A Guide to Indian Cooking Techniques

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As in sports so in cooking, an initiation into the techniques is always helpful before you go on to practice your art. Indian cooking combines many different cooking techniques to create one drool-worthy dish. Let’s review the few essential ones. 

A collage of images showing different techniques used in Indian cooking

 

There is a reason Indian cuisine is so aromatic and flavorful. It is because most recipes, including the deceptively simple dals, employ multiple techniques to make the dish stand out. For the uninitiated, it may sound a bit much and even daunting. But don’t worry, once you understand the techniques, using them will become second nature to you.

Indian Cooking Methods Decoded

Just like the rest of the world, Indian cooking also involves basic techniques such as frying, boiling, sautéing, grilling, baking, etc. We are not going to cover that those here. Instead, we are going to focus on some of the techniques that are unique to Indian cuisine and how they have been modified in recent years to use the oven, Instant Pot and Mealthy Crisp Lid

Tadka /Bagar / Chowk (tempering)

This may loosely be defined as tempering in English. But the process is very different from the tempering of chocolate. Here hot oil is used to fry the spices before adding them to the dish. The hot oil extracts the flavor, aroma and medicinal qualities of the spices making the food healthier and tastier. The tempering process can be used at the beginning, or at the end of the cooking process. Each dish requires its own treatment. Here’s an example of Ven Pongal where tempering is added right at the end. 

Ven Pongal Recipe

Ven Pongal served in a black bowl and topped with sambar and chutney. A multi colored napkin is on the side along with a half visible bowl of coconut chutney.
Ven Pongal Recipe - This south Indian breakfast made from rice and lentils is a great way to start your day. Pair it with sambar and chutney for a complete gastronomical experience.

Read more: Tempering is a commonly used technique in Indian cooking and we delve into more details in this post – Tempering in Indian cooking. 

Bhunana

This is literally stir-frying, but with a slight difference. The food is stir-fried on a low heat for a long time until it caramelizes and gets a beautiful golden brown color. Often, it involves adding small quantities of water to prevent the food from burning and sticking to the pan while it is being stir-fried or bhunoed (is that a word? :-)). Typically, the process of bhunana is time-consuming and cannot be left unattended as the food needs to be constantly stirred and moved around.

A good example of this technique would be making this Bhuna masala (Onion tomato masala or curry sauce) where onions are almost cooked to the point of caramelization and then tomatoes are added to make a base for a lot of North Indian curries. I often make a big batch of curry sauce at once – it helps me put together Indian meals in minutes. 

Easy Indian curry sauce recipe (Onion Tomato Bhuna Masala)

Overhead shot of Onion tomato masala served in a white bowl
Easy Indian curry sauce recipe - Whether you make Indian food regularly or occasionally, having this onion tomato bhuna masala in your refrigerator will save you time. Skip Indian takeout and make fresh and delicious Indian meals in minutes!

Dum

While many cooks describe it as steaming, dum cooking is different from steaming which is called bhaapa cooking in local languages. Here the food is cooked in its own juices with very little or no water being added to it. It is cooked in a sealed pot placed on a slow heat. The process of dum is time-consuming and sometimes may take several hours before the food is cooked well enough to be served. So, the principle of dum cooking is very different from steam cooking where the food is cooked in the steam from a pot of boiling water over which it is placed. 

Like I mentioned dum cooking can take hours, in order to cut down the cooking time, often pressure cookers like Instant Pot are used to replicate the dish. Here’s how you can make the two popular dishes chicken biryani and dum aloo that were once made dum style in a pressure cooker. 

Instant Pot Punjabi Dum Aloo Recipe

An overhead shot of Instant Pot Dum Aloo recipe served in a white bowl and garnished with fenugreek leaves, cilantro and yogurt
This easy and delicious Punjabi style Dum Aloo gravy is perfect for families who want to savor this lovely dish without spending hours in the kitchen. Leverage your pressure cooker and make it in about 30-minutes. 

Dhungar

In dhungar cooking, live coal is added to a container that is then placed in the food that is to be infused with the smoky flavor. Then hot oil or ghee is poured over the burning coal. This creates a lot of smoke which is trapped by covering the food with lid. This prevents the smoke from escaping and allows it to permeate through the food. It should be left for a few minutes to allow the aromatic smoke to combined well with the food before it is opened and used for cooking.

I love how Manali uses charcoal in this smoked dal recipe to demonstrate dhungar cooking.

Smoked Dal Tadka

An overhead shot of Dal tadka
Lentils tempered with spices and ghee, this Dal Tadka is one of the most popular Indian dishes. This recipe uses burnt charcoal for that smokey flavor which makes the dal even more special!

Bhapa

This is similar to the steaming process in other cuisines. Two vessels are used for this technique, one in which the water is boiled and the other with a perforated bottom in which the food to be cooked is placed. The perforated vessel is placed over the pot with the water and covered to trap the steam for cooking. Sometimes, molds are used which are placed in a vessel with water at the bottom and a closed lid for steaming. The food is usually wrapped in banana/turmeric leaves or foil during steaming. 

A few examples of this cooking technique would include making gatti, khaman, dhokla and the popular south Indian breakfast – Idli

Idli recipe - How to make soft idlis every time

Do your idlis not turn out as soft as you want them to be? Learn the authentic south-Indian way to make idlis and start making soft idlis in no time
Do your idlis not turn out as soft as you want them to be? Learn the authentic south-Indian way to make idli and start making soft idlis in no time.

Tandoori

In this technique, the food is cooked in a coal or wood-fired clay oven. The intense heat in the oven cooks the food to perfection while imparting a delicious smoky flavor to it. The food is lowered into the tandoor using long skewers. The same clay oven is used for cooking Indian breads like naan, tandoori roti, etc. too.

Now, since we can’t have a Tandoor at home, the same effect is replicated using an oven, or an Instant Pot combined with Mealthy CrispLid. To learn more, check out this Tandoori chicken recipe. 

Tandoori Chicken Recipe

Tandoori chicken is served with a side of lemon wedges, sliced onions and naan
This authentic Tandoori chicken recipe will make the most flavorful and authentic chicken that is crisp on the outside and succulent on the inside - just like it is supposed to be! The recipe includes both Instant Pot and oven version. 

Balchao or pickling 

Balchao refers to the method of cooking popular in Goa where the seafood or vegetables are pickled in a spicy and tangy tomato-vinegar based sauce. It is almost like a pickle and can be stored for several days. 

Prawns Balchao

Prawns balchao served in a black bowl with a side of rice
Prawns Balchao is a fiery dish that finds its origins in Goa. Prawns are stir-fried first and then added to a pickled curry sauce to create a dish that makes your taste buds tingle and leaves you asking for more.

Besides these distinct cooking techniques, other techniques used in Indian cooking include baking, shallow frying, roasting, deep-frying (talna), sautéing, boiling, mashing, etc. Every dish is an amalgamation of many different techniques. The simple-looking dal too involves at least two different techniques of boiling and then tempering it.

Want more recipes using these techniques? Check out this list of 30+ types of curries – a select variety of the most popular curry recipes from across India.

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An overhead shot of Gujarathi kadhi along with rice, rotis and a side of lemon

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