The Key to Indian Cooking: Making Spices Friendly With Each Other

The more I cook Indian food, the more I realize how much more there is to learn. Every time I think that I have it all down, I find out something new, or I try something different, or I get an inspiration, or a read a book, and the curiosity all begins again, and I am back in the kitchen, cooking up a new batch of unravelled secrets.

And so it goes.

But I think that over the years of experimentation, cooking from books, eating foods of the Indian subcontinent in restaurants and private homes, talking with cooks from India, and cooking with them, that I have learned a few things about Indian cookery. And these few things I would like to impart to my readers, because one of the questions that comes up over and over in classes, in emails and on cooking forums is, “Why doesn’t my Indian food taste right? How do you make yours so good?”

The true answer is a complex, and long one, but what it boils down to is time and practice.I have spent a long time working and studying Indian food, and have cooked a lot of it, quite a bit of it for very demanding native palates. So, I learned.

But immense pressure is not needed to learn to cook Indian food well. I think the most necessary qualities for someone to learn to cook Indan food well is patience, the willingness to learn, and a palate that can be trained.

And here is where we come to my simple answer for learning how to make good Indian food: you have to learn how to make spices become friendly with each other.

And in Indian cookery, there are many ways to do this. There is no one “right” answer to the question of how to make strong flavors meld together. Myriad techniques to accomplish this have been developed in India over centuries, and not every cook uses each technique, but I think that the more you learn, the more fluent you will be in the language of spices.

Think of yourself as a diplomat of the kitchen. Your duty, is to be able to speak the language of both the “wet” spices: onions, garlic, ginger, fresh chiles and herbs such as fenugreek greens, curry leaves, cilantro and mint, and language of the dry spices: peppercorns, cumin, coriander seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ajwan, nigella, asafoetida, and chiles.

You have to recognize that each wet and dry spice speaks a slightly different dialect of their mother tongue, but there are certain commonalities of speech that unites all members of each group.

How do you learn to speak these languages?

By getting aquainted with each spice. And by this, I mean, learn its taste and smell, on its own, with nothing else.

When I teach Indian food in my beginner’s class, I open by passing around containers of the dry spices we will be using, as well as raw bits of the wet spices. I tell the students to smell each spice, and if they will do it, taste it as well. I always provide water for swishing out the mouth in between in order to cleanse the palate. I have found that when directed to do this–students are hesitant, but eventually, one brave one tastes, and then they all try a cumin seed here, or a mustard seed there. A bit of ginger goes into the mouth of one, and a brave one takes a sliver of chile.

I tell them that when they stock their spice cabinets in order to cook Indian foods, for them to take a notebook, and do the smelling and tasting exercise over again–and this time to write down their impressions in a notebook. I want them to record what they taste. How they feel. What they smell.

I tell them to go back a day later, and taste the spices again, in combinations of two, and write their impressions down again. I tell them to keep tasting, over and over, combining and recombining spices in tiny amounts, so they can learn the scents and flavors of the ingredients in their nostrils and on their tongues.

Every student has told me that my method has helped them immensely. In tasting spices in isolation and then in combination, they learned how to actually begin to taste individual spices in curry dishes in restaurants, much to their surprise.

Knowing the taste of each spice is like putting the key into the lock that will open the door to Indian cookery. It is the first step.

But one still has to turn the key.

That is where the various techniques of cooking spices comes in.

There are very few Indian recipes that actually use raw spices. In fact, I have not run across one yet. In every recipe, the cook is told to cook the spices in some way, shape or form. Even the garam masala powder that is sprinkled on a dish just before serving is made from spices that were roasted whole, and then ground.

Not only does cooking improve the digestiblity of spices, but it opens up their aromas and tasts, like flowers blooming.

The simplest way in which spices are cooked are in the pan, in oil or ghee, as a first step toward making a curry. If there are onions in the dish, they go in first, with a little salt, in order to help them release their moisture. Then, they are stirred as they cook slowly to a deep golden brown color. Then, other spices are added as called for in the recipe. Perhaps some whole mustard seeds. Or some slivers of fresh ginger and sliced chiles. Or some whole cumin. At any rate, these are stirred together with the onions until the onions are a deep reddish brown. (Here is where the key in the lock turns a quarter turn–brown your onions deeply for many Indian foods, unless directed by the recipe otherwise. Most Americans are too timid about the onions. We tend to cook ours no more deeply colored than a golden brown. That will make a weakly flavored sauce. Keep going until those onions are a rich reddish brown. Just keep stirring and if they start to turn black, take the pan off the fire, and cool it immediately–dumping out the onions into a bowl to cool off if you have to.)

Once your onions are almost reddish brown, add any ground spices or spice paste and keep stirring until the onions are reddish brown and the whole room is fragrant with the delicious scent of spices mingling in a hot pan. The key has turned another little way.

