Beginner's Guide to Regional Indian Cooking

Editor's Note: This special three-part series (read the first and second installments) on the regional cuisine of India, by Monica Bhide and Chef Sudhir Seth, is made available to the readers of Seasoned Cooking by the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. This amazing organization is devoted to increasing awareness and knowledge of the arts of cooking, eating, and drinking, and to making further contributions to the literature of food and drink. Please join us in thanking them for their work and supporting them in their cause! Parsi Cuisine

Parsi cuisine is a critical part of the Gujarati cuisine and culture. "Dheekra" was the single word that started my love affair with Parsi food. I had heard that word many times in Indian movies, but growing up abroad I did not know what it meant. I asked my father. It means a "child" he said, it is Parsi. What was Parsi? Who were these people, always portrayed in Indian movies to be a fair skinned intellectual lot? Dad told me of the legendary meals he had had in Mumbai as a child at the homes of Parsi friends. The dishes that melded sweet and sour and spicy and salty. The elaborate preparations that made each guest feel like a king. I had to learn more. I started by reading Rohinton Mistry and so many others. I began to scratch the surface of a very complex culture. I fell in love with the characters they created, living together in a multi-storey building in Mumbai.

A community that is small in number, it has contributed to the worlds political, business and arts in amazing ways. Think Jrd Tata & Godrej (India’s leading business families), Vidal Sassoon and Zubin Mehta . . . when you think of Parsi’s. They are a very intellectual community, very talented. They came from what was Persia, now Iran, and landed in India in the state of Gujarat.

Unfortunately this wonderful people is fast decreasing in numbers. This is primarily due to the structure of Zoroastrainism - their religion. There are no converts allowed. One can only be born a Parsi. Marriages outside the community are not encouraged and anyone born of a non Parsi mother or father of such a marriage is not considered a Parsi and is not allowed into their Fire Temple or place of worship.

Their cuisine is a tantalizing marriage of Persian and Gujarati styles. Flavoring their curries with nuts and apricots, they brought the richness of Persia to the simple Gujarati food. Parsi food is not hot with chilies but has complex flavors and textures. They are primarily non-vegetarians and enjoy eating chicken, mutton and eggs.

As the Parsi’s say, Chalo jumva avoji . . . Come, let's eat.

Parsi Murgh Farcha

Pieces of chicken marinated in a gently flavored masala paste, dipped in crumbs and beaten eggs and fried.
  • 6- 7 tender chicken breasts
  • 1 teaspoon Garam Masala
  • 1 tablespoon of minced fresh mint
  • 1 tablespoon coriander powder
  • ½ tablespoon cumin powder
  • 2 Serrano green chiles, minced
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro leaves, minced
  • ½ cups dried plain breadcrumbs
  • Oil to panfry
Make slits in the chicken breast. Marinate it with a mixture of the Garam masala, mint, coriander powder, cumin powder, green chilies, sugar, salt and vegetable oil.
Allow the chicken to marinate for at least 2 hours in the refrigerator.
In a bowl combine the eggs and cilantro leaves.
Create an assembly line – marinated chicken, eggs, breadcrumbs - placed on a flat plate.
Now first dip the chicken in the breadcrumbs and then the egg wash.
Panfry it until done.
(Chef Sudhir’s tip is to do it this way then the eggs seal the juices and the chicken is more tender this way.)

The best way to tell if the chicken is cooked is to poke a knife through it. If no water seeps out from the chicken, it is cooked.

Mughal Cuisine

Although this does not qualify as a regional cuisine, I had to mention the most popular style of Indian cooking that is so familiar in most of the Western world.

In the 1500’s the Persians came to India and brought with them their food, customs, literature, music and architecture. This is reflected strongly in most part of North and Central India.

The Persians loved the rich life and legend has it that the Emperor Akbar had over 400 cooks to serve his over 300 wives. The cuisine reflects the use of nuts, nutmeg, mace, poppy seeds, cream, yogurt, clarified butter, dry fruits, cinnamon, cloves, rice and meats. The Muslims also brought in the oven baked breads like “Naans ” that are so synonymous with Indian cuisine the world over.

Persian rice dishes are what legends are made of, the perfect rice and meat layers of the Shahjahani biryani or the colorful rice in the many pulaos. The Wazawaan of Kashmir , the Tandoori style of cooking in Punjab and the Chowki Khanna of Hyderabad to name just a few are reminders of the opulence of a time gone by. (The meat referred to here is goat meat, which is what is preferred in India even today, compared to the West where I think lamb is preferred).

One of the features that I love best about this style of cooking is adding a layer of fragile strips of edible beaten silver or gold foil to the final dish. It gives the dish a spectacular and royal look.

Secrets of the Indian Spice Cupboard “It's not too spicy is it?” has got to be the most common phrase that I have ever heard in all my years of teaching and writing about Indian food. With that one simple question many people brush aside Indian cuisine. Spices are not about heat. They are about aroma and flavor. They add sweetness, bitterness, heat, sourness and even color. These multifaceted little powders, roots and seeds form the heart of Indian cuisine. Used in the right way they can add great depth and wonderfully complex flavors to your dishes.

