Your Starter Kitchen – North Indian Basics

Hello and welcome to the second post in the Your Starter Kitchen series–North Indian Basics! Like other YSK posts, this write-up is meant to get you started as quickly and affordably as possible. Unlike the main Your Starter Kitchen article, however, this has a focus on a specific kind of cuisine: that of Northern India. Replete with exotic spices, unusual combinations of flavor and texture, and a bewildering array of names and techniques, Indian food can seem daunting at first, so consider this your lifeline in a sea of confusion!

Now, let it be said that India is a vast and complicated country that is home to dozens (if not hundreds!) of proud culinary traditions. Lumping the entirety of that complexity into broad categories is exceptionally difficult and not always accurate. But–for the average Westerner, at least–the categories of “North” and “South” Indian will suffice to cover the bulk of the recipes and foods you’re likely to eat at the Indian restaurant or find frozen at a supermarket.

So, with that out of the way: what exactly is North Indian cuisine, so far as LearnToFood is concerned?

It’s food that’s based in the great city cuisine prominent in Delhi and Mumbai and the rich delicacies of Punjab and Gujarat. It has an emphasis on wheat and dairy and is commonly prepared atop a base of onion, garlic, and ginger. Perhaps most importantly, it’s the food that most Westerners think of when they imagine Indian specialties: chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, naan, and mango lassi. These dishes, introduced to the broader world via the British Raj and a constant stream of Indian, Bengali, and Pakistani emigrants, are nearly synonymous with Indian cooking for most people.

So if you want to learn how to cook all your favorite North Indian dishes from the restaurants–what spices to use, what tools to employ, and what techniques to master–you’re in the right place! Let’s get started with what you’ll need to buy, then I’ll move into some general techniques and practices. Please note: all linked items are quickly found suggestions at best–look around local stores and do a little research to find items that suit your particular needs! Please feel free to ask about specific items in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer!


Equipment

Aside from the basic kitchen tools I outline in the main Your Starter Kitchen article, these are the pieces of hardware you’ll need to make the best Indian food possible. Luckily, it’s a pretty short list!

  • Rolling Pin – A great many Indian flatbreads, from naan to rotis to chapatis to parathas, benefit from a good rolling pin. You can certainly go French-style (no handles) if you prefer, or even get an adjustable one with included rubber “rings” to control rolling height.
  • Mortar and Pestle* – Asterisk because a good spice grinder and/or wet-dry grinder will fill most of the same roles as the mortar and pestle, but at a higher cost. In the end, grinding fresh spices and pulverizing ingredients like garlic, ginger, and chilies is going to come up a lot–and save you a ton of money–so some tool to help accomplish that is a good idea!
  • Frying Thermometer – From tasty snacks like pakoras and samosas to delicious breads like pooris and bhaturas to desserts like gulab jamun, a good number of Indian foods involve frying, and keeping careful control of your temperature in the process is essential. That most good frying thermometers also double as candy thermometers is just a great added bonus (especially since you’ll need that function for the aforementioned gulab jamun, anyway. . . ).
  • Anything Else? – If you plan to make a lot of Indian flatbreads, it’s hard to go wrong investing in a sizable, sturdy tava. Those flat, slightly concave pans are perfect for rotis, chapatis, etc. Also, a collection of screw-top or otherwise tightly sealing spice jars is a fantastic investment.

 Appliances

In addition to those standard kitchen appliances I recommend in Your Starter Kitchen, there are a few more that really, really come in handy when preparing North Indian-style cuisine.

  • Spice Grinder* – As above, a mortar and pestle can handle most of what a spice grinder can with aplomb (and with tough spices like whole turmeric or mixes involving “wet” ingredients like garlic, a M&P can be even better!), but it’s hard to argue with the sheer ease of use of an electric spice grinder. It even doubles as a coffee grinder, if you’re really confident in your cleaning abilities!
  • Immersion Blender – For making the perfect, restaurant-style smooth-and-silky curries (and chutneys, too!), it’s hard to go wrong with a quality immersion blender. That they also come in handy for plenty of other blended soups and stews from other cuisines is a nice bonus.
  • Anything Else? – As with the main YSK article, a powerful blender can certainly come in handy, but to be honest, there’s not much in the way of appliances that you’ll need. A special mention must be made of a good-quality grill, however. For most Western chefs, it’s as close as you’ll come to mimicking the amazing flavor a traditional tandoori oven provides!

