If your path of discovery has brought you to Indian cuisine, stocking some items in your pantry will have you ready to fork out any Indian dish in a flash.
Indian recipes may have a long list of ingredients but when you take care to read it, you will notice most of the ingredients are spices. Indian spices and herbs make food fragrant and tasty, sometimes downright hot. These herbs and spices are often mixed together in a blend known as masala. There are many types of masala other than other than the popular garam masala and each has its own unique flavor.
India has a varied cuisine. It is a large country with a quite diverse landscape and climate which, in turn, influences the kind of available food and what people eat. There are many sides to Indian cuisine.
Indian culture and its own ancient wisdom about food also have an impact in what people eat and when. An Indian platter has several types of food carefully chosen to supply all required nutrients while balancing flavors and teasing the palate.
Lastly, religion also has some bearing on what Indians eat. Many in India are practicing Muslims and Islam forbids the eating of pork. Most Indians, however, are Hindu and the cow is sacred in their religion. Hindu families will not eat beef for this reason, so much that many Hindus are vegetarian and they do not eat any type of meat.
Indian cuisine is wonderful for people who don’t eat meat. Because there are more vegetarians in India than anywhere else in the world, there are also plenty of recipes which are naturally meat free, healthy, and flavorful without the need to restore to artificial burgers.
Pantry items for Indian cuisine
You will find most of them in the grocery store o supermarket. If not, you will find supplies in specialized Indian shops.
Amchoor powder – unripe mango, sun-dried and ground to a fine powder. It is a popular condiment in East India used to flavor meats, vegetables and curries and also to tenderize meats. It has an intense sour and fruity flavor. Not essential for Indian cooking but good to have. You may find it as simple mango powder.
Asafoetida – or asafetida, also known as hing, it is very popular in India and one of the world's most remarkable spices. Asafoetida is actually a dried resin with a unique flavor despite the not-so-nice odor. It has a long shelf life, especially if you buy it in chunk form and grate a little each time you need it.
Black pepper – Black pepper is quite common in every pantry and much used everywhere, but probably it's used more in India, where sometimes is the primary spice, than anywhere else. Freshly ground black pepper is great when this spice will be the main one in the recipe - start with whole black peppercorns and crack them to a coarse powder with mortar and pestle or spice grinder – otherwise, use ground black pepper.
Cardamom. - Native to India, cardamom is a member of the ginger family and it has a distinctive flavor. Cardamom is best bought in the pod. The seeds are the part to be used either whole or ground, and toasted or not.
Cayenne - Much Indian food needs a source of heat, whether dried chiles, hot red pepper flakes, or ground cayenne.
Coriander - The leaves of fresh coriander (cilantro) are often used to garnish Indian dishes, but more important are coriander seeds, which are toasted, ground (or sometimes left whole), and added to many dishes. Commercially ground coriander is acceptable but not nearly as fragrant.
Cumin – same as coriander, cumin is an important spice here, usually toasted before grinding. Ground cumin is available in the shops, but the flavor is so weak that once you use the whole seeds for the first time you would not want to go back to the pre-ground cumin. Anyway, ground cumin is a good substitute if whole seeds are not available.
Curry powder - A mix of different spices, mainly prepared so the British returned to their home country were able to go on enjoying the flavors from India. When the British were in control, they named any type of spicy stew a curry and once back on England, they yearned for the taste of those spiced dishes, so a the curry powder blend was created. In India there are many different types of curry and curry mixes are as unique as every individual cook. If you want to know, garam masala is probably the most popular curry blend.
Fennel seeds – fennel has a distinctive anise flavor and the seeds may be used whole or ground. Buy whole seeds rather than ground fennel.
Fenugreek - Widely used in Indian cooking, fenugreek seeds are small, yellow and flat, best whole but they found ground.
Garam masala – a spice mix popular in India, many consider it the "real" curry powder. The composition may vary but usually will have brown cardamom, cumin, black pepper, cloves, bay leaf, cinnamon, sometimes coriander seeds, nutmeg or mace.
Lentils, chickpeas, beans, and other legumes – beans and pulses are used big time in Indian cooking, more than in other cuisines. Although common lentils and beans can be used and they are fine for your first trials, you may prefer to move to the more unusual but quick cooking red split lentils, urad dal or the red and black beans from India.
Saffron – a treasure as well as a spice, for many years saffron has been the world's most expensive spice, worth its weight in gold. Saffron is appreciated for its rich, smooth, but distinctive flavor and intense yellow color. It has a long shelf life so you can buy in larger quantities and get a better price.
Turmeric - a spice with a bitter flavor and able to confer a strong yellow color to food. Turmeric is almost always used together with other spices and in Indian cooking finds its own value. Not recommended as a good substitute for saffron because the flavor is completely different.