If your kitchen cupboards are already full to bursting, you have my sympathy. But lack of space simply doesn’t excuse an absence of the incredible Indian ingredients that every home must have.
In order to accumulate all the items I’d ideally have you bring in to bling up your cooking, you’d need a cupboard like Old Mother Hubbard. So I’ve scaled down my demands, and command you only to procure a rather more manageable capsule collection.
Now I order you pop to the shops. Because, as this bijou bunch proves, it’s not necessary to decimate your existing storecupboard in order to Desi-fy your shelves.
That hing thing
It might be known as ‘devil’s dung’ to the coarse, but the somewhat stinky ingredient nonetheless yields a fine fragrance when fried. Used by communities who abstain from alliums for religious or cultural reasons, or equally by those who just can’t stomach those ingredients, ‘hing’ has a solid role in filling the culinary hole left by leaving out onions and garlic. It’s also an excellent anti-flatulent, so when you cook with lentils, go mental to counteract the tremors caused by pulses.
The matter of kari patta
Fresh, please. Frozen at a push; dried, please don’t bother. The smell of South India; with a lemon lilt, yes, but so, so much more besides. Much like good old British favourite the bay leaf, kari patta add an elusive element that you might not be able to pin your finger on at first but will soon come to crave. Don’t be deterred by the rare reported cases of food poisoning reported in the media – a good rinse will wash away anything untoward.
Green AND Blacks – but not chocolate
The most casual Indian food fan should be familiar with the slender, elegant elaichi, and know that gnawing on a green pod will make leave your mouth more Mentos-fresh than sucking those very sweets. Green cardamom is lively and citrussy with cool menthol tones, whilst the lesser-seen black (brown, for pedants) variety is warmer, woody and decidedly camphorous. It can be alarming to come across a swollen spicepod that resembles a beetle in your biryani , but the taste is charming.
Royal oil that’s liquid gold
The very essence of a Bengali kitchen, mustard oil adds a sweet pungency wherever it’s trickled. On-bottle warnings regarding ‘cosmetic use only’ refer to old laws which meant applying the phrase simply made its import legal – but trust me and the millions of Bengalis who believe that a kitchen without mustard oil is not fit for contemplation. The first taste will catch you in the back of the throat – then the deep-seated love that develops for the noble nectar will catch you unawares.
If you have health concerns (or are just eager to enjoy the best), obtain the Uncle Roy’s product picturised above. The brand is a rare purveyor of oil entirely free from unwelcome erucic acid and comes in ‘light and nutty’ and ‘spicy’ avatars. Best buy a bottle of both.
A spice blend to get guests talking
The English language lacks a really good term for ‘lipsmacking’. We’ve always borrowed heavily from other countries to add colour to our vocabularies, and ‘chatpata’ says it so much better. To get a true sense of the tongue-tickling sensation that that word describes, have a little lick of a bit of this piquant powder. Spicy, salty and deeply savoury, you won’t know quite what hit you – but you’ll love its impact.
Better than butter
Or even, ‘better than clarified butter’, for that matter. Ghee’s production follows the same process; heating fat until the solids separate. But ghee goes a step further – simmering the two together to achieve a nutty sweet character. It’s traditionally made with butter from cream that’s collected over a number of days, yielding a light lactic fermentation. If you’re making your own, use lactic butter like Lurpak to emulate the effect… and don’t forget that the browned milk solids are a spectacular snack in their own right.
Made of gram, packs on pounds
These wiggly squiggly extruded noodles range in thickness, from fat to the super-skinny ‘nylon’ grade, chosen according to application. You might well choose to apply the fried gram flour snack straight to face, especially when sev commonly comes in flavours like lemon masala or hot’n’spicy, but why not also strew it over salads, pat a thick thatch atop a plate of stuffed puris, mix it with other Indian snacks for custom-built Bombay mix, or even make the plain type into Sanjeev Kapoor’s Indian fudge?
Halloumi to introduce India’s answer to that cheese
There’s nowt queer about paneer – a soft, fresh cheese made simply by acidulating milk, straining the messy-looking mixture, and pressing the solids into a block. Unlike halloumi, it’s neither salty nor rubbery, unless you buy shoddy stuff. When it’s so quick to make, there’s really no excuse. Use the richest milk you can afford, and eat big hunks simply dressed with salt, roasted cumin and oil, or grilled with a light herbal marinade. Then try it scrambled into a paneer bhurji, and die happier.
The mango-mustard sauce you just must meet
You can make it or you can buy it as is your wont, but once you try it you won’t want to be without. The classic Bengali condiment is a mouthwatering mix of crushed mustard seed, tart green mango, chilli, spice and all things nice. A puddle on any plate will make a dish great. Need convincing? Pop a white fish fillet in foil, slop in some kasundi and steam, and you’ll fast have a quick-fix feast any Bong Mom would approve of.
The sunset spice with super-powers
If any spice should have super status, it’s turmeric. The vibrant rhizome is most commonly used dried and powdered, after which it retains its rich hue but swiftly loses its potency and that inimitable earthy-sweet, gingery fragrance. Buy in small quantities and use frequently yet sparingly – for all its delicacy, it will dominate. The health benefits are too many to name – the spice may prevent cancer and Alzheimers, and is the perfect antiseptic when packed directly into wounds.
And something to bring India into the bathroom…
So fresh and so clean
It smells like an Indian temple. It’s the most gorgeous green. You need a bar in your bathroom and all over your body.
Which Indian ingredients are indispensable in your household? Leave a comment below and let me know!
- To read about more Indian ingredients well-worth knowing, click here.
- To read more on tips and tricks of the Indian kitchen, click here.
- To read about interesting Indian cooking equipment, click here.