You’ve probably read the previous piece on North Indian breads. This article focuses on North Indian cooking, which includes cooking style, spices used, terminology and some common foods.

North Indian RecipesYou may have studied articles on North Indian Breads in the past but lets now focus on North Indian recipes, in particular cooking styles, the use of spices, terminology and popular foods. Cooking in North India is predominantly spicy and there are a great many different spices in any one dish. The descriptive name used for the many dishes usually depicts the ingredients within, such as Jeera Aloo which can literally be translated as ‘Cumin seed Potatoes’. However, as in many cultures, there are some names which can be misleading including ‘Butter Chicken’, which does not actually contain butter. It is chicken that is marinated then cooked in a tandoor before serving in tomato gravy that is very smooth. Other terms like Pulao (rice with spices and vegetables cooked in it), have nothing to do with the food it relates to. Another term used freely is sabzi (sub-zee) and this is any form of dry vegetable preparation as is dal, the name for the majority of lentil varieties. Tari (tuh-ree) signifies gravy and is added to a dish name that contains it.

While it is difficult to pinpoint a set of spices to any specific region, particularly with the modern trend for fusion food, north Indian cooking generally uses these herbs and spices listed below:

  • Ajowan or (Ajwain)
  • Black Cardamom (Badi Elaichi)
  • Black Mustard Seeds (Rai)
  • Cinnamon (Dalchini)
  • Coriander Seeds (Sabat Dhania)
  • Coriander Powder (Dhania)
  • Cumin seed (Jeera)
  • Dried Fenugreek Leaves (Kasuri Methi)
  • Dried Mango Powder (Aamchur)
  • Fresh Coriander Leaves (Hara Dhania)
  • Garam Masala – A set mixture of spices – roasted cumin, cinnamon, cloves, caraway seeds, nutmeg (and/or mace) and green cardamom seed or black
  • Green Cardamom (Choti Elaichi)
  • Red Chili Powder I – Flavor over color (Lal Mirch)
  • Red Chili Powder II – Color over flavor (Degi Mirch or Kashmiri Mirch)
  • Turmeric Powder (Haldi) cardamom pods. The composition of Garam Masala changes from region to region.

These are by no means the only ones used as there are many other spices used daily in north Indian recipes but this will give you a feel for the basics. As the characteristics and flavour of the individual spices alter according to the cooking process, differing spices can be used in various ways. Dry roasting or frying methods, as well as whether you add before, during or after cooking will all have different effects.  The initial venture into this traditional cooking from North Indian can begin with a basic vegetable preparation called either or Jeera Aloo (Cumin seed Flavored Potatoes) or Jeera Aloo (Cumin seed Flavored Potatoes). Ingredients for the former are as follows:

  • Oil for frying
  • 3 Big Baking Potatoes
  • 1 finely chopped onion
  • 1 tsp Cumin seed
  • 1 tsp Turmeric Powder
  • 1 tsp Chili Powder
  • 1 tsp Coriander Powder
  • 1 tsp Dried Mango Powder
  • Salt to taste
  • Freshly chopped coriander for garnish

The method involves peeling, dicing and boiling the potatoes in water that is slightly salted before draining and leaving to cool. Add the cumin seed to a pan with the heated oil and allow them to crack for 2-3 seconds before adding the onions.  Fry this on a low heat for around a minute and stir lightly as you go. Then add all the remaining spices apart from the dried mango, mixing well. The potatoes should be good and firm now so throw them in and toss thoroughly until the spice and onion mix coats them all over. This should now simmer for around 5 to 7 minutes before you add the dried mango powder. Toss the potatoes finally on a strong heat until the dense sludgy spices stick to them.  Serve with freshly chopped coriander for garnish. This dish is best served with filled in toasted sandwiches known as Rotis or eaten on its own as a snack.

