An Introduction to Indian Cuisine
A wide variety of spices play a key role in this dynamic cuisine, which is not as intimidating as it may seem.
With all its exotic ingredients, unfamiliar dishes, and tongue-tingling flavors, Indian cuisine can be both exciting and intimidating. “It’s such a complete world of taste. You combine all the techniques from other cuisines and add magical spices to get a titillating food experience,” says Madhur Jaffrey, an actress and the author of At Home With Madhur Jaffrey and many other cookbooks.
“Indian cuisine uses the whole palette of flavors—spicy, sour, sweet, and hot all at the same time—making it something that wants to jump off the plate,” says Floyd Cardoz, the executive chef and a partner of North End Grill in New York City and the author of One Spice, Two Spice.
Don’t be afraid to start playing around withcooking Indian food at home. First, it’s important to understand the various dishes and flavors that make up Indian cuisine. “There’s as much varied cuisine in India as you would find in Europe. It’s all totally different, and the only thing that connects it is a judicious knowledge of the use of spices,” says Jaffrey.
There are a basic 20 to 30 spices that are used in many dishes—cumin, coriander, turmeric, and ginger, to name a few—and there are an infinite number of ways of using them. “Every spice has a reason for being there. They have health benefits, and they make the food more exciting and flavorful,” says Cardoz.
Contrary to common belief, not all Indian dishes are curries. However, “curry” has become a catch-all name for any spice-based meat or vegetable dish with a sauce. Curries can be watery, dry, red, green, hot, or really, really hot—it’s completely up to the chef in charge. In fact, a basic chicken curry is one of the simplest things to start with when first experimenting with Indian cooking. Serve it with a side of dal (a stew made of lentils, peas, or beans) and some roti (a tortilla-like wheat flat bread, available for mail order at ishopindian.com) and you’ll feel as if you’re halfway around the world.
Indian cuisine has an added bonus for vegetarians: For them, it’s one of the friendliest cuisines around. Judicious use of spices and sauces breathes new life into the likes of potatoes, cauliflower, peas, and eggplant. And a meal of hearty-but-healthy palak paneer (a spinach-and-cheese dish) with a side of naan (a pita-type leavened flat bread) will convert even the biggest meat lovers.
There are easy ways to start bringing the tastes of India into your kitchen. “Try to incorporate Indian flavors into dishes you already do, for example, roasted fish, chicken or steamed vegetables. Pick something with two or three spices and start with that. Add a little cumin, ginger, and chili pepper to the vegetable you like,” says Cardoz. “Remember that your food can only be as good as the ingredients you start with, but you don’t need the most expensive ingredients. You can make chicken thighs, and they’re simple and flavorful. Embrace the cuisine, and don’t be afraid of it.”
The bottom line: Keep it simple when you’re starting out at home. Look for basic potato, okra, and meat dishes to help build your Indian-cuisine repertoire. “Don’t overwhelm yourself by buying 30 spices,” says Jaffrey. “Start with the ones for a specific dish.”
Preparing the dishes is only part of crafting the perfect Indian culinary experience. It’s up to each diner to make every bite count. “When you make your mouthfuls, you can vary the taste by putting pickles or chutney on each different bite,” says Jaffrey.
With its array of spices and condiments and experimental attitude, Indian cuisine allows home cooks to get creative and adventurous. Play around with basic dishes and flavors and you’ll find it’s an easy way to shake up your usual dinner repertoire.
What It Is: An aromatic rice dish cooked with several spices, notably saffron, and a protein (typically chicken or mutton) that’s been marinated.
Perfect For: A huge family dinner.
Feels Like: Hearing the neighborhood mosque sound its azan for evening prayers.
What It Is: A variation on the traditional dimsum, native to the North Eastern states that border Nepal (where the dish originated), eaten with a fiery red chutney.
Perfect For: A quick mid-evening snack.
Feels Like: Kicking your shoes off after a long day and settling into your couch for hours of TV.
What It Is: A heavy South Indian breakfast food. A fermented batter of ground rice and lentils, steamed in little circular moulds.
Perfect For: When you’re done sleeping in on a Saturday morning.
Feels Like: Being woken up by the smell of cooking.
- Gulab jaamun
What Is It: Small balls of dried milk, slow cooked and boiled in a sugar syrup.
