Cookbook Profile

Indian Food Glossary

660 Curries
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by Raghavan Iyer

This is an abridged excerpt from the glossary. Buy 660 Curries for the full Indian food glossary and hundreds of Indian recipes and tips on Indian cooking.


Note that I've included an ingredient's Hindi translation whenever possible.


Bunches of red amaranth are found year-round in the produce section of Chinese markets. Also called "red spinach" or "Chinese spinach," red amaranth has a much more assertive flavor than the mild-tasting green-leafed amaranth.

Asafetida (hing)

A member of the carrot family, asafetida is a gum like resin made from a combination of three giant fennel species. The plant's rhizome is tapped to extract a milky liquid, which is then dried. The mass changes in color from white to yellow to the final translucent brown. Asafetida hardens as it ages, and it is usually sold in powdered form, but because producers often include gum arabic (to absorb moisture), flour (to prevent clumping in humid conditions), and even turmeric (for a little color), purists reach for it in block form. I have used it in its store-bought ground form in all the recipes that call for it.

I always caution my students that this spice does not taste the way it smells (asafetida means "nasty-smelling resin," basically). Tasting it raw may preclude you from ever wanting to use it! One student smelled it and shrieked, "Eeew, stinking onion and dirty socks." Nevertheless, I had her sprinkle a small amount in hot oil, just as the recipe instructed, and when she sat down to taste the curry, she exclaimed, "Wow, tastes oniony-garlicky." Thus asafetida finds gainful employment in numerous curries within the

Jain community, where onion and garlic are prohibited. In the south, many legume-based stews and broths steep with this ground spice (without sizzling it in oil) for a stronger astringent flavor.

Baking Powder (khaar)

This acid-alkali mix is best known for its baking prowess, leavening batters and doughs with its ability to produce carbon dioxide in the presence of moisture. However, in India it is also used as a spice. Baking powder's astringent flavor is prime in Pungent Green Papaya with Mustard and Chiles (see page 644 of the book).

Bay Leaves (tez patta)

The Indian bay leaf is the sharp-edged leaf of the cassia tree (Cinnamomum aromaticum or zeylanicum), not the Mediterranean Laurus nobilis. Indian and Pakistani stores stock large bags of Indian bay leaves, but feel free to use the Mediterranean variety if you can't locate a source or happen to have some growing in your yard. When sizzled in oil, these leaves infuse it with an aromatic sweetness, and they continue to release their aroma as long as they stew in a curry. I always recommend removing bay leaves from the dish before you serve it, so that someone at the table does not accidentally swallow one.

We toast or roast these leaves in many of our spice blends (such as Punjabi garam masala, page 25), and pound them to accentuate their aroma. Bay leaves are an intrinsic part of garam masalas, as their presence generates internal warmth. Fresh bay leaves have an incredibly long shelf life in the refrigerator. If weeks go by and you forget they are in there, don't worry, as they will dry and further extend their use by months.

Bishop's Weed (ajowan/ajajwan/ajwain)

Also known as carom or lovage (not true, because lovage is a separate member of the same family), bishop's weed is indigenous to India and has a peppery-hot taste with undertones of oregano and thyme (because it contains the same essential oil, called thymol). Because of its strong digestive qualities, it is sizzled in oil to assertively flavor many of Gujarat's legume-based curries.

If you can't locate bishop's weed, substitute dried thyme leaves, but use only half the amount (for 1 teaspoon bishop's weed, use 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme). Add 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper for every teaspoon of thyme, and mix the two together.

Bitter Melon (karela)

This vegetable is also known as balsam pear, foo gua, and balsamina. I consider this light to dark green, bumpy, scaly, cucumber-like squash, with its characteristic rat's-tail stem, to be the King of Bitter. Bitter melon is never eaten raw. Instead, it is salted to leach out its excess bitterness and then fried, stir-fried, or stewed with assertive spices.

Cardamom Seeds (elaichi)

The cardamom tree, a close relation to ginger, is indigenous to southern India (especially Kerala, where the variety is known as Mysore) and Sri Lanka (where it is called the Malabar variety or wild cardamom). The world's spice bins overflow with a variety from Allepey (Kerala), the plump green pods considered the true cardamom. (These same green pods are also sun-bleached white and sold in grocery stores as white cardamom; besides aesthetics, I really don't see any reason why, since the flavors remain unaffected.) Another large kind, with black pods and big black seeds, grows in eastern India, in Assam and Bengal; it is called black cardamom or kala elaichi. The green ones are menthol-like, aromatic, subtle, and sweet-smelling, while the black ones are smoky, strong, and slightly bitter.

