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Cooking Tips - Indian Food

Can any of my fellow hounds give me some tips for cooking Indian Food at home? I am lucky enough to have specialty markets near me for unusual ingredients, but there are many things I dont know.
Fresh grated ginger vs premade?
Is it ok to mince onions in the food processor?

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  1. Fresh ginger is much brighter and complex than dried or candied. You can puree it or cut it into coins and freeze it if you aren't using it up. In a pinch, I've used pickled ginger (the kind that accompanies sushi) in Indian cooking. The sugar and vinegar used to pickle it blend well with many Indian dishes. Using the processor to chop onions is okay if you are doing a long, slow-cooking dish. Processed onion, like grated onion, is more watery and sharp-tasting than hand-prepped.If the dish is raw or quick-cooked, you'd be better off using a mild or sweet onion variety like Vidalia. Note: not all red onions are sweet. Most sweet onions are flattened at the poles.

    I love Indian food but when I cook it I simplify the seasonings considerably, using garam masala, curry powder, and asefoetida (a.k.a. hing) instead of the long list of individual spices. It's not as good as restaurant dishes but still nice. I don't use the individual spices often enough to merit buying each one and I tend to decide my menu on the fly - if I didn't make a dish unless I had all the right ingredients, I'd never make it!

    Even with my ersatz version of Indian food, making sure to cook the spices in hot oil before stirring into other ingredients gives a great depth and boost to the final flavors.

    1 Reply
    1. re: greygarious

      I definitely agree with cooking spices in hot oil before using them. I made lemon rice the other day and almost skipped that step(needed to cook turmeric, ginger, mustard seeds, and cumin in the oil before mixing with rice)...it definitely made a difference cooking the spices in oil first.

    2. For curries, start by cooking your mix of spices in hot oil. Use blends of individual spices. Then add processed aromatics – ginger, shallots, garlic, and chiles. Throw in meat and vegetables: onions, if used, can be (possibly should be) processed. For other vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli, dice; don’t toss in bite-sized pieces. Add in coconut milk and let simmer.

      1. Some thoughts of the top of my head:

        I use jarred ginger paste if I forget to buy fresh. I would never, in a million years, use dried ginger. It is completely worthless, IMO. It tastes nothing at all like ginger.

        I would never in a million years use something labeled "curry powder." Especially those yellow types that just smell awful. (IMO they taste awful too.)

        Shan brand masalas are very helpful time savers. I use about half of the amount of the spice mix their recipes on the box call for. This brand is pretty salty. I use the masala, and then doctor it up with fresh ginger, garlic, chilies, etc. Same way you doctor up any other pre-packaged thing.

        Learning to properly saute your spices is almost essential. I think it's referred to as "bhun"ing.

        Fresh Curry leaf - get it. freeze it. use it.

        I love a nice spoonfull of "Coriander Chutney" in most dishes during cooking. There are a few different brands. The one I like is a thick bright green paste in a 6 inch tall slender jar. It does not have much sugar in it. I've tried a few other brands which were loaded with sugar. Check the labels. The one I use is simply cilantro, dessicated coconut, ginger, vinegar, salt and a few spices. It is mostly the flavor of cilantro.

        Try some different pickles: mango, chili.

        On the sly:
        If you have access to real tortillas in your area, you can substitue thick, chewy, flour tortillas as an accompanying bread. I use a brand that makes something called tortillas caseras - which are "home style" flour tortillas that are much thiscker and chewier than their regular flour tortilla products. I can brush these with butter, toss them into a hot oven for a minute or two - they puff up, and they can pass for some kind of pliable flatbread. note: regular, thin, limp. lifeless flour tortillas will NOT do for this.

        If your Indian grocers have homemade snacks for sale, try them! You might find that perfect samosa or vada to go with your home cooked stuff for dirt cheap!

        5 Replies
        1. re: gordeaux

          So there is no ginger in your homemade garam masala?