Notice what we have done, in cooking the spices in hot oil. We do it in stages. We don’t dump all the spices in at once. There is a method to this–it is called “building flavor.” Gradually putting the spices into the dish in a certain order allows the maximum amount of flavor bloom to occur in the hot oil, without the spices burning. If we put the onionss in the pan, and then just threw in the garlic and the mustard seeds and the chiles and cooked them at the same time, the garlic and mustard seeds would burn before the onions were browned enough and the chiles would probably overextract and be very overpowering.

But putting them into an order, and layering the flavors in is a way of introducing these strong flavors so they can start building a beautiful friendship together.

Once the spices are cooked together in the pan, one can either take them out and grind it all into a paste, or leave them as they are. This depends on whether one is making a smooth curry sauce, or a more rustic sort of chunky curry. Pureeing the spices and cooked onions brings a body to the sauce, which improves the mouthfeel and the flavor of the finished curry.

In either case, the ingredients that will make the sauce are added, and the dish simmers.

The key is getting ready to turn again: the longer the flavor is simmered (or, conversely–the more pressure it is cooked under–if one owns and uses a pressure cooker for Indian cooking), the better the flavors will be. Indian sauces thicken by reduction–there is no use of roux or cornstarch to thicken them. Ground onions or nuts add thickness, but primarily, curries are thickened by allowing water to simmer away.

The longer that process takes the better.

Which is why I somtimes will make my sauce ahead of time–up to one whole day ahead and then cook the food in it the next day.

The key turns a half turn here: it takes time for friendships to develop.

When people ask me how I manage to cook big Indian feasts, I smile and say, “I cook large amounts of it the day before and then heat it up the night of the dinner.” When they are incredulous–I point out that every curry I have ever cooked has tasted better the next day, because the spices have all had a long night to mingle and get used to each other.

Another way to build flavors and get your spices to mingle is to make a tarka and pour it into the dish just before serving. A tarka involves the cooking of whole spices–my favorites are cumin and mustard seeds, in heated oil or ghee until they turn toasty brown, smell wonderful and the mustard seeds pop like wee popcorn kernels. (You can also add chiles, onions and garlic to tarkas.) Then the whole sizzling panful is poured over whatever dish is in need of it, just before serving. If you clap a lid on the pot right after pouring in a tarka, then carry the serving pot out to the table, when you unveil your creation, the diners are enwreathed with clouds of fragrant steam.

A dramatic presentation does much to stimulate hunger.

Finally, the sprinkling of garam masala at the end of cooking or just before serving. I think it is best if you make yours fresh, from spices you have toasted. Toasting them is simple: you put them in a heavy-bottomed skillet or pan and shake it over high heat until your spices turn brownish and take on a rich nut-like aroma. At that point, you pour them out into a small bowl, let them cool a bit and then grind them. That is it. It is simple. And if you store your garam masala in a good airtight little jar, it will stay fragrant and good for a couple of weeks–longer, if you leave it in the freezer.

That final sprinkle of toasted spices is like a kiss, a little fillip at the end, a grace note. A final wave before sending your creation out to be appreciated.

That is the final turn of the key, and the lock clicks, and the door swings open.

Of course there are finer points to be learned about Indian cookery. There are other techniques, other methods to use to get the maximum flavor from your spices. But these are the basics–these are all part of the key, which is to know what your spices taste like and learn to combine them together in a way that will make them meld together into a dish that is a perfect balance of flavors, such that no single spice dominates (unless that is the point of the dish) and every ingredient flows together into a seamless whole.

There, friends. I have given you my key–now, go and find the lock and fearlessly open that door.

Culinary wonders and gustatory joy await you on the other side.

Note: Good News!

Thanks to Maureen, who is an avid reader here, and her persistence, I can now tell you that Williams-Sonoma is carrying the Sumeet Multi-Grind in their mail order catalogs. I have seen it so with my own eyes–the new catalog came in today, and lo and behold, there it is on page 16: the exact model that I have. As I have said many times before, it is the best tool for grinding spices and making spice pastes for Indian food, Thai food and Mexican food, ever.

The Sumeet Multi-Grind is only available in the catalog and online; its product number is #75-7595119, and is going for $99.00, which is not a bad price. Zak spent a good deal more to buy mine and have it shipped from India, because I saw it in a magazine and fell in love with it and had to have it. (This was eight years ago, and he has never regretted that purchase. Neither have I.)

21 Comments

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  1. Kudos,Barabara!

    An excellent post on key to Indian cooking and I am sure who ever reads this post will surely use your key to un-lock and fearlessly open the door and love you for giving them the key.

    Am sure that info on ‘Sumeet Grinder’(availablity in US) which is an asset to every Indian kitchen is hard to find elsewhere.

