Like any great cuisine, there is an art and science to Indian cooking that dates back to ancient times. What’s the best way to understand the fundamentals of such a diverse cuisine in today’s busy world?
First, think of yourself as being adventurous. Within no time at all you will become a culinary artist, mastering your own painter’s palette of Indian spices, as shown in the photo above. You will learn how to mix and blend and flavor dishes beyond anything your kitchen has seen before. The great painters of old would typically hold a palette in one hand as it rested on the arm — so rather than be intimidated, see Indian spices as ancient paints imparting colors, hues, and shades of flavor as you enter a new world of artistry.
Second, not all Indian dishes are hot. I’m serious. Something that has great flavor doesn’t have to set your mouth on fire. Besides which, in any cuisine, there are only a few things that can add heat to a dish — some kind of chilli that is fresh or dried ( for example, cayenne; jalapeno; scotch bonnet) OR some kind of pepper (for example, black peppercorn). And those are only two elements among many, many other spices and herbs on your painter’s palette.
Third, not all Indian dishes are swimming in sauce. Some of my favorite Indian dishes are dry curries. See my Curried Black Eyed Peas over salad greens recipe.
Indian Cuisine: 6 key tastes
There is a method to the madness when it comes to Indian cuisine. If you’ve ever wondered about why certain spices and herbs go into a particular dish and the role each one of them plays in creating the overall flavor profile, here is a general answer. There are 6 key elements of taste in every Indian dish according to the ancient scientific and holistic practice of Ayurveda, which suggests that pure, fresh ingredients are required to heal and maintain good health and must incorporate six tastes in every meal: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent, and pungent.
Still seem complicated? Each taste is imparted from a different ingredient in a dish. Items in each group don’t necessary have to be literally sweet or bitter, it’s what it brings to the overall dish. Think of a simple chick peas curry, which contains chick peas, onion, garlic, ginger, cumin seeds, red chilli flakes, coriander, garam masala, turmeric, salt, and tomatoes. This is how it would stack up:
- Sweet (onions; chick peas)
- Sour (tomatoes)
- Salty (salt)
- Bitter (fresh cilantro)
- Pungent (garlic cloves; ginger root)
- Astringent (turmeric)
Proportion of Spices Matter in Indian Cooking
Finally, the proportion of spices really matters. Unlike an Italian dish, where adding more dried basil will probably make the dish taste better, Indian spices have specific properties and flavors so if you add too much or too little, the dish can end up tasting bland and washed out, or way too strong and almost inedible. In the same chick peas curry dish, this is how it would stack up:
- Coriander powder (1 teaspoon) – if you add a little too much of this, it’s fine
- Cumin powder (1 teaspoon) – same with this
- Garam masala (1/4 teaspoon) – because garam masala is a blend of strong spices including cinnamon and cloves, you only need a little — if you put in too much, the dish can become overly strong in taste
- Turmeric powder (1/4 teaspoon) – a little turmeric goes a long way, in both smoky flavor and gorgeous golden color
- Red chilli flakes (1/4 teaspoon) – this all depends on your tolerance for heat!
- Salt (1 teaspoon) – in an average curry that serves 4 people you typically need no more than 1 teaspoon of salt