          It is possible to buy whole dried ginger and grate it yourself. I usually get mine in Mexican cello packages.

          1. re: paulj

            I've never had a dried (powdered or ground) ginger that I felt had any real redeeming quality. I've never purchased those dried pieces though - I know exactly what you are talking about. See them all the time.

            1. re: paulj

              ginger is not a typical garam masala ingredent (tho obviously there are many versions.

              I thnk dry ginger is most commonly used in the north, such as Kashmir, recipes. Most indian recipes will use paste.

            2. re: gordeaux

              i've gotten curry powder from sri lanka ("larich" brand), one plain and one "jaffna" -- they are nothing like the supermarket curry powder, and are quite fine -- esp. when one doesn't have the time nor inclination to haul out the long list of spices to make them. http://shop.niwasa.com/Curry_Powder.a...

              1. re: gordeaux

                Thanks for all the tips. Especially about the homestyle flour tortillas. I once made methi parathas, They were delicious but labor intensive.

              2. Ginger-garlic puree is not an uncommon ingredient to find in many an Indian refrigerator, however you have less control over the flavor of your dish with it. For someone starting out, I would say freeze a knob of fresh ginger and grate it on a microplane as needed. The same with the fresh garlic. Onions usually should be diced. When frying aromatics and spices, do not be afraid to get the onions to a dark brown over a medium flame. This is where a lot of the body and flavor for your sauce will come from.

                Indian recipes often use more salt than I think is necessary, but do not be afraid of being generous with the oil. Until you are comfortable judging the amount of oil a curry actually needs, you are best advised to skim off the excess after cooking, rather than risk having too little oil and burning your spices.

                1. (1) first, get some good recipes. Madhur Jaffrey's books , especially her first, Introduction to Indian Cooking, are good to start out, and will give you a sense of the results you can get with a few ingredients, cooking from scratch - its really a relevation, especially with vegetable dishes and simple meat dishes . Personally unless you goal is to reproduce standard restaurant meat dishes,I wouldnt start out with storebought spice blends or pastes - Id start with the simplest recipes for chicken, meat or keema she offers to build your knowledge of indian flavorings - they are wonderful dishes. for example, her simplest chicken dish I believe is seasoned only with whole spices and yogurt, and she moves up to include sauteed onions, onion and ginger paste etc so you learn the flavorings and the techniques from the bottom up.

                  (2) buy a selection of the basic spices in small quantities from a fresh source - I believe the following will cover most of your needs
                  Whole green cardamon, cloves, black peppercorns, bay leave (indian cassia leaves if available) cassia or cinnamon stick
                  Whole cumin, fennel, black (or brown) mustard seed, kalonji, dried red chiles
                  ground spices: cumin and coriander seed; garam masala, if you dont want to make your own. asafoetida powder, cayenne or other hot chile powder

                  (3) before you start to cook, read the recipe through carefully, get all of the ingredients laid out in groups and do any preparatory steps- if you need to use a spice paste, make that first . since much of this cooking takes place in a frying pan / like a stir fry you will not want to be rooting in the closet for say cumin seeds while your mustard seeds are already popping.

                  (4) commercial ginger or ginger/garlic paste is great in a pinch, and I use it a lot but I think the flavor of fresh ginger is much nicer. A blender works better than a food processor for making the pastes you need for cooking Note that the Jaffrey book came out before the pastes were widely available so you can get a good feel for how things are supposed to work and look while cooking. When you fry the spice pastes, often they will contain a fair amount of water - they have to acrtually release the water and fry in the oil for the proper flavor to be produced. Most of these cook at med-high temp and you stir quite frequently until the oil comes out and you have the smell of frying. Dont reduce the oil too much or you will not get the correct flavor/browning.

                  (5) Sure you can chop the onions in the processer if the recipe calls for chopped onions. I usually dont, however.

                  (6) green chiles, and a nice bunch of coriander leaves to use in dishes and as a garnish will really be helpful in obtaining fresh sharp indian flavors. For southern dishes, frozen grated coconut and fresh curry leaves are also essential.