Perfect For: When you’ve already had a delicious meal and have just enough room for dessert.
Feels Like: Playing hide-and-go-seek with your cousins at a family reunion way, way past your bedtime.
- Chole bhature
What It Is: A spiced, curried chickpea dish served with a fried flour bread.
Perfect For: A late Sunday breakfast.
Feels Like: Seeing your family all dressed in new clothes on a festival day.
- Nethili varuval
What It Is: Anchovies dipped in a paste of turmeric and red chilies and fried, native to the South Indian region Chettinad.
Perfect For: A crispy, spicy appetizer.
Feels Like: Temple bells.
- Kati roll
What It Is: A traditional street food popular across India (and abroad). A wrap of kebabs, eggs, vegetables, and spices rolled into paratha (a type of flat bread).
Perfect For: When you need a meal on-the-go. Also a great way to use up leftovers.
Feels Like: Standing on a dusty Kolkata street-corner at dusk, watching families go home through rush hour traffic.
What It Is: Kidney beans in a thick gravy popular across North India.
Perfect For: An accompaniment for rice, particularly delicious when served piping hot in the winter.
Feels Like: Summer holidays at your grandparents’ house.
- Pani puri
What It Is: A small crisp hollow round bread filled with spiced water, tamarind paste, potato, onion, and chickpeas.
Perfect For: When you’re craving a thousand flavors at once.
Feels Like: Drunkenly challenging your best friend to a contest of who can eat more of these, and then feeling like your mouth is on fire.
What It Is: A wheat flour batter deep fried in coil-shapes and soaked in sugar syrup, served hot.
Perfect For: When you want something hot, but also sweet.
Feels Like: People-watching in a crowded bazaar while your mother haggles over sari prices.
- Tandoori chicken
What It Is: Chicken marinated for hours in a paste of yogurt and spices, and then roasted (traditionally) in a clay oven called a tandoor.
Perfect For: Wowing your dinner guests with minimal effort.
Feels Like: Making a pitstop at a roadside diner three hours into a family roadtrip.
- Banana chips
What It Is: Thin slices of banana deep fried in savory spices.
Perfect For: Munching on while watching your favorite movie.
Feels Like: The wind flying through your hair as you sail down Kerala’s backwaters in a houseboat.
- Baingan bharta
What It Is: Roasted eggplant mashed together with a variety of other vegetables and spices, served with flatbread.
Perfect For: An exciting and fancy vegetarian meal.
Feels Like: Going back for seconds at a family friend’s house.
What It Is: A crispy, flat bread (similar to a crepe or pancake) made of rice batter, served with a lentil sauce (sambar) and a variety of chutneys.
Perfect For: When you want breakfast to be the highlight of your day.
Feels Like: Recounting last night’s events the morning after a sleepover.
What It Is: Puffed rice fried with vegetables, in a spicy and tangy tamarind sauce.
Perfect For: When you want a chilled savory snack.
Feels Like: Sitting in the back of a rickshaw at the peak of summer, thankful for the breeze.
What It Is: A South Indian snack staple made of a lentil or flour batter fried into a doughnut shape.
Perfect For: A neutral carb to accompany your craving for chutney and lentils.
Feels Like: A morning raga.
- Bhindi masala fry
What It Is: Okra stuffed with spices, fried.
Perfect For: A vegetarian dish that’s both exciting and comfort food.
Feels Like: Mom’s cooking.
- Rogan josh
What It Is: A lamb curry of Persian origin, now popular in the Kashmir area. In India, rogan josh is often made using goat meat instead of lamb.
Perfect For: When you don’t just want a meal – you want a feast.
Feels Like: Strutting around in your nicest traditional finery and feeling like royalty.
What It Is: A snack/breakfast food from the state of Gujurat, made of fermented rice and chickpea batter.
Perfect For: An very, very light yet very, very flavorful snack.
Feels Like: Gossiping with your aunts and cousins for hours.
- Gaajar halwa
What It Is: An extremely popular dessert, made by cooking grated carrot with milk, sugar, and dried fruits.
Perfect For: A piping hot wintertime dessert.
Feels Like: Wrapping a shawl around yourself and sitting by a heater on a chilly Delhi evening.