With 3 billion people, and a food culture that is as diverse as it is old, India is a gastronomic giant with many sub-regional cuisines.
This is the first of a two-part section of pantry staples for India; this list encompasses the cuisines from North, West, and Central India. This includes the snow-capped Himalayas in the north, across the desert state of Rajasthan to the west, and further southwards to the shores of the Arabian Sea with a subtropical climate.
The overlap of religion, region, and trade created many sub-regional cuisines. As far back as the second century B.C.E., Silk Route traders influenced Northern India. Afterward, the local kings, Mughal rulers. Northern India welcomed food influences from Pakistan and Afghanistan. And later, the British occupied India and influenced its cuisine as well.
The desert weather shapes Rajasthan’s food and favors hearty whole-grain preparations that rely more on whole and dried spices rather than fresh ones. Meals typically include “buttermilk” made from yogurt. In the north, protein-heavy dishes are frequently cooked in onions, and tomatoes; some are finished with heavy cream. Festive dishes include dried fruits like apricots and raisins, and nuts like chirongi nuts, pistachio, walnuts, and almonds, and saffron from Jammu and Kashmiri.
Gujarat, a largely vegetarian state, welcomed the Parsis who had escaped from Iran. Dutch traders and migrating Bohri Muslims also came through this state and influenced its foods.
Communities around Mumbai welcomed Bene Israeli Jews in the 14th century, later the Portuguese and then, British. Both the farming and coastal communities here favor spice blends with onions, garlic, and whole red chilies, and either mangosteen, tamarind, jaggery, or coconut its stews.
In many rural communities across the country, particularly in the north, communal tandoors are available to all. Along with conventional cooking methods, open flame cooking, smoking, pit-cooking, clay-pot cooking, and earth ovens are also popular.
Stock your pantry to enjoy many sub-regional cuisines of just one-half of India, from Rogan Josh, naan, and bhaturas of northern India to Dhokla from North-western India, to the popular street-snack from Mumbai, Vada Pav.
Baking Supplies and Dry Mixes
- Baking powder, baking soda, and dry active yeast: In addition to cakes and pastries, baking powder is used in bread, bhaturas, and in the making of naan. Baking soda is added to deep-fried batter-based dishes like Bhajiya, and to dry beans during the cooking process to hasten their softening. Some naan recipes use yeast.
- Flours: Whole-wheat atta, or flour, is useful for rotis, parathas and other griddle-fried and deep-fried preparations like Poori. White flour makes good naan and can be used as a thickening agent.
- Gluten-free flours: Flour from rice, pearl millet, finger millet, fox millet, corn, and chickpeas are useful, albeit in smaller quantities, for making griddle-fried bhakri. Chickpea flour is used as a thickener for a yogurt-based sauce, Kadhi.
- Tea: Loose-leaf white, green, and black teas from India's tea-growing regions (Assam, Darjeeling, and Nilgiri) make for effortless chai-times.
Vinegars and Oils
- Seed oils, like mustard, sesame, and sunflower, are common, alongside peanut oil and vegetable oil.
- Vinegar is only used in a handful of regional dishes.
Indian spices are divided into three categories: everyday whole spices, everyday powdered spices, and garam masala spices reserved for special dishes.
- Essential whole spices: Brown cumin seeds, black or brown mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, and whole coriander seeds. North Indian, Central Indian, and Western Indian recipes also use fennel, Ajwain, whole red chilies, sesame seeds, and nigella seeds.
- Essential powdered spices: Turmeric, cayenne pepper, coriander powder, cumin powder, and asafetida. Some dishes use dried, powdered mango, fenugreek leaves, or dried Indian mangosteen fruits (not Thai mangosteen), and tamarind.
- Garam masala means either a selection of whole spices, or a pre-made blend of the same spices in powdered form. Whole garam masala spices include cinnamon, both black and green cardamom, clove, star anise, nutmeg, Indian Bayleaf, mace, and saffron. Some sub-regional cuisines of Western India also include a lichen, dagad-phool, in spice blends. Ethnic markets carry recipe-specific spice blends like Chaat Masala, Choley Masala, and Biryani Masala, which are worth experimenting with. Or you can make your own, like Chaat Masala or Tandoori Masala.
