Intro to Indian, Part 1: Know your Spice

Written by Meena Agarwal on February 19th, 2007 | 31 Comments


Jeera Alu
Jeera Alu

In my quest to dismiss the myth that Indian cooking is not for the faint hearted and to help spread my knowledge on cooking some simple and traditional Indian food, I have started this series called Intro to Indian. To make it more interactive and as helpful as I can for my readers, I welcome you to email me any questions that you may have in the process. I will try and respond to the questions personally through email, or in the next part if it’s connected to what I have already planned to discuss.Before I start to talk about cooking Indian food, here are a few tips that I think would help make the process a tad bit simpler. While I already have a Quick-Start Guide on my homepage, this list is minimal for those who want to start slow.

SPICES: If you’ve never cooked Indian food before, and the only spice even remotely connected to Indian cooking ever to step into your spice collecetion is curry powder, then don’t fret. Start with the basics. Here is a list of the most standard spices that would help you cook many delicious Indian meals without making you go all out and splurge on many exotic flavours that you may be clueless about.

- Cumin Seeds
- Mustard seeds
- Turmeric powder
- Red Chili powder/Cayenne
- Coriander Powder
- Garam Masala

Once you have these staples and are confident about playing with them, then go a step further and try out a few more new to you. Slowly, but surely, you’ll have your own collection of spices that you’re fond of and those that you know would enable you to cook meals that you like.

UTENSILS: While certain dishes require certain traditionally designed equipment, a good start would be to invest in a few simple utensils that you already may or may not have.

- a non-stick wide pan
- a deep heavy-bottomed pot
- a kadhai, or wok, preferably non-stick or aluminium

When it comes to cooking simple Indian food, one would only need to be familiar with a few spices and the flavours that go with them. As a self-starter, it’s very easy to lose oneself in the wide selection of spices. True, they may seem intimidating at first, but then as you go along and acquaint yourself with the robust flavours they have to offer, you can’t help but get excited at the prospect of shopping and stocking your spice racks with some of your favourites.

As a first in this series, I thought I’d start with a recipe so simple, yet so flavourful, that would help you identify its distict taste and aroma. Most Indian cooking would begin with a tempering, simply put, it’s just a process where spices like cumin or mustard seeds are added to hot oil and allowed to sizzle. Doing so adds plenty of flavour to the oil, which then helps in penetrating through the dish during the cooking process. Tempering, or tadka, is also a common way of adding a burst of flavour to a subtly spiced dal.

The one thing I like about this dish is how the cumin dominates in taste. Another reason for adding it to the menu today, is to allow you to experiment and play around with some of the flavours you already love, or some that you wish to try. Potatoes are a wonderful vegetable to use when you need to experiment with a certain spice. Since they lack in much flavour themselves and carry out others with ease, I’d suggest you use not more than a combination of 2-3 spices to begin with. This would help you identify the flavours and also enable you to decide whether or not you like the mingling of them together.

Previous installments of the Indian 101 series:

- Intro to Indian

JEERA ALU
POTATOES FRIED WITH CUMIN
Prep time: 10 min | Cooking time: 20 min | Serves: 2

2-3
1 tbsp
1/2 tsp
1/4 tsp
2 tbsp
potatoes, cut into cubes
cumin seeds
red chilli powder
turmeric powder
light cooking oil
salt, to taste

HEAT oil in a non-stick pan and saute cumin seeds till they begin to sizzle. Add potatoes and stir-fry for 10-15 minutes on medium-high heat till tender.

STIR in red chilli powder, turmeric, and salt, and cook covered for a few minutes till done.

Some other alterations to try with this recipe would be:

  • Decrease the amount of cumin seeds in half, substituting the other half denomination with corainder seeds. Sprinkle a pinch of dried fenugreek leaves a few minutes before the potatoes are done.
  • Add about a cup and a half of bite-size cauliflower florets along with the potatoes to make Alu Gobi.
  • Add a cup of frozen peas and cook covered for an extra 5 minutes once potatoes are tender to made delicious Alu Matar.
  • Add a small onion, finely diced, before adding the spices. Follow the remaining method and add a chopped tomato towards the end of the cooking process. Allow to cook covered till tomatoes soften and pulp.

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