 Pantry Basics

Ah, now here’s the rub (but not the spice rub–that’s barbeque!). Indian cuisine is infamous for its use of unusual and exotic spices. Luckily, you’ll find that you keep on using the same ones over and over again, so stock up as you prepare each recipe until you’ve built the perfect Indian pantry alongside the common spices, herbs, and seasonings you’ve already bought from the main Your Starter Kitchen article! Particularly in this section, while I’ve provided some online links, please try to find a local Indian market or grocer in your area, as you will be able to buy fresh, delicious spices for very little money compared to buying online.

  • Whole Spices/Herbs – One of the quickest ways to achieve truly great flavor in Indian cooking is to rely on whole spices (whether used whole or freshly ground). For most, keeping them whole will help them retain the full measure of their flavor much longer than buying pre-ground–sometimes for a year or more! Buying a good quantity once can save in the long run. Here, I’ll try to use flavor descriptions that map to those recommended by the wonderful Spices Inc., so check them out!
    • Cumin Seed – The warmly earthy, slightly bitter/spicy flavor of cumin gains a wonderful nutty note when fried or toasted. Whole cumin is often used at the start or very end of recipes, but you will want to toast (just until fragrant) and grind some of it a few tablespoons at a time (and store separately) to add in the middle of other recipes.
    • Cinnamon Sticks – With notes of spiciness, woodiness, and sweetness, cinnamon is often regarded as a dessert/baking spice in the West, but it finds a home in the base of many Indian dishes, from savory to sweet.
    • Green Cardamom – Slightly woody, sweet, and almost tinglingly spicy, cardamom provides an exotic backbone to several classic Indian dishes and desserts that’s unmistakable. Lightly bash the seed pods before adding to dishes to release their flavor, but be on the lookout for stray pods or seeds leftover, as they pack quite a punch!
    • Cloves – Cloves possess a complex flavor that’s at once faintly bitter and woody while simultaneously holding spicy and sweet notes at home in Thanksgiving pies and lattes. Try adding a few stems to rice as it boils, or use it at the start of a dish to add depth to the flavor.
    • Coriander Seed – More floral and nutty than other common Indian spices, there are hints of citrus and spiciness in coriander seeds as well. When planted, these grow into the equally common herb cilantro. While you rarely use them whole, coriander seeds hold onto their flavor longer than pre-powdered coriander. Thus, like cumin, you’ll want to briefly toast and grind your seeds a few tablespoons at a time, storing the powder separately.
    • Bay Leaves – Yeah, I recommended bay leaves in the main YSK article, but I’ll reemphasize them here, too. While not quite as common as other spices and herbs in Indian cuisine, they will crop up sometimes with their bitter, piney, spicy properties in the background of a dish. You will normally remove them prior to serving.
    • Dried Red Chilies – Bird’s Eyes will work just fine, whereas the crinkly Kashmiris will be a little less hot. Other varieties have their own properties, of course, but the key to all dried red chilies is that they’re hot. Often added to oil at the top or very end of a dish to add a spicy kick, these don’t need to be directly consumed by the faint of heart!
  • Powdered Spices/Herbs/Blends – While whole spices are perfect for adding strong, immediate flavors or for grinding into commonly used powders, there are some items that are just easier or better to deal with pre-ground or pre-mixed. As before, buying in bulk saves money over time, and the descriptions below lean on the flavor profiles outlined by Spices Inc.
    • Turmeric Powder – Primarily used as a coloring agent (and a medicinal one in some traditions), turmeric nonetheless imparts a noticeably bitter flavor to dishes, with a faint gingery-spicy tinge to it when heated in hot oil. While a lot of starting chefs will be tempted to use a lot (and some cheap curry powder blends go heavy on turmeric, too), this can easily overpower a delicate curry, so use sparingly.
    • Red Chili Powder – While I generally (and repeatedly) recommend grinding whole spices fresh, red chili powder gets a special exception since grinding at home has a nasty tendency to aerosolize this stuff like a pepper spray bomb. So. . . just buy the powder. Add it near the middle of recipes to up the heat and add a slightly smoky flavor and deep red coloration. Kashmiri Chili Powder gets special mention for being a little less hot, a little sweeter, and contributing, if anything, even more red coloration. Also, please note that both of these are different than blended chili powder, meant for use in Tex-Mex cuisine.
    • Amchur Powder (Dried Mango) – The powerfully tangy, slightly sweet-and-fruity flavor of amchur is a fantastic addition to many classic Indian dishes, kicking up the acidity without adding bulk and liquid like tomatoes would. The fruity notes of the mango play well with other flavors in dishes, as well, adding richness and a uniquely high note.
    • Garam Masala – While you can make (delicious) garam masala yourself by toasting and blending together whole spices like cinnamon, cloves, chilies, and cumin, you’ll wind up using so much of it that getting pre-powdered stuff is probably going to be less trouble in the long run.
    • Qasuri Methi (Dried Fenugreek Leaf) – Something like celery or fennel, these dried fenugreek leaves lend a bitter, herby flavor that is difficult to pick out in a finished dish, but quite evident when it’s missing.
  • Atta Flour (Finely Ground Whole Wheat) – This powdery, soft whole wheat flour is essential to a variety of Indian breads, particularly chapatis, parathas, and puris. Far finer than the typical wheat flour you’ll find in a Western grocer, atta helps make breads that are more tender and “smoother” than you’re probably used to wheat bread being. The added fiber is nothing to sneeze at, either!
  • Besan Flour – Made from ground chickpeas, besan (or gram flour) is a fabulous gluten-free flour for baking, batters, and even thickening and desserts! Its flavor is more complex and noticeable than wheat flour, and it tends to produce thicker, “bulkier” breads and breading. High in protein, to boot!
  • Ghee (Clarified Butter) – Stable at room temperature, ghee is made by boiling off the water (and separating out he protein solids) from normal cow’s milk butter. This process lends it a delicious nutty flavor and make it perfect for use for sauteing a ton of classic Indian dishes. Vegetable Oil or even just plain Butter make an acceptable substitute.
  • Basmati Rice – Often called the “King of Rices,” Basmati is famous for its powerful fragrance and delicate, extra-long kernels. Whether boiled plain with a bit of salt or infused with aromatic spices like cloves, cumin, and/or bay leaves, it is the perfect accompaniment to almost any North Indian dish.
  • Lentils – Plenty of different lentils are common in North Indian cooking, from Toor/Tur Dal to Masoor Dal to Urad Dal, plus their pulse-cousins, Chickpeas (usually called Bengal Gram or Chana Dal). High in protein and fiber, these versatile ingredients are fantastic to make and eat. Since there are quite a few different ones, hold off buying any until it’s time to cook!
  • Anything Else? – You may find other spices and herbs, like fennel seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, and the ever-pricey saffron coming up in recipes you’re interested in, and if so, don’t hesitate to stock up on them. Dish-specific spice-blends like chana masala mix and pav bhaji masala can provide a handy shortcut, though you’ll want to use them quickly to get the most out of their time-limited flavor. Finally, chaat masala‘s curious blend of spices and black salt is essential to a lot of classic street foods, so having a couple of ounces on-hand never hurts.

