An Easy Guide to Indian Cooking

If Indian cuisine both interests and intimidates you, you have come to the right place. Follow along with this post to learn more about Indian cuisine and to get you cooking in no time!

A black plate with rice, lemon wedges and potato side dish. A caption over the image reads Indian cooking basics learn more

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of India? 

Colorful clothes?

A billion-plus people?

An ancient civilization?


or is it Curry?

A country with forty languages and roughly 1600 dialects, India is as diverse as it can get.

The cuisine is equally reflective of the diversity and there is truly no such thing as ‘Indian cuisine’.  What you see in most Indian restaurants today are simply a few dishes (from northern India primarily) that have become popular – naan (flatbread), paneer (cottage cheese), tandoori chicken, and butter chicken.

But that does as much justice to Indian cuisine as assuming Italian cuisine is all pasta with different sauces!

Even Indians who’ve lived all their lives in India haven’t been exposed to the wide variety that’s present across the country – from light vegetarian fare with healthy steamed dishes to tangy fish curries, robust parathas, sumptuous chicken, and a plethora of sweets.

As Sanjeev Kapoor, one of India’s top chef says in his book “How to Cook Indian” that “Even if you taste a new dish every day, it will take a few lifetimes before you could exhaust the entire repertoire of Indian food.

Why is Indian food so diverse?

Traveling through India is a gastronome’s delight. Across the country, the food differs and constantly changes in its ingredients, style of cooking, and taste. The factors that have influenced the cuisine the most are – Invasions, Religion, Location, Cooking style. 

Invasion – India has been invaded over the millennia by many different foreign cultures. Most of them left their influences behind which are evident in the cooking techniques, ingredients used, and even in the introduction of herbs, spices, and vegetables. For example – Mughals brought in the korma, biryani, and the tandoor while the Portuguese taught them to include cashews, tomatoes, and chilies in their meals.

Religion  Religion plays a big part in what Indians eat or don’t eat. While Muslims believe pork to be sacrilege but eat beef, while meat-eating Hindus don’t eat beef as cows are considered sacred. Then we have the Jains who do not eat meat in any form. They are vegetarians and their cooking even prohibits the use of root vegetables such as potatoes, onions, garlic, etc.   

Location – As far as food is concerned, the country can be roughly divided into four main regions – North, South, East, and West. Each region has its distinct cuisine. The difference lies in the locally available ingredients, the style of cooking, and the preferred cereals or lentils. 

For example –  Whole wheat rotis, paneer (cottage cheese), lassi (a yogurt-based drink), and ghee (clarified butter) are popular in North India whereas South Indians can’t do without their rice, coconut oil, tamarind amongst other things. East is all about making delicious fish in mustard oil and mouthwatering milk-based desserts whereas Western India can get really diverse with Goans loving their fish and most of Gujarat being strictly vegetarian.

Cooking style –  Take all the factors stated above and add cooking style to the mix – with every household adding its own twist to the same curry, the possibilities are endless.

That’s why Indian cuisine is elaborate and complex with spices that unleash a riot of flavors. Don’t be daunted though! There are enough and more simple dishes that are healthy, quick, and can tease your palette with enchanting flavors.

And no, they aren’t all spicy:).

What exactly is a curry? 

While there are dozens of different dishes found in Indian cuisine, the one that has become synonymous with Indian cuisine has to be the “curry”. The word “curry” itself is an angelized version of the Tamil word “Kari” which means a sauce or a relish that can be combined with rice.

The flavorful gravy that the rest of the world now thinks of as curry can be a combination of so many different ingredients and cannot be generalized by one name. For the average Indian each of these gravy-based dishes have individual names such as Paneer pasanda, mutton korma, dum aloo, etc. 

Read this: Interested to learn more? This article on different types of Indian curries is just what you need. Bonus – it’ll serve as a guide for Indian restaurant menus as well. 

What is curry powder?