                  (7) It is satisfying and not difficult to extract your own tamarind extract - which is much better and more fruity than the commercial TAMCON extract. Just buy a hunk of of the thai compressed tamarind, which is still moist and squishy. Take the required amount and soak in hot water work it with your fingers to separate out the seeds and mebranes and push it through a sieve - a few minutes will get you nice fresh tamarind extract (you can make extra and freeze for subsequent use)

                  Thats what comes to mind immediately.

                  any more specific questions as you explore, please ask!

                  1. Bear in mind that India itself is a very large country with an extremely varied cuisine. Add to that Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and you've got a really wide variety of cooking styles an cultures. Quick cook; long slow cook; lots of meat; entirely vegetarian; very spicy; very mild, etc. You'll easily find something that suits your own style.

                    As others have said, usually better to use individual fresh spices (although I use a bought garam masala). I buy a hand of ginger, peel it and chop it into usable portions (about thumb sized), then freeze it. I grate from frozen - it's fine.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Harters

                      Agree that Madhur Jaffrey's Intro. to Indian Cooking is fantastic. I learned to cook Indian food with it, and many years later, I'm still using it. She suggests blending garlic and ginger with water into a paste for many dishes, and I found this a quick and easy way to work with ginger. I now often use the same technique for onions, depending on the nature of the dish (great for long-cooking curries and stews where onions will disintegrate anyway.
                      Buy the basic spices and store them in the freezer. They last a very long time. I bought a cheap little coffee grinder just for grinding Indian spices; freshly ground spices and blending your own makes all the difference.

                      1. re: nomadchowwoman

                        Agree! As I posted above, I have a tiny B&D processor largely for grinding up ginger, garlic, chiles, and shallots prior to tossing into the frying spices.

                      2. re: Harters

                        Thanks for all your tips. Although I do eat meat,there are so many Indian vegetarian dishes that I love, I tend to make them. Do you have any particular favorites.

                        1. re: scharffenberger

                          Are you asking for our favorite vegetarian or meat recipes?

                          For veg I love bhindi masala, baingan bhartha, pakora, aloo gobi, malai kofta, ekuri, palak paneer

                          For non-veg: rogan josh, mutton biryani, vindaloo, saag gosht, kheema (lamb or turkey), nihari, haleem, murgh makhani, seekh/chapli kababs.

                      3. my tips: for most published recipes, double or triple the spices. I do so even with Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, my favorite Indian cookbooks. a basic curry recipe:

                        1. over medium high heat, heat the whole spices in heated veg oil. It may be a cinnamon stick and a couple cloves, or a few cardamom pods. then "brown fry" sliced onions (or food processor chopped is fine). Plan on 1-2 per pound of meat. the onions should brown, use plenty of veg oil. add 1-2 sliced serranos if you want.

                        2. add ginger garlic paste. I would use about 4 TBS for 1 onion. saute. add chopped tomato, canned is fine. then cook over med heat for a long time so the tomato cooks down and you get a homogenous mass. you can't really over cook it, just don't burn it. you can add a bit of water if you want.

                        3. add dry spices and let them toast. basics: ground cumin, coriander, mango powdeer, etc. the oil should separate and be colored. add salt.

                        4. stir in some yogurt, preferably whole milk, a TBS or 2 at a time, incorporating each. you can use a lot or a little. then add your meat/veg--e.g., a pound of bonless chicken in bite size pieces, bone in chicken pieces, potato. simmer for 30 minutes. correct seasonings. serve over rice and use fresh cilantro, lime, yogurt, raw onion soaked in vinegar for accompaniments.