You will notice that this everyday dish is made with one herb and five spices but some conventional dishes contain up to thirty different spices! However, these are on the whole a past tradition, now only cooked occasionally for very special events.  If you would like to try to cook a basic north Indian dish without using a recipe this can be easily done by following a certain style.  Of course, popular north Indian spices such as Haldi (turmeric powder), Namak (salt), Mirch (chili powder) and Jeera (cumin seed), will be required. Namak (salt) and Mirch (chili powder). In most dishes, the initial step is to fry onions, a staple commodity in north Indian cooking, until pink or transparent in colour before adding spices and frying further. This produces a dense sauce to which water can be added if desired.  The meat or vegetable added later will be coated in this sauce.

For example the ingredients for Pyaaz Tamatar ki Sabzi – Onion and Tomato Sabzi – are as follows:

  • 2 roughly chopped onions
  • 3 roughly chopped tomatoes (large)
  • 2 finely sliced cloves of garlic (large)
  • 1 tsp Chili Powder
  • 1 tsp Cumin seed
  • 1 tsp Dried Mango Powder
  • 1 tsp Turmeric Powder
  • Oil to fry
  • Salt for taste

The method here is actually really easy as you heat the oil; fry the onions slightly until translucent/pink in colour before adding all the other spices except the mango powder and mixing well.  Finally, throw in the tomatoes and toss then add the mango powder at the very end.

In Indian cooking, one important element is for vegetables to be cooked until soft, not left crunchy or crisp which can mean losing their nutritional value considerably so you may prefer to leave a bit of bite in them by cooking until almost done.  The pan should be left to simmer for 5-10 minutes until the tomatoes are done. After stirring in the dried mango powder this dish is ready to eat and is traditionally served with Rotis. You may notice a pattern emerging here – fried onions and spices, softly cooked vegetables thrown in then serve – so now you have the basics, here are some secret tips.

The Cooking Methods of Naheed, relate to the first secret Bhuno well. This essential process entails frying the spices in order to extract the majority of their flavour. Unless using mustard oil (this needs to be heated until it gives off smoke and won’t bubble when something is added to it), don’t forget that the oil should not be overheated. If using dry masala powder, the dry spices will burn if the oil is too hot so water can be added if you feel this is a risk. Use onion paste as well as ginger and garlic to make the masala although other spices can be added as desired. If using meat, the process is very different as this is the last stage, just before you add water to make the gravy in many cases. This is to allow the flavour of the meat to develop and needs at least ten minutes devoted to this process. The meat has its own fat which it releases to mix with the spices before the oil cooks the meat. This helps the meat soak up the varying flavours of the spices and the time frame involved has no set answer. However, as a guide, you can stop either when the gravy dries up completely or when the meat becomes overly tender. The meat and gravy tends to stick to the pan if you don’t stir continually but if it does scrape it off before adding water or yogurt when the gravy becomes too dry.

The second secret is Bagharna another easy method that is known in Hindi as Chaukna. This involves adding dry spices to hot oil before adding the result to a dish like Dal.  While this may be a simple process, you must ensure the spices don’t burn. To prevent this remove the pan from the heat as soon as you add the spices.

Dum Cooking is the third secret and involves slow cooking, which allows flavours to mix properly with each other.  This method is also used for the final minutes of biryani or rice cooking. In days gone by, food was cooked on wood or coal so it was only possible to elevate the flame from the pan by putting the pan in the dying embers, sealing the lid on with flour then putting a small amount of coal embers on top. The fire must be at its lowest for dum cooking which means the food will take a long time to cook, however be assured it is worth waiting for.  In modern cooking, there are newer ways to do this and the whole pan or vessel can now be placed in the oven. In the absence of an oven, use a tawa (griddle) over the heat before placing your pan on top. Dum cooking makes the meat and vegetables absorb any water and moisture within but do not try this with a pressure cooker or the meat will cook wrong.

The fourth secret is perhaps the easiest, frying but there are actually two kinds of frying.  One fries to cook while the other is simply to brown and for deep frying it is necessary to ensure there is enough oil to cover. When browning, less oil can be used and it must be at a lower heat.

The use of earthenware is the fifth secret and while this was the first type of disposable crockery in India, it is also very cheap. Traditionally, the majority of desserts were served on banana leaves or in earthenware crockery and some of India’s top restaurants still use this. If you have ever had tea at a railway station in India, it would be served in glasses made of earthenware which not only makes it environmentally friendly but also allows a special earthy aroma to infuse the tea. No cooking method can replicate this flavour.