As far as Indian cuisine is concerned, there is nothing called curry powder. This spice mix was conjured up by the British to recreate the flavors of the food they had in India. 

The concept of curry powder is one that does not sit well with Indian cuisine. No, we do not use the spices you used in dum aloo to make for example a chicken makhani. Most Indian dishes have their own unique blend of whole spices and powders that are used to impart a distinct flavor. 

The only thing that comes close to curry powder is garam masala powder – a spice powder popularly used in North Indian cooking. If you are into making spice blends at home, here’s a link to the few I make at home – Homemade spice blends. 

What does an Indian meal consist of?

For the most part, it depends on each household.

If you were to be invited for dinner, expect to find either bread (rotis/naan) and/or rice served with gravies (lentil-based dishpulses, or meat curry) and a dry side dish. The meal can be accompanied by raita, chutneys, pickles, and possibly a yogurt-based drink. And if there is a festive occasion, expect to be treated with desserts🙂Are you excited about cooking your first Indian meal? Let’s start by stocking up your pantry.

How to set up an Indian pantry

Kitchen tools needed for Indian cooking

Here’s a list of kitchen tools you’ll need to cook Indian food at home. Don’t worry, it is not a long list. Also, if you have been cooking any kind of food at home, then you’ll notice that you already have quite a few of these tools already in your kitchen. 

Read this: Essential tools for Indian cooking

Spices used in Indian cooking

Indian cuisine is known for its lavish use of spices, but that doesn’t mean that you need a lot of spices to cook Indian food at home. For the most part, all you need is 7 spices/spice powders to cook the Indian food mentioned below. These are my go-to spices on most days.

  1. Cumin seeds (jeera)  
  2. Mustard seeds (rai) 
  3. Cumin Powder (jeera powder) 
  4. Coriander powder (dhania powder)
  5. Chili powder 
  6. Turmeric powder 
  7. Garam masala powder 

Just listing these spices won’t do them any justice that is why I have dedicated a whole post to it  – Essential Indian spices – which ones to buy and how to use them in Indian cooking.

An overhead shot of an Indian spice box with 7 spices in it.
Masala Dabba

Pulses used in Indian cooking

For Indians, especially vegetarians, it is hard to imagine a meal without at least one dish made from pulses. Pulses are an integral part of Indian cuisine in curries, dumplings, snacks, and even sweets. That is why knowing your pulses is an essential step in learning to cook Indian food. 

Recommended reading: Pulses 101 – A guide to lentils, beans, peas. This post will teach you to identify and differentiate between beans, lentils, and peas along with recipes to use them.

Oils used in Indian cooking

With the variety of oils available in the grocery stores, it is often overwhelming to pick the one that would be right in terms of nutrition value, taste, and smoke point. This post on the best oils for Indian cooking is worth a read.  It is a short but informative article that will help you choose

Techniques used in Indian cooking 

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. We review the few essential ones in this post – Techniques in Indian cooking and deep dive into tempering in Indian cooking – the most used technique in Indian cuisine.

Easy Indian food recipes to get started with 

Jeera rice – One whiff of this aromatic, fluffy basmati rice tempered with cumin seeds is enough to get your taste buds tingling. Learn how to make this flavorful rice in ten minutes or less.

One pot recipes are the best! That’s why you’ll love this Tadka dal (tempered dal) recipe – make it in an Instant Pot or a pressure cooker – and you’ll have your meal ready in no time.

Aloo Recipe – This classic Indian Potato recipe is this easy and quick side dish that is perfect for those who are new to Indian cooking. Pair with rice and dal to make a complete meal or savor it with rotis or pooris

Onion raita – If you have been craving some Indian raita to go with your biryani, then this recipe is for you. Make it with ingredients that you have at home and in less than 5 minutes. 

Rice Kheer is a sweet and creamy Indian Rice Pudding. This dish is often served hot or cold and makes a delicious side dish or dessert.

Looking for more recipes? Check out this collection of 250+ Indian recipes.