With all its exotic ingredients, unfamiliar dishes, and tongue-tingling flavors, Indian cuisine can be both exciting and intimidating. “It’s such a complete world of taste. You combine all the techniques from other cuisines and add magical spices to get a titillating food experience,” says Madhur Jaffrey, an actress and the author of At Home With Madhur Jaffrey ($35, amazon.com) and many other cookbooks.
“Indian cuisine uses the whole palette of flavors—spicy, sour, sweet, and hot all at the same time—making it something that wants to jump off the plate,” says Floyd Cardoz, the executive chef and a partner of North End Grill in New York City and the author of One Spice, Two Spice ($36, amazon.com).
Don’t be afraid to start playing around with cooking Indian food at home. First, it’s important to understand the various dishes and flavors that make up Indian cuisine. “There’s as much varied cuisine in India as you would find in Europe. It’s all totally different, and the only thing that connects it is a judicious knowledge of the use of spices,” says Jaffrey.
There are a basic 20 to 30 spices that are used in many dishes—cumin, coriander, turmeric, and ginger, to name a few—and there are an infinite number of ways of using them. “Every spice has a reason for being there. They have health benefits, and they make the food more exciting and flavorful,” says Cardoz.
Contrary to common belief, not all Indian dishes are curries. However, “curry” has become a catch-all name for any spice-based meat or vegetable dish with a sauce. Curries can be watery, dry, red, green, hot, or really, really hot—it’s completely up to the chef in charge. In fact, a basic chicken curry is one of the simplest things to start with when first experimenting with Indian cooking. Serve it with a side of dal (a stew made of lentils, peas, or beans) and some roti (a tortilla-like wheat flat bread, available for mail order at ishopindian.com) and you’ll feel as if you’re halfway around the world.