                        12 Replies
                        1. re: cocktailhour

                          I dont at all agree with doubling or tripling the spices in indian recipes. three things,
                          1. if your spices have been freshly ground they will be more flavorful. An extra quantity of dull tasting spices just make for a dull tasting dish,and too much spice of anykind can start tasting chemical, unappealing.
                          2 you have to gauge your own tolerance and taste for chillies. these two authors recommend spicing to american tastes Add or subtract chiles as you figure out what you like.
                          3. your cookbook is your teacher here. Wait till you have more experience before starting to adjust the spice blend.- everything is adjustable to personal taste, but its good to learn about the flavor combos, etc first.

                          Re the recipe, it looks pretty good, bu you might want to consider browning the chicken pieces as part of the preparation - recipes differ on when to do this, I think it would enhance the flavor of the dish.

                          1. re: jen kalb

                            for my tastebuds, increasing the spices makes it taste more like the food I have had in India and in Indian homes. I have not tasted a chemical taste from doubling the spice in recipes.

                            In the technique above, the chicken is deliberately not browned for a couple reasons. First, I like the soft texture in the dish. second, browning is a French technique that caramelizes the exterior, but also prevents some absorption of the flavors of the sauce. for Indian curries, not browning makes the meat more flavorful. also, one of the advantages of browning is the crisp texture, but that will disappear in the long simmer anyway.

                            1. re: cocktailhour

                              I think browning might be the wrong term? For a typical non-bhuna curry, I've always added the meat after the masala has fried a bit, cooked the meat in the masala until it has released some water which is a bit like browning (bhuna stage for others), and then added water/garam masala (note: I've noticed that adding the garam masala to the oil with the onions is more common, this is just how my family does it). Potatoes and finishing elements (yogurt, cilantro, green chilies, a bit of sugar, chunks of tomato, etc.) are added in the last 10-15 minutes.

                              1. re: adrienne156

                                I don't think of the meat browning when I add it to the masala, (which to me means the onion, ginger-garlic, reduced tomato, etc.) because it's wet. but I think we are describing the same thing--the meat cooks in the flavorings. I usually use garam masala for finishing, not during the cooking process.

                                1. re: cocktailhour

                                  Agreed and I don't do it to the point of carmelization, just until a bit of water comes out. 6-8 minutes.

                                  The garam masala that I'm referring to is the whole spices (cinnamon stick, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom, whole peppercorns), not the grounds.

                                2. re: adrienne156

                                  yes it wouldnt get brown per se - this is definitely a frying step however - I would say the chicken is sealed and gets golden. - yogurt might be gradually added during this stage if used, and fried also, with water and possibly more curd being added for the final cooking.

                                3. re: cocktailhour

                                  If you find that you need to double the spices in your food, your spices might be old or the recipes you're using are disproportionate. I've never had to double the spices in any Madhur Jaffrey books or recipes I've gotten from friends and South Asian websites.

                                  As for browning, I belive proteins are not meant to be browned in curry for exactly the reasons you specify. As adrienne suggests, you can fry them for a bit in the masala, but not to the point where the surface would caramelize.

                                  1. re: cocktailhour

                                    well, your approach is valid and the recipe looks fine, but not down the lines of my own preferences, which is for the fuller flavor in sauce caused by some browning/searing. I also tend to cook with dark meat on the bone, which gives the meat a little longer to pick up flavor without drying out.. Frying the meat Its a common enough technique in indian cooking that it doesnt make sense to call it a french method ..

                                    Ight before eating - the flavors develop better and the spice flavors can tend to intensify

                                    I dont see surface crispness as an issue anyway for Indan chicken dishes since the chicken is generally skinned for cooking,


                                    1. re: jen kalb

                                      my description of it as a french method comes from Julie Sahni's cookbook. I get the fullness in the sauce by cooking down the onions, ginger garlic, and tomato, etc. for a really long time before moving forward. When my mom comes to visit, she will make me masala for my freezer, which is always nice to have.

                                      JungMan, I agree the amount of spice is personal preference. My spices are pretty fresh, I just know it works to achieve the homemade result I am seeking.

