Indian food is all about the correct use of spices, not everything has to be hot with chili, but everything is generally well spiced.
I have the spices I use most in my Masala Dabba (spice box).
In the box I have mustard seed, cumin, garam masala, onion seed, ginger powder, coriander seeds and turmeric.
I have lots more spices in a box under the counter, but these are my main ones and the ones I keep on my counter top.
I have always had a fascination in Indian food since as a kid in Saudi we had some really nice ones made for us by our Indian house boy of the time, a guy called Anthony. My 4 year old brother at the time used to taunt him to give him the hottest curries he could make, he still likes his food very spicy.
I was shopping one day in one of the Asian stores in the city centre when I saw an ad for Indian cookery lessons, so I decided to go. The instructor was a nice South African/Indian woman called Katayani. I did 5 or 6 lessons, I can't remember, each time she taught us something new. We started learning about how to make fresh paneer, and moved onto puri, roti and various vegetarian curries. I should mention that the cookery was all vegetarian and also based on Ayurvedic cookery, the lady is a Hindu so it was basically Hare Krishna food. I have to admit that while I have no problem with vegetarian food, the issue of not having onions or garlic in this style of cookery bothered me and I missed the flavours of them too much to stick with this in its pure style.
When she was teaching us she told us that to change it up for our taste, simply add garlic and onions and if we wanted just add meat. She gave me a very good grounding in cooking a good curry and a greater appreciation of vegetarian food. I'm afraid I can't be weaned off allums for any reason, so the garlic and onions stay. I believe the reason for leaving these out of the diet are simply to reduce wind when one is meditating, the buddhists avoid them for the same reason.
Another important element of this purely vegetarian diet is the asofetida powder, basically it's a gum from a tree that also helps reduce wind, don't overuse it, it's not called devils dung for no reason, a pinch is all you need in a veggie meal, it's foul sulphorous stuff.
This is the base for most Indian curries:
tsp black mustard seed
tsp cumin seed
tsp garam masala
2 tsp minced ginger
Fresh curry leaf (optional)
vegetable oil/mustard oil
green or red chilli to taste (I tend to use a lot )
1 small pinch asofetida (this is optional but very good for veggie curries as it reduces wind, be very careful, it stinks horribly and is very easy to over use)
(You can change any of the proportions of ingredients to suit your own tastes, if you like it more, or less, spicy.)
either a tin of tomatoes or a tin of coconut milk.
The above is the basis of Hare Krishna (brahmin) style Indian cookery which doesn't use garlic or onion, but I personally prefer to add them.
1 tsp Minced garlic
1 onion chopped
Indian cookery doesn't use stock, so any meat cooked should be on the bone, unless you poach chicken beforehand for example (if you precook meats, you really only reheat them through in the sauce, or they'll overcook).
Fry cumin and mustard seed in a tbsp of oil over a med/high heat until they start to spit and crackle, then add garam masala for 30 secs or so to toast a bit, then add ginger, curry leaf, chilli (and garlic and onion). Sweat onions down as normal (if you're using them), in the rest of the paste, until transparent. If you're using meat or veg add them at this point and brown as normal. Potatoes need to be fried in this paste, and browned gently, at this stage to keep them in cubes or they will go to pieces when boiled.
(the recipe thus far is the basis of pretty much all curries, you can make all sorts of variations yourself from this, such as adding dried fruits and nuts)
To this base you can add either the tin of tomatoes or coconut milk, or water just to make up some boiling broth. I find that fish goes very well with coconut milk (if using fish don't cook for long so as not to overcook the fish), tomato can go very well with the likes of neck of lamb and then cooked on a slow low heat.
That's more or less it, you can add anything really to this, to your own taste. Cooked potatoes, a tin of peas, chicken, fish, beef, lamb.
I did three curries yesterday evening as that's one of the things that I like about indian cookery, the thali which is a plate of mixed curries and rice or chapatis where you have small portions of a few different things.
I did up a Chicken curry with a tomato base, a vegetarian okra and potato curry and also a fish curry with coconut milk, the fish curry was only partially successful as I used some smoked coley we had there as one of the fish types as I needed to use it and the smokiness was not totally at home, but it wasn't bad at the same time.
To this I made simple boiled basmati rice, I'll do a post on making basmati as per an Indian housewives instruction at some point in the future too. Personally I've recently started to use a rice cooker and it makes things a lot easier.
One thing about my love of Indian cookery is that it actually doesn't extend to Coriander/Cilantro/Dhania leaves, I hate the stuff so I substitute it with Flat leaf parsley when I can get it and curley parsley when I can't.
I'll spend some time on chapatis to go with the curry the next time I do them and post how to do them, they're a nice addition to a plate of curries.
If anyone wants any specific recipes gimme a shout I can throw together an exact recipe for you from what I'd do myself. I could get more specific, but to be honest you need to experiment, but stay with the same base most of the time. I'll possibly do a post in the future with some actual recipes.
I'll shortly be posting about making a few dips that I'll be doing for a barbecue and meeting of homebrewers at the house here next weekend, I'll be doing some hummus and some garlic dip, both of which are pretty good and pretty easy.