Every time a friend starts cooking Indian food, I expect a slew of questions in my inbox. What are the basic, essential spices needed? Which common staple ingredients do you need? Oof, so many questions!
I get it. Indian food has a reputation for being complicated (but it's not!) While some traditional recipes use special ingredients, the core of Indian home cooking is simple. And I'm here to make it even simpler.
You need just eight pantry staples and ten essential spices to get cracking with Indian home cooking. You can always add to that over time, as you get more comfortable! And if you need a quick printable list to take when you go shopping, I have one for you at the end of the post.
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⭐ Types of Indian Food
Before we get into stocking a pantry for cooking Indian food, it's worth clarifying what "Indian food" covers (and consequently, what this post covers). Most people think of "curries" when they think of Indian food. But even that word has a different meaning across India. For instance, "curry" in most South Indian states actually refers to any dry saute of vegetables!
Each state in India (36 of them) have their own distinct flavor profiles and ingredients. For instance, most of what people know about 'Indian food' in the US derives from Punjabi cuisine. Likewise, folks often lump South Indian food (covering the four peninsular states of India) into "Madrasi" cuisine. There is Western Gujarati food, which tends to be sweeter and richer; Bengali or Goan cuisine, which tends to be seafood heavy.
But for the purpose of (over) simplifying we'll stick to two broad types: North Indian and South Indian food.
I've grown up and lived in both South India (Chennai) and North India (Delhi) and this post draws from those experiences. It is, by no means, a comprehensive accounting of the nuances (which would be an entire blog - not post - and maybe I'll convince my mother to write about that someday!)
The spices used to cook Indian food are roughly the same (e.g. turmeric, red chili powder, cumin, coriander etc.), but the preparation can be quite different (both in quantities and usage).
In South India, we roast dry spices, and then grind fresh each time we cook. However, in North India, "spice blends" are more popular (e.g. garam masala) - where you pound dry spices to make a blend ahead of time. These blends are then used across dishes. South Indian cuisine, when it uses pre-made spice blends, tend to have dish-specific blends (e.g. sambar powder, rasam powder, and so on). These spice mixes can vary from house to house, let alone across entire regions!
Broadly speaking, North Indian cuisine tends to be more wheat-based (e.g. naan). South Indian cuisine is a lot more rice-based (e.g. dosas, which are rice flour crêpes or just rice). Breads and rice often serve as the utensils with which to eat our food. Get ready to get your hands dirty!
Other Flavor Enhancers
While most dishes have a star ingredient, we also use flavor enhancers (aromatics, acids, and thickeners) a ton. North Indian cuisine includes more dairy (think yogurt, malai, i.e. cream, and paneer). South Indian cuisine loves tamarind paste for the tart flavors. South Indians also use a ton more coconut in our cooking.
Northern cuisine uses mustard, peanut and soybean oils while Southern cuisine uses coconut and sesame oils more often. Both cuisines use ghee.
🍚 Eight Key Ingredients
Indian food tends to use the same eight 'staple' ingredients. While you don't need all of these for every single dish, it might not be a bad idea to stock up on these items (since many are non-perishable)
Rice: North Indians typically tend to use basmati rice, while South Indians use a version called "Sona Masoori" (which is more rounded). I recommend just going with basmati since it's more readily available everywhere. As you get more nuanced with regional dishes, diversify!
Flour: I've found that regular all purpose flour works great for most Indian breads. But what other types of flour do we use? Finely milled flour (similar to cake flour) called maida for fried breads, for one. I also use atta, whole wheat flour, more frequently because it's a tidge healthier. While both of these are common in Indina households, all purpose flour works just fine!
Lentils: This is one of the items that I get a lot of questions about, because we have SO. MANY. TYPES. of lentils. It can get confusing. Dals are split legumes. They are found in three forms - whole, split with the skin on, or split with the skin removed. I can't even tell you how many types of lentils I have in my house right now (just look at this picture below).
I often reach out three lentils the most. So, I recommend stocking up on one or all of the following as possible.
- Toor Dal (split yellow pigeon peas) - this is really the base of many, many dishes (including the delicious dal tadka)
- Moong Dal (split green gram) - this is protein packed, and has a softer consistency when cooked.
- Masoor Dal (red lentil) - this is probably the most common one (and you can find on most grocery store shelves).
They're different in flavor and nutritional content, but you can almost use them interchangeably. So, get whichever one you're able to get your hands on most easily. Most of my recipes will include notes on the preferred lentil, and what you need to change if you use one of the other ones instead.
