A wide variety of spices play a key role in this dynamic cuisine, which is not as intimidating as it may seem.
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.
Indian cuisine has an added bonus for vegetarians: For them, it’s one of the friendliest cuisines around. Judicious use of spices and sauces breathes new life into the likes of potatoes, cauliflower, peas, and eggplant. And a meal of hearty-but-healthy palak paneer (a spinach-and-cheese dish) with a side of naan (a pita-type leavened flat bread) will convert even the biggest meat lovers.
There are easy ways to start bringing the tastes of India into your kitchen. “Try to incorporate Indian flavors into dishes you already do, for example, roasted fish, chicken or steamed vegetables. Pick something with two or three spices and start with that. Add a little cumin, ginger, and chili pepper to the vegetable you like,” says Cardoz. “Remember that your food can only be as good as the ingredients you start with, but you don’t need the most expensive ingredients. You can make chicken thighs, and they’re simple and flavorful. Embrace the cuisine, and don’t be afraid of it.”
The bottom line: Keep it simple when you’re starting out at home. Look for basic potato, okra, and meat dishes to help build your Indian-cuisine repertoire. “Don’t overwhelm yourself by buying 30 spices,” says Jaffrey. “Start with the ones for a specific dish.”
Preparing the dishes is only part of crafting the perfect Indian culinary experience. It’s up to each diner to make every bite count. “When you make your mouthfuls, you can vary the taste by putting pickles or chutney on each different bite,” says Jaffrey.
With its array of spices and condiments and experimental attitude, Indian cuisine allows home cooks to get creative and adventurous. Play around with basic dishes and flavors and you’ll find it’s an easy way to shake up your usual dinner repertoire.