North-Indian recipes: tips for foreigners

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Unlike many people think, it’s actually quite easy to learn cooking North-Indian food. But when foreigners, who didn’t have Indian food cooking experience, see Indian recipes, the recipes may just scare them away, rather than cause a desire to cook them. Why?

Firstly, most of the Indian food bloggers/ vloggers or foreigners who know how to cook Indian food, usually don’t think about that all these spices are not so easily available in many other countries, and don’t tell how they can be replaced/ which ones can be skipped. Secondly, not every food blogger finds it necessary to even translate the names of the dishes and some ingredients from Hindi – I have seen it not only with English recipes of Indian food but even with Russian recipes of it – just some Hindi words written in Russian. The names of the recipes may just look complicated for someone who doesn’t have a clue what is it and it’s not always something that attracts people to read the recipe at all. Thirdly, it can be Indian people thinking that it’s difficult to cook: you might have seen the moments in some Indian TV series or movies when a mother-in-law becomes a monster to a daughter-in-law because she cannot make roti (Indian flat bread) or even tea – and your fear immediately arises – if even they cannot, then how can you? And it’s especially if you are dating an Indian (but later you will learn that to exaggerate the difficulty of everything is just part of Indian mentality + Indian middle class or rich “kids” don’t know how to do many things at home before they get married because they don’t have experience of living away from parents most of the times and can have really cheap maids here).

I have learned how to cook Indian food very quickly, without being much helpful at home in my childhood or teenage as well (however, unlike some young Indian women, I was able to cook for a long time before marriage already because of traveling and working abroad experience). My Indian family says I cook Indian food very well. And I can say that for someone, who knows at least how to cook vegetables, it shouldn’t be too complicated.

Indian dish: Matar Mushroom

So, North Indian cuisine, Instruction:

The first thing I want to tell about is typical Hindi words you can see in Indian recipes in other languages:

  • Masala – this word is often interpreted incorrectly (some people can even use it as the entire name of just any Indian dish, which is very incorrect). Masala means a “spice mix”. Therefore, when you see the words Garam Masala or Chat Masala in the recipe, these are the mixes of spices that are very common in India. I will write a separate article on what to do if you can’t find such spices in your country;
  • Sabzi – it is a Hindi word that simply means “vegetable”. There are a lot of vegetable dishes in North Indian cuisine, and many of them can be called generically sabzi. This word, by the way, is used in the recipes of some other eastern countries too;
  • Paneer – Indian cottage cheese. It’s very similar to the cottage cheese in Russia. I suppose that I can be easily found in the countries where are many Indian people live, but similar cheese might not be available everywhere. The word “paneer” is usually known abroad quite well but yet, if there is no paneer/ other cottage cheese in your country, try to find an alternative. If it all, you can use tofu instead (in the countries where cheese isn’t much available, like China, suppose).

These are 3 the most frequently used words in Hindi in Indian recipes in another languages, the meanings of which are usually not specified and not translated. If I forgot about any other words and you want to know their meanings, please do write in the comments and I will reply to you!

The names of the dishes also can be not translated and sort of “scary” for someone who has no idea what they mean. Indian people can use the names for their dishes in English, in Highlish (the mix of Hindi and English) or entirely in Hindi. It can be confusing, especially if the recipe will be not in English but some other language. So when I do write Indian recipes in Russian, I translate the name completely, not just type “Aloo Gobi” with Russian alphabets (Алу Гоби) – but not everyone does it. In India, most of the vegetable dishes are called simple way of a combination of the names of 2-3 main vegetable ingredients. They are not even inclined, like “Potatoes with cauliflower,” as we would say, but just “Potato-Cauliflower”, or “Aloo-Gobi” in Hindi, mentioned above. Here are some popular names for vegetable dishes, for example:
Aloo Gobi, already mentioned. But it also can be called as Aloo-Cauliflower and Potato-Gobi;
Aloo-Shimla Mirch (Potatoes with capsicum), or Aloo-Capsicum in a mix of Hindi and English, respectively;
Aloo-Gajar-Matar (Potatoes with carrots and peas) – you can make a “Higlish” combination on your own already, I suppose. As you can see, everything is very simple.

As I have mentioned above, the word “Masala” is often misinterpreted. There are Indian dishes that have “masala” in their names, as well, so what it means then? For example: “Chicken Masala” or “Paneer Masala” – they mean “Spicy chicken” or “Spicy cottage cheese”, respectively. In fact, almost all the Indian dishes are spicy (might be less spicy in Indian restaurants abroad but very spicy for “starter” foreigners in India). Yes, most of Indian dishes have a large number of spices in them, but the ones with the”masala” in their name supposed to have them even more. However, I will return to spices matter in another article, in more details.

