Cooking Indian food doesn’t have to be daunting

Amanda Cushman
The News and Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina

While spending two months in India in the early ’80s, I fell in love with the cuisine, the culture and the people.

From my travels, India has remained an impressive memory, one that gets reignited every time I smell the aroma of coriander, cumin, curry leaves, turmeric and garam masala in my kitchen.

So I’ve been cooking food from Northern and Southern India for more than 15 years, and I’ve mastered dishes that my friends and family love.

Learning to cook food from India can be a daunting task, and the term “Indian food” is rather misused. The country is huge and, like Italy and France, has regional specialties. Each region has its specific dishes that originate from history, location, culture and tradition.

Many years ago, I was fortunate to study Indian cooking in New York City with a master chef named Julie Sahni and have used her teachings in my cooking classes and dinner parties. It would take a few lifetimes to learn the cuisine from each region. But it’s rewarding to try your hand at making this glorious food with only a few basic tips on ingredients.

The most important ingredients are the spice mixes that are unique to each dish. They impart flavor, heat and diversity from one dish to another. Each region has its own popular spice blend, known as masala blends, which include blends such as garam masala.

To begin your Indian cooking journey, you should have these spices: coriander, cumin, turmeric, mustard seeds (yellow and black), cinnamon, fennel, ginger, red chili, cardamom, clove and fenugreek leaves.

Ingredients such as legumes, vegetables, grains, dairy and fruits are staples in the Indian diet. Dishes also rely heavily on a variety of lentils, so you most likely will have dal – a side dish of cooked spiced legumes — at every table, as well as flat and puffed breads known as naan, roti, chapati and paratha.

Ghee is a popular fat for cooking in India, but not all regions use it. Instead, they might use vegetable, peanut or mustard oil. Ghee, which is easy to make, is clarified butter, which is made by melting a pound of unsalted butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. When the butter is melted completely, skim off the foamy top and then carefully pour out the golden clear liquid to leave behind the milk solids in the bottom of the pan. You will lose about a third of the butter during the process. Transfer to a clean jar and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.


I’ve included two recipes for popular spice blends: curry and garam masala. It is best to make your spice blends from scratch and store them in small jars or masala boxes, which are available at most Indian markets or online. I use an electric coffee grinder for my toasted spices. Afterward, clean it for coffee use by grinding a small piece of bread to remove the spice flavor.

Vegetarians fare well with Indian food, as many regions rely heavily on legumes, grains and vegetables. Here are recipes to get you started with the basics.

Chana Masala

This beloved Northern Indian side dish can be part of a vegetarian meal paired with rice, dal and a vegetable for a complete meal. All the spices are available at the Indian market or your local spice store.

Spice Mix

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 1-inch piece cinnamon stick

3 peppercorns

1 Indian bay leaf

2 black cardamom

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

2 dry red chilies

1/2 teaspoon Indian chili powder

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon mango powder

1/4 teaspoon garam masala (see recipe)


2 tablespoons ghee

1 medium onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 1-inch piece fresh ginger, minced

2 serrano or other hot chili peppers, seeded, minced

2 medium tomatoes, diced

2/3 cup water

2 15-ounce cans chick peas, rinsed and drained

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 lime, juiced

1/2 cup cilantro leaves, garnish

Toast the first nine spices in a small dry skillet over medium heat for 30 seconds. Cool slightly and then grind in a spice grinder. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the chili powder, turmeric, mango powder and garam masala.

Heat the ghee in a large high-sided skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, ginger and green chilis and sauce until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the spice mixture. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes and add the tomatoes and water. Scrape up all the bits in the bottom of the pan and bring to a simmer. Add the chick peas and salt and simmer uncovered over low heat until slightly thickened, about 35 to 40 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Add the lime juice and garnish with the cilantro before serving.

Yield: Serves 6 to 8

Basmati Rice Pilaf With Raisins And Cashews

Rice is served with every meal in India, and there are many different varieties. Most Indian recipes use white rice, but you can chose brown if you prefer. If you prefer brown rice, remember to double the cooking time.

1 small onion, diced

2 tablespoons vegetable oil or coconut oil

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads

1 cinnamon stick

1 cup basmati rice

2 cups vegetable or chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Fresh pepper, to taste

1/2 cup raisins

3 tablespoons toasted cashews or almonds, roughly chopped

3 scallions, thinly sliced

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and saute the onion in the oil until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the saffron, cinnamon and rice and stir until lightly coated with the oil. Add the broth, salt and pepper and bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer until all liquid is absorbed, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Add the raisins, nuts and scallions and remove from the heat and allow to sit covered for 10 minutes before serving. Taste and adjust seasoning and serve.

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Red Lentil Dal With Spice-infused Ghee

There are many varieties of dal and a number of lentils to chose from: green, black, red, yellow and cracked lentils, known as urad dal. I love the color of these red lentils and often use them as the base of a lentil soup.

2 tablespoons ghee

1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 cups red lentils, rinsed

5 cups water

Spice-Infused Ghee

2 tablespoons ghee

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon minced ginger

2 teaspoons garam masala

11/2 cups chopped plum tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Heat the ghee in a medium saucepan over medium heat and add the mustard seeds, turmeric and cumin. Cook for about 30 seconds. Add the onion and salt and saute until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the lentils and 5 cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover the pan, lower the heat and cook until the lentils are tender, or about 30 minutes. If the lentils are getting too thick, add more water. Taste for seasoning and set aside.

Heat a small skillet over medium heat and add the ghee. Saute the cumin seeds, garlic, ginger and garam masala until fragrant, about 2 minutes, then add the tomatoes. Cook another 2 minutes and turn off the heat.

Transfer the dal to a serving dish and pour the spice-infused ghee on top. Garnish with the cilantro and serve.

Yield: Serves 6

Garam Masala

11/2 tablespoons cumin seeds

11/2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon peppercorns

11/2 teaspoons cardamom seeds

1/2 teaspoon cloves

1/2 3-inch cinnamon stick, broken into bits

2 Indian bay leaves, broken into bits

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Heat a small skillet over medium high heat. Add all the spices except the nutmeg. Toast, shaking the pan until the spices release their aroma and turn dark brown — about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg, and then cool completely. Grind to a fine powder in a spice grinder and store in an airtight jar.

Yield:1/4 cup

Curry Powder

3 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 teaspoons fenugreek seeds

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds

2 teaspoons peppercorns

6 whole cloves

2 tablespoons turmeric

2 teaspoons Indian chili powder

Heat a small skillet over medium high heat. Add all the spices except the turmeric and chili powder. Toast, shaking the pan until the spices release their aroma and turn dark brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg and then cool completely. Grind to a fine powder in a spice grinder and store in an airtight jar.

Yield:1/2 cup