How to Stock an Indian Pantry: Spices, Dals, and More Essential Ingredients

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

It's been four decades since Madhur Jaffrey, the celebrated actress who once had to write her mother for instructions on how to cook rice, debuted the seminal An Invitation to Indian Cooking. She's said that she wrote the book for herself, since there were so few good Indian recipes available at the time. Much has changed in the intervening years. For one, Jaffrey has published 11 more cookbooks, while Indian recipes have popped up in major food publications, and restaurants representing distinct regions of India have opened around the country. And yet, even as she's made her reputation as the West's preeminent Indian-cooking guru, Jaffrey has scoffed at the notion, telling Lynne Rossetto Kasper: "People call me the great expert on India. Nobody can be an expert on Indian food because it's such a large country. Every time you go into a little crevice of India, you find a new cuisine, new dishes."

That's no exaggeration. With 1.3 billion people, India is the second-most populous country on the planet (just behind China), so wide-ranging diversity in the things people make and eat is inevitable. The roasting and mixing of spices and herbs is an indelible feature of the country's cooking, but spice blends vary from region to region—garam masala in the North, sambar powder in the South, panch phoron in the East—and even from house to house. Dals (stew-y legume dishes) are characteristic staple foods, but their common ingredients are similarly dependent on locale. And an endless number of breads are found all over the country: the wheat-based staple naan comes from the North; dosas, or chickpea and rice flour crêpes, come from the South; unleavened, sorghum-based bhakri hails from Gujurat in the West. On the flatware-free Indian table, breads serve as utensils, used for scooping up stir-fries, stews, and dals.

In broad strokes, northern Indian cuisine includes more dairy—paneer, ghee, yogurt—and uses amchur (green-mango powder) as a souring agent, while the coastal South favors tamarind for its tart balancing flavor. The coastal West, where coconut palms flourish, incorporates coconut oil and milk into many of its staple dishes. Various religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam, have also influenced the country's cuisine (nearly one-third of the population is vegetarian), as have outside forces like the historical Mughal Empire in the North and Portuguese colonizers in Goa, to the West. (The popular preparation vindaloo, for instance, is an evolution of the Portuguese dish carne de vinha d'alhos, or meat marinated with wine and garlic.)

To help us scratch the surface of Indian cooking, we turned to cookbook authors Raghavan Iyer, a Mumbai native who wrote Indian Cooking Unfolded, and Chitra Agrawal, the owner of Brooklyn Delhi and author of Vibrant India: Fresh Vegetarian Recipes from Bangalore to Brooklyn. Here, they break down some of the most essential ingredients in the Indian pantry.

Spices

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One of the most overwhelming aspects of the Indian pantry is the sheer number of crucial spices. The good news is that you probably already have a number of them, or can find them at your local grocery store: cayenne, cumin, fennel, coriander, cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, black peppercorns, and bay leaves, to name just the basics. Like any spices, they're best stored in a cool, dark place. In a tightly sealed receptacle, whole spices will keep for up to a few years, while ground ones will last about six months before losing their potency. But for far superior flavor in your dishes, buy spices whole and grind them fresh for cooking. (Agrawal buys only whole cumin and grinds it to order—never powdered.) Find a supplier with high turnover, buy the smallest bag possible, and if your expiration date is approaching, share it with friends so it doesn't gather dust on the shelf.

Indian recipes often call for dry-roasting whole spices. Because different spices may finish roasting at different times, Agrawal recommends roasting them one at a time in a heavy pan such as a cast iron skillet, over medium-low heat. Use a spoon to move them around until they're fragrant (just a matter of minutes). Our favorite online resources for spices are Kalustyan's, The Spice House, and Patel Brothers.

Turmeric

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Fresh turmeric, a member of the ginger family, is increasingly available in well-stocked grocery stores like Whole Foods. But it's still more widely found in its dried-and-ground form. "Its flavor is anywhere between astringent and acerbic," says Iyer. "It changes dramatically during cooking, mellowing out and bringing out an underlying sweetness."

Turmeric is used in a wide range of dishes, like anda bhurji (scrambled eggs), rice, and murgh kari (chicken curry), and, for many, its purpose extends beyond flavor and color—some believe it aids digestion and has anti-inflammatory properties. "It's also used extensively in religious functions; it has a strong role in weddings," says Iyer. "And it's used in dyeing fabrics. It's called the poor man's saffron."

Hing (Asafetida)

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Like turmeric, asafetida (also called hing) is said to have strong digestive properties, and thought to help break down legumes, such as in this moong dal recipe. "It's actually a member of the carrot family," says Iyer. "They tap the trees to get the resin and form the milky liquid into blocks." When heated in oil, the pungent resin approximates the savory flavors of onion and garlic, so it's often used in Brahmin and Jain kitchens, which prohibit those aromatics. It's most commonly found as a powder, which contains a little flour. If you can find it, opt for the block form, which looks like dark fudge, and grate it with a Microplane. Keep it in an airtight container in a cool, dark spot. "Moisture affects it big time," says Iyer.

Mustard Seeds

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There are three kinds of mustard seeds: spicy, pungent brown and black seeds, which can be used interchangeably, and their milder yellow counterparts. They're found in everything—achars (pickles), rice, stir-fries, chutneys, pastes, and spice powders, such as the one for this tamatar murghi (chicken stew). "When you pop them in hot oil, they turn black and take on a sweet nuttiness that makes them appealing," says Iyer. "That's a key flavor in the South." Agrawal recommends keeping a pan lid handy while popping them in oil, so they don't go flying all over your kitchen.