Indian dish: Paneer Bhurji

So, the most common North Indian food is precisely vegetable dishes, the preparation of which is almost no different from the preparation of the usual vegetables, except for the addition of a large number of spices. But what else is popular? Of course, rice, which is most often simply boiled or also cooked with the vegetables and spices. However, I do not eat rice for personal reasons, so it’s not the common ingredient in our household. Also, Indian people would say about why don’t they see roti bread on my food pictures but papad instead – yes, we don’t consume large number of roti either. I don’t find such amount of carbs to be healthy, personally (I don’t mean to offend anyone – it’s everyone’s personal choice). Papad is made from gram flour which is gluten-free and has more proteins in it. The last letter in the word “papad” is supposed to be pronounced somehow between “r” and “d”.

Roti/ Chapati (Indian flat bread)

In Russia, by the way, soups are VERY popular. Russian people say that one should eat soup at least once a day! In India, however, soups are barely common. Nowadays, Indians very rarely consume several varieties of soups: tomato soup, corn soup, etc., (mostly in the restaurants rather than at homes) but these soups are not traditional Indian recipes (they are considered Chinese here, but I was in China many times and I don’t recall such soups there – in general, Chinese food in India is very popular, but it is also very modified). The only soup exceptions for North-Indian cuisine include “daal” and other liquid bean dishes. Daal is a dish that is very similar to Russian pea soup, but cooked a little differently. However, the Indians do not call such dishes as soups. They consider liquid bean dishes as gravy more, they are eaten with rice or roti bread dipped in them. By the way, it seems strange to Indians to add potatoes to the soup (in Russia most of the soups have potatoes in them). But it does not seem strange to add lemon juice there (which seems quite strange to me).

Indian recipes often also use chickpea (gram) flour, which I have mentioned above as well. In some other countries in can be easily available, but in some it is not. You need to see accordingly and either skip gram flour recipes, or to replace the flour, if possible (in some recipes it can be possible).

Some things, such are Poha (rice flakes which are often cooked for breakfast in India) or Sabudana (balls made from a plant called Tapioca, from which also breakfast and some other things can be cooked) might be not available in some other countries too. That’s why I don’t really post such recipes, even though I know them.

And a little more about the differences of North-Indian food (and how to make it healthier):

  • Almost all the food, all the vegetables of North Indian cuisine are fried. Indians themselves also doubt this matter, but, like most people in the world, in general, they are afraid to question what they have been used to since childhood and what has been used by their nation for centuries. I do cook the same North-Indian vegetable dishes, from the same ingredients but in oven sometimes – just to reduce the amount of fried food;
  • Indians cook mainly in refined oil. If they want non-refined, they can use mustard oil (because it is cheap here). But mustard oil has a really very strong mustard taste. I am someone who doesn’t like refined oils and for me mustard one is also fine, but if you don’t like it and yet, want non-refined oil, you need to look for more expensive oils here;
  • Indians also add a huge amount of sugar to desserts and tea – here, as with the spices, people say they like “rich flavors”. I am okay with the spices, but I have been avoiding sugar for many years before so I still do it now. I can drink Indian tea without sugar, try to skip eating Indian crazily sweet desserts much or make them sugar-free/ with honey;
  • Indians almost do not eat mayonnaise (Russians eat it a lot but I was avoiding it too), but at the same time they love a large number of sauces, for example ketchup (which isn’t healthy too unless it’s homemade) and various chutneys – I usually like them more because they are prepared from natural ingredients;
  • Indian people are vegetarian but I haven’t met anybody vegan here yet. They do consume a lot of milk products and consider them necessary to consume daily. Indians don’t just add milk in tea but make it from milk half mixed with water. There is also popular turmeric-milk drink and some other drinks with milk, milk can be used in cooking of some desserts, etc. But, in the same time, I haven’t seen Indian people drinking milk just like that (even pasteurized and boiled, because they are afraid to catch something from it too) – just with cookies or honey (which is good when you are sick, for example) how it’s popular on the West. But yogurt is consumed a lot with the vegetables and roti/ parathas (stuffed flat bread). Apart from it, in different countries there can be different milk products which aren’t available in India, such for me as for Russia are kefir and tvorog, suppose.

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