 Fridge/Freezer Basics

Most North Indian cuisine is going to rely on fresh vegetables and meats, so you’ll usually shop for those items shortly before cooking. Nonetheless, a few items are good in the fridge for longer periods of time (from a couple of weeks to a few months), so you might find you want to stock up on them early on!

  • Plain, Lowfat Yogurt – Ideally, grab some Desi-style yogurt at a local Indian grocer, but if you can’t swing that, any plain, low- or regular-fat yogurt will work. Avoid Greek-style; it’s a littler thicker than you want for Indian cuisine (and individual recipes will tell you to drain water from yogurt if that’s really needed).
  • Green Chutney – A good coriander, green chili, and/or mint chutney is a tasty accompaniment to tons of different to almost any stage of North Indian cuisine, and while you can make your own, pre-made mixes have the benefit of being made to last a good while in the fridge. Spicy, herby, and a little cooling, this stuff is a great condiment for Indian food!
  • Tamarind-Date Chutney – Noticeably tangier and sweeter than green chutney, this deep-brownish-red sauce is equally universal across North Indian food and can be poured over or dipped into with aplomb. Again, making it from scratch is entirely in the realm of possibility, but a good jar will hold in the fridge for quite some time.
  • Cashews – Cashew nut pieces are most often ground into a fine powder, or boiled and ground into a thick paste (both used as thickeners that add a creamy, pleasant mouthfeel and taste), but they can just as easily be briefly toasted or fried in ghee to add a crispy-crunchy note to a dish.
  • Ginger-Garlic Paste* – Ginger and garlic (alongside onions, green chilies, and spices) form the flavor backbone to almost all North Indian cuisine, so you’ll use them constantly. Mincing them up fresh every time can be trying, so a pre-mixed paste comes in handy! Unlike the chutneys above, however, I will recommend that you make your own!

Seem like a lot? Don’t worry about it! Exploring a whole new cuisine–with centuries upon centuries of traditions packed into it–can be daunting, and that’s okay. Like any other new project, start small, read a lot, and work your way up in complexity. Pick one or two recipes you want to make–say, Basmati Rice and Chicken Tikka Masala–and buy the ingredients and tools for those first. Over time, you’ll build your kitchen up until you’ve got all the North Indian Basics–and more!

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