What are the basic tools everyone who cooks Indian food regularly needs? There are as many answers to that question as there are cooks, but a few basic items will easily get you through the vast majority of Indian recipes. If you have a big passion for the kitchen and all things shiny, it can be easy to convince yourself that you need that gleaming specialty pot, which makes only one specific item that is made on only one special day of the year. But for a city dweller with a small kitchen, I’ve got to keep things pared down to just the essentials.
If you are trying Indian cooking for the first time, you probably already have most of the equipment you will need. Here are the basics I recommend. Let’s start with a few tools you probably already own and if not, can be found easily in most American stores.
A Sharp Knife
With all the chopping of onions and garlic and prepping of vegetables, every cook, Indian or otherwise, should have a nice sharp knife in their kitchen. Surprisingly, a lot of us don’t. For a long time all I had was my cheap seven dollar, six inch chef’s knife which had long ago lost it’s edge. I kept thinking I’ll get myself a nice high quality knife and it will make me a much better cook. Then I realized I could take my seven dollar knife and get it professionally sharpened for seven more dollars. I now have a wonderfully sharp knife for less than fifteen dollars.
A great all purpose knife is a chef’s knife. They come in various lengths of 6-inches, 8-inches, 10 and even 12-inches. The length you need depends on what is most comfortable for you. Even the most expensive knife is worth nothing if it doesn’t feel comfortable in your hand. Think about how you use your knife. If you cut lots of longer, thicker items, a longer blade might be useful to you so you don’t have to saw back and forth. I cut mostly onions, garlic and small bunches of herbs so a six-inch knife works great for me. I also have smaller hands, so wielding a larger knife feels awkward. I spent a day in the kitchen with my uncle, an avid cook who has a kitchen full of gadgets and a drawer full of knifes. He told me he has both a six-inch and an eight-inch chef’s knife. However, he hardly ever uses the 8-inch because his favorite cutting board is quite small. These are the practical things to consider when buying a knife.
Keep your knife sharp by using a honing steel before every use. The blade takes some wear and tear, especially from daily cooking so you need to realign the blade and keep the edge maintained with three to five swipes across the honing steel before each use. Once a year, I take my knife to be professionally sharped.
A Cutting Board
Again, another basic you probably already have. I’ve seen a surprising amount of cooks cut directly on their kitchen counters and nothing will dull your knife faster than cutting items without a cutting board. A versatile sized cutting board is at least 12 by 18 inches. This will be large enough for you to prep all the foundational ingredients in one place. Many Indian recipes use a base of onions, garlic, ginger, chilies, and tomatoes. You can prep all of these on one board, making it easy to add them quickly as needed. It will also be large enough to use for rolling out pie doughs, pizza doughs or cookies.
Hardwood cutting boards and plastic cutting boards are both great. If you get plastic, make sure it’s made of polypropylene, which is nonporous and therefore will resist dirt and bacteria growth. It’s also dishwasher safe, an added plus. Hardwood is also a great option. Keep it away from heat and sanitize them every month or two by washing it in a solution of 2 cups water mixed with a 1/2 teaspoon of bleach. Rinse well, then let it air dry.
Designate one cutting board for non-veg items such as poultry, meat and fish and a separate cutting board for vegetables and fruits. This will ensure you do not have cross contamination of food-borne bacteria. If all your cutting boards look alike, just label the sides with a permanent marker.
Stay away from glass and marble cutting boards, they will dull the edge of your knife.
I find the sauté pan to be a great all-purpose pan. A sauté pan looks very similar to a frying pan except the sides of the sauté pan are completely straight, whereas the sides of a frying pan are curved. I prefer a sauté pan because the straight sides keep food from flying out of the pan when stirring and it’s much easy to flip and toss the food around when the sides of the pan are straight.
It’s handy to have both a nonstick pan and an aluminum pan. Nonstick pans are great for quicker cleanup and allow you to stir less frequently. For dishes which don’t use browning and also need longer cooking times (especially dishes which need you to cover the pan and cook for longer periods of time, nonstick is a good choice.
However, if you need to brown onions or garlic, an aluminum pan will do it in half the time. So for making a dish that involves browning onions and garlic in stages, use aluminum. I wouldn’t recommend stainless steel cookware because food seem to stick to it easier. Stainless steel and aluminum look almost identical so be sure to look at what the pan is made of before you buy.