                                    2. re: cocktailhour

                                      I don't know. I think you are supposed to "bhunofy" the meat in many dishes.
                                      You will find dishes in which the protein is browned before hand and set aside, then re added after the wet masala is bhunofied.
                                      You will also find dishes in which the raw meat is added to a completely bhunofied masala with the oil floating above the top of the masala and you stir the meat in this until it completely changes color.
                                      Then there are dishes in which the meat is marinated in yoghurt and you cook the marinade and meat together until the oil separates to bhunofy the meat a bit. I think this adds flavor.
                                      For dishes in which the meat is properly browned and set aside, obviously it is supposed to be browned.
                                      But I am not 100% sure in the other cases how much color should appear on the meat. I do know that well bhunofied ingredients at each stage of a "curry" are very important. So I imagine it should be cooked for as long as possible before you add in a liquid for the simmering stage. I will ask around and get back to you on what the consensus is from some Asian cooks.

                                  2. re: cocktailhour

                                    I have both Sahni books. They are excellent.

                                  3. You absolutely have to use fresh ginger. I have a good trick. I keep a big knob in the freezer (vacuum sealed, but that's not critical). That way, you always have "fresh." You don't need to defrost. As needed, I shave off very thin slices with a big chefs knife. Same motion as shaving chocolate from a big block. The ginger tha flakes off is like ginger sorbet, and it pretty much melts into your curries.

                                    I often make a shortcut dal that is nothing more than dal, water, salt, pepper, garam masala, lots of shaved ginger, and thai chile peppers. Sometimes I'll add Kaffir lime, or other spices, but it's fine very basic.

                                    Also, don't freak out when you add yogurt to a curry and it seems to curdle. That's supposed to happen.

                                    Finally, many indian recipes depend on the use of essentially caramelized onions. So whether you process them or not, it's a good idea to cook them (in ghee if you have it) until pretty well browned. The onions sometimes pick up that almost-but-not-quite charred flavor that adds a nice dimension to some curries.

                                    1. Indian food is one of my favorite things in the world to cook. First and most important are good recipes to follow. I have several Madhur Jaffrey cookbooks, which are excellent. In order to get the best results I'd suggest that you follow any recipe EXACTLY and don't use a pre-made spice mix unless it's actually called for. Once you become familiar with the spices then you could make substitutions based on your flavor preferences. I think it's fine if you use a pre-made ginger or garlic paste, but I use fresh. Also, don't skip any cooking instruction. A lot of recipes call for spices to be fried or toasted and these steps play a major role in the overall flavor of the dish. I have small ramekins into which I pre-measure all the spices I'm going to be using before I start cooking. Makes preparation much easier.

                                      1. Does anyone know about this dish. It has cauliflower and potatoes. It's more like an appetizer and it has curry in it. I love Indian food and I'm always tempted to make it but I don't know where to start. I'll try something small to begin with. Thanks!

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: ChowinDown

                                          I have a book of '1000 Indian Recipes' with 8 for cauliflower and two dozen for potatoes.

                                          I'd suggest a search on alu/aloo and gobi - common Indian names for potato and cauliflower, respectively.

                                          1. re: ChowinDown

                                            You might need to be a little more descriptive for an accurate answer. There is a side dish called aloo gobi (literally potato cauliflower) that is fairly common, however if you're thinking of the potato/cauliflower mash that served on a bun as an appetizer on occasion, you're probably thinking of pav bhaji.

                                            1. re: ChowinDown

                                              like the others have said, there is a dry curry called aloo gobi - different versions from dfferent regions but its a basic dish.

                                              1. re: jen kalb

                                                Yes, so basic the mother in "Bend it Like Beckham" only wanted to know that her soccer playing daughter could at least make a proper aloo ghobi.

                                            2. I know this is more like an "eating tip", but after reading all these posts, I'm ready to eat. And I have almost always had a bowl of Raita next to my plate to help me savor the flavors from dish to dish.

                                              1. I thank one and all for all the tips.