How to Cook Indian Foods – North India

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 cooking is nearly always quite spicy and uses a large number of spices in any given dish. The terms used for various dishes are normally descriptive of the food itself like Jeera Aloo for instance, which literally translates to ‘Cumin seed Potatoes’. Like most cultures there are also some misleading names like ‘Butter Chicken’, which is actually marinated chicken cooked in a tandoor and served in smooth, tomato gravy and doesn’t contain any butter. There are also terms which aren’t related to the food in question, like Pulao, which is rice cooked with spices and vegetables. The term sabzi (sub-zee) is used quite liberally when describing nearly any dry, vegetable preparation. The same applies to the term dal, which is used for most types of lentils. The term tari (tuh-ree) denotes gravy and is suffixed to the name of a dish when it has gravy.

In these days of fusion food, it is difficult to pin down a set of spices that a given region can claim. However, traditionally, north Indian cooking uses the following spices and herbs:

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

This list is by no means complete – there are many more spices used in every day North Indian cooking – the purpose of this article however is to provide a feel for North Indian cooking.

Different spices are used in different situations, in different ways. The flavor and characteristics of spices change if you’re dry roasting them, frying them, adding them before simmering to cook or after cooking.

Our first foray into traditional North Indian cooking could start with a simple vegetable preparation, which we could either call Aloo ki Sabzi (‘Vegetable Preparation of Potatoes’) or Jeera Aloo (Cumin seed Flavored Potatoes).

Cumin Seed Potatoes / Jeera Aloo


– 3 Large Baking Potatoes

-One onion, chopped fine

-1 tsp Cumin seed

-1 tsp Turmeric Powder

-1 tsp Chili Powder

-1 tsp Coriander Powder

-1 tsp Dried Mango Powder

-Salt to taste

-Chopped fresh coriander for garnishing

-Oil for frying


First peel your potatoes, dice and then boil in lightly salted water. Then drain and let cool. Heat oil in your pan and add the cumin seed. After 2 – 3 seconds of crackling, add the onions and fry, stirring lightly for about a minute on low heat. Now add all the spices, except the dried mango powder and mix well. Throw in the potatoes, which should be nice and firm now and toss well, so the onion-spice mixture coats the potatoes all over. Simmer for about 5 – 7 minutes. Finally, add the dried mango powder and toss the potatoes on high heat, till there’s a thick, spicy sludge adhering to the potatoes. Garnish with the fresh, chopped coriander prior to serving.

These can be served with Rotis, filled in toasted sandwiches or just eaten as is for a snack.

As you can see, this everyday dish uses 5 different spices and one herb. There are some traditional dishes that use up to 30 different spices! These are now (in most part) a thing of the past and cooked only on very special occasions.

As an example, let’s say we’d like to try our hand at cooking a simple north Indian dish without a recipe, simply going by the style. Obviously we’ll need some north Indian spices, the most common of which are Jeera (cumin seed), Haldi (turmeric powder), Namak (salt) and Mirch (chili powder). The first step, in nearly every dish is to fry onions as it is a staple in north Indian cooking. When pink/transparent, we add some spices and fry some more. This gives us a thick sauce to which we can add a little water if we wish. This sauce will coat the vegetables or meat we’ll add later. Here’s a simple example.

Onion and Tomato Sabzi / Pyaaz Tamatar ki Sabzi


-3 Large tomatoes, chopped roughly

-Two Onions, chopped roughly

-2 large cloves of garlic, finely sliced

-1 tsp Cumin seed

-1 tsp Turmeric Powder

-1 tsp Dried Mango Powder

-1 tsp Chili Powder

-Salt to taste

-Oil for frying


The process is really quite simple – we heat a little oil, add the onions, fry a little, add the garlic and continue frying till the onions are pink or translucent. Then we add the rest of the spices except the dried mango powder, mix well and finally toss in the tomatoes. The dried mango powder goes in at the end.

One major feature of Indian cooking is that vegetables are rarely left crisp or crunchy. They’re nearly always cooked till they’re very soft. This isn’t very good for the nutrition content of the veggies and I’d recommend cooking them till they’re just done and still have a bit of bite left.

The pan will be kept on a simmer for 5 – 10 minutes, till the tomatoes are cooked through. Finally we stir in the dried mango powder and it’s ready to eat! This dish is usually eaten with Rotis.

As you can see, the pattern is similar – fry onions (if using), spices, toss in vegetables, nuke them (or not) and serve. Now that we have an idea of the basics involved, let’s get on to the secrets!

The Cooking Methods (by Naheed)

Secret 1: Bhuno well.

This is an extremely important process and involves frying spices to extract most of their flavor. Remember not to overheat the oil (unless it is mustard oil, which has to be heated till it emits some smoke & does not froth when something is put in it). If dry powdered masala is being used, the oil should not be hot as the dry spices will burn. Some amount of water must be added if you feel the spices may burn. When making the masala, use onion paste along with ginger & garlic to which you will add other spices as required.

For meat however, the method is quite different. This is the last process for cooking meat in quite a few cases, or the process just before adding water to make the gravy. It is believed the real flavor of meat develops only if you devote upward of 10 minutes to this process. Meat releases some of its own fat which mixes with the spices and then the oil cooks the meat and helps the meat absorb the mixed flavors of the spices. How long to do so, is a question that has no fixed answer. As a guideline, stop when either the meat becomes too tender or the gravy becomes completely dry, or your guests start to get very restless. You will also notice that the meat & gravy tend to stick to the vessel if you do not stir them constantly. If they do, scrape it off; and if the gravy gets too dry, add yoghurt or water.