Whole green cardamom pods are sizzled in hot oil or dunked into a sauce to infuse it with their sweet, delicate aromas. When the seeds are pried out of the pods and gently pounded, they release a stronger aroma. Toasting and grinding extracts their optimum strength for spice blends like Punjabi garam masala (page 25). If you don't wish to take the trouble to pry the seeds out of the pods, purchase the seeds in jars labeled "decorticated cardamom." Green cardamom and its seeds scent many of India's desserts, and when you pop a few raw seeds into your mouth, they make your breath smell fresh and facilitate digestion (call it an Indian's antacid).

The black pods, on the other hand, infuse smoky aromas into many of the savory dishes favored in the north. The black pods and seeds are never used in desserts, but the seeds do make their presence felt when toasted and ground with other spices to make England's Balti masala (page 31). When either the black or green pods appear in your portion of curry, eat around them; their flavor is overpowering and will eclipse every taste and aroma in many subsequent mouthfuls.

Cashews (caju)

Portuguese settlers introduced the cashew to India, where it thrives in the southwestern state of Goa. The nut is encased within a double shell that contains a toxic substance; the shell is carefully broken open by roasting or boiling. The inside nut is white, sweet, and delicious. Cashews are as versatile as peanuts. The cashew nuts in my recipes are raw (unroasted).

Fenugreek (methi)

Prized in India for both its cloverlike leaf and dark yellowish-brown, triangular, stone-hard seeds-that are very bitter when roasted or toasted-I regard the aroma and taste of fenugreek as "perfumed bitterness." The seed, considered medicinal (some were found in Tutankhamen's tomb), provides commercial curry powders with that distinctive aroma. Whenever I demonstrate recipes that incorporate fenugreek seed, students say, "Oooh, smells like curry."

Many sauces in southern India use toasted and oil-roasted seeds (and their ground versions, as in Sambhar masala, page 33), to create bitter balance. The eastern regions put the bitterness to work by stir-frying the seeds (they get more bitter when browned in oil). Cooks along the northern regions cherish the grassgreen leaves. Because they have a short shelf life, the young leaves are dried and sold in packages labeled kasoan methi. Refer to page 473 for tips on cleaning and preparing fresh leaves for use. Frozen chopped fenugreek leaves are now available in Indian and Pakistani groceries.

Ginger (adrak)

Although ginger did not come into India until about 1300 B.C., once it did, its pungency (a highly aromatic one too) became a popular taste ingredient, especially in the paste form, for hundreds of our curries and marinades. Steeping slices of ginger in a pot of legumes, stir-frying it with other bulbs to form a sauce's base, smashing it along with herbs and spices for juicy pungency, shredding the ginger and squeezing itsjuice for a mellow broth, adding julienne of ginger to curries just before serving-these are just a few ways we bring out ginger's various levels of pungency. For information on buying, storing, and using ginger, see the recipe for Ginger Paste (page 15).

Gongura (methi)

Similar in looks to their notorious sibling, marijuana, but with none of marijuana's seductive qualities, gongura leaves are dark green, with a reddish-brown tint on the edges. The leaves are often cut into thin strips and simmered with legumes, meats, and fish. The leaves are very tart and provide curries with an acidic balance. If you can't locate fresh gongura, use fresh sorrel or spinach leaves and add 1/4 teaspoon tamarind paste or concentrate (or 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice) to each 8 ounces of greens.

Holy Basil (tulsi)

Used extensively in Ayurveda, India's ancient medicinal practice, holy basil (Osimum sanctum) is thought to cure everything from stomach upsets (soothing when its leaves brew with tea leaves), to fever, to even malaria. These small leaves, widely available in Asian grocery stores, are narrower than the common sweet basil, and have a dull reddish-purple tint to their edges and tips. They have a peppery taste with a sharp pungency that dissipates when simmered in sauces. If unavailable, sweet basil makes a perfectly acceptable alternative.

