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Indian Cooking for One

I am a seasoned pro when it comes to ordering Indian food for delivery. I can also track down the one Indian restaurant in just about any city, from Guadalajara to Torino (actually, Torino had about three). However, I've always been too afraid to try cooking Indian food myself. I just found a great spice store where I can stock up on Indian spices without spending an arm and a leg, so I've bought what I hope are basic spices. Tonight I tried making aloo gobi and dal masoor. I've been cooking for about four hours and I'm guessing I've got another hour to go. I think I used half the cookware in my kitchen! I don't recall feeling this overwhelmed when I've cooked other food (I make a lot of Italian and Mexican stuff). I've also got a lifetime supply of dal and aloo gobi now! (I'm not totally sure of the best way to store this.)

Does anyone have any tips for cooking Indian for one? People from India who live and eat alone... can you help me out? It all just felt like too much. Too much time, too much effort, too much attention, too many ingredients, too much food when I was all done (if I'm ever all done). I need help! I'm on the wrong track!

PS - I am a vegetarian.

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  1. We find that Indian curries, etc. freeze very well.

    1. I don't think there is any getting around the fact that cooking Indian food from scratch is time consuming.

      About two weeks ago I had friends over for my first full Indian dinner. I made Chicken Tikka Masala, Lamb Rojan Josh, Green Beans in Onion Paste, Mint Cucumber Riata, and a Kheer. All of these things I made a day in advance - and it's one reason I chose to cook them.

      From experience cooking just one dish at a time I knew it would take me HOURS to prep and cook all these dishes, and it took me HOURS. All I had to cook the day of the dinner was the popppodums, Basmati rice and warm pre-made naan.

      My husband thought I was absolutely crazy, although he doesn't comment when cooking Thanksgiving dinner from scratch takes me two days!

      Even with four of us I had quite a bit of food left over. I put the left-overs in freezer bags. I find they keep quite nicely. After going through all that work I like having the left-overs to enjoy.

      I am noticing more and more boxed food products in the Indian section at our local supermarkets, many of them for vegetarian dishes ( legumes, spinach and peas) as well as packages of flavored and plain rices that just require a heating in the microwave. You may want to try some of them, they're probably tasty and much easier than making the dishes from scratch.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Axalady

        I've been on a search for the past two years trying to find any of those boxed food products that are good. Most are just ok, and really just ok as in "edible." They mostly taste like they were made at the chef boyardee plant - can't explain "taht flavor," but they all had it. I only buy them from the various Indian Markets around town, and usually ask the clerks if they recommend any of them. I second making from scratch, and freezing if the components are freezer ok. Also, the "Shan" brand masalas save a whole buncha time if you find any that you like. I always have a pkg of their Chicken Handi, and chana masala mixes on hand. Sure you have to doctor them up, but if you find ones that you like, it saves a whole buncha time, and will net you a respectable meal. If you decide to try any of the pre-packaged masalas, beware the sodium content. I generally use about half of what the Shan package recipe states to use. - High salt content in those things.

      2. Indian cooking IS time and labour intensive, but five hours for those two dishes seems too long. Masoor dal is known for its quick cooking, and aloo gobi doesn't take hours, either. If part of the time was for making garam masala, well that's done now, and you won't have to do that again for a while.

        What cookbook are you using? I wonder if that's the problem.

        I always cook MORE than I need, just so I'll have plenty of leftovers (most improve overnight in the fridge). I'll eat them a second time later in the week, and freeze the rest in small amounts. Even leftover rice freezes well. It's wonderful to pull three or four different dishes from the freezer, add a raita, and have my own Indian buffet. Even a poppadom can be microwaved in less than a minute!

        1. Sorry but I can just not fathom how masoor daal and alu gobhi took so long. I cook Indo-Pak food 3-4 times a week for my family and unless I do some labor intensive dish like biriani (which is actually easy, it just has a lot of steps), it takes me about an hour for 2-3 dishes.