Prepared Foods and Condiments
- Ready-to-Use Preparations: Indian recipes seldom use pre-made cooking or flavoring sauces. Instead, ready-to-use preparations like mint-coriander chutney, coriander-coconut chutney, date chutney, and tamarind chutney are used as flavor boosting-additions, and as a condiment. Pre-made tamarind paste is also helpful.
- Achaar: Indian-styled pickles made from many ingredients and have many flavors make fabulous condiments.
Dried Beans, Grains, Pastas
- Lentils: Whole, split, skinned and unskinned versions of these lentils are considered pantry staples. They include tuvar daal (pigeon peas), moong daal (mung bean), masoor daal (horse gram or pink lentils), urad daal, channa daal (chickpeas), Lobia (black-eyed peas), and rajma (kidney beans).
- Rice: Use Basmati rice for dressy preparations like Dum Pukht Biryani, and Sona Masoori for casual everyday fare, or this Rice Pudding. In addition, beaten rice makes poha.
- Semolina (not semolina flour) and cracked wheat are used for Upma or Halwa.
- Sev, or semolina vermicelli, and rice vermicelli make quick sides and desserts.
- Papads, dried lentil flour diskettes, can be flame roasted or deep-fried and are fun meal additions.
In modern Indian pantries, canned chickpeas, rajma (kidney beans in a sauce) and lobia (black-eyed peas in a sauce), canned tomatoes, and unsweetened coconut milk are convenient for hearty stews and entrees.
Meat and Seafood
Traditional Indian meat recipes typically use chicken or goat meat and sometimes lamb. Beef and pork dishes are relatively rare, but some Anglo-Indian and Catholic communities favor them. Eggs adapt for everything from scrambled eggs, egg curry to caramel custard.
Freshwater fishes like Catla (Indian carp), Rohu (Labeo Rohita), Hilsa (Ilish Shad), and Tilapia are popular in Northern and Central India. Saltwater seafood like pomfret, king fish, sardines, Bombay duck or Mackerel, tuna, mussels, crab for crab curries, lobster, and shrimp lend themselves to many popular seafood recipes from western coastal India.
Popular vegetables include okra, cauliflower, green cabbage, varieties of green beans, squashes, root vegetables, and gourds. Leafy greens like mustard, amaranth, spinach, dill, fenugreek, and turnip greens are particularly popular.
Fragrant herbs like curry leaves and fresh mint are essential in every grocery run. Coconut-growing communities of western India will also seek out fresh coconut. In modern kitchens, grated, unsweetened frozen coconut is an acceptable substitution.
- Milk & yogurt: Cow-based milk and yogurt is a big part of Indian cooking.
- Ghee: A small jar of homemade ghee (cow or water buffalo) is a pantry staple. Ghee must be opaque, creamy ivory in color, sweet in aroma and taste. Freshly churned sweet cream butter or makkhan is also popular.
- Milk products: Mava or reduced milk solids makes many Indian desserts. Powdered milk is used in desserts like Gulab Jamun.
- Cheese: Indian cheeses include a branded cheese, like a salty Dublin white cheddar, and paneer. Homemade paneer is either chunky or crumbly. Sometimes crumbly paneer can be substituted with a large curd ricotta cheese.
Jaggery, palm jaggery and honey are pantry staples.
Although table salt is typically used, some recipes like Chaat Masala call for Rock salt, or Himalayan Pink salt.
Where to Buy
Although many online retail giants will typical sell Indian pantry staples, your neighborhood grocery store is also likely to surprise you. But if you want to be spoiled for varieties and choices, check out your local Indian, Asian, or Middle Eastern stores.
This exhaustive panty list suggests many specific Indian dishes. But, with such a well-stocked pantry, you can cook quite literally, hundreds of Indian dishes, effortlessly and confidently.