    Comment by Sailaja — February 17, 2006 #

  2. Oh boy! oh boy! oh boy! Guess who’ll be ordering one soon :-)

    Comment by Rose — February 17, 2006 #

  3. I like your blog, it’s very interesting to read!

    Comment by Amy — February 17, 2006 #

  4. Thanks Barbara, really interesting and enlightening! And I can tell you that there are several Italian dishes that taste better the day after so to speak!

    Comment by ilva — February 17, 2006 #

  5. Thank you for saying what I wanted to say about Indian food, but didn’t have the words to say it. My experience with Indian food in the last little while has been from a wonderful Gujarati vegetarian cookbook, and it hasn’t let me down. Thanks for the grinder link – I know what I’ll be getting for my birthday!

    Comment by Andeewah — February 17, 2006 #

  6. Great description! I have been cooking Indian for years, but only intensively the past five or so, and totally agree that taste, balancing flavors and knowledge of the spices is so key. I finally feel that I have made friends with my spices and can experiment with them and they will understand what I want.

    It took me 4 months to order my Sumeet from Canada, and it was incredibly aggravating – so glad to herar there are easier options now!

    Comment by Diane — February 17, 2006 #

  7. Hello, Sailaja! I used to be very intimidated by Indian food–not so much that I wouldn’t try cooking it the first time without ever having eaten it, but enough that I only dabbled in it for years. I had such a hard time parsing out the spices when I tasted them cooked in restaurants–I couldn’t sit and figure out what was in there.

    That is when I developed the method of tasting them alone, writing it down, and then combining them and tasting them. After that, my ability to taste them in dishes improved, and I could start learning by taste and memory, instead of just learning from books.

    I am also thrilled that the Sumeet is going to be more widely available in the US. It has improved my ability to make so many different foods, but particularly, Indian, Thai and Mexican.

    Go for it, Rose! It is worth every penny.

    Welcome, Amy–thanks! I hope you keep coming back and reading more.

    Ilva–Hello, lady! I agree-there are many dishes that are really better the next day. The German lentil soup I grew up eating is much better the next day, chili, any soup or stew, really. In Chinese food, I think that Ma Po Tofu is better the next day, and Red Cooked Beef with Turnips, too.

    Hello, Andeewah–I have some good cookbooks that I bought from India–I will be featuring one in an upcoming post. Once I discovered that many cookbooks in India are published in English–oh, boy. I ordered a big bunch of them….many of them were titles that were not available here at the time. Now, I have seen some of them trickle in to Amazon, and sometimes you can buy them in Indian grocery stores in the States. I will have to see if my source is still open, though….

    Hello, Diane–I am finally at the point where I feel truly comfortable improvising with Indian spices. Before, I tended to at least use recipes if a guide, if not follow them completely. Now, I can cook from taste memory, and really work at making the dish taste the way I want.

    I knew a couple of people who ordered from Canada, and it was hard. In truth–when I ordered from India, direct from the manufacturer, it wasn’t so bad. Yes, the shipping took a while, but they were very efficient on the website, and they communicated at every step with Zak.

    It came in on Christmas eve. I had told him I wanted one, but never thought he would order it from India. Well, there it was, on Christmas eve. He didn’t even wrap it–he just brought it in, in its shipping box, with stamps all over it. As soon as I saw it was from India, I thought I would vibrate apart from excitement!

    I took it out and used it forthwith, to grind up the ingredients for the compound butter that I always stuff under the turkey skin!

    Comment by Barbara — February 17, 2006 #

  8. Hey Barbara,

    In my own indian cooking my greatest challenge has been the onion/garlic/ginger spice paste and getting it that deep reddish brown you talk about. I think this is chiefly due to the fact that I have a glass top electric stove and I still have yet to either be patient enough for it to heat properly, or gauging the appropriate temperature. I usually end up starting to burn the onion or otherwise have the heat too high. Any suggestions as far as the ammount of heat one should apply to the onion/ginger/garlic paste?

    Comment by Benjamin — February 17, 2006 #

  9. The mixed onion, garlic, ginger paste is hard if you grind everything together first. You need a lot of oil if you do it that way.

    I do it by cooking things unground, in succession.

    First the onions, thinly sliced, on medium high heat in a very heavy-bottomed pot or pan. Stir constantly. Do not let your attention waver–because I tell you, if you do, the onions will try and scorch.

    Once they are a good medium gold color, add minced ginger. Keep stirring, keep cooking until the onions begin to be dark gold. Add the minced or thinly sliced garlic, and cook until the garlic is a deep golden brown, the ginger is fully cooked and the onions are a lovely reddish brown.

    Remove immediately from the heat, pour the whole thing into a bowl and let it cool.

    Grind to a paste.

