The Global Pantry: India Article -
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The Global Pantry: India

With interest in international cuisine exploding, many home cooks are branching out and experimenting with the new, exotic ingredients they're finding in the supermarket.

Creating your own take on international cuisines is easy once you've learned a few things about the core ingredients that build the dominant flavors in these diverse global cuisines.

Twenty-Five Tastes of India

Unlocking a treasure trove of spices, Indian dishes showcase elaborate, intricate flavors. For centuries, India enticed spice-hungry traders. As foreigners took away spices, they also contributed to India's cuisine. The Chinese brought rice and the wok; the Portuguese introduced vinegar, tomatoes, potatoes, and chilies. Persian, Mongolian and Indonesian influences were also significant.

The Spice Rack

Incredibly diverse blends of spices are a hallmark of Indian cuisine, which draws from multiple cultures, ethnicities, and geographies across the Subcontinent. "Curry powder," the spice blend commonly sold in the West, is a pale imitation of fresh-roasted and ground spice mixes that can be customized for each recipe.

Cardamom: An important spice in garam masala, cardamom has a grapefruit-like, floral, soapy flavor containing some green/woody notes. It has a menthol undertone and is similar to ginger. It is used as whole pods, as seeds, and ground.

Cinnamon: Cinnamon is characteristically woody, musty and earthy in flavor and aroma and is warming to taste. The finer the grind, the more quickly the cinnamon is perceived by the taste buds. Whole cinnamon sticks are often infused in sauces and rice. Unlike in the West, where cinnamon is associated with sweet baked goods, in India it is a savory spice that is also used in meat dishes.

Cilantro/Coriander: The flavor and aroma of cilantro (fresh coriander) is generally described as being waxy, citrus and soapy in nature. The flavor of the leaf is distinctive, and quite different from that of the coriander seed. Cilantro is used as a garnish, in seasoning blends, and in sauces such as masala and curry. Ground coriander is an important ingredient in curry powders and garam masala. Its flavor is described as being minty, sweet and citrus-like.

Cloves: The flavor of cloves is strong, pungent, sweet--almost hot. They are one of the most penetrating of all spices and their bitter, astringent flavor leaves a numbing sensation in the mouth. Cloves are an important ingredient in the spice blends of Sri Lanka and North India. They are used in garam masala, biryanis, and pickles.

Cumin: An important ingredient in garam masala and curry powder, cumin is characterized by a strong musty, earthy flavor which also contains some green/grassy notes. Both whole seeds and ground cumin are used in cooking.

Fenugreek: Rich and round with a slight bite, this aromatic plant is known for its pleasantly bitter, slightly sweet seeds. Fenugreek seeds, which come whole and ground, are used to flavor many foods, including curry powders, spice blends and teas. Fenugreek seeds should be stored in a cool, dark place for no more than 6 months.

Garam masala: Garam is the Hindi word for "warm" or "hot," and this blend of dry-roasted ground spices from the colder climes of northern India adds a sense of warmth to both palate and spirit. There are as many variations of garam masala (which may contain up to 12 spices) as there are Indian cooks. It can include black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, cardamom, dried chiles, fennel, ginger, mace and nutmeg. Garam masala is usually either added to a curries, vegetable dishes, soups, or stews toward the end of cooking or sprinkled over the surface just before serving.

Mint: Often paired with lamb dishes and served in raitas and chutneys, this cooling herb has a pleasantly fresh, aromatic, sweet flavor.

Tamarind: Also called Indian date, concentrated tamarind pulp is used to add a somewhat sour flavor to chutneys and curries. Limes are an acceptable substitute.

Turmeric: This ground dried root has a characteristic musky, earthy aroma and a pungent, slightly bitter flavor. Turmeric is a powerful yellow-orange coloring agent, used as a dye for fabrics and foods such as pickles, relish, and chutneys, plus rice, lentil, and vegetable dishes. Turmeric is thought to aid the digestion and to work as an anti-inflammatory agent.

Additional spices: Indian food is so rich with spices that what we have above is only a partial list. For a well-stocked pantry, you might consider stocking up on peppercorns (the source of "heat" in spicy foods before the introduction of chiles), fennel seeds, poppy seeds, bay leaves, black mustard seeds, nigella seeds (kalonji--sometimes called black onion seed), saffron, and asafoetida.

Chiles: Indigenous to America, chiles were introduced into India by the Portuguese; the are essential ingredients in making vindaloo curries (itself a perversion of a Portuguese word vindalho, which combines the words "vinho," for vinegar, and "aldos," for garlic.) Indian cuisine makes use of both fresh chiles (whole, minced, or made into a paste) and dried chiles. If a recipe calls for chile powder, use ground cayenne pepper--do not use a spice blend.

Coconuts: The milk and oil from coconuts are important particularly in Southern Indian cooking where it is popular in curries. Grated coconut is often used in desserts or added to sauces.

Tomatoes: As with chiles, tomatoes were brought to India by the seafaring Portuguese. They are an important component in curries, vegetable dishes, and chutneys.

