Let's Cook Indian Tonight!

Let's Cook Indian Tonight!

A blogger (and busy mom) shares tips, techniques, and 7 guided video recipes for creating authentic Indian flavor in working-parent time.

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Indian cooking was a labor of love when Prerna Singh grew up in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, hanging out at the doorway of the kitchen watching her grandma. “She would always start everything from scratch—homemade coconut milk from a fresh coconut, a lot of pickling,” Prerna remembers. Her grandma’s traditional approach shaped Prerna’s palate for recipes on her award-winning blog, Indian Simmer. But these days living in northern California, working full-time, and raising two daughters, Prerna's recipes are all about what she can pull off on a weeknight.

As super-fans of Indian cooking, we asked Prerna to teach us her secrets for creating those big flavors in real-people time. She created five Yummly original dishes you can whip up in 30 to 60 minutes, plus two that take a bit longer—and just might become your most-requested dishes for company. 

They’re all Yummly Guided Video Recipes, meaning you can follow along every step of the way. But first, here’s a little more about how to pull them off. 

Get the right ingredients

Spices! Lentils! "People get quickly intimidated,” says Prerna. “So I try to make it approachable using ingredients available in Western grocery stores.” 

Beyond supermarket seasonings and canned tomatoes, say, there are just a few specialty items in her recipes that you might want to track down for authentic flavor. No Indian market near you? It's easy to buy these few ingredients online. Or you can leave them out or substitute something else.

Garlic-ginger paste. Prerna’s recipes tell you how to make this building-block flavor paste in a food processor; for a shortcut, you can buy a jar.

Kashmiri chilies. Their vibrant red color, fruity flavor, and mild heat shine in dishes like Indian Butter Chicken. You can buy whole Kashmiri chilies and ground Kashmiri chilies online. The recipes give you options for subbing in other whole chiles, or paprika plus a little cayenne for the ground chili. 

Dried fenugreek leaves. With an earthy, leafy flavor, dried fenugreek leaves are “the secret ingredient that brings it all together” in dishes such as Quick Chicken Tikka Masala. Don’t have any? Just leave it out; the dish will still taste great.

Asafetida. This dried powder has a funky aroma, but used in tiny amounts, asafetida adds a complex earthiness to any lentil soup, like Favorite Indian Lentils and Spinach (Dal Palak). As with fenugreek, leave it out if you don’t have it on hand.

Fresh curry leaves. Unrelated to curry powder, highly aromatic curry leaves give South Indian recipes such as Coconut Shrimp Curry a nutty, slightly resinous flavor (in a good way). Fresh basil tastes different but makes a decent substitution.

Prerna builds her recipes around a few basic techniques for creating flavor.

1. Make a creamy sauce...with vegetables as well as cream

A gif of tomatoes and cream getting pureed into a sauce in a blender

“In any North Indian curry, there are two kinds of blends,” Prerna explains, “a wet blend (usually ginger, garlic, onion, and tomatoes) and a dry blend” (spices like garam masala, coriander, and turmeric). To create the sauce for her easy chicken tikka masala, she purees the cooked “wet blend” ingredients with a little cream until velvety smooth.

If you’re wondering how to make Chicken Tikka Masala the traditional way, Indian cooks marinate the meat in spices for hours, grill it in a clay oven, and finally simmer it in the rich tomato-based sauce. For Prerna’s version, which clocks in at under an hour, you skip the marinating, brown the seasoned chicken in a hot skillet, and simmer it in the masala mixture. “My kids love it,” she says. 

The delicious vegetarian Indian recipe Palak Paneer (spinach with fresh cheese) starts the same way as the previous recipe, with 2 pounds of fresh spinach cooked down and pureed with a little cream to make the tasty sauce. Prerna likes to use bunch spinach vs. baby leaves for a more substantial texture. It’s a healthy Indian recipe that’s ready in 45 minutes (and a great excuse for eating naan!).

2. Use a rich assortment of spices

Pull out the coriander, Kashmiri chili, paprika, turmeric, and garama masala for the dry blend when you make Indian Butter Chicken, a special-occasion North Indian-style chicken curry.

A perennial favorite at Indian restaurants, Indian Butter Chicken is traditionally a very involved dish to make, with lots of marinating, grilling, and simmering involved. Prerna’s version still takes awhile, but marinating can be as short as an hour, and she opts for a grill pan or skillet instead of a tandoor. You’ll want to leave time, though, to create her delectable sauce from ground cashews and almonds, the usual “wet blend” of seasonings, more spices, cream, and of course, butter!

3. Toast your spices

A gif of stirring cumin seeds in hot oil

To deepen the flavor of even the simplest Indian dish, toast spices in oil (or sometimes in a dry pan) before sauteeing them with onion, say, for chana masala.

Prerna’s vegan Big Batch Chana Masala recipe, a chickpea curry made with canned chickpeas and tomatoes, is one of her go-to weeknight meals. Often she'll change it up, adding greens, cauliflower, or whatever veggies she has in the fridge. Instead of basmati rice, she sometimes serves it with quinoa or farro.

For this prawn curry recipe, you sizzle curry leaves and mustard seeds in oil before sauteeing onion. Canned coconut milk, ginger-garlic paste, and turmeric give it loads of flavor but the recipe comes together in only 35 minutes.

4. Let the flavors meld

A gif of hands tossing pork pieces in a bowl with vindaloo spices

“There are a few dishes that you just can’t hurry up,” says Prerna. Pork Vindaloo is one of them. Hailing from the Portugese-influenced state of Goa in India, this special-occasion dish is much loved for its combination of sweet spices, tangy vinegar, and fiery heat. And the longer you can let the meat marinate with the seasoning blend before cooking (at least 1 hour, preferably overnight), the more flavorful it will be. After cooking, too, if you can wait a day to serve the vindaloo, the meat will become extra-tender. So think of vindaloo as the ultimate make-ahead meal.

As for the other dishes in her collection, Prerna says, “In this busy life we have here, we don’t always have time to rest the food, but even if I can put it aside for 10 minutes before serving [to let the flavors meld], it makes a big difference.” 

5. Drizzle with a spiced butter (tarka) just before serving

A gif of sizzling spices in ghee for a tarka to go on top of Favorite Indian Lentils and Spinach (Dal Palak)

“Dal palak is North Indian comfort food, a form of lentil soup we eat at home every night with bread, rice, and a side of stir-fried vegetables,” says Prerna. What makes it special is the tarka, ghee heated with spices and poured over the top shortly before serving. For this version of the vegetarian Indian recipe, just simmer lentils and spinach for 45 minutes or so while you go about your tasks. At the last minute, sizzle whole Kashmiri chilies with asafetida, turmeric, cumin seeds, paprika, and garam masala to add a big flavor payoff with very little effort.

Looking for Indian recipes that use a slow cooker or Instant Pot? Type “Indian recipes” into the search bar on Yummly, and then filter under "techniques" for “pressure cooking” or “slow cooking.”