          I recommend soaking ALL daals (though so many people on CH say it isn't necessary), it reduces cooking time. Masoor daal, whether you have the whole unskinned or the skinned, needs just a 20 minute to 1 hour soak, or if you are truly lazy you could skip the soak and just deal with a longer cooking time. I would set the lentils out to soak and go do something else. Then, when I am ready to start cooking, I would strain them and then boil, then simmer till done---perhaps adding whatever seasoning to the water. While they are going, I will just chop up my cauliflower and potato, perhaps onions (I don't use onions in my alu gobhi though), and take my garlic ginger paste, which I make about bi-weekly out of the fridge, a long with some chilies and cilantro. Then I just open the spice cabinet and take out whatever spices. Heat the pan, stir fry the potato for about 10 minutes (I always use an Indian-ish quick cooking potato that is done in 20 mins, not a long baking potato), then add in the cauliflower, stir fry that until both the aloo and gobhi are done, having added my spices, seasonings during the cooking. In the meanwhile, the daal has finished up, I have already set out the spices/seasonings for the tempering. I heat the oil, add in the spices, then throw it in the cooked daal. Oila, it is done. About 30 mins before dinner, I do my rice in the rice cooker. I also wash all dishes/pots/utensils as I cook. I never make my own flatbread, I always use store bought (we have good available where I live), whole wheat tortilla, whole wheat pita, or even buy and freeze naan from the Indian restuarant near you if it is reasonaly priced.

          Some time savers are that I make my garlic ginger paste and keep in the fridge, and I also brown-crisp fry a large amount of onions and keep them in the freezer. I know some Asian housewife types also keep pureed fresh green chilies, pureed fresh tomato in the fridge, and grated onions (for sauteeing) in the fridge, too. I feel fine just with the browned onions and g/g paste.

          Do you know how to use a pressure cooker? That is great for many Indian lentil dishes as well, and reduces the legume cooking time to 10-15 mins. I have been using the pressure cooker more lately myself and it is a huge time saver.

          I think after having done it a few times you will get things down pat and it will go faster for you. You can eat the leftovers for a few days. Another solution to certain types of Indian leftovers is to learn to make stuffed paratha and use left over veg (such as aloo gobhi!) to roll into a paratha.

          Anyway, I hope you keep up with the cooking. Better luck next time.

          6 Replies
          1. re: luckyfatima

            Oh, stuffed paratha. The food of the gods. The breakfast of champions.

            1. re: luckyfatima

              That's the first time I've seen it spelled gobHi, but I looked it up in Devanagari, and you're right. Cool.

              1. re: luckyfatima

                In defense of the OP, I grew up with South Asian food and still find a lot of dishes to be a challenge without proper mise en place, especially when I am making a dish I don't normally make. I can make dal or bhindi masala in my sleep, but something like rogan josh turns my kitchen into a chaotic jumble as the onions brown, I search through the pantry for that old cardamom bottle, smoke accumulates from the searing lamb... or is it the burning onions?... wtf did I do with the ginger?... why don't I have ground cumin... dhania... oh crap I forgot to add coriander to the masala. The many moving parts and ingredients can be daunting to even the experienced.

                1. re: JungMann

                  jungmann beta, auntiji says you must organize before you start cooking!

                  I didn't mention meat because the query is about vegetarian, but yes goat takes longer in organizing cooking (you will either have to stand there while you brown the meat in oil, or while you braise it in an oily gravy, and there are many dishes with a lot of steps. Most of the goat or beef cooking is "passive" cooking as you wait for the meat to tenderize. Also, a lot of the dishes I see mentioned in the responses are more "party dish" type fare. But simple veg and daal should be easy. Practice makes perfect.

                  1. re: luckyfatima

                    I think what I need even more is a cooking lesson from Fatima chachi herself!

                    I suppose you are right in that the vegetable dishes are usually simpler and require less active involvement than the searing, draining and stewing required for mutton. But having taught people to cook recipes that I think of as simple, I've seen how the earnest desire not to mess up a recipe can translate into a profoundly retarded pace. Combine that with unfamiliar spices and a 5-hour 2-dish prep does not sound outside the realm of possibility.

              2. Don't forget the Patak's pickles e.g., lime, mango, etc. They really add to an Indian meal, are widely available, and they keep forever in the fridge.

                1. I think Indian food is like anything else new -- it just takes time to find your way around it.

                  I recently ventured into the realm of dal, and veggie dishes like aloo gobi, in my effort to economize ($12 for one meal? Pssht) and reduce the amount of meat I eat.

                  For me the key is to really familiarize myself with the recipe and the techniques before I start -- I'm not comfortable enough to go off-script with it yet. And definitely, DEFINITELY do the mise en place!! Ten or 15 minutes of extra work at the beginning saves me a lot of frantic chopping and trips to the Swear Jar.

