Making traditional Indian food at home doesn’t have to be a mystery. With a few simple tips you can become a chef of Indian cuisine.
When I was growing up, we didn’t have an Indian restaurant in the neighborhood. This has changed in the past decade, but it wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I first visited an Indian restaurant with friends. I was instantly hooked. From the creamy mango lassi and samosa that started the meal, to the sweet, syrupy galub jamun at the end, I loved every part of it, and I wanted more.
I took my first crack at cooking Indian food at home about eight years ago. My husband and I were still college students back then, in the early years of our relationship. We were both vegetarian at the time, and I had enjoyed his mom’s home cooking many times. I loved to cook and I knew it was time to branch out, time to start crafting the food that I knew my husband loved so much in my own kitchen.
Looking back on it now, the chole that I started making at home was far from spectacular. I can’t even remember where I found the recipe, probably from a blog or magazine online, but I still have (and frequently use) the now stained and slightly tattered piece of paper on which I wrote it down.
The recipe holds a place of honor in the recipe box that I keep in my kitchen, a special collection of frequently used items as well as once-a-year holiday specialties that I pull out on special occasions. My great-grandmother, grandmother and mother’s handwriting can be found in that box, alongside my own.
There are some commercially-produced recipes in there as well, from Fleischmann’s and Toll House and Trader Joe’s. Regardless of the original origins, they are beloved family staples.
I’m sure I chose that chole recipe because it sounded like it had to be right. At this early phase of my relationship with my husband, I had not yet spent much time in the kitchen with my mother-in-law. I didn’t really know whether her chole recipe included cinnamon sticks and bay leaves or not, but I did know that she cooked hers in a Crock Pot.
I didn’t have a slow cooker myself, so I planned to cook mine on the stove. The recipe that I chose did call for the aforementioned spices, as well as canned tomatoes and chickpeas. Though many Indian home cooks, including my husband’s parents, prefer to make their chole using dried chickpeas, I still prefer the canned variety.
I first served one of my early attempts at chole to my husband’s family when we hosted Thanksgiving dinner ourselves for the first time. Our parents and siblings were there, my roommate Rafael and I drank too much white wine, and at one point I wound up briefly in tears. There are pictures of me with the turkey, waving a large kitchen knife (menacingly? cutely? probably both).
My mother-in-law claims she almost gave up her vegetarianism that day, because the turkey simply smelled that good. The fact that no one talked about that day, and that I am only aware of myself in hindsight, is that the chole I served wasn’t that great.
The pieces of garlic were too big, chunks of tomato were still visible throughout the sauce, the general color of the dish was too light, and everything in the dish was just a bit too firm. The recipe that I used said to cook everything together for about 20 minutes, so that’s what I did. Now I know better.
My brother loved it, but those first attempts at chole just weren’t cooked enough. Here’s a tip for cooks everywhere: make notes on your recipes. Did you add a little more of something, or change the cooking time a bit? If that particular go at it turned out to be the perfect version, you’ll know exactly what to do next time.
As the years have passed, I have finally figured out how to make the perfect chole. What I deem to be perfect right now, at least. I still use that original recipe, roughly estimating the measurements on the spices now that I know what I prefer, but I throw in a ton more garam masala, leave out the final splash of lemon, and basically cook the crap out of it.
The key, I have discovered, to delicious chole is long, slow cooking. I really knew that from the beginning (i.e. my awareness of the fact that my in-laws used a slow cooker- duh!) but it took a lot of trial and error on my part to really figure this out.
Since that first attempt at chole, my Indian cooking repertoire has expanded. It started with a big family meal with friends at my summer apartment in college that included my first attempt at aloo gobi, made with a timesaving pre-blended spice mix in a little envelope that I bought at the grocery store down the street. It wasn’t bad! But it could have been better.
Since then, I’ve built up my Indian spice cabinet. Sometimes I even grind whole spices or make my own special blends. I’ve also acquired several Indian cookbooks, and was fortunate to discover my virtual guide to Indian home cooking, Manjula. Her website includes recipes and instructional videos, and you’ll be thinking of her as your auntie in no time.
Her recipes have given me inspiration, and her videos have taught me a lot about technique.
After watching Manjula and my mother-in-law make their own Indian flatbreads at home countless times, I finally got up the courage to try it myself. I knew it could take years to be able to produce perfectly round roti, and I also knew that I didn’t have one of the little rolling pins that are a staple of most Indian home kitchens.
Even so, I pressed on and used what I had. I’ve managed just fine with the large wooden rolling pin that I’ve always used for rolling out quiche and pie crusts. A smaller one would certainly be more convenient to use, but it gets the job done. Even traditional recipes and techniques can be adapted to your personal home kitchen.
I still haven’t tried my hand at naan, but my husband and I love to make parathas. Sometimes they’re plain or made with whole wheat flour; sometimes they’re stuffed with cauliflower or spiced potatoes.
Batturas are my absolute favorite, and I was pleased to be able to make chole battura to the delight of my father-in-law when he visited last year. My first try wasn’t perfect, but we all agreed they were tasty. Yeah, they’re greasy, too, but it’s so much fun to watch as they puff up into crispy, flaky balloons, floating in a pot of hot oil.