Beans: We use a lot of chickpeas, black beans, and kidney beans in North Indian cuisine. Chickpeas are used in both North and South Indian dishes. So, if you had to pick one, I recommend getting canned chickpeas and straining out the water.
Shredded or Desiccated Coconut: The key to South Indian cooking is the coconut. We use it for almost everything (you'd be missing a world of chutneys and stews without it). My mom would grate raw coconuts. But luckily for us, you can find shredded or desiccated coconut in most grocery stores. Check the baking section for the unsweetened version (and not the flakes). Or if all else fails, there's always Amazon.
Coconut Milk: Coconut milk is an equally important ingredient for a ton of Indian stews and curries in South India, especially in dishes from Kerala, a state on the Southwestern coast of India.
Ghee: This clarified butter forms the heart of many Indian dishes because you often roast the spices in ghee instead of oil to make it more fragrant. Thankfully, ghee is now available in most large grocery stores, so grab yourself a jar. If you're vegan, just use vegetable oil instead.
Yogurt: This is used as a thickener and a base for many Indian dishes. I suggest buying unflavored, plain Greek yogurt if you can. If you're vegan, you can either choose a non-dairy yogurt or you can opt for something like a coconut cream (or even a tofu sour cream)
🌶 Ten Essential Spices & Aromatics
Indian food is all about the right balance and combinations of spices to produce different (delicious) results. To get going on most Indian dishes, you'll need the following ten spices (in that order). This is not the "be all, end all" list but you'll be able to get to 80% of the dishes just fine.
Turmeric: No surprises here. Turmeric is a powerful antiseptic and used for its vivid yellow color much more than the flavors.
Red chili powder: Indian food can be spicy, but often not due to raw heat. I use Kashmiri chili (quite potent) but paprika works for milder flavors.
Cumin seeds: Cumin seeds are often added to hot oil, to infuse the oil with flavor, and then ground into marinades and sauces.
Coriander seeds: Coriander really forms the base of most spice mixes you know, and carries the flavors of the dishes.
Mustard seeds: Mustard seeds are also used for infusing oil, and carry an amazing nutty flavor that is the centerpiece of many dishes
Onions: See, I told you this would be stuff you already had. Onions are such a centerpiece for imparting flavor. That's just it. We typically use red onions when you want the flavor to be bold, or yellow onions when it's mild. You really can't go wrong using either, in most cases - just avoid 'sweet' onions.
Garlic: This one is at the end because not all Indians eat garlic and not all Indian dishes need garlic. But it does pack a punch!
Ginger: I typically suggest just buying ginger paste, but you can also buy fresh ginger and grind it into a paste quite easily.
Tamarind paste: Ah, finally, an oddball. Tamarind is not very common in North Indian food, but is integral for South Indian food. If you don't want to buy tamarind paste, you can mix lemon juice with brown sugar for a similar "tart" flavor (like I do in my chana masala recipe)
Cilantro: Nothing like fresh cilantro to finish an Indian dish - it's so fragrant, you'll be glad you grabbed a bunch! If you're wondering how to store it, I suggest removing the plastic packaging and patting it dry first. Then, add some water to a vase or glass (about an inch or two) and place cilantro there, cover with a plastic bag on top, and throw in the fridge.
With these ten spices and aromatics, you're ready to rock and roll.
Note: I've listed "seeds" for cumin and coriander, not the ground powders. So you'll need a spice grinder if you intend to use the fresh spices. If you don't have one, feel free to grab the ground powder (it'll taste just fine!)
I recommend three pieces of cookware to get started with Indian cooking. Good news is you probably have all of them in your house right now.
Deep saute pan: You'll use this for making most of the main "entrees"
Non-stick frying pan: You'll use this for making the breads and a couple of other starchy mains
Deep pot: You'll use this for making rice, boiling vegetables and lentils, and potentially frying a few snacks
Note: A pressure cooker (or an Instant Pot) is a nice-to-have (because it drastically cuts down time to cook lentils and rice) but it is not a necessity. Likewise, a wok (called a kadhai) is a nice to have, but not necessary.
📋 Printable Shopping List
This was a lot of information to pack into one post. But hopefully, you skimmed through it, and have it bookmarked in case you want to revisit later. I've also created this printable shopping list so you can get the right stuff stocked easily.
And in case you haven't already, sign up for the email series to get:
- Key tips and tricks to cook Indian food
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What other questions do you have about Indian cooking? Leave a comment below! I'll do my best to address it in the next set of posts.
And if you're wondering how you can put all these ingredients and spices to good use, check out these delicious Indian recipes:
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