A few hints for Indian cooking

majorbloodnok

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A while ago, I posted a response to a thread about curries and got some great feedback. As a result, I thought it might be sensible to post a few more general tips and observations about Indian cooking to help people with improving variety in their kitchens.

Firstly, spices in general. With very few exceptions, I strongly urge that you buy whole spices rather than ground. They retain the aromatics longer, so giving a better flavour, and you're likely to find the approach cheaper too. If you buy, for instance, some coriander seeds and need some ground coriander, you can always grind what you want at the time you need it, but you can't ungrind a powder to reconstitute the whole seeds. This also goes for combination powders like garam masala; far better to add the whole spices you want to include and then whizz them up when you need them. The only obvious exceptions that spring to mind are turmeric and chilli powder, both of which are more hassle to grind up yourself than any benefit you might get.

Secondly, the taste of spices. It's well worth taking a spot of time to actually taste each of the common spices. You can't understand how to use a spice (any more than any other ingredient) until you know what it tastes like. However, very few of us actually pop a couple of cumin seeds in our mouths and chew to experience the basic flavour.

Thirdly, cooking with spices. It's the aromatics you want from the spices, and they need to be released from whole spices. As a general rule of thumb, therefore, pop your whole spices into the pan right at the beginning with the oil and fry gently until you can start to smell the spices; at that point you know the aromatics are being released. Do not, however, add any ground spices at this point otherwise the volatile aromatics will evaporate entirely before the dish is finished; instead, wait until later in the process; some spices will do best being added after you've finished frying the onions so their flavour can permeate the solid ingredients you add at that point whilst something like garam masala can be added to the dish right at the end as a final elevation and seasoning.

Next, forget shortcuts like curry paste and curry powder. If you work with the basic spices and follow the simple principles I laid out in my original post, you don't need them and the result will taste better.

Next, measurements. For a given quantity, translate that to "some". If a recipe asks for a teaspoon of coriander seeds or 3 cardamom pods, it'll work just as well with twice that quantity. We often see a recipe calling for x number of garlic cloves, but never do they say how big those garlic cloves should be, so it's patently fine to just use a bit of "bucket chemistry" judgement. Ditto fresh ginger; one thumb of ginger root could be wildly thicker than another, so forget accurate measurement. That said, it's the proportions that are more important so if you're going heavy with the garlic, go heavy with the ginger too and be generous on the other spices.

Whilst talking about fresh ginger, forget all the niceties. Break of a piece and grate it with your cheese grater. Not the fine zester side but the bit with normal holes; you're only trying to break up the fibres, not blend it into a paste. Oh, and don't bother peeling it either; the grater will deal with all that perfectly well.

Were you aware that paneer (Indian cooking cheese) is basically to goat's milk what tofu is to soy milk? As a result, in almost every application you can take a paneer recipe, swap paneer for tofu and have a vegan alternative. Also, the cooking properties of ghee (clarified butter) and coconut oil are very similar so ditto for those two as veganising swaps although obviously there's a more significant flavour change. Finally, vegan yoghurt alternatives are actually convincingly close to my (omnivore) palate, so work just as well in any recipes requiring yoghurt (such as a Korma). None of these omnivore --> vegan substitutions is a second-grade alternative, so you should be able to veganise many of the classic Indian recipes you can find on the Internet and in well known cookery books without any compromise in flavour.

Curries almost always taste better the next day since they've had extra time for the flavours to mingle. As a result, it makes lots of sense to bulk cook and then freeze portions. Just don't freeze stuff containing potatoes; the spuds will end up as a mushy mess when they defrost.

Don't forget accompaniments. Some finely chopped fresh tomato mixed in with some finely diced onion and then left in the fridge for an hour or two to marinate works really well as a refreshing "chutney" alongside a creamy curry. A raita (yoghurt mixed with mint, diced cucumber or perhaps both) is a really great cooling accompaniment to a hotter curry. Providing accompaniments like these can change a well crafted curry into a well crafted meal, and any friends and family will love the complexities of the whole.

These are just some tips off the top of my head, but please do feel free to add to the list.
 
I've never had any issue with Indian or Thai foods, and am lucky to have a number of good grocers near me. I think I used to go overboard on number of spices, and have learned that for I cook it's often best to have a good curry powder I like, which is Shans, and amp it up with ground corinader, cardamon garlic and fresh ginger. I also keep tamarind concentrate on hand. I had a spice blend designed for tamarind rice which was very good. Sometimes those blends are so worth it
I make soy yogurt about weekly and love to add to spicy things, often just plain.
Tofu I like best to add simply cubed and cooked in the sauce.
You've got me wanting Indian food now :lick:
 
There's nothing I like more, when eating Indian food, than biting into a whole cumin seed. One tip I might add is that some cilantro (coriander leaves) can make even a curry made with cheap curry powder taste good. Fresh is preferable.
 