    Proceed with your recipe–all it needs now is a little oil, and a quick saute around the pan before you add the rest of your sauce or curry ingredients.

    I learned that trick from my client’s Pakistani mother. She said she always had trouble on her electric stove cooking curry pastes when she started with them raw, ground up. So, she used the succession method, and then ground it when it was done, and never had a problem again.

    If you have a gas stove, it is easier to cook from a raw paste to a finished product, because you can instantly control the heat. But it is still trickier than the succession method. And as Amma said–she cannot tell the difference between curries cooked from raw paste to curries cooked with the paste ingredients oooked in succession and then ground. She said sometimes, you have to be flexible enough to think backwards to find a solution to a problem.

    Comment by Barbara — February 17, 2006 #

  10. Barbara – Stopped by Williams Sonoma tonight and ordered the Sumeet. I used a gift card to pay for this. They placed the order for me as the multigrinder only is available from either the internet or catalog. However, if I had not been given this card I would order it directly from http://www.sumeet.net beause by the time one adds shipping $16 something on a $99 purchase then state tax the final price comes to over
    $124. Ordering it directly from Sumeet ($80) with shipping ($10 to mainland US) which is a $34 saving. They tell me I should have this by the end of the month.

    Comment by Maureen — February 17, 2006 #

  11. I noticed that WS had raised the price a bit–Zak ordered directly from Sumeet, too, and the price then was higher–I don’t know why, but I had noticed that it had lowered a good bit over the past few years. (Increased production, and distribution, perhaps?)

    If I were to buy one–I would order directly from the maker again as well….

    Comment by Barbara — February 17, 2006 #

  12. Hi Barbara,

    I have a gas cooktop, and found I needed to add a lot of oil to the paste when I added the ground spices. This may be because I didn’t cook the onions down far enough – or should I just give in and add more oil until the spices are sizzling and pastelike in the pan?

    Thanks for responding, if you have the time!

    Calli

    Comment by Callisto Shampoo — July 4, 2006 #

  13. Add a little extra oil, or turn your heat down, Calli–either way, it should work out.

    Your onions, however, should be cooked down until they become almost a paste in and of themselves–they should start breaking down when they are cooked enough.

    Hope this helps!

    Comment by Barbara — July 5, 2006 #

  14. Thank you Barbara,

    Yes, it will do.
    Ta!
    Can I make a suggestion? If you ever have a chance, can you do a pictorial on how red and brown you want to cook the onions down? There’s a webpage for scottish tablet which takes pics every 5 or so minutes to show you the various colours the candy goes through, and I was thinking that would be fantastic if you had the time for the onions in the indian cooking you do. I’ve learnt so much about chinese cooking from you, and now I’m hoping to suck all your knowledge about Indian cooking too!

    Thanks for the info, yes, that will help me greatly the next time I tackle a curry of any sort!

    Comment by Callisto Shampoo — July 6, 2006 #

  15. Hey…thanks for the info on SUMEET GRINDER.
    I teach Indian cooking classes in my home in Glenview.And most of my students are crazy about my sumeet grinder and wnat to know how to get it.So this is great,now I can tell them where they can order.
    Thanks

    Comment by shoba — October 22, 2006 #

  16. Thanks so much for the info, I’m just learning, I hope to read some more of your info.

    Comment by Lalita — December 10, 2006 #

  17. [...] 2. Tigers & Strawberries – Barbara is a professional, and it shows. Her blog is full of basic tutorials on stir-fry technique, becoming acquainted with each and every spice in your pantry, and more. Her blog is an incredible resource for anyone who wants to learn to cook Chinese, Indian, Thai, or Vietnamese food (and more!) from the bottom up, with great focus on understanding the basic building blocks of flavor and how to layer them together to great effect. [...]

    Pingback by Habeas Brulee » Blog Archive » Thinking Blogger Awards — May 14, 2007 #

  18. thank you for this wonderful post!

    Comment by Maninas — July 27, 2007 #

  19. Barbara,I have been cooking Indian food for about a year now and am fairly pleased with the results thus far. Could you please give me the name of a good Indian cookbook so that I can improve on my skills…thanks a bunch..Robert Lugo

    Comment by Robert Lugo — November 30, 2007 #

  20. Robert–any of the cookbooks by Madhur Jaffrey will help you, as will cookbooks by Julie Sahni. Sahni’s books do not have photographs, but her instructions are step-by-step and very clear, and the results have always been quite good when I have used her recipes.

    Jaffrey’s books are equally good, with beautiful photographs, but her explanations are not quite as thorough as Sahni’s.

    Comment by Barbara — November 30, 2007 #

  21. i think the presentation of indian food increases the taste of all-blended spices i had once bought a book of tarla dalal but was disappointed to see only gujrati food collection in that

    Comment by seo — September 18, 2011 #

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