I realized as I was rereading the biryani recipe that the list of ingredients can look quite daunting. Biryani has a more complex spice combination than many dishes, but even in that dish there is a logic to the way spices are put together.
Indian cooking becomes much easier once you crack the spice code. Allow me to generalize:
(1) Some spices are used in many Indian dishes: turmeric, cumin, coriander, black pepper, fresh or dried red/green chiles.
(3) Some spices go together: cinnamon, cloves.
(5) Certain spices always have to be fresh: ginger, garlic. Other spices can be fresh or dried: kari leaves, chile peppers.
(6) Curry powder is not evil. Indians have been known to use it. They certainly manufacture it and have for decades. Garam masala is just as much of a spice mixture as curry powder, and it varies across regions even more.
The starter kit for Indian spices
Whole: Cinnamon, cloves, cumin seed, black pepper, black mustard seeds
Ground: Cumin, turmeric, coriander seed, cayenne pepper
Fresh: Ginger, garlic, serrano or Thai red/green chiles, cilantro
Method of use
Whole spices are fried in oil to release their fragrance and flavor the oil, so that the flavors will be incorporated evenly into the rest of the ingredients. Mustard seeds really pop, so a splatter screen is a good idea if you’re going to use whole spices (lids work too).
Ginger and garlic are added after the whole spices. Often they are ground into a paste in north Indian food (this creates a smoother sauce), but you can chop finely or mince if you’re okay with a coarser texture.
Ground spices are added after the whole spices, ginger, and garlic (and onion if you’re using it) and before the rest of the ingredients. You want to cook them for a couple of minutes to get their full flavor. They’ll darken in color and mix with the oil to form a paste, and that’s when you know you can go on and add the next set of ingredients.
Cilantro is usually added toward the end of the cooking process (think of it as comparable to parsley), but kari leaves are added early, often in the whole spice or ginger/garlic phase, so that their fragrance and flavor permeate the dish.
If you’re making something more soupy or stewy, like dal, the recipe might tell you to fry the whole spices in oil in a separate pan and then add it. This is because the dish usually has to cook for a while and you don’t want the taste and texture of the spices to dissipate during that time. So you add the whole spices toward the end, all at once with the oil you’ve fried them in. This mixture is called chaunk, vaghar, or tadka in various Indian languages. If you omit this step, you’ll notice a difference.
You can buy spices much more cheaply at Indian or international food stores if you have one available. Or you can buy the cheaper grocery-store brands to start (McCormick or a house brand in the US); they’re not quite as high quality but they’re plenty good enough. If you don’t want to splash out on USD 30-35 for the starter set, you can omit the black mustard seed, cinnamon, cloves, whole black pepper (substitute ground) and whole cumin seed to start. Buy a small tin of Bolst’s mild or hot curry powder and use it when you want a more complex flavor combination (but use it sparingly or it will take over).
You have to have the turmeric, ground cumin and coriander seed. That’s the Indian holy trinity, at least in my part of the country.
And finally, don’t let anyone tell you that Indian food must be fiery hot. That’s a canard. Yes, some dishes can’t be made without chiles (e.g., vindaloo, which ironically has Portuguese origins). But there are plenty of non-fiery dishes (biryani should always be subtly spiced, not in-your-face hot), and believe it or not, there are Indians who can’t eat fiery food or don’t like it. In our house we always had the non-hot and hot versions of vegetables and dal because my grandfather couldn’t digest chiles. So if you like spices but not heat, leave out the cayenne.
Coming back to the biryani recipe, notice that there are three sets of spices: first, the cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, a trinity of its own that is widely used in north Indian and Mughal cooking. Then, the ginger, garlic and onion. Then finally, the ground spices that signal “hey, this is Indian food!” The tomato and yogurt mix with all these spices to make a sauce in which we then cook the chicken and rice.
There you have it. Questions?