Spices form the heart of the cuisine. There are many aromatic and flavorful seasonings that home cooks can choose from to create their masala (spice mixture) masterpieces. To learn to appreciate the art of Indian cooking, you need to understand the spices that are used. How to use them, when to use them, and in what order to use them, are all critical ingredients in becoming a good Indian cook.

In India spices are used in two forms, wet and dry. The wet spice mixtures are made by mixing spices with water, oil or vinegar. The dry mixes are generally made by dry roasting spices on a hot skillet and then grinding them.

Learning how to mix spices -- like an artist learning how to mix paints -- takes inspiration and practice. My advice is to let your taste buds be your guide; there is no wrong or right mixture. If it tastes good to you, it’s a good spice mixture. In Indian cooking a spice mixture is considered good if it provides a harmonizing taste to the dish – no spice is too overpowering or too weak. It’s just right!

Cooking Guidelines

Spices tend to burn easily so make sure that you have all the ingredients ready to go. Don’t start the recipe and then go looking for and measuring each spice. In many Indian recipes the spices need to be added in quick succession and you will not have time to go looking for them in the middle of the cooking process.

A few tips to remember when cooking your spices:

  • If you are using oil to cook your spices, ensure that the oil is hot before you add the spice. Hot oil has the ability to retain the flavor of the spice.
  • If you need to roast the spices on a dry skillet, again make sure the skillet is hot before you add the spice.
  • Spices cook very quickly and can burn so make sure you are constantly stirring and be ready to remove them from the heat as soon as they brown.
  • If you need to bruise or crush spices for a recipe, don’t do it to far in advance. The spice will loose its freshness, do it just when you need it.
  • Please make informed substitutions! I get so many letters from people asking why certain recipes they have don’t work, and nine out of ten times it is because they are substituting the wrong things! If you don’t know what a certain ingredient is, ask your local Indian grocer or check the glossary from any good Indian cookbook or an online resource like for more information. You can use ground spices for whole spices in some cases, just ensure that you do not over or under spice the dish. Taste to adjust seasoning as necessary.
Grinding and Storage Guidelines

Dump out every jar full of pre-ground spices that has been sitting in your cabinet for more than a year. Spice racks are not inanimate objects to be given as bridal-shower gifts and kept for life. They're living things, the soul of Indian cuisine. Buy spices in small quantities and replenish them at least annually. If you open a package of spices and it has little or no aroma, the spices have lost their potency and shouldn't be used. Even for the mixed masala or spice mixtures, prepare them fresh when you need them -- you will notice the difference.

If you don’t want your ground coffee tasting like ground cumin, keep your coffee grinder and spice grinder separate. (Labeling the grinders appropriately really helps). Coffee grinders really work best for powdering spices. For roughly pounded spices you can use a mortar and pestle or even place the spices in a plastic bag and use a rolling pin.

Most people store their spices right next to their stoves. Bad idea. Store your spices in a airtight jar, away from direct heat or sunlight. Also never use a wet spoon for remove spices from a jar. This will keep them fresh longer. The best place to store the spices in a cupboard or a drawer. If you can use glass or clear plastic jars – this way you can see how much spice you have left!

My final advice - teaspoons of spices are never too much, tablespoons of oil are just enough and a little imagination goes a long way.

My spice rack currently holds over a forty different spices and mixes. For a basic Indian spice pantry I would recommend the following:

