I’m still an amateur, but I used to find Indian spices to be really intimidating. I was your typical NYC Indian food enthusiast who’d spend $16 on an entree plus the $4/5 breads or rice (YIKES). Just like my last arepas post, I started to realize how I probably overestimated the basic Indian dishes. Also, that Saag Paneer you’ve been ordering is really full of oil and grease which I didn’t even think of before. Have you seen it leftover the next day with that thick yellow layer on top? EEK!
If you read your basic recipes online a lot of them won’t give you enough information. Many will say just to have garam masala added to the other contents of your dish, but that would be your first mistake! Garam masala is essentially just a blend of spices that you can either have a prepped special house blend of, grind as needed, or purchased from your grocer (though this is not recommended because the spices lose flavors). First thing wrong with only having garam masala is that you can’t really tweak your recipe further if you don’t have the spices individually, and second is that it is meant as a finishing powder–mostly added at the end. At first, I didn’t believe my friends telling me that because I was always taught to roast your spices in oil before cooking with them to bring out the flavor, but it makes sense after you look at the ingredients inside with things like cinnamon, nutmeg, and star anise.
So the way I started was without a true recipe, but a general understanding that I needed spices, ghee, the solid veggies I wanted in my dish, and the protein. One of my friends recommended the box spices from MDH, so I just grabbed a Kitchen King blend (which he added to all his dishes…haha), and bought individual packets of all the spices listed. Basically, I was winging it. I started with cardamom (green pods, not the powder), cumin seeds (not powder), tumeric (the stuff that makes everything yellow-beware of potential stains, including your teeth!), mustard seeds, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander powder, red chili powder, and amchur powder (not included on the box, but highly recommended).
It can be pretty pricey, so I recommend passing by a Patel Bros in Jersey or CT to buy your spices (and veggies if you are ready to cook them!). Everything is about 30% cheaper than the Manhattan stores, if not 50%. I would definitely avoid getting any of these ingredients in a fancy shop or regular grocery store, and try to find an Indian grocer.
What happens after you have all your spices? You have to know what you are working with. I think tasting each spice by itself at least once is key (tips in my next post), but smelling works once you are familiar with the taste. You can grind things or put them in whole, but of all the ingredients I only really grind up are the more fragrant ones since the flavor isn’t really sitting and developing: cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.
I think the most basic and best advice is to cook to taste. I would start with some heated ghee in a pan, with some cumin seeds, mustard seeds, and tumeric. At first, I wouldn’t be very generous with these, maybe half a tablespoon of each cumin seeds and tumeric, and a tablespoon of mustard seeds. I’m not an expert, but from there I’d cook your veggies (a 4 person serving) and add in your mixture (the same way when you stir-fry Chinese food, you’d cook up your broccoli, then add the sauce). After that, add in anything else you want–especially the chili powder, and a generous amount of coriander powder (maybe 3 tablespoons even). Finally, add in the more fragrant spices like the cinnamon, cardamum, cloves, and nutmeg. I realized the first time I tried to cook with these spices that something was missing from my dish, so I started adding more coriander powder, and cardamom. It took a while, but eventually I added in amchur powder which gave it a nice tangy bite–and brought everything together.
Another sidenote tip I have is if you want your sauce to be thicker, consider pureeing some of your vegetables, like cauliflower or broccoli. If you want a creamier texture, use cream, milk, or yogurt.