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.
Whenever possible, purchase spices in small quantities in their seed or whole form. Because multiple flavors can be extracted from any given spice (up to six, depending on whether they are left whole, ground, toasted, toasted and ground, stir-fried, or stir-fried and ground), whole spices play a prominent role in Indian cooking.
Once you have purchased the spices, keep them stored in an airtight jar at room temperature in a cool, dry spot. That convenient shelf above the stovetop is not a good place as the moisture and heat will ruin spices quickly. Refrigeration is also not recommended because dampness will alter the spices’ qualities and flavors.
In Southern Indian home kitchens, whole spices are often toasted or stir-fried in a little oil to unveil complex flavors. To toast spices, we cook them in a preheated skillet (not nonstick or Teflon) over medium heat, 10 to 20 seconds, until golden brown and nutty-smelling, shaking the pan occasionally to prevent burning. When stir-frying the whole spices in oil, we preheat the oil over medium-high heat, then add the spices and stir for 10 to 20 seconds until they sizzle and acquire nutlike aromas.
When recipes call for ground spices, grind them yourself in either a clean coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle just before adding to the recipe. The inherent oils in the spice are released with optimum aroma and flavor.
The South Indian Pantry
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.