This writeup is less of a recipe that a set of guidelines or general principles. After reading this writeup you will be able to take literally any starting ingredients and turn them into simple, healthy, insanely tasty Indian food in half an hour or less, using just three simple steps!
Note that for the purposes of this guide, what we mean by "Indian food" is technically north Indian cuisine, which covers the cuisine favored by people who live anywhere from as far south as Mumbai up north through the rest of India, Nepal, Pakistan, and most of Afghanistan. South Indian cuisine is of a somewhat different character and is not covered here.
The basic thing you need to know is the four main ingredients that make Indian food Indian food. This is the bare minimum - if you omit any of these ingredients, your food will no longer really be Indian food:
Onions - Onions are the base of Indian food. They are the first ingredient added after the oil and the spices and should never be omitted.
Turmeric - Turmeric powder is added to virtually all Indian food, partially for the pleasing yellow color it imparts, partially for the very faint but essential nutty flavor accent it adds to the dish, and partly for its purported disease-fighting properties - turmeric is believed to help prevent or ameliorate a wide variety of illnesses and medical conditions, and is often credited for India's having one of the lowest rates of Alzheimer's disease of any country.
Garam Masala - Garam masala is a mixture of powdered spices, always including at minimum the four core spices of ground cloves, ground cumin seeds, ground black pepper, and ground cardamom, and sometimes additional spices as well. Fortunately, you can buy garam masala in every supermarket nowadays, so try them out and find your favorite mix. Or better yet, grind your own - fresh-ground garam masala is by far the best. The exact proportion of spices varies greatly from region to region, and even from village to village and from family to family, with the family recipe lovingly passed down from mother to daughter, so if you do grind your own garam masala you are encouraged to experiment with the proportions until you find the one you like best, and it can become your own "family recipe."
Garlic - Indian food is simply not Indian food without garlic. Omit it at your peril. That said, in traditional Indian cooking you rarely find large chunks of garlic. Instead the garlic is finely chopped so it melts into the dish without being seen, so in general it is fine to use garlic powder instead of fresh garlic in Indian cooking.
Contrary to popular belief, Indian food does not have to be "spicy" to taste like Indian food. It will only be peppery if you add chili pepper, but will still taste great even if you don't.
The following method will allow you to take any ingredients, including dals/lentils, beans, and all meats and vegetables in any combination, and transform them into a simple, healthful dish that anyone would agree is "Indian food" in around 20-30 minutes. For the time being, I will leave instructions for specialized dishes such as naans and parathas, tandoori recipes, deep-fried food, rice, saags, and desserts to other noders.
Step 1 - Fry the spices: Take a pot or pan and coat the bottom with as little oil as possible (just enough to cover the bottom of the pan). In traditional Indian cooking, ghee (pure butterfat) is used, but for a more healthful alternative with no sacrifice whatsoever in flavor, use a vegetable oil low in saturated fats such as mustard seed oil, olive oil, or canola oil. Add turmeric powder, garam masala, and any other spices you might wish to add, such as whole cumin seeds or cumin powder, chili peppers (whole or powdered), asafoetida, and/or finely diced ginger root. If you want your dish to taste like Punjabi cooking, also add black mustard seeds. Fry the spices by stirring with a spatula or spoon in the hot oil for 30 seconds to a minute until you begin to smell a delicious aroma of fried spices. If you added black mustard seeds, a convenient way to know when the spices are done frying is when the black mustard seeds start popping up into the air. Do not over-fry or burn the spices!
Step 2 - Sauté the onions: As soon as the spices are done frying, add finely diced onions. You can add as many or as few onions as you like, but there must be onions! Sauté the onions in the hot oil and spices for around 1 minute, or until they begin to turn translucent. Step 2 is done! That was fast.
