A Basic Guide to Indian Cooking Techniques

Updated: Nov. 30, 2022

To cook authentic Indian food, the first step is to master the most common Indian cooking techniques.

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Tadka /Tempering spices also known as baghaara, fodni, tarka or vaghaar. Typically prepared in special pan with handle
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The words tadka, bagar or chownk all refer to tempering in Indian recipes. Tempering is heating ghee or oil and adding spices. The idea is to infuse the aroma and flavors of the spices into the oil. Some recipes call for tempering as the first step, like this Cauliflower Tikka Masala, while others call for it as the final step, like this red lentil dal.

Some common Indian spices and herbs used in a tadka are cumin seeds, mustard seeds, caraway seeds, curry leaves, green or red chilies, peppercorns, bay leaves, cinnamon, coriander seeds and nigella seeds, as well as aromatics like garlic and ginger. The tadka is typically is a combination of at least two or three ingredients.

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Malaysian tandoori chicken in oven
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Here the food is typically cooked in a tandoor, which is a wood-fired clay oven. The most common foods to cook in a tandoor are Indian breads like naan bread, tandoori roti, vegetables, tandoori chicken and kebabs.

The meats and vegetables are first marinated with a tandoori masala, then put on skewers and placed into the clay pot to cook. The breads are typically rolled and slapped onto the clay ovens, where they stick to the oven and the heat cooks them. Tandoori infuses the food with smoky flavors. It’s India’s way of grilling!

Since tandoors are usually found in Indian restaurants or rural homes, vegetables and meats are usually grilled or air-fried at home and breads are made on the stovetop.

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Tasty butter chicken curry dish from Indian cuisine.
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Bhunano (or Bhunao)

This method involves sauteing and stir-frying ingredients at low heat until the food loses its moisture and caramelizes. You need to stir constantly to make sure the food doesn’t stick to the bottom or burn. We typically use this technique to cook base ingredients like onions, tomatoes, ginger and garlic in oil or ghee with spices.

This butter chicken (and many other curries) are prepared using this technique, where the base ingredients are cooked and then pureed for a sauce.

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Indian pilaf biryani with chicken, onion, lemon, spices and cilantro close-up. Horizontal top view
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Dum is the technique of cooking food on low heat using the steam that is trapped inside the pot or pan. It’s different from steaming, where additional water is added to cook the food. The food is cooked in its own juices to become tender. It is an ancient and time-consuming process but yields great results.

Next visit to an Indian restaurant, try a dum biryani and I promise you will want to come back home and make it yourself!

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Dhungar (or Dhuanaar)

Dhungar is a process where the food is infused with smoky flavors from live coal. Typically, live coal is added to a container and that container is kept in the food. Hot oil or ghee is poured over the coal, which creates smoke to infuse the food with flavor. You can typically smoke a dal, a curry like Chicken Tikka Masala or even kebabs.

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Steamed rice cake
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Bhapa is a pot-in-pot steaming technique. A perforated utensil with the food is placed in a container, and water is used to steam the food. Often molds are used to steam or food is wrapped in banana leaves or foil for steaming. If you have ever consumed idli or dhokla, they are made using this technique.

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Home made red hot and spicy prawn balchao / shrimp fish pickle
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This pickling process is common in the coastal areas of India, where seafood or vegetables are pickled in vinegar and spices for several days. The food is fermented and the whole mixture is later reduced to a dry preparation to be consumed with rice or bread. The most popular balchao preparation is the Goan prawn balchao.

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Overhead view of samosas
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Talna is the process of deep-frying. It is an ancient process where food was fried to increase the shelf life for long-distance travel. You can deep-fry vegetables, proteins, papaddums, desserts like gulab jamun, appetizers like samosas, fritters and Indian breads like puris and bhaturas.