                  If I know what's coming next AND I know it's sitting right there on the counter ready for me, it reduces the stress of cooking something so unfamiliar to me. One of those spice-tin-organizer-whatsits is going to be my next investment in the Indian cooking adventure.

                  Edited to add: I also find that my curries freeze quite well and taste delicious left-over. I take my lunch to work every day and in cold weather a hot, spicy curry is very comforting. The exception would be curries that contain a lot of dairy, as the dairy will tend to separate when you re-heat the dish. I'm not bothered, but if it squicks you out at all, just leave the dairy out of the portion you're going to freeze.

                  1. Whenever I get aloo gobi from a restaurant, it's really tomato-y. However, I couldn't find any recipes that called for more than one or two tomatoes. Any ideas why?

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Jetgirly

                      Same reason that when you get bbq sauce in Carolina, it's different than bbq sauce in Texas. Pizza in Chicago is not the same as pizza in Oregon. Marinara sauce in Bologna is not going to be the same as marinara sauce in Palermo. India is not a small town where everyone makes the food the exact same way. There are regional differences, and also within each region, there are plenty of differences in how food is prepared in each home. The city I'm in has 100's of Indian Restaurants, and not one of them that I've been to serves their a/g in a tomato-ey sauce. If YOU like it tomato-ey, then either search for more recipes, or experiment. You might want to ask the restaurant owners where you are where they come from, and then search recipes for a/g and toss the name of the region into your search.

                      1. re: Jetgirly

                        There are a lot of ways one could possibly make aloo gobhi, (regional varieties in terms of seasoning) you could leave out the tomato altogther or add it in for taste and color. One of the generic Indian restaurant techniques (loosely based on Punjabi cooking, hence the tomatoes) is a restaurant sauce of a puree of sauteed onions and tomatoes that is further sauteed until the oil separates from the gravy and kept aside as the base sauce of a lot of dishes.I am guessing the restaurant one is made with this sauce if it is in a masala, as opposed to dry. I have noticed a lot of restaurants also "abuse" this sauce and it often is too tomatoey, oily and overspiced.

                      2. I purchased a cookbook, "INDIAN IN MINUTES" but have not prepared any of the recipes yet. Typical recipes take 10-15 min. to prepare and maybe 10-20 min. to cook. The author is Monisha Bharadwaj, a food consultant in England and India, and cookbook author.

                        INDIAN IN MINUTES
                        ISBN: 1-59223-279-5
                        Laurel Glen Publishing

                        AMAZON: http://www.amazon.com/Indian-Minutes-...

                        This book may be helpful.

                        1. So far I've only made chicken tikka masala and chana masala. The tikka masala freezes very well and the chana masala probably lasts about 6 weeks in the freeze though just ate a 12 week old container and it wasn't too bad. I also really like to make Indian pizza withe chicken tikka masale: use the chicken tikka masala as the sauce, some red onion, cilantor, tomato, and your choice of cheese and you're good to go! I started making this after having Indian pizza in San Francisco.

                          Since there is so much work involved in making an Indian dish, I really prefer to make a double batch and freeze the left overs. Once you have everything out it doesn't take much more effort to make extra.

