Get going on the basics of Indian cooking

Life lessons learned outside the kitchen often help when cooking within it.

I find that the easiest way to care for someone is merely to see how similar that person is to me.

It’s much the same with strange or exotic cooking, the kind of food we frankly fear to prepare. Cooking Indian is a good example; hardly anyone I know who isn’t Indian cooks it.

“Too complicated,” I hear. “Too spicy.” Hey, a lot of our regular cooking is complicated — we show off about making it — and if salsa and hot sauce sales say anything, it’s that we relish spice and heat.

Looked at another way, the bases of nearly every savory Indian dish I’ve ever prepared sound like the bases of nearly every savory French dish I’ve ever prepared (or Italian dish, or Cajun, or …). Just switch the words for two or three basic ingredients. Instead of “diced onions, celery and carrot” (for French), or “diced onions, garlic and pork” (for Italian) or “diced onion, celery and bell pepper” (for Cajun), the Indians say “onion, garlic and ginger.”

And as with nearly all other cuisines from around the globe, you can make Indian dishes as complicated or as spicy-hot — or neither — as you wish. Recipes of all sorts abound.

But the rewards of cooking Indian, to me, far outweigh the momentary discomfort of wading into new waters. This is enticing exotic, pal, so heady with aroma and flavor that it transports. Nice when food does that. All you need do is set yourself up with some staples of the Indian pantry — increasingly available hereabouts — and get comfortable with a few new words.

Many of us cook lentils and garbanzo beans; the Indians just call those dal and chana (and prepare them nearly every meal). If you’ve got cumin powder and cinnamon sticks around for your Mexican dishes, they’ll often come in handy for your Indian ones. Onions, garlic, cilantro, ginger, tomatoes, yogurt, chili peppers — check. Oh? Already in the fridge?

So, you may need to go buy some seeds of black mustard, coriander and cumin; some cardamom pods and turmeric; and a can of coconut milk. You’ll enjoy the shopping trip because the store smells so great.

Sure, there might be need for one or another “exotic” ingredient for this or that Indian dish, but I am thinking that that is the idea about exotic, isn’t it? A necessary and salutary break from the everyday.

So, go for it. Make or buy a jar of ghee (the French call it “clarified butter”) to have around as the basic Indian cooking fat (or for a ragout de champignons or perhaps a risotto alla Milanese); assemble your own special garam masala to use for all your Indian preps (or just buy a jar); and think about buying a rice cooker.

Oh, I see — you already have one.

Orange Dal with Ginger and Garlic

Source: Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger;


  • 2 cups orange lentils
  • ¼ cup clarified butter
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons pureed garlic
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
  • 2 ¾ cups chicken stock, canned broth, or water
  • 1/8 cup loosely packed neem leaves (if available), or fresh cilantro or basil
  • 2 tablespoons black mustard seeds


Spread lentils on a cookie sheet and pick out any stones. Place in a large bowl and wash under cold, running water until water runs clear, about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a medium saucepan. Sauté onions with salt and pepper until golden brown. Add garlic and ginger, and cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add dal (lentils) and chicken stock or water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, 20 minutes. Just before dal is ready, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small skillet. Add the neem leaves and black mustard seeds and fry until leaves are crisp and seeds are popping, about 1 minute. Stir fried leaves and seeds into dal and serve immediately. Dal keeps well for 2 to 3 days. Reheat before serving.

Note: While the recipe calls for equal measures of pureed garlic and freshly grated ginger, one of the coolest inventions of Indian groceries is the jar of “garlic and ginger paste” that you will find in every one of them. One tablespoon of it is equal to the same measure of a paste of the ingredients’ combination (so, for this recipe, a total of 4 tablespoons garlic and ginger paste).

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