There's nothing I like more, when eating Indian food, than biting into a whole cumin seed. One tip I might add is that some cilantro (coriander leaves) can make even a curry made with cheap curry powder taste good. Fresh is preferable.
I almost feel like you're making fun of me :rofl:Put some nigella sativa on while you're at it!
 
Absolutely! It sounds like you have a lot of great advice for anyone looking to get better at Indian cooking.
 
Last edited:
A while ago, I posted a response to a thread about curries and got some great feedback. As a result, I thought it might be sensible to post a few more general tips and observations about Indian cooking to help people with improving variety in their kitchens.

Firstly, spices in general. With very few exceptions, I strongly urge that you buy whole spices rather than ground. They retain the aromatics longer, so giving a better flavour, and you're likely to find the approach cheaper too. If you buy, for instance, some coriander seeds and need some ground coriander, you can always grind what you want at the time you need it, but you can't ungrind a powder to reconstitute the whole seeds. This also goes for combination powders like garam masala; far better to add the whole spices you want to include and then whizz them up when you need them. The only obvious exceptions that spring to mind are turmeric and chilli powder, both of which are more hassle to grind up yourself than any benefit you might get.

Secondly, the taste of spices. It's well worth taking a spot of time to actually taste each of the common spices. You can't understand how to use a spice (any more than any other ingredient) until you know what it tastes like. However, very few of us actually pop a couple of cumin seeds in our mouths and chew to experience the basic flavour.

Thirdly, cooking with spices. It's the aromatics you want from the spices, and they need to be released from whole spices. As a general rule of thumb, therefore, pop your whole spices into the pan right at the beginning with the oil and fry gently until you can start to smell the spices; at that point you know the aromatics are being released. Do not, however, add any ground spices at this point otherwise the volatile aromatics will evaporate entirely before the dish is finished; instead, wait until later in the process; some spices will do best being added after you've finished frying the onions so their flavour can permeate the solid ingredients you add at that point whilst something like garam masala can be added to the dish right at the end as a final elevation and seasoning.

Next, forget shortcuts like curry paste and curry powder. If you work with the basic spices and follow the simple principles I laid out in my original post, you don't need them and the result will taste better.

Next, measurements. For a given quantity, translate that to "some". If a recipe asks for a teaspoon of coriander seeds or 3 cardamom pods, it'll work just as well with twice that quantity. We often see a recipe calling for x number of garlic cloves, but never do they say how big those garlic cloves should be, so it's patently fine to just use a bit of "bucket chemistry" judgement. Ditto fresh ginger; one thumb of ginger root could be wildly thicker than another, so forget accurate measurement. That said, it's the proportions that are more important so if you're going heavy with the garlic, go heavy with the ginger too and be generous on the other spices.

Whilst talking about fresh ginger, forget all the niceties. Break of a piece and grate it with your cheese grater. Not the fine zester side but the bit with normal holes; you're only trying to break up the fibres, not blend it into a paste. Oh, and don't bother peeling it either; the grater will deal with all that perfectly well.

Were you aware that paneer (Indian cooking cheese) is basically to goat's milk what tofu is to soy milk? As a result, in almost every application you can take a paneer recipe, swap paneer for tofu and have a vegan alternative. Also, the cooking properties of ghee (clarified butter) and coconut oil are very similar so ditto for those two as veganising swaps although obviously there's a more significant flavour change. Finally, vegan yoghurt alternatives are actually convincingly close to my (omnivore) palate, so work just as well in any recipes requiring yoghurt (such as a Korma). None of these omnivore --> vegan substitutions is a second-grade alternative, so you should be able to veganise many of the classic Indian recipes you can find on the Internet and in well known cookery books without any compromise in flavour.

Curries almost always taste better the next day since they've had extra time for the flavours to mingle. As a result, it makes lots of sense to bulk cook and then freeze portions. Just don't freeze stuff containing potatoes; the spuds will end up as a mushy mess when they defrost.

Don't forget accompaniments. Some finely chopped fresh tomato mixed in with some finely diced onion and then left in the fridge for an hour or two to marinate works really well as a refreshing "chutney" alongside a creamy curry. A raita (yoghurt mixed with mint, diced cucumber or perhaps both) is a really great cooling accompaniment to a hotter curry. Providing accompaniments like these can change a well crafted curry into a well crafted meal, and any friends and family will love the complexities of the whole.

These are just some tips off the top of my head, but please do feel free to add to the list.
Thanks for sharing the information. I have also heard that if you do not use spices within a year, throw them away as they
lose their flavor.
 
Thanks for sharing the information. I have also heard that if you do not use spices within a year, throw them away as they
lose their flavor.
That’s a good rule of thumb, although many things can affect the rate of loss of flavour. Tasting your spices from time to time is the surest way of deciding whether they’re past it or not, and you’ll develop a better confidence in your palate at the same time.
 
I've learned my lesson about getting rid of spices- as in "NOPE".
If I don't use them I need to remember why I haven't, and if I get rid of them I'll just start that circle all over.
Honestly there are few i think actually 'go bad', like paprika, or any pepper, but most just get weak or musty