Step 3 - Add main ingredients and simmer until done: Now you add the main ingredients, such as lentils, beans, vegetables, and/or meat, in any combination you like. If you would like your dish to have a tomato base, add diced tomatoes or a tomato paste at this time. Also add any spices that would have burned if fried in hot oil, such as garlic powder or ginger powder. Add salt to taste. Add some water as well. If you want you have a delicious, soupy broth, add more water. If you want the dish to be dry, add less. Cover the pot or pan and heat on high until the water starts to boil. Switch to low heat and simmer until the water is either all gone (for a dry dish) or until the ingredients are cooked as much as you want (for a dish with broth). You are all done - eat and enjoy!
You will notice that I have not given specific amounts of ingredients anywhere. Partially, this is because I want to encourage you to experiment, but mainly it's because I wouldn't know what they are even if I wanted to give them to you. Very few Indian cooks measure ingredients - it's almost always done by feel. But this is at least partially because it is really hard to mess up ingredient amounts in Indian food. The main danger would be adding too much salt. But adding different amounts of spices will almost never ruin a dish, nor does adding different amounts of water or main ingredients. We are not baking a cake here.
In a similar vein, it's really, really hard to overcook Indian food. The only danger is that the water you added will completely boil off and your food will burn. If you are ever in doubt, I would err somewhat on the side of adding some more water and cooking for a bit longer.
I've given you the simplest possible method above, but there are a few advanced techniques you can incorporate to improve your dish even further:
- If you want your dish to have a creamy texture, add liberal amounts of full fat plain yogurt along with the other ingredients. This is almost always done only in dishes that also include tomato puree or tomato paste.
- If you want your meat dish to taste even better, brown the meat in hot oil before adding. If the meat itself contains a good amount of fat, you can brown it in its own fat without adding extra oil, and actually reduce the fat content of the final dish by removing the excess oil that emerges. In theory any browning of the meat would be done in a separate pan, but a quick and easy way to do this would be to just throw the meat in with the onions during Step 2, above, and sauté them both together until the meat is browned.
- Another thing you can do to make your meat dish super tasty is to marinate the meat in yogurt and all of the spices in the refrigerator overnight. In this case, you would not brown it.
- If you want your vegetables to be even tastier, consider adding them to the dish slowly, in order of how long you want them cooked. For example, you might decide that you want to cook potatoes longer than carrots longer than mushrooms longer than spinach. Thus, you would add the potatoes first, then the carrots, then mushrooms, then the spinach. The awesome part about this technique is that you can chop the next ingredient while the previous ingredient is starting to cook rather than pre-chopping everything in advance, thus drastically cutting down on your total preparation time!
- For dishes that you might want to cook for a long time, especially those including dals and beans, use a pressure cooker to drastically reduce your cooking time, save energy, and retain more nutrients in your dish.
A few sample dishes you might make using this method
Ingredients are listed in the order you would add them.
Chana Masala - oil, spices, diced onions, tomato paste, chickpeas, garlic powder, ginger powder, salt, water (start simmering)
Aloo Gobi Mutter - oil, spices, diced onions, potatoes, garlic powder, ginger powder, salt, water (start simmer), peas, cauliflower
Indian-style white fish - oil, spices, diced onions, mushrooms, fish, garlic powder, ginger powder, salt, pepper, water (start simmer), diced red bell pepper, spinach (at very end, just enough to wilt) - the total cook time for this dish is literally like 8 minutes or something
Butter chicken - oil, spices, diced onions, lots of tomato paste, full fat plain yogurt, chicken pre-marinated in yogurt and spices, garlic powder, salt, water (simmer forever)
Collard greens - oil, spices, diced onions, diced collard greens, garlic powder, salt, water (simmer forever).
Dal or beans - oil, spices, diced onions, diced tomatoes, dal or beans, garlic powder, ginger powder, salt, water (simmer forever or pressure cook ~20 minutes).
Chicken curry - oil, spices (including lots of cumin powder), diced onions, diced tomatoes, full fat plain yogurt, chicken, garlic powder, ginger powder, salt, water (simmer forever or pressure-cook ~20 minutes). Add any vegetables you want to add, such as potatoes or carrots, toward the end.
As a last word of advice, experiment, experiment, experiment! What I've given you here is a powerful basic toolkit for you to build upon to make all manner of amazing Indian food. Go to it!