Garlic: Garlic, ginger, and green chiles are an important flavor trilogy in Indian cuisine, sautéed in oil or ghee as a first step in many recipes.

Ginger: The edible part of the "ginger root" is actually part of the underground portion of the plant's stem, not the root. Often used in paste form, ginger adds strong fragrance, flavor, and bite to curries and other dishes.

Mangos: One of India's most important fruits, mangoes come in dozens of varieties. They're eaten fresh and used in drinks, chutneys, and pickles.

Fresh Vegetables:  Indian cooks have created one of the world's most vegetable-friendly cuisines. If you're interested in eating more vegetarian foods, Indian cuisine is a great place to start. Among the most popular vegetables are potatoes, spinach, cauliflower, onions, peas, and eggplant.


Dairy products are relatively rare in Indian cuisine, due to their short shelf-life in the warm climate and a historical lack of refrigeration. By processing dairy foods (culturing yogurt, clarifying butter, cooking milk to make sweets), Indian cooks made them more available.

Yogurt: Yogurt is often spiced and served as a condiment (raitas), used in place of coconut milk in curries, or prepared as a sweet or salty beverage (lassi).

Paneer: Indian cuisine is not big on cheese. But paneer is a notable exception. A non-melting fresh cheese, paneer is similar to queso blanco (a good substitute) or fresh mozzarella. Paneer is a vegetarian cheese, meaning that there is no rennet added.

Ghee: A type of clarified butter that is particularly popular in Northern Indian cuisine, ghee has a brown color and rich, nutty flavor. Butter is simmered until all the moisture separates from the fat and the milk solids sink to the bottom of the pan, so they can be skimmed off. Ghee has benefits over whole butter in that it has a significantly higher smoke point and a longer shelf life. See Clarifying Butter for step-by-step instructions.

Meat: Lamb is the most popular meat, and is often curried, roasted, skewered or made into meatballs. Chicken is also common. Fish is a staple for many coastal communities, as well as for the millions of people living along the region's great rivers and deltas.

Grains and Legumes

Basmati rice: The name means "queen of fragrance." This long-grained, fine-textured rice has been grown in the foothills of the Himalayas for centuries. The rice is used in biryanis and other special-occasion rice dishes.

Lentils: Because many Indian religious practices limit or forbid the eating of meat, Indian cuisine abounds with lentil dishes (a fine source of protein), including stuffed samosas, soups, stews, and breads. Lentils are "pulses," and they come in many eye-catching colors. Hulled red lentils are common; they are smaller and faster-cooking than brown lentils--for best flavor, do not substitute brown lentils.

Garbanzo beans: Also called chickpeas, garbanzo beans are available canned, dried and sometimes fresh. Dried garbanzo beans are also ground into flour.

Flour: Breads can be eaten in place of rice in many parts of India: grilled breads such as naan, griddled breads such as chapati and roti, and the crepe-like dosa. Fried breads such as samosas, pappadam, and paratha are served as appetizers and snacks and as desserts.

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    Apr. 15, 2010 3:11 pm
    I see asafoetida powder mentioned in some Indian Cuisines. Is there a substitute for it, what is it and what does it tast like or compare to. Thanking you in advnce, Sharon
    Apr. 29, 2010 11:01 pm
    Indians also use many type of millets (Jowar,Bajra,Ragi etc) as a staple to make rotis,which are far more healthier than wheat.
    May 4, 2010 6:20 am
    Asafoetida powder is strong in smell. It is used mainly for pickles. For daily cooking it is quite optional,not at all required if you use other strong smelling spices such as garlic or onion. It has medicinal properties though,a pinch in a glass of buttermilk is good for acidity
    Dec. 31, 2010 9:32 am
    We use asafoetida, along with cumin and red chilli powder, to temper all our dals (pulses) on a daily basis. It has a very strong smell and taste. I don't know of any substitute for it. If you can buy a small quantity (powdered or crystal), it keeps for a really long time as long as you keep it air-tight. Easily available in Indian stores.
    Dec. 31, 2010 9:40 am
    A couple of corrections to the above article. Paratha is also served as a main-course bread, not just an appetizer. In can be stuffed or plain. Good, pure ghee is not brown in colour. Rather, it is off-white. Brown ghee is not properly purified.
    Dec. 24, 2011 3:32 pm
    asafoetida is a resin available in powdered form , used mainly with lentil dishes to prevent bloating of the stomach/ wind
    Apr. 20, 2012 8:41 am
    A nice collection of Indian recipes. I love Indian food and this is a nice primer and a good collection to get started on cooking up some of these amazing flavors.
    Sep. 19, 2012 7:43 pm
    Hi to all, who has the best paratha recipe. I made them once years ago and shocked myself when they tasted pretty good. Can brown ghee ever mean it is toasted in the frying pan or can it be, like plain butter?
    Jun. 8, 2013 7:21 am
    does anyone have a reciept for tandoor chicken its red in color when cooked. At least when I was in India it was. thank you BJ
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