The experts share their tips for cooking Indian food

Our South Asian culinary panel shared their one “must have” spice for cooking Indian food.

Our South Asian culinary panel shared their one “must have” spice for cooking Indian food.

This past weekend I hosted a culinary panel celebrating the rich cultural heritage of South Asian food for Chicago Gourmet. I was joined by fellow restaurateur Rohini Dey of Vermillion, Chefs Zeeshan Shah and Yoshi Yamada of Superkhana International, Sujan Sarkar of Rooh and Baar Baar and Culinary Historian and Food Writer Colleen Sen. We covered topics ranging from the vast indescribable diversity of South Asian food to the unfortunate misconception that Indian food is all about cheap buffets and indistinguishable gravies. Indian food can also be extremely intimidating to cook at home. Colleen Sen commented that recipes containing an endless list of spices and other ingredients can turn many people away. The entire panel agreed that the best way to start cooking Indian food is by incorporating basic South Asian ingredients into your existing repertoire of dishes; for example adding ginger, garlic and curry powder to a marinade or sprinkling toasted cumin seeds on roasted vegetables. I had asked the panel to give the audience a “must-have” ingredient for a starter Indian pantry as well as a list of their go-to Indian restaurants. I hope you enjoy their suggestions.

You can source all of these ingredients at your local Indian grocery store or on Amazon.


asafoetida powder

Yoshi Zamada, like many Indian chefs, can’t cook without Asafoetida, a gum extracted from a ferula, an herb in the celery family. It is usually available as a coarse yellow powder and smells like boiled eggs. Don’t be put off by the smell, it goes away leaving behind a delicious savory umami note to Indian dishes. Asafoetida can also be used as substitute for garlic and onions. Add it to lentil soups, marinades, braised dishes or anything where you want a punch of umami savoriness.



Zeeshan Shah always has mango pickle in his refrigerator, not the sweet kind but the spicy stuff also known as aachar. He adds it to marinades, mixes it with mayo for a spicy aioli and will also eat it with plain rice as a late night snack. Aachar can be made from almost any fruit or vegetable and is a staple in many Indian homes. My family have jars and jars of various pickles stocked away, some going back several years where small spoonfuls are doled out at each meal.



Chef Sujan Sarkar considers this combo his dynamic duo and keeps a jar ready to go at all times. He says almost any dish can be enhanced by adding a sprinkle, especially roasted vegetables, grilled meats and lentil soups. Toast cumin seeds and crushed or whole chillies then grind into a coarse powder.



This is my tip for a must-have ingredient! Every Indian chef has their own recipe for making Garam Masala from various proportions of Cumin, Coriander, Star Anise, Green and Black Cardamom, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Cloves, Bay leaves, Peppercorns, Fennel, Mace and dried Chilies but you can also buy it ready-made. My favorite brand is Frontier Co-Op and there is a lot of flavor in this one little bottle! It gives a warm spice note to lamb, chicken thighs, ground meats, cauliflower and butternut squash. When mixed with turmeric, it can double as a curry powder. I also like it sprinkled over hummus!



Rohini Dey is a big fan of Patak’s Curry pastes and says you absolutely can’t go wrong with it! It’s available in almost any grocery store and can be used as a marinade, for grilling, add it to vegetables, soups, sauces - anything! It’s an easy one-stop shop to add an Indian flair to your cooking.



Colleen Sen wrote an entire book on the health and culinary benefits of turmeric and I agree with her when she says that no Indian pantry would be complete without turmeric. It adds that characteristic yellow hue to many Indian dishes and contributes a mild earthy flavor as well.


Kamdar Plaza - Zeeshan Shah and Yoshi Yamada both recommended this Indian grocery store and restaurant. Zeeshan loves their dahi vada (savory lentil donuts in yogurt) and Yoshi can’t get enough of their murukku (crispy lentil and rice flour snacks). Shop for all of the ingredients listed above and then treat yourself to a snack afterwards.

Sukhadhia - Mr. Sukhadia’s sweet and snack shop is Colleen’s favorite (and mine ) for Bengali-style sweets and snacks. Enjoy Indian street food staples such as samosas, chaat, bhel puri, lentil donuts and a tempting variety of Indian sweets.

Annapurna - If you’re new to Indian food you can’t go wrong with the Gujrati Thali at this fast-casual Indian cafe. Sample 3-4 vegetable and lentil dishes, snacks, rice, bread, chutneys and dessert! It’s a great way to try a variety of dishes for only $12!

Colleen’s Restaurant Roundup - Colleen recently wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune highlighting a list places she recommends for Indian food - both modern and traditional. It’s an excellent roundup that I highly recommend checking out!