I love Indian food, and as almost anyone in India will tell you, there is nothing as good as home cooked food. So, I cook Indian food at home all the time. I think many people in the US find Indian cooking intimidating, and I’m hoping to remedy that. This post is about how to try out Indian cooking by learning to make a masala. Once you can make a masala, you can cook all sorts of Indian food, I promise.
Equipment and Ingredients
You do not need any special cooking pots. Any good pot or deep skillet, with a lid, will do. Yes, a Dutch oven is nice. And many cooks in India use a karahi or kadai, which is similar to a wok. But chances are high your kitchen already has something that will serve.
You will need some special ingredients: kashmiri chili and garam masala. If you are a beginner, I suggest buying Everest brand, which available online. Also I know that some good restaurants in India use these spices, because that is how I found out about them in the first place. Kashmiri chili is wonderful — it is not like cayenne, so don’t use cayenne instead. Kashmiri chili is not extremely hot and has a lovely fragrance and subtle flavor. A passionate cook would tell you to make your own garam masala, and please do, once you have learned the basics. But until you do, buying it pre-made is a handy shortcut.
Also, you will need some garlic-ginger paste. This can be acquired at most grocery stores (because it is used in lots of Asian cooking), or online. It keeps very well in the refrigerator. You can also use fresh garlic and ginger, or buy the pastes separately. But pre-made is easy to use and acquire.
All the other ingredients are easy to get at your local grocery.
How to Make a Masala
Now, there are as many ways to make a masala as there are cooks. This is a very simple one, adapted from a bean recipe in Rick Stein’s India (a great cookbook and a must-watch TV series, lately available on Netflix). Once you can make a masala, you can make Indian-style ANYTHING. (BTW curry is a controversial word. You might call this recipe a basic curry recipe. But curry does not have much useful meaning in India.)
Here is how to make a basic masala. It takes about 25 minutes:
- One large red onion, diced. (How to dice an onion. This is the most difficult part of this recipe, so the whole thing is not difficult at all.) You can use other kinds of onions, but a masala is best with red onions.
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground coriander seeds
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp kashmiri chili powder
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder (do not use “curry powder”)
- 2-3 TBSP ginger garlic paste (to taste)
- 1 TBSP tomato paste
- 1/2 cup yogurt (full fat tastes best, but use others if you must)
- Limes, scallions, or cilantro for garnish
and….whatever you want to cook! (Let’s call this the “Dish.”)
- Fry the onion at low heat for about 10 minutes, until soft and beginning to caramelize, stirring to avoid burning.
- Add salt and spices, and fry for about 1 minutes, until aromatic
- Add ginger garlic paste and fry for about 30 seconds. This burns easily so keep stirring.
- Deglaze with tomato paste.
- Add your Dish
- If the mixture looks dry, add 1/2 to 1 cup water.
- Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes
- Stir in yogurt
- Garnish and serve
Wait, what is the “Dish”?
The Dish is whatever you want it to be — mix and match! Just make sure whatever you are cooking can cook in the 20 minutes simmer time, or else pre-cook it. For meats, it can be best to cut into bite sized pieces before simmering. So, a masala is something you can use to clean out the refrigerator instead of throwing out your slightly bedraggled vegetables. (Yes, that’s right. We all need to do this sometimes. Get real.)
Here are some examples of what you can make:
- Cauliflower (break into florets first, fresh is best)
- Spinach or any greens (consider using a hand mixer at the end to blend it up before adding the yogurt)
- Paneer (Indian cheese — you can buy it at an Indian market or make this yourself with milk and vinegar, and a cheese cloth. If you make it, make it the day before.)
- Bell peppers (my favorite)
- Potatoes (par boil them first, and use red or white potatoes or baby potatoes)
- Pumpkin seeds
- Kidney beans (Cook in the instant pot first. If you cook them in chicken stock, do not use salt in the recipe above.)
- Rice (Pre-cook it part way, or sauté it first like a pilaf. If you cook it in chicken stock, do not use salt in the recipe above.)
- Fish (a firm fish is best)
- Goat (“Mutton” in India — don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.) or lamb. Pork and beef are not all that common in Indian cooking, but feel free to experiment!
Of these, my go-tos are paneer, bell peppers, beans, spinach, potatoes and cauliflower.
This recipe might last you for a long time. But once you feel comfortable with it, you can experiment with different ingredients, particularly different spices, like coriander, cumin (particularly black cumin), cardamom (green or black), cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaf, fresh chilis, and many more. Indian cooking is spicy, but not necessarily hot (like with capsicum). Different Dishes will taste best with different spices. If you are cooking meat, you might fry the spices before the onions, or leave them whole.
Once you start experimenting with spices, I highly recommend investing in a spice grinder. If you like to cook, it will be a good investment anyway and take up minimal counter space. Grinding your spices fresh MAKES A HUGE DIFFERENCE IN TASTE. Here is an inexpensive grinder that I love. Most cooks don’t like to use the same device to grind spices and coffee (though the devices seem identical), but I use my spice grinder to grind cacao, which is my main pick-me-up. And I don’t mind that the flavors sometimes mix.