Although the spice techniques used by Indian cooks may seem intimidating at first glance, they provide tantalizing layers of flavors in a matter of seconds. Arm yourself with some of the following pointers, and you will be well prepared to cook the Indian way.
Look for specialty spices—cardamom pods, saffron and garam masala—in the spice section of well-stocked supermarkets.
Coriander: When cilantro is allowed to seed, it produces tiny yellowish brown seeds that smell slightly citric. Their flavor does not resemble, in any way, that of cilantro.
Cumin: These seeds have a deep "earthy" flavor, robust and slightly citrusy. The seeds are thin and grayish-brown, similar in appearance to caraway. The seeds are nutty and highly aromatic.
Kari Leaves: Olive-green kari leaves (also called curry leaves), a distant cousin of the citrus family, have a delicate aroma and flavor and are available in the produce section of Indian grocery stores. They last up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator or in the freezer for up to a month. Do not use the dried (and highly insipid) version of these leaves. If unavailable, omit from recipe.
Mustard Seed: The black variety is slightly stronger than the more commonly available yellow kind, the source of ground mustard used in American kitchens. South Indian cooks pop them in hot oil, like popcorn, to extract an unusually sweet and nutty flavor that is crucial to this region’s foods.
Tamarind: Highly acidic, tart and complex-tasting tamarind fruit is used extensively in Southern Indian cooking. The pulp can be extracted and stored in paste form as tamarind concentrate. It is widely available in Indian grocery stores and other ethnic supermarkets. It will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 1 year. Lime juice is an acceptable substitute.
Yellow Corn Flour: Yellow corn flour is made from finely ground dried corn. It’s finer in texture than cornmeal and should not be used interchangeably. A good substitute is masa harina—finely ground, lime-treated dried corn (hominy). Find yellow corn flour in the natural-food sections of supermarkets or in natural-foods stores.
Urad Dal: These split black lentils have an off-white interior. This legume is crucial to the cuisine of southern India, and is the base of many batters for steamed cakes, dumplings and crepes. They are also used as a spice to flavor oils; when roasted, they are blended with other "traditional" spices to provide an essential nutty flavor. Look for them in Indian groceries and in natural-foods stores. They will keep in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to 1 year.