Methi (Fenugreek)

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Two parts of the fenugreek plant appear in Indian cooking: "Southerners use more of the seeds, and northerners use more of the leaves," says Iyer. "The seeds are very hard, almost like little stones, and the leaves have a perfume quality. Both are bitter, the seeds more intensely so." Fenugreek leaves are typically used for stews, while the seeds are incorporated into achars, spice powders, and coconut-based dishes and chutneys. But sometimes you can find both forms in one dish, like in this kadhai paneer (stir-fried cheese and peppers). Agrawal warns that it should be dry-roasted carefully: "When done right, it will impart a nutty flavor, but when you over-fry it, it can get too bitter."

Cardamom Pods

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Native to Sri Lanka and the southern Indian state of Kerala, cardamom is used in Indian cooking in both ground and whole-pod form. "There's green cardamom and black cardamom," says Agrawal. "Black pods are used more in savory preparations, like garam masala. Green pods can be used in both sweet and savory preparations." Green cardamom, which has a complex minty, citrusy, herbaceous fragrance, is considered "true" cardamom, while black comes from a related plant and has a smokier aroma. The pods flavor all sorts of dishes, like biryanis and stews, including this Chettinad chicken stew.

Amchur (Dried-Mango Powder)

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Native to India and known as the "king of fruits," mango is one of the country's most iconic foods—Madhur Jaffrey called her 2008 memoir Climbing the Mango Trees. There are many different regional varieties of the stone fruit, which is used in both its ripe, sweet form, in foods like mango lassis, or in its green, unripe state, in items like mango pickle. In the landlocked northern regions, amchur—am is the Hindi word for "mango," and chur means "powder"—is the primary souring agent in cooking. To make it, unripe (green) mangoes are dried in the sun, then pulverized into a powder. It adds tartness and sweetness to all sorts of dishes, like this masala-stuffed eggplant, without adding any liquid, as lemon or lime juice would.

Tamarind

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In the South, dried tamarind is the souring agent of choice for dishes like this tamarind fish curry. Like the mango for amchur, tamarind is dried in the sun, but it's most often compacted and sold in block form, which must be soaked in hot water and pushed through a sieve, or sold as a concentrate, which is ready to use. "The Indian concentrate is 15 to 20 times stronger than the Thai brands," says Iyer. "The Thai ones are almost light brown [in color], and the Indian brands are deep chocolate." So, to avoid watering down your dish, buy the Indian brand of tamarind concentrate for Indian recipes. Once opened, it will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely.

Dals (Lentils, Peas, and Beans)

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One of the most basic and comforting Indian meals is simply rice and dal. If you have chickpeas, red or brown lentils, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, or yellow split peas from the regular ol' grocery store lying around, you have the base for an Indian pulse dish, like this channa masala. Beans are also used in all sorts of other dishes, such as sooji upma (a semolina-based breakfast dish), idlis (steamed lentil and rice cakes), and this South Indian lime rice.

As with spices, buy beans in small quantities from a store with high turnover. Among the less familiar varieties is toor dal (split pigeon peas)—though used all over India, they're the most commonly used lentil in the South—as well as urad dal (black lentils) and moong dal (mung beans). Indian cooking also uses several different kinds of chickpea varieties beyond the white chickpeas (kabuli chana, or garbanzo beans) that we're familiar with in the US, including chana dal (split and skinned black chickpeas) and kala chana (whole black chickpeas).

Ghee

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You can certainly make your own ghee, the Indian clarified butter used as a cooking fat, by simmering butter over low heat and straining out the milk solids. But Iyer also recommends buying an Indian brand of ghee. "The cows are on a different diet, and I prefer the grassiness of Indian ghee," he says. The Amul brand is a household name in India, and available online and at Indian and South Asian groceries in the States. Because the milk solids have been removed, you can keep an opened jar of ghee in your cupboard for several months.

Jaggery (Palm Sugar)

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Jaggery, a palm- or cane-based sugar product, is the main sweetener in Indian cooking. It is, of course, used in desserts, but it's also incorporated into many savory preparations, particularly to balance out the tartness of tamarind, or, in the case of this prawn patia, vinegar. "It has an earthier, complex flavor," says Agrawal. And it's not as sweet as other sugars, so if you substitute white or brown sugar, use less. You can buy it in powder form or in blocks, which must be grated. Either should be kept tightly wrapped in a cool, dark place.

Coconut

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Aside from the hard shell, almost every part of the coconut—the oil, the milk, and both fresh and dried, shredded meat—is used in Indian cooking. "Coconut oil is used extensively in southwestern Indian cooking," says Iyer. "Almost any grocery store brand will work." For coconut milk, he uses Thai brands, also easily found in supermarkets. Some dishes use more than one form of coconut: This recipe for Stir-Fried Spiced Carrots calls for both coconut oil and shredded coconut meat, while this Kerala shrimp moilee uses coconut oil and milk. If you're not cracking and shredding the fruit fresh, the coconut meat you'll find most often in stores is unsweetened desiccated coconut, which you can reconstitute by covering with boiling water and letting it sit for 15 minutes. But Agrawal recommends buying frozen unsweetened coconut, particularly the Daily Delight brand, if you can find it. "It tastes just like you grated the coconut," she says.

Curry Leaves

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"There's no real substitute for them," says Agrawal. "They have sharp, citrusy, herby flavor." The flavor of curry leaves bears zero resemblance to that of store-bought curry powder mixes, which usually contain a mix of cumin, turmeric, coriander, and other spices. The leaves are roasted and ground into homemade spice blends, fried in oil, puréed raw and added to coconut pastes or chutneys, and simmered into the South Indian classics sambar (vegetable and lentil stew) and rasam (tomato lentil soup). You can find them fresh, frozen, or dried in Indian grocery stores, online, or in some supermarkets. "If you buy dried ones, just use double the amount," says Agrawal. You can also pop fresh curry leaves, tightly wrapped, into the freezer, where they'll keep for a few months.