A Basic Guide to Indian Cuisine (With Naan Bread Recipe)
Spice Up Your Life With Indian Cooking
This article offers a beginners' guide to Indian cuisine.
Indian cuisine is as varied and exciting as the lands and peoples from which it comes. When prepared from fresh ingredients, nothing can top its rich, unexpected flavor and texture combinations, such as marrying succulent lamb or chicken with fresh, sweet fruits (including melons, mangoes, or pineapples), and then spicing it with fiery chilies, sharp and pungent cilantro, and a squeeze of fresh lime. Topped off with a swirl of coconut milk or a splash of yogurt—heaven on rice! Or on fresh, warm naan bread if that is your preference.
Whatever your taste, whether you prefer mildly spicy or fiery hot, Indian cuisine has something to appeal to any palate, and the wide range of regional dishes and flavors is staggering in its diversity.
There are a few basics, though, that are common to most areas—a few basic methods and ingredients that are the building blocks of everything from simple, tasty snacks to a fabulous feast. Once you have mastered these basics, you will no doubt be inspired to branch out into more complicated dishes.
Table of Contents
In this article, you will find information on the following:
- Basic Ingredients of Indian Cuisine
- How to Make Ghee (Clarified Butter)
- Is it Curry or Masala?
- Spice-Producing Areas of India (Plus a Table)
- How to Cook Rice (Basic)
- Adding Flavor to Your Rice
- Naan Bread Recipe and Video Instruction
1. What Are the Basic Ingredients?
Lentils, Beans, and Rice
Though there are wide variations from region to region, and many dietary restrictions depending largely on religious beliefs, there are some common threads in Indian cuisine. Lentils, pulse crops (beans and legumes), and rice make up the foundation of much of Indian cooking.
Basmati rice, native to the Himalayas, is perhaps the most widely recognized. Basmati has a longer, thinner grain than most rice, and a delicate nutty flavor that is enhanced by aging the rice for up to a year. Most often served as an accompaniment to meat or vegetarian dishes, rice is sometimes eaten plain as well.
Another thing that characterizes Indian cuisine is its use of bread as a dietary staple. More prevalent in the north but found in some variation in most parts of the country, the bread is generally made from wheat flour.
The bread is usually unleavened (flat-bread) and can be folded to scoop up the meal. Sometimes the flat-bread is filled with seasoned rice and vegetables, or meats, and is either baked or fried. Naan bread is leavened with yeast, but maintains its typically flat shape, something like a fluffy tortilla.
Fresh produce plays a large role in Indian cooking as many Indians are vegetarian. Familiar to most westerners, such vegetables as peppers, tomatoes, squash, root vegetables (including potatoes) are typical of Indian cuisine.
In areas where meat and dairy are used, the preferred choices are chicken, goat, and lamb. Dairy products such as ghee (clarified butter) and yogurt are often used.
If you've never cooked with clarified butter before, you're in for a treat. It doesn't smoke and burn as quickly as ordinary, non-clarified, because most of the solids have been removed. It's quite easy to clarify your own butter.
2. How to Make Ghee or Clarified Butter
- Heat a pound of butter in a small saucepan until all it is melted, and all the solids rise to the top. DO NOT STIR. The solids will be cloudy and whitish-looking.
- Skim off the solids and save them in a small dish. Some cooks discards the solids. If you refrigerate them, though, the solids will harden again. They are a bit salty for toast, but still usable for other cooking, such as in pancakes, cookies, or muffins, and can be added to other non-clarified butter for cooking or baking.
- Refrigerate the remaining clarified butter for use in your Indian recipes.
3. What Is Curry? Masala?
Renowned for its spices, India exports many pure spices and spice blends to the rest of the world. One of the best-known of these, curry, is actually a misnomer, or miscommunication, courtesy of the first westerners to introduce Indian food to their homelands.
The spice most westerners call 'curry' is actually a blend of spices, But, because of that early misunderstanding, the word 'curry' has come to refer to both the spice and the dish. In India, what we call curry is referred to as masala. There are as many variations of this as there are regions, and each chef seems to have his or her own preferred blend.
- Garam Masala, a well-known type, is a brown blend which varies by region but typically contains black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, and coriander. It is most often added to meat and poultry dishes, though it is also excellent on shrimp, and then served with rice or flat-bread.
- Kashmiri Masala is a much milder blend.
- Taaza Masala is a green paste made with mint.
4. Where Do Spices Come From in India?
District or Area
Chilies and chili powder should be used with care. Vindaloo curries are made from the hottest chilies.