I have made exactly two attempts at cooking Indian-style poultry, and I don’t think either turned out particularly well. The first was a recipe for masala chicken drumsticks that I found online. The ingredients were listed in metric measurements; first I had to convert them so I’d be able to measure spices in teaspoons and tablespoons. This wasn’t too difficult, but there were more problems.
The recipe wasn’t written or tested by a professional cook, it just sounded good to me. The thing is, by the time I finished making it, it didn’t seem like anyone could have possibly even tested the recipe in their own home kitchen. The spice mixture that I made was probably enough to coat nearly ten times as much chicken as I had.
Determined not to alter the recipe the first time I tried it (and ignoring my good cooking instincts) I slathered it on, and then scraped most of it off once the dish finally made it to the dinner table.
Here’s another tip—experimentation in the kitchen is totally worth it, and will help you to grow as a cook, but sometimes there will be failures, or at least less-than-perfect results. Keep on cooking! And learn to trust your gut!
My second example of at-home Indian-style poultry cooking actually was a professionally tested recipe, and the ingredients were measured exactly. My husband and I received a gift of Blue Plate delivery from a friend, meaning three meals per week were chosen for us.
A box came in the mail filled with all of the necessary ingredients, plus a letter describing the menu, and directions for making the surprise meals. This included everything that we needed, except for the very basics: oil, salt and pepper.
We also needed to have some more obvious kitchen items (like pots and pans, a baking dish, a spatula, a knife, a vegetable peeler and a colander) and some perhaps less obvious (like a cheese grater or a citrus zester, both of which we had but that a beginning chef might not).
Cooking this way was a lot of fun, and my husband and I did get to use a few techniques and ingredients that we had never tried before. But I thought the Mulligatawny chicken stew that we made that week was disappointing. For one, I don’t particularly like fenugreek seeds. They’re a key element of Indian cooking in certain regions, but I find them to be strikingly bitter and tough in texture.
I think this says something about traditions—it’s okay to make them your own, to fit your own tastes, budget and desires. So what if I leave the fenugreek out of my cooking, right? I also disliked this recipe because it was made with the chicken thighs, and I prefer the taste and mouthfeel of other parts of the chicken. It just wasn’t the dish for me.
As I become more confident in my ability to spice Indian foods correctly and roll out a mean bread dough, my desire to learn more about Indian cooking continues to grow. My mother-in-law has always told me that desserts and samosas should be left to the professionals, but I’m eager to try them for myself. I know how incredibly time consuming these recipes can be to make, but I think I’m up for the challenge.
Milk cake is the only true Indian dessert that I can say I’ve really figured out so far. It’s one of my husband’s childhood favorites, and requires about a gallon of milk to make a large tray full of sweet, lightly crispy bites of goodness.
They’re the best perfumed with cardamom, with just a sprinkle of chopped pistachios on top. Delicious, but I’d like to have more than one Indian dessert recipe up my sleeve. Sounds like it’s time to make my second attempt at barfi, or maybe something new.
One thing that I’ve also learned over the years is that traditional Indian home cooking is not the same thing as restaurant food. This is the case for most restaurant cuisine—chefs like to impress their guests with large portions, and dishes made with lots of butter and cream. I don’t know about you, but I just couldn’t handle the food coma brought on by a good Indian buffet on a regular basis.
Homemade food might include a good dose of full-fat dairy once in a while, but every dish doesn’t have to be made that way in order to be satisfying. My mother-in-law likes to sometimes swap out the paneer in a recipe for tofu (when she can get away with it! My sister-in-law will tell you that she’s not a fan.) And I’ve been toying with the idea of making an avocado-based paratha.
Home cooking generally provides the most opportunity to eat healthy meals, because you are able to control exactly what ingredients go into your food, and what stays out. Dishes that are often high in salt and fat when you order them at a restaurant can be made in a healthier way at home.
I love Indian food mostly for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal vegetables. Sure, I’ll throw some frozen peas in my mattar aloo in the winter, but fresh baby peas and new potatoes are delicious in the springtime.
Another part of making traditional Indian food at home that I especially love is the leftovers. For whatever reason, most of my Indian recipes make enormous quantities of food, so it’s like Thanksgiving in leftover land time after time. Nothing beats subzi stirred into scrambled eggs for a casual Sunday brunch.
Having lots of leftovers also makes it possible to save time in the kitchen. I like to cook a few dishes once a week, and repurpose the leftovers for several meals. Dal, chole and stews freeze nicely, and breads can be made in bulk and reheated as you need them. My mother-in-law even likes to prep her onions and other vegetables ahead of time, so they’re ready to throw into a quick dinner at a moment’s notice.
Whether you’re a beginning cook or a seasoned expert, an Indian native or a US-born culinary enthusiast, I think there’s room to learn more about traditional Indian cooking in all cases. So roll up your sleeves, and get cooking!
If I was asked to break down the essentials of Indian cooking, I’d say it’s about two basic things: technique, and spice. Stock your pantry with the basics, like cumin, ginger, garlic, garam masala, coriander and turmeric, and you’ll be making lentils and potatoes with a traditional Indian flair in no time!
What’s your favorite Indian dish? Share with me in the comments!
With a master’s degree in gastronomy, this girl’s got food on the brain! Allison’s a Philly native and recent transplant to LA. When she’s not exploring the local food scene, she loves snacking on homemade goodies in front of the TV with her husband.
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