A Beginner’s Guide to Indian Cooking
Once you learn the basics of Indian cooking, you'll be ready to start making the most delicious naan, chana masala and butter chicken at home.
It’s almost impossible to get your head around what “Indian cooking” is. There’s so much variety to this ancient cuisine, which incorporates different flavors and spices from region to region. Add to that a long history of trade, invasions and colonialism and you’ll find plenty of Persian, Portuguese, British and Dutch influences, among others. If you love how spicy Indian food is, you might be surprised to learn that chiles are a Mexican import, likely brought to India by the Portuguese in the 17th or 18th century.
What Is Indian Cooking?
Indian cooking dates back to the Indus civilization, also called the Harappan civilization, of roughly 5,000 years ago. Wheat, rice, millet, chickpeas and lentils were the staple diet, and remain part of it to this day. Spices, especially cinnamon, were used to flavor food, and eventually the spices we’re now familiar with took hold: black cardamom, cumin and star anise, to name a few. Dairy products were later incorporated, and flatbreads became popular.
Now, you might believe India is largely vegetarian. However, that isn’t true historically, or even in the present day. Cattle and poultry were eaten in ancient India, and even animals like wildfowl and peacocks were fair game! While we’re on the subject of myths, curry powder, a spice blend usually added to Indian-inspired food outside the country, is more likely a British invention than an Indian one. Indian curries vary according to region, ingredients and even families, and use several different combinations of spices.
It’s not just curry—dishes vary wildly across different regions of India. But there are some similarities in certain regions that can help us understand what we might expect to find.
Northern Indian Cooking
North Indian cuisine is the type seen most widely outside India. It has a strong Mughal influence and often features dairy ingredients like yogurt, clarified butter (ghee) and cream. You might be familiar with foods like samosas, palak paneer and korma from this region.
Western Indian Cooking
Look for fish and coconut-heavy cuisine along the western coast, though the sea-bordered state of Goa, a former Portuguese colony, has heavy Portuguese influences. Parts of western India, especially in Gujarat, are primarily vegetarian, and eat slightly sweetened food.
Eastern Indian Cooking
Eastern Indian cuisine favors fish and rice along the coast, especially in Bengal, and the upper northeastern states are heavily influenced by East Asian cuisine due to their proximity to the border. Momos, a type of dumpling, are one of the most prominent examples of this, closely resembling wontons. This region is also famous for its sweets, particularly rasgulla and mishti doi.
Southern Indian Cooking
South India relies heavily on fish in the coastal regions. Vegetable and lentil curries like sambar, rasam and poriyal (a dry curry) are also popular. Instead of flatbreads, main dishes are often eaten with crepe-like rice pancakes called dosas, or slightly thicker versions called utthapams, which may be filled or topped with vegetables and chutneys. Something you’ll likely see in Indian restaurants in this region are pappadams, which are deep-fried crispy rice crackers.
Much like the rest of the world, main dishes are the stars of an Indian table. From meat-based dishes like biryani and laal maas, to the classic vegetarian dishes like dal and chana masala, there’s something for everyone here. Of course, no meal is complete without a side of bread, and you’ll love cooking all the different types of Indian breads. Two of the most popular are chapatis and naan. But that’s not all you’ll want to have on the side when you’re learning how to cook Indian food: Check out Indian recipes for appetizers like samosas and delicious, cooling drinks like mango lassi. If you prefer lighter fare, you can always make your own chaat.
Indian dessert recipes are a must too, so you can finish off your meal with melt-in-your-mouth pedas or syrupy rasgullas. And if you’re looking for a shortcut, you can make plenty of Indian recipes in your air fryer!
Indian Cooking Equipment
While cooking Indian food doesn’t always require specialized equipment, some tools can definitely make your dishes easier to make—and tastier! There are plenty of Indian cooking tools that you’ll find in traditional kitchens, but if you’re just starting out, you should have these basics:
- Tawa: This concave pan, traditionally made of cast iron, is essential to making a fluffy roti or chapati. A flatter version can be used for dosas.
- Belan and Chakla: The smaller, thinner rolling pin (belan) is perfect for rolling out flatbreads, and its accompanying board provides a sturdy surface.
- Masala Daba: This basic spice box makes it easy to add spices while cooking.
- Pressure Cooker: A good pressure cooker will save you time while making rice, dal and other Indian dishes that may take a while on the stovetop.
Of course, you can’t get started cooking Indian food without collecting a few Indian cookbooks, like Priya Krishna’s Indian-ish and the classic How to Cook Indian by Sanjeev Kapoor.
Indian Cooking Techniques
Indian cooking techniques also vary from region to region, but there are a few basic methods that will guide you through many different Indian dishes.
- Tadka: Also known as bagna or chownk, this method involves tempering spices in hot oil or ghee. It usually involves at least two or three ingredients, like mustard seeds and bay leaves.
- Bhunano (also spelled Bhunao): This method involves sauteing and stir-frying ingredients at low heat until the food loses its moisture and caramelizes. You need to stir constantly to make sure the food doesn’t burn. Butter chicken is often cooked using this technique.
- Dum: This method involves cooking food on low heat using steam trapped inside the pot or pan. Unlike steaming, you don’t have to add any extra water. This technique is often used for biryani.
- Bhapa: South Indian idlis and Gujarati dhoklas use this technique, which involves steaming food pot-in-pot. A perforated utensil is placed inside a pot, and water is used to steam it.
Staple Indian Ingredients
You’ll find basmati rice and chapati flour (finely milled wholewheat flour) in bulk in almost any Indian kitchen, and they’re great staple ingredients if you like to cook Indian food. Many vegetarian Indian dishes also rely heavily on beans and lentils (dal), so you’ll want to stock your pantry with varieties like kidney beans, pigeon pea lentils, yellow lentils and green gram (mung), ideally both whole and split. While they’re not essential, you might find rice flour and chickpea flour useful as well, especially when it comes to South Indian dishes.
Of course, no Indian meal is complete—or even started, for that matter—without a healthy dose of herbs and spices. Several of these, like mustard seeds, caraway seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves, coriander seeds, cardamom, cloves and bay leaves, are used in tadka, or tempering, which is the beginning of many recipes. Infusing the spices into the hot oil or clarified butter lends a complex flavor to the whole dish.
Herbs and spices are also often used in cooking for their healing properties. For example, mustard seeds are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, while cloves are high in antioxidants.
So break out your favorite Indian cookbook and get started—you’ll never have to order in another biryani again!