The 5–10–5 Rule: essential tools

All You Really Need: basic aromatics, spices, and herbs you need in your pantry and fridge

Alright, let’s get down to business in terms of your kitchen. To make a variety of authentic Indian dishes at home, you need a few key things in your pantry and fridge.

First, you won’t put all of these ingredients into one dish! For many recipes you may only need 1-3 spices, perhaps 4-6 spices in more advanced recipes.

Second, there are hundreds of more spices and herbs in Indian cuisine — these are the main items you need to be set for a while. Plus, the upside is that you can find ALL of these at your local grocery store, you don’t need to go a specialty grocer.

Third, you may already have many of the ingredients you need at home — like cumin powder, especially if you use it for spice rubs or making chili!

In the course of teaching Sean the basics of Indian cooking, I developed foolproof cheat sheets and primers to help ANYONE make authentic Indian dishes at home. You will see that I usually recommend things in multiples of “5” — so five of this or ten of that or 5 ingredients or 10 key steps. Honestly, it’s just easy to remember. I thought a lot about this in order to make it stick and help Sean remember — here is my solution. If you have these key things you can never go wrong. Most of them you can buy every few months and store in your cupboard or pantry. I created this ‘bare essentials’ list for Sean.

The 5 — 10 — 5 Rule


Onions – Ginger Root – Garlic Cloves – Fresh Mint – Fresh Cilantro


Cumin – Coriander – Sugar – Curry – Paprika – Salt – Pepper – Garam Masala – Turmeric – Red Chilli



Green Cardamom – Cloves – Mustard seeds – Cinnamon Stick – Cumin seeds

Let’s add one more group of “5”

Don’t worry, I swear I’m not making it more complicated when I’ve promised you to make it simple and easy to follow! These are the 5 ingredients that you likely already have at home or would drop into your shopping cart anyway:



Tomatoes – Lemon/Lime – Fresh Chilli – Vinegar – Yogurt

North India & South India

Now it’s important to point out that the 5 — 10 — 5″ rule above applies mostly to dishes from northern India — the dishes you are used to eating in restaurants, especially if you aren’t South Asian. As you can see in the post Indian Cuisine Map  with its 28 states in a land area the same size as Europe, the Indian subcontinent is host to many different regional cuisines that are quite different, but 80-90% of restaurants outside of India feature cuisine from the north. It’s not even really accurate for me to divide everything between the north and south only, but it is a very helpful distinction when thinking broadly about Indian cuisine. Stay tuned for my forthcoming post on the 5 — 10 — 5″ rule for South Indian cuisine.

8 Responses

  1. Dennis Manuel
    Dennis Manuel / 12-18-2015 / ·

    This 5-10-5 rule is simply the best basic approach to indian cuisine I’ve seen. Im just getting into it, and love my curried chicken and lamb. There is an Indian spice store close by and they have everything for a fraction of supermarket prices, and (I think) fresher.

  2. poornima
    poornima / 11-30-2014 / ·

    overall, i liked this post a lot, its a nice way of organizing spices since I’m just learning to cook indian food. but i have some complaints:

    I would have omitted sugar and salt as spices, since they are not. Also I prefer whole garam masala.

    I would have added bay leaf, tamarind paste, saffron, asafoetida powder, whole nutmeg (these are essential in my view!). I think pepper should be whole peppercorns in a grinder for versatility.

    Indian cooking is so diverse though, it probably depends all on your region/family/personal style

  3. MissFoodFairy
    MissFoodFairy / 11-26-2013 / ·

    Thank you for sharing these great rules! I love experimenting with food of different countries. Hope to get some great inspiration from you. Thanks for sharing

  4. Simon @ Rice & Sticks
    Simon @ Rice & Sticks / 11-26-2013 / ·

    Thought I’d leave a comment here due to twitters limitations.

    Oh well. I think that the “madras curry powder” is a typical Anglo-Indian invention. Lots of Indians told me that they basically never use it. But great cheat sheet;)

    The curry powder is basically just Garam masala with turmeric added.

  5. Alison Wright
    Alison Wright / 2-21-2013 / ·

    Love this idea! Makes it seem much less intimidating to start out.

    1. bigapplecurry
      bigapplecurry / 2-22-2013 / ·

      Hi Alison, glad you think so! These are the basic things I use to make a wide variety of Indian dishes — the ground and whole spices will keep for a long time in your cupboard (1-2 years for ground spices and 3-4 years for whole spices). There are hundreds of additional Indian spices and herbs, but these are the bare essentials anyone would need.

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