Spices

Spices are a key part of Indian cooking.

JULI LEONARD, RALEIGH NEWS & OBSERVER

While spending two months in India in the early ‘80s, I fell in love with the cuisine, the culture and the people.

From my travels, India has remained an impressive memory, one that gets reignited every time I smell the aroma of coriander, cumin, curry leaves, turmeric and garam masala in my kitchen.

So I’ve been cooking food from Northern and Southern India for more than 15 years, and I’ve mastered dishes that my friends and family love.

Learning to cook food from India can be a daunting task, and the term “Indian food” is rather misused. The country is huge and, like Italy and France, has regional specialties. Each region has its specific dishes that originate from history, location, culture and tradition.

Many years ago, I was fortunate to study Indian cooking in New York City with a master chef named Julie Sahni and have used her teachings in my cooking classes and dinner parties. It would take a few lifetimes to learn the cuisine from each region. But it’s rewarding to try your hand at making this glorious food with only a few basic tips on ingredients.

The most important ingredients are the spice mixes that are unique to each dish. They impart flavor, heat and diversity from one dish to another. Each region has its own popular spice blend, known as masala blends, which include blends like garam masala.

To begin your Indian cooking journey, you should have these spices: coriander, cumin, turmeric, mustard seeds (yellow and black), cinnamon, fennel, ginger, red chili, cardamom, clove and fenugreek leaves.

Ingredients such as legumes, vegetables, grains, dairy and fruits are staples in the Indian diet. Dishes also rely heavily on a variety of lentils, so you most likely will have dal — a side dish of cooked spiced legumes — at every table, as well as flat and puffed breads known as naan, roti, chapati and paratha.

Ghee is a popular fat for cooking in India, but not all regions use it. Instead, they might use vegetable, peanut or mustard oil. Ghee, which is easy to make, is clarified butter, which is made by melting a pound of unsalted butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. When the butter is melted completely, skim off the foamy top and then carefully pour out the golden clear liquid to leave behind the milk solids in the bottom of the pan. You will lose about a third of the butter during the process. Transfer to a clean jar and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Getting started

I’ve included two recipes for popular spice blends: curry and garam masala. It is best to make your spice blends from scratch and store them in small jars or masala boxes, which are available at most Indian markets or online. I use an electric coffee grinder for my toasted spices. Afterward, clean it for coffee use by grinding a small piece of bread to remove the spice flavor.

Vegetarians fare well with Indian food, as many regions rely heavily on legumes, grains and vegetables. Here are recipes to get you started with the basics.

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