Another secret is Kewda Water, which is derived from a desert plant with aromatic leaves and this essential oil when diluted to the extreme in water, is used to perfume food. This has no equivalent and is typically used for deserts like Zarda and Firni.

Secret ingredients used to produce the magic of north Indian cookery begin with Yoghurt, Dahi, which lightly adds a hint of butter to the dish and also give it a consistency that is light and creamy.  This is the base for several dishes including Rizala, where it is completely altered from its original flavour when cooked to give the gravy a creamy texture and a slightly sour taste. It is overall an essential ingredient in north Indian recipes. In certain dishes, tomato puree is used as a substitute but the result will differ to some extent. It is worth knowing that vegetables preserve their shape when cooked in yoghurt and in Dumpukth Fish, yoghurt retains the fish shape too. Adding a dash of whipped yoghurt and cooking for a while will compensate any extra salt added in error.

Onions are a necessary ingredient in many dishes are and are routinely used for salads too. For easy handling to stop your eyes watering, remove the dry outer layer, cut in half and wash meticulously. While onions give a sweet taste to cooking –  they are a common base for masala – they taste very different if fried and mixed. Therefore if a recipe says, fry them, it is best to do so.

Cumin seeds come in two different types. The first and cheaper version is the white cumin seeds, predominantly used for vegetarian recipes and these are mostly fried to extract their flavour. However, they are also dry roasted on a tawa and ground like in a raita. The black cumin seeds are more expensive and commonly referred to as Shah Jeera but they have a very diverse flavour and taste. It is not often these are substituted but many restaurants do so when preparing rice to produce very different results.

This gives us a good overview at this stage of what is involved in cooking north Indian dishes so now it is time to look at a more difficult dish, Nihar. You won’t find this in any five star restaurants although justifiably, a great passion is required for this dish. The reason for this? Well, in order to have Nihari, you must have the enthusiasm to awake before dawn as it is a very hot meal that is not served beyond 9am anywhere at all. This appetizing broth contains meat cooked slowly overnight on a low fire and is eaten in the early hours of the morning with a variety of fresh herbs, a lot of lemons and a tandoori roti. It is a very fulfilling dish as the meat is filling, while the refreshing broth is undertaken in a similar way to hot soup so it makes you thirsty and warm, hence why it is eaten as a breakfast meal. So be warned before trying this recipe using these ingredients and methods as instructed.

  • 1 kg Nihari meat (or any other meat of your choice)
  • 250 grams sliced onions,
  • 2 tbsp garlic paste
  • 2 tbsp ginger paste
  • 1 tsp Coriander powder
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp red chili powder
  • 1/4tsp Turmeric powder
  • 3/4 cup Ghee
  • 2 tbsp dry roasted chickpea flour
  • Salt to taste

This is quite a lengthy process so you will need to set aside 30 minutes for preparation and cooking time will be 2-3 hours.

To make the spice mixture grind 1/4 tsp. dried ginger, 1/4 tsp. mace, 1/2 tsp. fennel, 1/2 tsp. white cumin seeds, 2 large cardamom, 4 small cardamoms, 4 cloves, 6 black pepper seeds together. Then add 2/3rd of the onions in reasonably hot oil then add the ginger and garlic pastes when the onion softens as well as the ground coriander and turmeric powder before frying until the oil rises again, around 3-4 minutes. The meat will release water, so add that and cook slowly over the heat. When it is partly cooked add the chick pea flour to 2 cups of water then leave to cook for around 45 minutes over a slow heat. Remember the slower you cook it, the more flavour you will extract and keep the pan covered but never use a pressure cooker. You can add the spice mixture with the remaining onions as soon as the meat is completely tender.

Finally, here is one last tip for north Indian recipes. It may appear on the whole that the methods of cooking are generally fairly consistent however a good knowledge of the spices will help a lot and make a big difference. So get cooking, add a handful of black mustard seeds to very hot oil and see how they crackle or enjoy the change of flavours that result from tossing in some curry leaves.