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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.
e.g.
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

            No.
            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!