Chef's Blog

March 11, 2020

A Simple Indian Pantry

from Chef Mary Locke

Introducing new menu items with Indian flair can be a daunting proposition: all those unfamiliar spices and complicated sauces.

Fortunately, there are many straightforward ingredients and ready-to-use products that can help make the task much simpler.

Naan — One of the simplest in a long list of iconic Indian breads is a true multitasker, typically served as an appetizer, side dish, and all-around food-pusher with curries and other sauced Indian specialties. In addition, this soft, puffy flatbread can be used as sandwich bread (traditional or rolled), as a base for appetizers and individual pizzas, with dips, and even in Indian-accented quesadillas and fajitas. They’re also great simply brushed with garlic butter. Whole wheat versions are also available.

Roti — Another simple flatbread, roti is less puffy than naan but can be used in many of the same applications.

Poppadoms — Crisp and savory, these spicy, thin wafers of flatbread (a.k.a papadums) are wonderful served with dips or toppings, or alongside soup or salads.

Achaar — A catchall term for pickle, achaar is a spicy South Asian condiment made with fruits or vegetables (often tomatoes) pickled in oil, lemon juice or vinegar, salt, and spices. Pair it with rice or stews, spread it on a sandwich, or build a dip around it.

Samosas — These small, stuffed pastries—often seen in triangular, cone, and half-moon shapes as well as flat—are part of a fascinating group of Indian snacks called chaat, and they translate perfectly to the appetizer menu. They can be fried or baked, and are stuffed with everything from spiced potatoes to chicken to spinach and cheese. They are typically served with flavorful chutney for dipping.

Dal — A true building block of Indian vegetarian cuisine, dal is a stew made from split legumes (including lentils, peas, and beans), simmered and spiced. Dal can be endlessly varied, as a side dish or a plant-based main course, depending not only on the type of pulse used, but also the spices. It can be thick or thinned out into a soup, and can be enriched with cream and/or butter.

Chutney — Another indispensable Indian condiment, chutney is a sauce that can take such forms as spicy coconut, tomato relish, coriander, mango, onion, mint, and the famous Major Grey’s. It can be used to provide balance and flavor notes to a variety of different dishes, from fried appetizers to grilled meats, much like a salsa. Try pairing a fruit-based chutney with cheese, purée it into salad dressing, or mix it into ground meat for a hamburger or meatballs.

Basmati Rice — India’s staple rice is considered to be one of the best in the world. It is fluffy and delicate when cooked, with a distinctive aroma. Basmati can be used in place of any rice as a side dish, pilaf, or in soups and other recipes. Mix with cooked spiced lentils for a South Asian version of rice and beans or go all out to create an elegant biryani, an elegant main course that also includes saffron and other spices, fried onions, almonds or cashews, and often a protein such as chicken or lamb. Basmati can also be used in Indian-style rice pudding with milk, cardamom, nuts, and rosewater.

Garam Masala — Although there’s no curry powder, per se, in India, garam masala is the name of a group of ground spice mixtures that can vary according to intended use. The mixture might include mace, nutmeg, fennel, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, curry leaf, cumin, and coriander. Use garam masala as you would any spice mix: in soups; as a rub for proteins such as salmon; in meat, fish, and vegetable dishes; and in legume and vegetable recipes.

Raita — This indispensable cooling element and sauce/condiment is simply a blend of thick yogurt with diced cucumbers and chopped fresh mint, with or without sugar and ground cumin. Variations can be made with anything from avocado to chiles to spinach to rhubarb stalks.

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