Jaggery (gur) and Sugar (chini)

In Gujarat and Rajasthan, fields of bamboo like sugarcane dot the landscape, its hardened stem masking its yellowish-white, juicy, and extremely fibrous. flesh. Its juice is boiled down and dried to yield clumps of dark brown jaggery, which is sold all over the world, especially in Indian grocery stores. Mexican stores stock a similar product they call pilon cillo (in cone form, which you can use, teaspoon for teaspoon, as a substitute for jaggery). Jaggery is cloyingly sweet, with a molasseslike flavor. I recommend packed dark brown sugar as a very close alternative to jaggery in all my recipes that call for it.


Kokum (Garcinia indica) is a slender evergreen tree found growing wild in the tropical rain forests along the Konkan coast in southwestern India. Just before the monsoons arrive, the tree bears round fruits that are dark purple when ripe. The fruit has five to eight seeds inside, and the pulp is sweet-tart. The juices extracted from the fruit are sold as a concentrate and are used to make cooling beverages during the oppressive summer months. The dried form, black kokum, is prepared by drying the outer rind, soaking it in the pulpy juice, and then sun-drying it.


Garcinia camboge or Garcinia gummigutta, also known as Malabar tamarind, is a tree that is found in abundance in Kerala, off the coast of Malabar. I have not often found this fruit-which is dried, then smoked-in the United States, even in Indian stores. Its acidic compound of hydroxy citric acid is considered beneficial in the treatment of obesity. (In the United States, where every weight-loss gimmick gets tested, I hope this compound will get its fair share of attention, making it much easier to procure kudampuli in stores!) Some large Indian supermarkets stock the fruit, as do some Thai and Vietnamese grocery stores. (Sri Lankans call it goraka.) If you can't find it, use tamarind paste dissolved in water, and for that distinct smoky flavor, stir in a drop or two of natural smoke flavor.

Lime (nimbu)

The Indian lime, which originated in Malaysia, is the archetype of the citrus family, its acidity and taste familiar to those who savor Key limes from Florida. It is small, its skin is thin, and its acidity is quite strong. These limes are pickled in assertive spices (page 745) and breathe their tart, fiery-hot breath when served alongside many of our curries. The lime juice provides a clean, crisp tartness and is usually stirred in after the curry has cooked, just before serving. When limes are called for in my recipes, regular ones work perfectly well, but if Key limes are available, give them a try.

Mango, Unripe (khatte aam) and Mango Powder (amchur)

The mango is the most consumed fruit in the world. When you realize there are over 125 varieties in India alone, the multitude of ways they can, and do, sneak into many of our curries should come as no surprise. Growers cultivate certain varieties to use in their unripe form for their sour taste. Green, rock-firm, and tart, they are sliced, then sun-dried.

A more common form is mango powder, the ground dried slices, sold in Indian and Pakistani grocery stores as amchuror amchoor. Light brown, dusty-looking, and very tart, mango powder showers stews, broths, and sauces, or folds into marinades, particularly in the northern regions of India, to create a sour presence. In the finger-licking blend of spices called Chaat masala (page 39), mango powder is one of two key spices.

When the unripe fruit is chopped and used as a vegetable, it plays a dual role to provide not only tartness but also nutrients (it is low in calories and loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants). Mango pickles and chutneys, from the unripe and ripe fruit, are synonymous with India. While the rest of the world imagines mangoes to be sweet, we Indians usually pickle the unripe fruit with potent ground red pepper (cayenne) and spices to mitigate its tartness.

As with numerous unique ingredients, there is no substitute for the unripe mango's earthy sourness. An alternative, depending on the recipe, is plain lime juice. Some cooks suggest lime zest, but I find that more bitter than sour.

Mint (pudhina)

This perennial herb is cultivated allover the world, boasting over twenty-four species with hundreds of varieties, peppermint and spearmint being the most popular. The dried leaves make their strong aromatic presence ,known in spice blends like Rajasthani garam masala (page 26). Mint is bold enough to stand up to assertive herbs like fenugreek and mustard, but can also take a subtle backseat, especially when cooled with yogurt. Its digestive properties soothe the cantankerous stomach, especially when chopped mint leaves are steeped in a tea to brew a favorite after-dinner beverage.

