Unravelling Indian Cooking

Keralan Plateful

For Recipe Writers and Cooks

Cooking in the Kitchen: A Street-Eyed View of Chennai, Tamil Nadu

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I love how popular Indian food is becoming. In the time that I have been using twitter, I have seen a shift from Indian food being a strange entity to the non-Indian follows that I had, to a familiarity with terms such as dosa, rasam, sambar, vada etc and much more familiarity with spices. Now Indian foodies follow non-Indian and vise versa. It wasn’t so common, say, 5 years ago. I love that growth in understanding of Indian food and the confidence to cook it at home.

I notice a small trend with the bloggers of Indian food to use non-Indian terms to describe the dishes, and I say this with sadness. I love the education process that goes on with retaining traditional names, while clarifying uncommon terms. So upma should remain as upma, vada as vada and dosa as dosa. And ghee as ghee (and not clarified butter).

Indian food is first of all very precise. By this I mean that there are very strong traditions around how food is prepared and eaten. Which spice mix goes with which lentil or vegetable, whether the dish is semi or fully liquid, what is eaten with a particular dish, even which part of the year it is cooked.

Some terms I have seen associated with Indian food…. Risotto for Kitchadi and upma, confit for stuffed brinjal baked in the oven, clarified butter for ghee (technichally correct but confusing as French clarified butter is not at all like ghee), patties and fritters for vada, and pancakes for dosa (perhaps technically correct but unlike egg based pancakes in so many ways.) Gravy is used for Kuzhambu, soup for rasam, and so forth. Just as we moved away in the 1980s from believing that all Chinese Asian food was stirfried with crispy noodles, I have my fingers crossed that we will move away from believing that Indian food is “curry”, Dal Makhani, naan bread and samosa. But it does take education on the food, and food combinations.

Secondly, Indian food is also very very regional, in a way that we are not used to in many parts of the world. What is de rigour in one part of India is unacceptable in another part. So you can understand that learning about Indian food if you do not have an Indian food tradition, can be confusing.

This page represents a humble attempt to pull together some of my learnings as I journeyed and continue to journey into the world of Indian cooking. My loves are Sth Indian food with a preference for traditional foods, and you will notice that here. However, feel free to add information, clarification, corrections and questions and I will do my best to make sure things are properly represented.

I hope this helps both readers and writers of Indian recipes.


I often see recipes for Indian food that include instructions such as “take a ladleful of ..” or “a <insert Indian fruit> sized ball of …”. When writing recipes for a wide audience, the more common measures of cup, or better still, by spoon (Tblspn or tspn), volume (ml or l) or weight (g) are more accurate and standardised. If the measure is actually meant to be an approximate measure, use phrases such as “about 1/2 cup of …”.

Even the phrase “lemon sized ball of …” is misleading as lemons can vary in size from small (golf ball sized:) ) to large (meteor sized:) ).

Note that a cup measure is not a standard amount, varying from in the US to other UK-influenced parts of the world. But it is usually accurate enough. Recipes, such as breads, that require much more precision, will be written using volumes and weights.


Tempering: Almost every savoury dish in India is tempered – that is, spices heated in oil are added either at the beginning of the cooking but more usually at the end of cooking. A little oil or ghee is heated and then the relevant spices are added and cooked until they change colour, pop or crackle. Sometimes small amounts of lentils such as Urad Dal are added for flavouring and texture.

Although the basic concept of tempering is the same all over India, each region, indeed every family has its own distinctive set of spices used and way of tempering, and of course each claims proudly & possessively that theirs is the best way to temper food! (Priya)

Different areas have different names for tempering, e.g. Tadka / Talimpu.


Daba / Dhaba: A container with a lid that holds 6 or 7 individual pots containing spices commonly used in that household. See this post on tempering with spices.

Handi: A deep, narrow-mouthed cooking vessel used in Indian cooking.

Kadai / Kadahi: A wok like fry pan with two handles used for stir-frying, boiling, frying and deep frying. It is different to a Chinese Wok.

Tawa / Tava: A flat griddle or rimless pan used for making roti, paratha and dosa, and for roasting spices.

Pressure Cooker: Used extensively in Indian cooking to shorten the cooking times, especially of lentils.

Mixie / Mixer / Grinder: Specialised tools exist for grinding lentils, dried beans, wheat etc into flour. A blender can be used but may not obtain the fineness that is possible with a Mixie. It can also be used to grind spices and spice mixes (masalas) and make shakes.

Non-Stick Frying Pans: These are commonly used to cook dosa etc more easily. However, if your tawa is sufficiently seasoned it is possible to cook them very well on a good tawa. In addition, the taste is much better cooked on the tawa than on a non-stick pan.

Belan: Rolling pin. There are very thin, short rolling pins for rolling roti and other flat breads.

Karche / Ladle: A larger spoon, more like a flat Western soup ladle.