Kota, Bundi, Baran, Jhalawar & Chittoor
Aids digestion, used in fish and savory dishes as a healthy alternative to salt, basic ingredient of masala (curry)
Nagaur, Barmer, Jalore, Pali and Jodhpur
Used to flavor rice, stuffed vegetables, many savory dishes and curries; combines well with cilantro and is widely used in beef dishes
Fresh and Processed Ginger
Kamrup, Nalbari, Barpeta, Darrang, Nagaon, Morigaon, Karbi Anglong and North Cachar districts
Used in sweet dishes, desserts, or in piquant dishes such as hot curries and stir fries
Ginger and Tumeric
North, East, South & West Sikkim Kandhamal District
Turmeric is an essential spice in Indian food, giving a rich, appetizing color - used in curries, fish dishes and beans because of its digestive properties
Guna, Mandsaur, Ujjain, Rajgarh, Ratlam, Shajapur and Neemuch
Tamarind seed is mostly combined with meat, lentils, chick peas or beans) and adds a distinctive cooling quality to curries, chutneys
Amerali, Bhavnagar, Surendranagar, Rajkot, Jamnagar
Adds a nutty flavor, popular addition to dishes such as vegetable, beans, pastries and pickles
Districts of Dakshin Kannada, Uttara Kannada, Udupi, Shimoga, Kodagu, Chickamagalur
Mainly used in sweets, and western baking
A Guide for Using Indian Spices
For those interested in a bit more in-depth information about Indian spices, this site contains a description of the most common Indian spices, and a guide to using them. Some of the spices listed are not used in cooking, but do have medicinal uses.
Boiled rice may not sound exciting, but properly cooked Basmati rice is a staple accompaniment to many Indian dishes. No feast is complete without a bowl of fragrant Basmati.
5. How to Cook Rice: Instructions
- Rinse 2 cups Basmati rice under cold water, then soak in just enough cold water to cover the rice in a large bowl - soak for 15 minutes, then drain the rice
- Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil. Salt the water and add the drained, soaked rice
- Reduce heat and cook, stirring a few times, over medium heat until the rice is tender - about 5 - 7 minutes
- Drain the rice and serve immediately. If not serving immediately, run hot water through the rice for to remove the excess starch, and keep warm 'til ready to serve. Fluff with a fork before serving.
6. Adding Flavor to Your Rice
Variations for flavor:
- Soak a pinch of saffron strands in 2 - 3 tablespoons of warm water fro about an hour. Drizzle the water and saffron over the freshly cooked rice and stir through with a fork
- In a frying pan, heat about 2 tsp. cumin seeds in a small amount of oil. Swirl the seeds to avoid burning, for about 30 seconds. Pour the cumin and oil over the rice and gently mix in
- Add 4 whole cloves, a cinnamon stick and a bay leaf to the cooking water. Bring the water to a boil and cook the rice as usual. Discard the seasonings before serving
This light, fluffy rice is equally at home with beef stroganoff, chicken masala, and boneless pork loin with wild mushroom gravy. Basmati also makes a nice change-up with stir-fry, though it cannot take the place of sticky rice in Asian cuisine—but that's another series.
7. How to Make Naan Bread
This delicious flatbread does use leavening and is rolled out and baked on a griddle.
- 5 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons active (instant) dry yeast
- 2 teaspoons castor sugar (superfine)
- 6 tablespoons butter, softened
- 2/3 cup milk, warmed
- 1/2 cup plain yogurt
- Butter, melted, for brushing on the finished rounds
- Sift flour, salt, and baking powder together, and stir in yeast and sugar
- Cut in the butter with a pastry blender, or rub in with your fingers, until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs
- Combine milk and yogurt, and gradually add to four mixture, blending to form a soft dough
- Turn onto floured surface and kneed until smooth
- Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Leave in a warm place until doubled in size
- Punch the dough down and let it double in size again, then divide into 12 equal pieces and cover with a towel
- Preheat a griddle over medium heat, preheat the oven broiler to 500°F.
- While it is heating, roll out one of the balls into a rough oval, about 1/4 inch thick
- Cook the bread on the griddle until the cooked side is golden
- Transfer the round to a cookie sheet and brush with melted butter
- Place under the broiler until the top is puffed slightly and golden in color
- Keep the rounds warm under a clean tea-towel while you repeat the process with the rest of the rounds until all are baked. Serve warm, covered with a clean napkin
Just as an Indian kitchen has many unique spices, there are a number of specialized cooking utensils that will make cooking a breeze. Though some of the pots and utensils have a slightly different shape than you may be used to, many will be quite familiar, and with a little practice, they will probably become your first choice. Though you may never grind your own spices using the shil noda, a flat, Indian stone grinder, it is not so different from the mortar and pestle of the traditional western kitchen.
Once you've mastered the basics, here's an excellent source of more recipes for delicious Indian food, including sweets.
And what "Basics of India" article would be complete without some basic Bollywood? This classic dance routine is my personal favorite Bollywood flash mob—Jai Ho. I've seen versions of this from Chicago, New York, and London, but for my money, the all-time best-ever performance is from the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
Dance of a Thousand Hands
Indian dance is a diverse as its country's cuisine, drawing from the many and varied peoples of India. This contemporary group puts on an amazing and moving performance.
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