Mustard (rai)

Fields of mustard sway in northwestern India, in the state of Rajasthan, and in numerous northeastern states, making this a cash crop in those areas. The greens are a delicacy in the northern regions, but the seeds are equally versatile, and there are three kinds of mustard that are primarily harvested for their seeds. Brassica nigra produces brownish-black seeds, Brassica juncea yields reddishbrown ones, and Brassica alba (white mustard) is the source of light yellowish-brown seeds. The first two are widely used in Indian cooking, but the yellow one is an acceptable alternative. When ground, the seeds are potent, but roast the seeds in oil and let them pop (just like popcorn), and they become nutty-sweet. This seed possesses a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, because it swings between two primary taste elements

When pounded, cracked, or ground, and combined with a liquid, it yields that nose-tingling sharpness. But when you apply heat, as in popping the seeds in oil, it stops that reaction and results in a nutty-sweet taste.

Pure mustard oil, which is viscous, amber-colored, and very bitter, is extracted from the juncea variety. It is available in Indian and Pakistani grocery stores. However, if you look closely, you will find the words "for external use only" on the label. The FDA has issued a health warning about the presence of toxic erucic acid. Considering that they deem this unfit for human consumption, it fascinates me that humans have used it in India for 6,000 years. In response to that warning, mustard-flavored blended oil (usually blended with bland soybean oil) is now commonly found in those same stores, and safe to use. Heating mustard oil releases its pungent aroma into the air, and if you happen to stand in the direction of its smoke, be prepared to shed a few tears. This oil is a must in Indian pickles (the oil acts as a preservative), and it is also used to massage the scalp to promote hair growth (it obviously failed in my case). Many of the curries from the eastern, northern, and northwestern regions call for mustard oil.

Nigella (kalonji)

Nigella (no, sorry, unrelated to the television personality) is also called black cumin, which is a constant source of confusion to Indians and non-Indians alike. Nigella is a different species altogether, its black seeds used to dot breads in many Middle Eastern countries. In India they go by kalonji (mistakenly called "onion seeds," possibly because of a remote resemblance to the flavor of onions). The almost triangular-shaped, charcoal-black seeds sizzle in many curries in India's eastern states; one example is Onion-Studded Lentil and Split Pea Fritters with a Chunky Tomato-Nigella Sauce (page 55).

Nutmeg (jaiphal) and Mace (jaipatri)

It's always nice when a tree yields one useful spice, but when it gives you two, you just might become a tree hugger. The nutmeg tree, indigenous to Indonesia, is cultivated along India's western shores. The pear-shaped nutmeg fruit is revered for its seed. Pry the fruit apart and you can see a beautiful orangebrown web that wraps its tentacles around a hard, dark brown shell. The web is the spice known as mace; it is found in pieces ("blades") in Indian grocery stores and is available from many mail-{)rder sources. Ground mace is more common, but it loses its sweet, musky flavor within a short time (two months after grinding, in my opinion). When the shell dries and is broken open, a hard, light brown nut with little specks of white emerges. This is nutmeg. Just like mace, nutmeg is best when freshly ground (or in this case grated).

Sesame Seeds (til)

K T. Achaya, in his Indian Food, A Historical Companion, places sesame seeds in India around 20 million years B.C.! White sesame seeds have a nutty flavor, which is accentuated when toasted or roasted in India's myriad curries. The oil from the unrefined seed, called gingelly oilin southern India, also imparts a delicate nutty flavor.

Star Anise (badiyan)

Even though star anise, which is related to the magnolia, has nothing to do with anise (a relative of fennel), it has an aniselike quality because of its inherent oil, anethole-the same oil found in anise. This star-shaped spice (it has eight "spokes," each with a hard brown seed in its center) is roasted and ground into a spice blend called bottle masala, which perfumes many curries in Mumbai (page 37).

Tamarind (imli)

The tart fruit of this evergreen tree is what we use, extracting its acidity. When fresh, the beanlike pods have an olive-green, tough, hidelike skin. When dried, the skin becomes brittle and greenish brown. Inside is the chocolate-eolored pulp that shrouds the hard, dark brown seeds. Indian and Southeast Asian grocery stores carry tamarind in two forms blocks of dried tamarind pulp (with or without seeds) and jars of tamarind paste or concentrate.