  • Asafetida: (Hing): This is a digestive spice and is generally used in very small quantities (add a pinch of asafetida). It has a very strong smell and is also called "the stinking spice". This smell however completely disappears during the cooking process. The spices adds a very unique flavor to the dish.
  • Bay leaf: (Tej patta): These are used whole in sweet and savory dishes. They are leaves of the laurel tree and are very fragrant. These are removed from the dish before serving and are not eaten.
  • Black cardamom pods: (Moti or Bari Elachi): As the name suggests these are large black cardamom seeds. They are used both in savory and sweet dishes primarily in North Indian cooking. They provide a woodsy flavor to the dish. Please remove from the dish before serving.
  • Black peppercorns: (Kali Mirch): These come from the Malabar coast of India and are berries of the pepper plant. As the name suggests they have a rather strong pepper taste. They can be used either whole or crushed.
  • Carom seeds: (Ajwain): These seeds are also called Bishop’s weed. The flavor is very strong and similar to the flavor of Thyme.
  • Chickpea flour (besan): This flour is made from chickpeas. It is used to prepare batter for fritters, as a thickener in curries, or to prepare desserts.
  • Cilantro (Hara Dhaniya): Fresh cilantro has a strong lemony flavor and is used liberally in North Indian cooking to provide the final garnish to dishes. In the west it is also called also known as Chinese parsley. Please note that dried coriander powder is not a substitute for fresh cilantro.
  • Cinnamon stick (Dalchini): In India cassia bark is often sold as cinnamon. True cinnamon comes from the inner bark of an evergreen tree. It is used in most dishes in the whole stick form and impart a strong sweet flavor to the dish.
  • Clarified butter (ghee): Ghee is clarified butter from which all milk solids have been removed. It is often used in India as the cooking medium since it has the ability to be heated to very high temperatures. It also retains spice flavors better than other cooking mediums and provides a distinct nutty flavor to the dishes. There are two types of Ghee – one made from vegetables and the other made from butter. You can prepare Ghee at home or buy it at your local Indian grocer.
  • Cloves (laung): The best way to describe these dried flower buds is that they look like little brown nails. They come from an evergreen and have been used in India for centuries. Whole cloves and clove oil is thought to have legendary toothache healing properties. Cloves are bitter in taste and are added to sweet and savory dishes.
  • Coconut Milk (Nariel ka doodh): Coconut milk is prepared from the white meat of the coconut. You can buy coconut milk in cans at your local grocery. Please do not substitute coconut water for coconut milk.
  • Coconut, desiccated (Sukha nariel): Dried coconut flakes used in many sweet and savory dishes. You can buy these at your local grocer. In many Indian homes, there is a special grater that is kept on hand to grate fresh coconut. You can substitute fresh grated coconut for desiccated coconut.
  • Coriander seeds (dhaniya): These tiny seeds pack a real punch. Very strongly flavored they are used whole, crushed or ground. A tip here – grind these fresh, you will see the difference in the taste of the dish.
  • Cumin seeds (jeera): Cumin is one of the most widely used spices in the world. It can be used as it, fried, roasted, ground up, indeed it is very versatile and really adds a warm flavor to the dish. Buy the safeed jeera or the brown cumin seeds for the recipes here.
  • Curry leaves (kari patta): These small point leaves are very fragrant and add a unique lemony flavor to dishes. Bay leaves are not a substitute.
  • Fennel: (Sauf): These small oval shaped seeds similar to aniseeds have a liquorice like flavor.
  • Fenugreek leaves, dried (Kasoori Methi): These dried leaves are highly aromatic and are used as a seasoning. They are extremely strong in their taste and aroma. Use them sparingly --a little goes a long way.
  • Fenugreek seeds (methi dana): These seeds look like flat brown disks. They have a bitter taste that disappears on cooking.
  • Garam Masala (warm spice mix): This is a mix of dark and strongly flavored spices. It is used whole or ground and is generally used in meat dishes. You can buy this from your Indian grocer or Garam Masala prepare it fresh at home.
  • Green cardamom pods (choti elaichi): Cardamom is a very aromatic spice. The pods, containing black seeds, are used whole or ground up. For most recipes you can grind the whole pod unless otherwise indicated. I would shy away from buying ground cardamom, it really is best to grind it fresh. You can buy cardamom seeds (removed from the pod).
  • Jaggery (gur): Jaggery is basically thickened sugar cane juice. Brown sugar can be used as a substitute.
  • Mint (pudina): Used in preparation of many dishes, mint leaves are used whole or pureed. Rarely if ever is dried mint used in Indian cooking.
  • Mustard seeds (rai): Yellow and black seeds add a toasty flavor to the dish. Usually the recipe will indicate which type of seed should be used. Mustard oil obtained from mustard seeds is a very popular cooking medium in Eastern Indian cuisines.
  • Red chilies, whole dried and powder (sukhi lal mirch): Red chilies are used to give heat to a dish and used liberally in many Indian dishes. You can buy many varieties of these from the very mild to the very strong. You can either buy dried red chilies and grind them to make your own powder or buy the prepared chili powder. Cayenne pepper can be used as a substitute if you like. I would advise you to get the traditional red chili powder from your local Indian grocer.
  • Saffron (kesar): The world’s best saffron comes from Spain and from India’s Kashmir valley. Saffron adds a unique flavor and a gorgeous yellow amber color to dishes. Turmeric is not a substitute. Saffron is a very expensive spice and a pinch is all you need for most recipes.
  • Tamarind (imli): Tamarind pulp is used to add tanginess and sourness to dishes. You can buy prepared tamarind pulp from Indian grocery stores.
  • Turmeric (haldi): Turmeric comes from a rhizome similar in appearance to ginger root. It gives Indian dishes the characteristic yellow color associated with curries. It is used in a dried powdered form and is also cooked as a vegetable in its raw form.
A Word on Yogurt and Paneer (Indian Cheese)

You can buy yogurt at your local grocer to use in the recipes here. Just be sure its unflavored plain yogurt. You should also drain any extra whey (either by placing the yogurt in a filter over a bowl or hung in a cloth over a sink) – this gives the right texture to the yogurt.

Paneer is now easily available at Indian grocery stores. You can buy it whole in a slab, cut up or cut up into cubes and deep-fried. It is also fairly easy to prepare at home.

I leave you with this thought from UK’s famous Keith Floyd “ There are as many versions of masalas in Indian cooking as there are sexual positions in the Kama Sutra, if not more……”

Editor's Note: This special three-part series (read the first and second installments) on the regional cuisine of India, by Monica Bhide and Chef Sudhir Seth, is made available to the readers of Seasoned Cooking by the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. This amazing organization is devoted to increasing awareness and knowledge of the arts of cooking, eating, and drinking, and to making further contributions to the literature of food and drink. Please join us in thanking them for their work and supporting them in their cause!