                          1. only seems overwhelming because you are just getting started.It will get easier
                            as you go along.I have never had any problems freezing Indian cusine.I quit making
                            Indian meals for one years ago when I realized that I was getting screwed out of my
                            fair share of leftovers.Scale back as you Would with other recipes.When trying a
                            new recipe I scale back to 2 to 4 portions and if I like the results I scale up
                            to 8 to twelve. Due to health reasons I have to stock up on the good days so I can
                            eat on the bad days.Apologies for the upcoming meat references.When eating Indian
                            food at home alone I eat differently than at a restaurant.I sometimes freeze small
                            portions so I can make up a thali plate but most of the time I have one meat item
                            (or a dahl item), one side,(rice,roti,pita etc) and one vegtable dish.Of this 3
                            item selection usualy 2 have been frozen.One thing I have found helpful is making
                            the spice mixes up ahead of time and keeping them on hand in bulk.For example my
                            tandoori chicken recipe takes less than 5 minutes to prep as the bulk of the work
                            was done before.Last time I did a thali plate I put a chicken drum and thigh in the
                            toaster over(marinade took5 mins the day before) thawed some chana dal and some
                            curried lentils and made a pea, onion and green pepper dish.Less than 20 mins of
                            work that day gave me a good Indian meal and a plate ready made for tomorrow when
                            I was expecting a bad day.You will get faster as you go along.The last time I made
                            chana dal I made curried lentils as well.It took about an hours worth of effort.
                            This gave me 12 portions (1 cup) of chana dal and 8 portions of curried lentils.I
                            am currently trying out new Indian vegtable dishes in which I can use veggies I
                            have on hand and premade spice mixtures.I can currently put an Indian vegitarian
                            meal on the table in 20 minutes.(dal,lentil,veggies,rice).My keema mutter takes
                            a lot of work but I get 10 servings in the freezer and one supper.
                            wow.Thats a lot of babbling to say you will get faster with practice,your freezer
                            is a big help,mix your spices in ahead in bulk and save the 10 course meals for
                            the buffets.
                            While you are at the library look at Madhur Jaffrey's Indian cook books, also
                            check out her book World Vegitarian.I haven't tried any of the recipes yet but
                            some of Indian ones look good.

                            1. Indian culture doesn't really understand the concept of cooking for one/living alone. Everyone's ideas of freezing and stuff is great, because it does freeze and refrigerate well. But as a cuisine, it's not friendly for someone who cooks for herself.

                              You will probably get better and faster as you go along, though. It's always slow going when you've got to check the instructions every 10 minutes.

                              1. Update: I've got chana masala on the stove. Prep time was about twenty minutes and I'm going to let it simmer about half an hour. That was easy-peasy! Of course, most of it was canned (canned chickpeas, canned tomatoes). In a couple minutes I'm going to start my curry (I think it's pretty much generic curry- it's called Winter Vegetable Curry from the Food Network) and that will be a bit more labour- and time-intensive, I believe.

                                1. I cook for 2. That said, every Indian curry (chicken or meat, not fish or veg) I cook is at least 5 - 6 portions, because they certainly take time, and they freeze very well.
                                  I've been busier lately, and upped it to 6-8 portions. Work is about the same and I get 3 meals cooked in 1 go.
                                  I portion out meals for 2, plus a couple of single portions that I can microwave when I am alone for lunch.


                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: CPla

                                    It's interesting to read everybody's experience. I guess for a person who is trying out Indian Cuisine, it is very daunting. I would blame the cookbooks and other forums which promote party dishes as the only dishes prepared in India. We have so many regular dishes that take just about 10 mins of cooking time too.

                                    First and foremost important thing to consider is of course being prepared and well stocked pantry. Meaning you buy those things that you know you will be using in many of your dishes.

                                    Naturally this is not known to a person who is going to start cooking for the first time. I would suggest getting familar with the cuisine before venturing further. And to start with something very simple.

                                    Basic dal would take about 15 mins to be done, provided as others said you use pressure cooker for cooking the lentil.

                                    There are of course so many cuisines in India. One can't learn all. Yet there are simple dishes from all the cuisines. Like in South India, Rasam (a thin soup if you can call that) can be prepared in 5 mins if you are prepared.

                                    I mostly prepare it in 5 mins,


                                    I also prepare and stock cooked dal which comes very handy when making sambar or other dal based dishes.

                                    I mostly make my breakfast, lunch within 1 & 1/2 hrs or max 2 hrs, which normally includes abt 4 -5 dishes together.
                                    I know this is from exp, but one can easily learn.

                                    Hope you enjoyed your adventure.

                                  2. Trader Joe has quite a few Indian choices ready to go -- in their freezer; shelf-stable packets (I like their saag paneer); and in their bread department. They may also still have their simmer sauces in bottles.

                                    1. Well, my big tip when cooking Indian food is to chop up a big pile of onions and get 'em cooking in a wicked big pan. It seems like every recipe begins with "cook onions until golden..." which takes forever, so I just cook a lot and then parse them out as I go. If a specific recipe says to heat oil & add mustard seeds or whatnot before adding the onions, I heat the oil, add the mustard seeds and cook until popping, then give it a scoop on cooked onion. (Any leftover cooked onions will keep in the fridge for a few days).

                                      My other tip is that I start on a Sunday. I'll make a main dish and 2-3 side dishes, plus raita, then for the next few days I'll cook one new thing - either main dish or veggie (we eat meat), to mix it up a bit.