To create tamarind juice from the block form, soak a walnut-size chunk of the dried pulp in 1/2 cup warm water; this yields the same tartness as 1 teaspoon tamarind paste or concentrate dissolved in 1/2 cup water. Mter softening the pulp in water, break it up with your fingers; then mash it to release the tart brown juices while you loosen the intertwined pulp. Continue to soak and mash it until the liquid has a cloudy, muddy-brown appearance. Pour the liquid and pulp through a fine-mesh strainer placed over a small stainless steel, plastic, or glass bowl. (The highly acidic tamarind will react with metals like copper, iron, and tin, resulting in a metallic taste.) Mash and push the pulp through the strainer, and use the juice to sour curries. The pulp and its fibers may be used for a second, albeit weaker, extraction. As an added benefit, because of its high acidity, you can use the tamarind pulp to touch up polished brass and copper tchotchkes with pleasing results.

Some spice blends call for toasting the dried pulp in a skillet to dry it out completely before grinding. This yields a slight smoky-tart quality to the sauce. I therefore buy both forms of tamarind-block and paste-and store them in airtight jars at room temperature. Kept away from humidity and light, they will keep for six months to a year (even longer at times). Many Thai, Hispanic, and Latino grocery stores sell sugar-eoated fresh tamarind pods (called candied tamarind) for a tart-sweet snack.

Teflam Seeds (tirphal)

Clove-colored teflam seeds (they are actually berries, not seeds) look like the animated Pacman from the well-known video game. Unique to the Hindu community of Goa, along the Konkan coast in southwestern India, teflam seeds are rarely used in other communities. The Portuguese call the spice limao arcado, "acrid lime," which accurately describes its flavor and aroma sharp and citruslike, especially when toasted and ground. The seeds have an anesthetic, numbing quality when bit into, even in small amoun ts. Teflam is closely related to Sichuan peppercorns, which can be used as an alternative. If you don't have either teflam or Sichuan peppercorns, toast equal proportions of whole cloves, black peppercorns, and dried lemon peel, and then grind the mixture.

Turmeric (haldi)

This deep yellow rhizome, a very close sibling to ginger, is probably native to India. It is mentioned in ancient Sanskrit literature and has yellowed its way into not only our foods, but also religion, medicine, and as a dye for fabrics, especially the robes worn by Hindu priests and Buddhist monks. Ground into paste form and wrapped in a bandage over a wound, it has anti-inflammatory properties. The chemical curcumin in turmeric (which gives commercial curry powders that yellow color) is the subject of recent medical research in the fight against Alzheimer's disease and certain forms of breast and prostate cancer. Turmeric, sold most often in ground form in the United States, is harshtasting when raw, a reason why it is rarely used this way. Nevertheless, sprinkle it in oil (cushioned with other ingredients), and its astringent taste diminishes in the resulting sauce. Coat fish fillets with ground turmeric, and it removes fishy odors. Also known as poor man's saffron (believe me, it is nowhere close to the flavors of saffron) or safran d'Inde, turmeric is a strong-tasting and coloring spice that we use sparingly but frequently in many of our dishes.

The fresh root is also delicious when thinly sliced and pickled in bitter mustard oil, salt, and chopped fresh green chiles. In the western regions of India, turmeric's large leaves are used to wrap steamed fish, infusing the flesh with a hint of astringency.

Vinegars (sirka)

Vinegars are widely used in the western areas of India, the most popular being the vinegar curries in the Portuguese-influenced Goan Christian communities. Vegetables, fruits, and pickles, preserved in vinegars, also influence Indian curries, yielding acidic sweetness because of their fruity origins.

Yogurt (dahi) and Buttermilk (chaas/more)

Writings from as early as 2100 B.C. describe the magic of these tart ingredients. They lend not only sourness to our karis and kadhies but also digestive comfort. It is customary, even now, to end a meal with either plain yogurt mixed with rice (page 710) or a glass of thin buttermilk.

Yogurt has multiple personalities, and all its incarnations affect curries in different ways. Take the example of Slow-Cooked Baby Potatoes in a Yogurt Fennel Sauce (page 559), where yogurt is "stir-fried" long enough to evaporate all its moisture, turning the curd pellets very sharp-tasting. When used as a base for marinating meats, yogurt not only imparts a pleasant tartness to the curry but balances out the heat of the chiles. It also tenderizes the meat with its acidity and enzymes. When dolloped atop finished dishes, yogurt blankets the melange with a creamy, cooling presence.

True buttermilk is the watery whey that is separated from freshly churned butter. In this country it is sold as a cultured dairy product, creamier and sharpertasting than its Indian counterpart. However, I find our commercial buttermilk perfectly acceptable.


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This page created July 2008