A Small Saucepan
This is the pan you will use for making tadka. Tadka an Indian cooking technique of heating up spices and aromatics such as onions and garlic to make a delicious concentration of flavor which is then added to a dish. Tadka is a great tool for refreshing leftovers. Hubby claims that leftovers are his favorite because the tadka adds more flavor than when it was first made. A small rounded pan, such as a small saucier pan is best for faster cooking.
You only need a few basics. Have on hand at least two wooden mixing spoons. Find ones with long handles so you don’t burn your hand from the steam coming out of the pan.
I also have tongs available, which serve an extension of your hands when needing to handle hot objects or easily turn a mushroom or fish out an ear of corn from boiling water. A mesh wire spoon or a slotted spoon is perfect for scooping out deep fried foods from hot oil. I have a long handled metal spoon which is great for stirring and also handy for scooping up dals and curries into serving dishes.
A Spice Grinder (aka a coffee grinder)
This is a must have in an Indian kitchen, especially if you know you are going to be trying a lot of Indian recipes. It’s so easy to quickly grind whole spices before adding them to a dish. Store bought pre-ground spices can never have the flavor of freshly ground spices.
Using a simple coffee grinder works best. You get a very fine powder in about ten seconds. I recommend using a seperate coffee grinder for your spices. Don’t use the same one you use for your coffee. The flavors do not blend well.
A Food Processor
While a good knife can accomplish all the same things as a food processor, this kitchen tool is a great time saver. Mince garlic and green chilies in seconds, create a quick onion paste or make a wonderfully smooth curry sauce without any elbow grease.
The next few items can be found at an Indian market, but can be easily substituted with western equivalents.
Chapatti Rolling Pin & Board
If you are going to make chappatis on a reqular basis, I recommend getting the authentic rolling pin and board. The small round shape is a great guide for keeping the dough looking round as you roll it out and the tiny rolling pin is easy to handle and light enough so that you don’t use too much pressure on the dough which can make it stick.
I also like to use my small chapatti board as a cutting board for smaller items. It’s smaller size makes it easier to handle.
Western substitute: any rolling pin and board, just make sure to maintain a round shape as you roll the dough and do not press too hard with the heavier and larger rolling pins.
– known in Hindi as a ‘tava’ –
These small griddles made out of iron are used in India specifically for chapatis and other flat-breads. They come both curved and flat. I use a flat version as I have an electric stove and curved cookware doesn’t sit well on flat electric coils. If you have a gas stove you can use either. The curved version is more popular in India.
Western substitute: Any flat cookware at least 8-inches wide. Anything you would use to make pancakes on will work fine.
An Indian Spice Box
– known in Hindi as a ‘masala dabba’ –
Keep all your daily spices within one easy reach by storing them in an Indian style spice box. These are usually made out of stainless steel but also come in plastic. They have little individual compartments, usually enough for seven different spices. I like to grind up enough spices to fill these little compartments, which usually last me about a week.
Western Substitute: Use your own favorite spice storage system. The best ones make it easy to find, easy to reach and quick to get into.
I cannot praise these enough. If you are making rice or cooking lentils, this wonderful pot will cut your cooking time in half. There are two basic types. One is a whistle release, which release the pressure in short, sharp whistles. Another version release the pressure in a steady stream of steam. I prefer the whistle release version as I’ve had many Indian cooks give me cooking times in terms of whistles “let it cook for five whistles”.
Pressure cookers also come in different locking styles, one where the top fits inside the pot and latches on to the handle, the other where the top fits on the outside of the pot and twists on securely. Both versions can be either a whistle release or a steady stream pressure cooker.
The version you see above is the style where the top fits inside the pot. These are the typical style used in Indian home kitchens and can be purchased at an Indian grocery store. The one version below we got here in the US and it is the steady stream version. The top of this model fits on the outside of the pot. The pressue releases in a steady stream of steam.
You can also get electric pressure cookers, which can free up space on your stove. However, I’ve never found myself cooking that much food at one time.
Western substitute: Unfortunately, there is nothing as efficient as a pressure cooker. You can use a regular covered pot, but you will need to at least double, if not triple the cooking time of the recipe.
Most of these items are common place kitchen tools, such as a sharp knife, cutting boards and pans. If you are just starting out with Indian cooking, these basics are all you will need. A great knife will replace almost any kitchen gadget you can think of. So you may already have everything you need to get started and if so, I hope you explore some of the recipes on this site and give them a go.
For those who have already dabbled in some recipes and would like to cut down their cooking time with a pressure cooker or have a few “Indian touches” in their kitchen, the specialty items are a helpful and fun way to enhance your cooking.