Secret 2: Bagharna

This is a simple process and is called Chaukna in Hindi. Here dry spices are added to hot oil and this concoction is added to a dish (e.g. Dal). Although a simple process, do not burn the spices. In fact it is advised that once you have added the spices, remove the vessel from the fire.

Secret 3: Dum Cooking

This is the art of slow cooking. It enables individual flavors to intermingle properly. This is also the method used for the last few minutes when cooking rice or biryani. In the old days, when food was cooked on coal or wood, the only way was to raise the distance between the flame & the vessel, or put the vessel in the dying embers, seal the lid of the dish with flour & put a few embers of coal on top of the lid. In dum cooking, it is essential the fire be at its lowest and the food will therefore take a while before it’s done. Rest assured that your patience will be amply rewarded. Thankfully modern cooking presents us with newer methods and one of the easiest is to put the whole vessel in an oven. If you do not have one, put a griddle (tawa) on the flame & then put the vessel on it. Also note that dum cooking meat will make the ingredients (meat, vegetables) exude the moisture or water within. A word of caution here: Try not to use a pressure cooker or the meat will not turn out right.

Secret 4: Frying

Simple you’d say. Well, yes it is. However, there are two types of frying. One is frying to cook and the other one to brown. For deep frying it is essential that there be sufficient oil to cover the item. For browning, the oil can be less but must be at a low temperature.

Secret 5: Using earthenware

Not only is earthenware cheap in India but it was also the first form of disposable crockery. Most desserts in India were traditionally served either on banana leaves or in earthenware crockery. Some of the better known five star restaurants in India still use earthenware. If you’ve noticed, tea at Indian railway stations is still served in earthenware glasses. Not only is it environmentally friendly, a special earthy flavor permeates the tea, which no cooking method can simulate.

Secret 6: Kewda Water

Kewda is the derivative of a desert plant with very fragrant leaves. The essential oil of this is heavily diluted in water which is used as a perfuming agent for food. Typically used in Firni and Zarda among other desserts and has no parallel.

The Ingredients

Secret 1: Dahi or Yoghurt

This is a wonder ingredient. Yoghurt lends a light buttery flavor to the creation as well as a light creamy consistency. For example, it is the base for some dishes like Rizala where the original flavor of yoghurt is completely transformed. Yoghurt when cooked transforms in taste to lightly sour and gives the gravy a creamy texture. All in all, it is an essential item. In a few dishes, it may be substituted by tomato puree but then the final result will be slightly different. Did you know vegetables cooked in yoghurt retain their shape? In fact in Dumpukth Fish, it is the yoghurt that preserves the shape of the fish. Also, at times if you have mistakenly added extra salt, add a splash of whisked yoghurt and cook for a while.

Secret 2: Onions

This is an essential ingredient in a lot of dishes and is commonly used for salads. A handy tip on handling onions is to remove the outer dry skin, cut in half and wash thoroughly to prevent your eyes from watering. Onions lend a sweetish flavor to cooking and are a common masala base. However when fried then mixed, the taste is totally different. So when the recipe says “fry onions”, you’d better fry them.

Secret 3: Cumin

There are two types of cumin seeds. The common white cumin seeds which are cheap are used mainly in vegetarian dishes. They are more often than not fried to get their flavor out. Sometimes as in a raita, they are dry roasted on a tawa and then ground. However, the more expensive black cumin seeds or Shah Jeera as they are commonly known as, are quite different in taste and flavor. The two are rarely substituted. Most restaurants substitute them in rice preparations, but then, what you get is something totally different.

Final Recipe

Now that we have quite a good idea of what’s involved in North Indian cooking, perhaps a slightly complex recipe is in order – Nihari. This is definitely not one of the dishes that one finds on the menu of five star restaurants. This is one of the dishes eaten with a lot of passion by all. In fact to have Nihari one must have the zest to wake up before dawn because it is a very hot meal and in most places where it is served, the service is over by 9am. It is a delectable broth of meat, cooked over a slow fire, mostly overnight and eaten in the early hours of the morning with a tandoori roti and an assortment of fresh herbs accompanied by loads of lemon. The meat is fulfilling and the broth is had as a refreshing and a rather hot soup. The other reason why one has it as a breakfast meal and that too only in winter is because it makes you feel very thirsty and rather warm. Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.



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

Spice mixture

Grind together the following: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


Preparation time 30 minutes | Cooking time 2-3 hours

  • Add 2/3rd of the onions in moderately hot oil and when the onion goes soft add ginger & garlic paste along with ground coriander and turmeric powder and let it fry for about 3-4 minutes or until the oil comes on top again.
  • Add the meat and cook over slow fire. The meat will let out its own water.
  • When it is semi cooked, add the chick pea flour to 2 cups of water and leave the broth to cook over very slow fire for at least 45 minutes.
  • The slower you cook the more flavors you will draw out.
  • Keep the pot covered but no pressure cookers please.
  • When the meat is as tender as it can get, add the spice mixture along with the leftover onions.

On a parting note, while cooking methods remain largely consistent and typical, knowing the spices will help tremendously. So while you’re cooking go on and add that sprinkle of black mustard seeds to hot oil and watch them crackle or throw in some curry leaves and savor the change in flavors!