I often make this one-pot rice and tuna recipe with a variety of spices and vegetables, that we enjoy over a bed of rice. This takes only about 30 minutes to make, and it’s really flavorful.
2. Swap out the pestle & mortar for a blender.
Traditionally, spices and aromatics are ground using a pestle and mortar. But this takes time and it can be quite a workout!
3. Marinate your meat before stashing in the freezer.
When you buy meat like chicken from the supermarket, clean and marinate the meat with yogurt, turmeric, chili powder, and salt before storing it in the freezer.
This way, all you have to do is defrost the meat in the fridge overnight, and it’s ready to use the next day.
Marinating your meat like this amps up the flavor and helps to cut down on cooking time as well.
4. Prep your ingredients beforehand.
Ask any home cook, and they’ll tell you that prepping the ingredients is the most time-consuming part of cooking! Cleaning and chopping vegetables can be such a hassle after a long day of work.
Instead, you can chop veggies over the weekend and store them in airtight containers (lined with paper towels) in the fridge. Add these chopped veggies into your one-pot meals for a quick and easy weeknight dinner.
Alternatively, you can buy frozen vegetables such as peas and carrots, and add them to your dishes as well.
5. Use the ready-made stuff.
Instead of making everything from scratch, you can opt for some ready-made items to cut down on your prep time. It’s like puff pastry. You could make your own at home, but it’s tedious work. So we often opt for store-bought puff pastry, which is usually pretty darn good!
Thosai, for instance, is a great alternative to rice for a light and tasty dinner. However, it can be quite time-consuming to make from scratch. To save time and effort, you can buy a ready-made thosai mix from your local Indian grocer. Just add water, and it’s ready to pour!
Likewise, you can opt for frozen chapati or parathas that can be made within a matter of minutes to serve with your main dish.
Beginner-friendly Indian recipes
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I be a good Indian cook?
A few easy tips can help you become an better Indian cook: know how to store spices to keep them fresh and aromatic for a long time, always be patient when browning onions, and taste as you go to adjust seasoning and spice for your dishes.
What is the secret ingredient in Indian food?
Flavorful and aromatic spices are the foundation of Indian cooking. An underrated spice that deserves more attention is definitely hing or asafoetida that has a savory oniony flavor.
My mother, who is a vegetarian, taught me early on that adding this magical ingredient to lentils helps to reduce its gassiness that can cause bloating.
What is the most important ingredient in curry?
There’s no one star ingredient in curries; all the ingredients mingle together to give it that delicious flavor and aroma. Aromatics, spices, herbs, and meat/vegetables are all essential components to any curry.
For aromatics, onions, ginger-garlic paste, and chilies are the base of most Indian curries. Cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin, and fennel are spices often used to enhance the flavor of curries. In terms of herbs, curry leaves, cilantro, and mint leaves are popular.
Which is better curry powder or garam masala?
Garam masala is typically stronger, sharper, and more complex in flavor compared to curry powder which is often made with milder spices.
Curry powder is better for slow cooking dishes like curries as it needs time to cook and mingle with other ingredients. Meanwhile, garam masala can be added to dishes such as curries, stews, and vegetables just before the end of cooking to enhance its aroma and flavor.
Why do you add garam masala at the end of cooking?
Garam masala is usually added at the end of cooking to add an aroma to the dish. Sometimes, garam masala is sprinkled on top of the dish right before serving. It’s usually not the only spice used in the dish.
What is the secret to a good curry?
Here are the secrets to a good curry: Brown your onions well, use fresh and aromatic spices, add tomatoes to give your curry a sweet-tangy flavor, and use bone-in meat whenever possible to amp up the flavor of your curry.
What is a good Indian dish to try for the first time?
Chicken Tikka Masala is a beginner-friendly dish you can start off with. It features marinated chicken pieces cooked in an aromatic tomato based sauce. For vegetarians, you can try Sambar which is a South Indian Lentil Stew made with assorted vegetables.
Now that you know the basics of Indian cooking, I hope you begin to enjoy it as much as I do.
Start with one dish that you enjoy eating at your local Indian restaurant, and try cooking it in your own kitchen.
If you make mistakes, that’s okay. Like my mum always says, “Be patient and give it time. It’ll be good.”