April 20, 2009

Equipped For Indian Cooking

The standard American diet (SAD) is dominated by meat, potatoes, and cheese. For vegetarians who are also allergic to dairy and wheat, American cuisine has little to offer. So the Evolution Kitchen has long ago ventured beyond the American shores, and we have discovered a veritable garden of delights out there.

Asian Indian cuisine is my personal favorite. Their diet is largely meat and dairy free, and most parts of India do not eat much wheat either. The depth of flavors is leaps and bounds ahead of traditional American flavors, which seem to huddle around sweet, salty, and cheesy. Indian cuisine uses a full assortment of spices to create wonderful and exciting dishes.

Here at the Evolution Kitchen, we are by no means experts in Indian cooking. But we have been dabbling in it for about a year, and we can pass on a few suggestions for those who are just starting to or are thinking about it. One thing you'll soon notice when glancing through Indian recipes is that most of the ingredients are not in your pantry, and some aren't even your vocabulary.

This article will give you a brief introduction to the basic staples most cooks should have on hand if you want to experiment with Indian cuisine.


Generally speaking, cooking Indian does not require any fancy tools. Although it would be nice to have my own tandoori oven, there are suitable substitutions.

The most helpful tool you might consider getting is a pressure cooker. A pressure cooker is extremely handy for cooking beans, rice, and potatoes, especially if you live at high altitude. They cook the food at much higher temperatures and in about half the time as regular cooking. Even if you can't put a price on saved time, a pressure cooker can pay for itself simply by requiring less energy.

Another handy tool to have is some sort of mortar/pestle or spice grinder. Indian cooking uses a lot of spice blends, many which you concoct yourself from whole seeds. We have a pre-made curry powder that we hardly ever use; you blend your curry when making your recipe.

If you want to make your own naan and chapattis, you can do these on a charcoal or gas grill quite nicely. Hopefully, most people already have one of these.


Many of the foreign ingredients in Indian recipes are not not foreign at all; they just need to be translated. Here is a brief table of ingredient translations.

chickpea flour
capsicum bell pepper
dhaniya ground coriander
jeera cumin seeds
methi seeds
fenugreek seeds

The following are some of the ingredients that we use in many of our Indian dishes.

asafoetida. Also known as "hing". This is strange stuff that smells pretty bad. When used, it is usually just a pinch, because it is that potent. But it does provide a garlicky and buttery flavor to dishes. Rumor has it that beans cooked with a pinch of asafoetida will cause less gas. Your mileage may vary.

basmati rice. Certainly any rice will do, but if you want authentic flavor, basmati is the way to go. We usually opt for the brown basmati rice for extra fiber and nutrients, but we go with the white rice when we want a lighter dish.

beans and legumes. Indian cuisine prpvides most of its protein with beans. There must be dozens of different kinds. Seems like every time I go to an Indian market, I find a new one. Heavy hitters are chickpeas, lentils (green and red and whole red lentils called masoor), urad dal, channa dal, mung beans, and so on. You can't go wrong with any of them.

black mustard seeds. These are often used in spice blends or left whole in dishes. I don't know if they really have any flavor, but they have an aesthetic appeal.

chickpeas. Also known as garbonzo beans. You could use canned versions, but cooking dried ones provide better texture and flavor.

chili powder/dried chilis. The "heat" in Indian food comes from chilis. I really don't know what authentic Indian cooking uses for their chilis. I use a store-bought chili powder blend, and some cayenne pepper. When green chilis are called for, I use jalapeƱos.

cilantro. This is used for garnish and sometimes as an ingredient in dishes. I personally don't like the taste of cilantro, so I substitute parsley.

coriander seeds. These are the seeds of the cilantro plant. I have no idea why the seeds have a different name than the leaves. These are often roasted and then ground into the many spice blends. Despite my distaste for cilantro, I love coriander.

curry leaves. I got away without these for a long time. Many recipes suggest using bay leaves instead, but the flavor is very different. I finally bought some at an Indian market and they do provide an enhanced "Indian" taste to your dishes.

garam masala. I don't keep many spice blends on hand, but this one definitely has a permanent home in our spice cabinet. You can buy it pre-made, or you can roast the spices and grind them yourself.

ginger root. You'd expect ginger in Oriental cooking, but Indian cuisine uses it and garlic quite extensively. Buy the whole root, not the powder. I don't bother peeling it; I grate it skin and all, then throw out most of the fibers and skin that get stuck on the outside of the grater.

tamarind. This is a tree indigenous to tropical Africa but made its way to Indian centuries ago. It produces a sour fruit that is used in cooking throughout Asia. I buy a little jar of it in paste form and use it sparingly.

turmeric. Most Americans don't know what this is, but it is what gives mustard its yellow color. The flavor of turmeric is subtle, but it has been called a "poor man's saffron". It is widely used in Indian cooking. There is a belief it helps prevent memory loss and Alzheimers. It also will stain all your wooden utensils yellow.

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