                                      Finally, there are a suprising number of blogs out there that are geared towards Indian bachelors and re-creating home cooked meals (or sections of Indian food blogs). You might want to browse them for ideas on cooking smaller quantities. For example, http://anthonyskitchen.blogspot.com/

                                      1. My girlfriend and I were in a similar position about 6 months ago. We're just two white people who liked eating at the Indian Restaurant but were sick of driving 30 minutes and spending $40 to eat our favorite food. We also liked the ability to control the amount of cream and fat that went into the dishes, in the interest of eating healthier. So we decided to cook it at home.

                                        It was intimidating. It was unnerving that we couldn't get everything we needed at the local supermarket. Cooking it was time consuming at first. The number of ingredients and steps seemed daunting. We used every utensil and vessel in the kitchen. After awhile, you learn that mise en place is extremely important, and that while there are lots of ingredients and steps, they are usually pretty simple. Many of them can be done in the same cooking vessel, reducing the amount of dishes to do.

                                        Madhur Jaffrey has a book called "Quick and Easy Indian Cooking" that has decent recipes that might be right up your alley. After messing with it and her "Indian Cooking" book for awhile, we got "660 Curries" by Raghavan Iyer. WOW -- maybe I just got lucky but every one of these recipes we have made so far from it are incredible. Normally cookbooks that try to hit a certain number of recipes are terrible. I can assure you this does not appear to be the case here.

                                        Some other tips, many of which have already been said. I will repeat to reinforce:

                                        A pressure cooker helps a lot. They are not scary to use. They can be inexpensive. Just go get one, read the instruction manual, and save time! You won't want to use canned beans or chickpeas again.

                                        Buy good spices, and make your own spice mixtures and grind them on the weekends when you have time. They will keep decent for a little while when airtight and out of the light. If you use crappy pre-ground old spices then you have just wasted all of the effort to cook the meal, as it will taste flat and one dimensional. So you really haven't saved time, you've wasted it.

                                        Make a lot and freeze/refrigerate it. Many dishes taste better the next day!

                                        Buy a blender. Many of the recipes we have tried in 660 Curries require you to blend the sauce, often with nuts in it. This thickens it without adding tons of fat. It is worth doing. An immersion blender with a cup attachment works well too.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: slopfrog

                                          My Indian cooking time and stress saver is to have my spices readily available in airtight little jars. It seems a small thing, but psychologically the jars make a huge difference versus having to rummage through lots of similar looking store-bought plastic bags and then scoop spices out with a spoon.

                                          As others have mentioned, some recipe books make things too complicated. Chana masala, for instance: yes, you could authentically do it in about seventeen steps, performing a ritual stir or whatever at the introduction of each spice, but you can also get very good results in two or three steps.

                                        2. When it comes to Indian cooking, the mise en place is what consumes a lot of my time. Numerous measured amounts of spices everywhere -- vegetables, rices, other grains, etc. I don't mind it that much because the end result is usually very delicious. As mentioned upthread, a lot of Indian dishes are very forgiving in their cooking and can be frozen as well. Whatever you don't consume the same day, try freezing and reheating. Have fun cooking in the meanwhile. : )

                                          1. I'm Indian, and I cook for one. One pot meals are your friend; it's not worth making dal and rice and two kinds of sabji for every meal. My go-to vegetarian option is rajma (kidney beans) or channa (chickpeas) in a simple tomato-and-onion based sauce. If you're in a hurry, you can use canned beans/chickpeas, a small can of tomatoes (with green chillies), jarred ginger and garlic paste, even frozen chopped onions. No need to measure out the spices; just throw some in. As long as you don't use way too much, Indian cuisine is very forgiving about everything other than salt. To go with it, you can make some rice, get some ready-made tortillas, or just eat it out of a bowl with a slice of bread. Non-vegetarians can make a simple chicken or egg-and-potato curry in basically the same sauce.

                                            Another convenient option: rice with yogurt and Indian pickles, with any quick vegetable dish. Most of South India lives off this stuff.

                                            Or there's kitchdi: rice and lentils cooked together until soft. Faster with a pressure cooker, but you can make it on a regular stovetop, depending on what kind of lentils you use. Traditionally eaten with yogurt, pickles, ghee (or butter) and papads (which you can buy ready-to-microwave).