Indian Essentials: Explaining Common Indian Ingredients and Techniques

There are several Indian ingredients and techniques that you might not be familiar with.

Bazaar Dal Makhani | Heat in The Kitchen


Tamarind is a souring agent in India which comes from the seed pod of a tree in India. It adds a spicy, sour zest to food, and is ubiquitous in Tamil and other South Indian food. I have written before about the Indian method of balancing the flavours in food, and tamarind is one of the most popularly used “sour” tastes. (But do not despair, it does not make the food taste sour – it just adds a zip to it.)

Tamarind is available from most supermarkets now and in Indian food stores, in pod form or as a paste or concentrate. I either use concentrate or a mashed up paste of the seedpods that I buy locally. The technique for using the paste is to soak a knob of the tamarind pulp in boiling water for 10 minutes, and then strain it, forcing as much of the pulp through the sieve or strainer into the liquid. Keep the liquid and discard the seeds. Add to the dish at the required time.

These days it is easier to find tamarind in the stores. There isn’t really any substitute.

tamarind pods

Urad and Urad Dal

Urad is a black gram or lentil commonly used in India for dishes, but also (as in this dish) for flavouring. In the West we don’t think of beans or lentils being used for flavour instead of the main component of a dish. However, when you get your head around it, your cooking will benefit. To use for flavourings, pan roast or fry the lentils and add to the dish. Urad Dal is the split form of urad, and you can purchase hulled and unhulled.


Ghee, if you have not used it before, is made from butter that is clarified to within an inch of its life. Please do not use the French style clarified butter, it is not the same. You can make ghee home but most people purchase it. Supermarkets have it now days, but if you are going to the Indian Grocery, pick some up there. It is a wonderful cooking medium that is considered by many to be much much healthier than margarine, butter or oil.


A Tadka is a ghee or oil based spice mix added to a curry at the end of the cooking. It adds a wondrous taste to the dish, so do not avoid this step. Also, the spices used in a taka are those that release their flavours into oil rather than liquid, like black mustard seed and curry leaves. Finally, black mustard seeds taste best when popped, a bit like mini popcorn, and the taka provides a mechanism for this.

Black mustard seeds

Available in Indian food shops and spice shops. If you can’t find them, don’t substitute yellow.

Black mustard seeds are much different to yellow mustard seeds – they have a wonderful nutty flavour and the addition to a dish helps to make the dish.

In India, some spices are fried in ghee and add to food immediately before serving because some spices exuded their taste more readily into oil  than into water. Mustard seeds need to be “popped” to release their nutty flavour.  Add a tspn of seeds to hot ghee, and allow them to pop before adding the ghee and mustard seeds to the dish. Usually this is done as part of a tadka, and other spices are added as well.

Curry leaves

Curry leaves add an essential taste, so make sure that you keep some fresh ones in the freezer, or, at a pinch, some dried ones in the cupboard. Buy them from an Indian Grocery, or in any of the Asian Shops that abound around the world.

Fresh is best, but dried will also work. If you can’t find curry leaves, leave them out. Bay leaves are not a substitute.

Asaphoetida or Asafoetida (pronounced “a sa foh teeda”)

Asafoetida is a VERY VERY pungent Indian spice that is used to replace onions and garlic in recipes. The reason for this is that, for spiritual reasons, some people prefer not to eat onions and garlic.

Asofoetida powder is used extensively in North Indian cuisine. It has wonderful health giving properties. Use a pinch only at a time and it is good to fry it in some oil, butter or ghee before adding to a dish. Pick it up at the Indian Grocery.

If you do not have asafoetida on hand, slice an onion and a clove of garlic and cook with the dish. If you are using asafoetida for the first time, it does need to “cook off” a little, so rather than stirring it it into a liquid mix, add it to the end of sauteing ingredients and give it 30 secs or so to cook.

How to Make Sambar Powder | Indian | Vegetarian | A Life Time of Cooking

Feel free to browse our Indian Essentials series here. You might also like Common Equipment in a South Indian Kitchen, and to browse our Indian Recipes.