Put down that curry paste and don’t even look at the packaged pappadums. True Indian flavours won’t be found in a supermarket, but rather the spice rack at home. Unlike keep-it-simple food philosophies (“let the hero sing!”), Indian cuisine is built upon the deft and delicious layering of aromatics and ingredients. Spices are at the heart of this cuisine, with some recipes calling for as many as 15. But don’t be put off by double digits! Once you have the pantry essentials (see below), Indian cuisine is easy, economical and enjoyable to make at home.
Each region of India has its own distinct style. The north, for instance, is known for hearty curries and tandoor recipes, while southern cuisine showcases seafood and tropical flavours. (Think coconut and tamarind.) Colonial culinary influences are evident, too: the Portuguese introduced chilli and the British left its legacy with dishes like kedgeree. Although our Indian menus back home are filled with butter chicken and lamb korma, it’s important to note that for a large majority of Indians rice is the staple, legumes are loved, and vegetarianism is the norm.
When it comes to sweets, Indian desserts are filled with nutty, spicy and fruity flourishes. Expect to see besan (chickpea flour) and semolina; ghee rather than butter; and cardamom on the regs. Vegetables, such as carrot and beetroot, are commonly used in the creamy halwa, while mango is a popular addition to the refreshing kulfi. Oh and when it comes to tea, an Indian chai can't be beat.
Stock your spice rack with cumin, cardamom, cloves, coriander seeds, turmeric, chilli powder and mustard seeds. Delve into dal (dhal) with black lentils, red lentils and dried mung beans. Grab tamarind paste, curry leaves and coconut milk, too. Garlic, ginger and onion are non-negotiable.
1. Three amigos: The secret to every good curry is frying onion, ginger and garlic until caramelised.
2. Meaty issue: Use meat on the bone for curries – it adds extra flavour and depth.
3. Sticky situation: Rinse long-grain white rice before cooking to remove excess starch. Basmati requires a rinse and soak to stop the grains sticking together.
4. Pinch of this: To stop onions from burning when caramelising, just add salt.
5. Ghee whiz: For a richer curry, cook with ghee (clarified butter), not oil. Make your own by melting unsalted butter over low heat. It’ll form three layers: foam (discard), solids (discard) and the golden ghee.
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A grain bowl for when you need a taste of Mumbai in your day. Grate some fresh turmeric over to add an immunity-boosting kick.
“Kumar Mahadevan is a master of spicing and this mix, to create juicy, delicious chicken, is one of his best recipes. The yoghurt marinade helps tenderise the chicken.” Maeve O'Meara, Food Safari Fire
This wonderfully light and fragrant dish of fish cooked in yoghurt is considered a masterpiece of northern Indian cuisine. Regional differences can be quite marked: in Bangladesh (once East Bengal), you are likely to enjoy a spicier version, whereas West Bengalis like theirs a little sweeter.
Chickpea flour, also known as besan flour, is a staple ingredient in Indian cooking. It is found in everything from batter, to sweets and even in many homemade beauty products. This chickpea fudge showcases the earthy flavour of besan flour mixed with ghee and condensed milk.
A popular dish in northern India are cubes of paneer, a fresh cheese made from cow or buffalo’s milk, that have been marinated in pickling spices (achari masala) and then fried, grilled or cooked in the tandoor. Achar means ‘to pickle’ and the spices that are used – fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds and coriander seeds – are often also used to flavour curries. Here the achari-coated paneer is combined with a chicken curry to create a spicy dish that is perfect for winter.