Donga: Serving bowl.

Sevai Press: Sevai Presses are used to make Sevai, Sth Indian rice noodles (gluten free). See one here in Tongue Tickler’s Post.



Pigeon Peas = Toor Dal = Tuvar Dal = Toovar Dal = Tur Dal = Arhar Dal = Yellow Split Peas

If you see Pigeon Peas in a recipe, this is another name for Toor Dal / Tuvar Dal.

Red Gram, Red Gram Dal, Red Dal (not the same as Red Lentils)

Don’t be fooled. When an Indian recipe says Red Gram or even Red Lentils it probably means Toor/Tuvor Dal (which is yellow). It is called Red Lentils because in its unadulterated state Toor Dal has a red skin.

For writers of Indian recipes, Red Lentils in parts of the rest of the world means Split Masoor Dal. You can see that it makes quite a difference! When writing recipes, be explicit about the lentil. For example, write Red Gram (Toor Dal).

Spices and Masalas

Ajwain Seeds





Chaat Masala

Chillies, Red (means DRIED red chillies)

Red Chillies in most Indian recipes means Dried Red Chillies. Fresh red chillies are seldom encountered, unlike green chillies which are always fresh. This is in contrast to other cuisines in SE Asia which will use fresh red chillies quite freely.

When writing recipes for Indian food, be explicit. Write Dried Red Chillies.

Chillies, General



Cumin Seed

Curry Powder

Fennel Seed

Garam Masala

Indian Bay Leaves or Teja Pata

Marathi Moggu

These spice pods look a little like huge cloves, but are unrelated to cloves. Related to the caper, if you cannot find Marathi Moggu, dry some salt-cured capers and substitute for this spice.

Red Chillies — see Chillies, Red

Sambar Powder


Turmeric the Wonder Spice

Teja Pata / Malabathrum (are not laurel leaves or bay leaves)

Other Ingredients

Bananas – Fruit, Flowers, Skins and Leaves

Ghee (is not clarified butter) or: Why Ghee is not Clarified Butter

Ghee is a type of clarified butter, but much confusion arises from equating ghee to clarified butter.

Clarified butter is a term used particularly in French cooking. It is a product where butter is melted to drive off a little of the moisture and alter the flavour slightly.

Ghee is a product where all moisture and all impure products such as salt, are eliminated from the butter and a pure oil remains. This oil has great cooking properties, superb taste and many health giving properties as well as mystical Hindu properties.

Writers of Indian Recipes, please don’t equate ghee to clarified butter, for it is confusing for your Western audiences. Call it Ghee, and advise that they look for a good quality ghee in their supermarket or Indian grocery and not use anything labeled simply as clarified butter.

I worked with The Mindful Foodie to understand and describe the difference. She writes:

Technically, ghee is a type of clarified butter. But it’s not just any old type of clarified butter: all milk solids (including lactose) and moisture must be removed before it can become ghee (clarified butter that still retains some moisture and milk solids is not ghee).

How to make Ghee

Ghee also has many amazing properties.

Lemons (and Limes)

The word for lemon and for lime is the same in Hindi (nimbu), so you can expect to be confused. Never mind, most dishes from India work well with whichever one you have at hand. I have seen lemons called “yellow limes” in some recipes.


Paneer is an Indian cottage cheese-style cheese that is used in spicy Indian dishes. It is made from milk, split into curds and whey with lemon juice or vinegar, and pressed to remove liquid and form a light, spongy solid cheese. You can make it yourself or buy it fresh or frozen in good Indian shops.

Yoghurt, Curd and Buttermilk



Dosa and other Indian breads (are they really pancakes or crepes?)

My preference is to avoid calling them pancakes or crepes, but it is a hard call, because, for example, when I make thin, circular pudla from chickpea flour, rice four and some wheat flour, they are certainly crepe-like but very different in taste to the Breton ones.

Rice and Lentil Based Dishes


A rice and toor dal based dish that contains vegetables and uses a very specific spice mix. VeggieBelly has a great explanation of this dish, much loved in Karnataka.


So many types of dal, so little time to cook them all! A dal is a combination of a lentil, spices and tempering. It may contain tomatoes, onions and other vegetables. Some dals highlight the tempering and the lentil base is simple, others highlight the dal base and have simpler temperings.

  • The difference between Tadka Dal and Dal Fry is explained well by Chef in You: Tadka Dal is about the “Tadka” or “Tempering” whereas Dall Fry is about the richness of the Dal itself. When you see the word “Fry”, think about richness whereas “Tadka” communicates simple, comforting and warm. Tadka Dal prepares the dal along with onions and tomatoes with the tempering poured right before (or while) serving, while Dal Fry dal has the tempering acting as a base for the dal instead of a garnish.

Kitchdi/Khichidi/Kitcheri/Kitchari (is not risotto)

Pongal, Ven

Very similar to Kitchdi. It is not at all similar to risotto. Writers of recipes for Indian food, please do not refer to Pongal or Kitchdi as Risotto. (See Kitchdi for explanation)

Poha, Pohe, Pauwa, Pawa

An uncooked flattened/beaten rice. This ingredient is called poha (po-hay), and there is a common dish made with poha which is also called poha.

Biryani vs Pilau

Many quick recipes for biryani can be found. This traditional recipe explains biryani very well, and the difference between biryani and pilau. It is worth reading even though you may choose to cook a quicker version than this traditional one.

Other Dishes

Avail / Avayil

A rich variety of vegetables cooked in yoghurt. This is one of the popular dish in South India, especially in Kerala.


Erissery is a traditional vegetable preparation from Kerala. Vegetables, particularly mushy vegetables, and some fruits, are cooked in a coconut gravy and the dish is tempered with fried coconut. Traditionally, erissery calls for ghee instead of oil which gives it a special flavour and enhances the taste.

Usually Erissery is prepared from pumpkins and red beans or from yam and raw bananas cubes. The spices used in this dish include split green chillies, ground coconut, cumin seeds, turmeric and red chillies.


Usli and Sundal

Often thought to be the same, traditionally Usli is a mixture of lentils and vegetables, while a Sundal comprises lentils only. Usli is a dish eaten at mealtime, whereas Sundal is more of a snack food/street food. Sundal also traditionally was a prasadam, cooked specifically as offerings for the Gods, but now is much more ubiquitous.


Chutneys – Thuvaiyal, Masiyal, Chutney, Thayir Pachadi

Although cooked and long-lasting chutneys exist in India, it is most likely that you will find a fresh, quickly made, quickly consumed chutney when reading a chutney recipe. A variety of uncooked or blended/pounded chutneys are eaten all over the south India. They are delicious and healthy, providing a wonderful taste contrast to the main spicy dishes.

In Southern India, especially Tamil Nadu, Thuvaiyal, Masiyal, Chutney, and Thayir Pachadi all belong to the blended chutney family and their specific name depends on the souring agent used. Thuvaiyals, for example, are generally made by blending raw, boiled vegetables, roasted pulses with red chili and tamarind.



more to come

Name Common Name Other Name
Pigeon Peas Toor Dal Tuvar Dal; Toovar Dal; Tur Dal; Arhar Dal; Yellow Split Peas
Pauwa, Pawa (Hindi, Gujarati) Pohe (Marathi) Poha (Hindi, Gujarati)
Poha (Hindi, Gujarati) Pohe (Marathi) Pauwa, Pawa (Hindi, Gujarati)
Tuvar Dal Toor Dal Pigeon Peas; Toovar Dal; Tur Dal; Arhar Dal; Yellow Split Peas
Yellow Split Peas Toor Dal Tuvar Dal; Toovar Dal; Tur Dal; Arhar Dal; Pigeon Peas

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10 thoughts on “Unravelling Indian Cooking”

  1. Great post. I have been cooking Indian food for myself and my family pretty intensively for the past two years. I too am fascinated with the different regional cuisines, the ones that you rarely find in the Indian restaurants which seem to have standardized around Punjabi/Mughal dishes.

    Regarding ghee, I think it is worth mentioning that it is exceedingly easy to make at home from good unsalted butter. The homemade stuff is much fresher tasting than a lot of the commercial offerings that I have tried here in the US.


  2. Please, some quick help for someone brand new to Indian cooking . . . What are the “skins” in recipes that call for “1 cup split mung dal without skins?” And how does one get rid of mung bean skins? This is an example of some recipes I’ve run into here. This example is from the recipe for “Gentle Mung Dal Soup: Sada Moong Dal”. Probably an easy and logical answer, but I have to remember that no question is a stupid one, especially if the questioner really doesn’t have a clue.
    Thanks for your indulgence.


    1. If you buy split mung dal, it will usually not have any skins/peel on. It will be yellow in colour. Whole mung beans, however, will be green ie still with their skin or peel on.

      It takes a while to get the hang of the different dals (lentils) in Indian cooking. Never fear, you can’t go too wrong, even if you use the wrong lentil. It will still taste good.


  3. This site is completely delightful, inspiring and most importantly educational. I feel I can walk away from it enriched in a way that I can apply and better my dinners and lifestyle. I am obsessed with the Indian food stretch down Main North road near Blair Athol (in Adelaide) because it is so authentic. Now they may just be seeing a little less of me as I attempt to make my first Indian dish ever, hope it goes well ha ha. You picture above is so stunning that you should WATERMARK it fast.


  4. Love your site and your passion for Indian cuisine. Love that you have so much in-depth knowledge of Indian cooking including south indian cuisine. I have recently started blogging and that’s my attempt at popularizing Kerala(south indian) cuisine. Do visit me sometime too. Best, Indu


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