PEOPLE new to Indian cooking are often delighted to find that success depends more on creative ingenuity than on specialized equipment. If your kitchen is well-equipped with common utensils -frying pans, saucepans, knives, a slotted spoon, mixing bowls, a grater, a metal strainer, a colander, cutting boards, cheese cloth, a set of measuring spoons, and maybe a scale-you have all you need to cook genuine Indian meals.
You can also use modern appliances such as pressure cookers and food processors in Indian cooking. A pressure cooker is useful for speeding up the dal soups and chick-pea preparations; a food processor, for mincing ginger and herbs, and for kneading bread dough and paneer. (It kneads the paneer in just a few seconds. Don’t let it run longer, or the paneer will fall apart). Microwave ovens are suspected by some scientists to diminish the nutrive value of food so therefore we don’t recommend their use.
The functions of most utensils used in Indian cooking can often be performed by their Western counterparts, sometimes more efficiently. A few examples:
- Ordinary pans of fairly heavy metal can replace the brass dekchi, a saucepan without handles that is used throughout India. Heavy metal distributes heat evenly and prevents food from burning or scorching. Thin pans made from light metals will develop hot spots to which food invariably sticks. See that your pans have tight-fitting lids. (Food generally cooks quicker with a lid and it saves energy). Avoid using aluminum pans, which chemically taint your foods, nutritive value of food especially those containing milk products and acidic ingredients.
- The versatile electric blender can replace the grinding stone used daily in the Indian kitchen. In addition to powdering spices, a blender will liquefy or puree fruits and vegetables. Get a blender with blades close to the bottom so it will pulverize small quantities. Another handy machine is an electric coffee grinder. It can grind small quantities of spices or nuts in seconds, and it’s inexpensive. If you don’t care for “electric cooking,” you can get excellent results with a mortar and pestle (and a little elbow grease).
- Wooden spoons and spatulas, though generally not used in India because wood is considered hard to clean, are more practical than metal spoons, which burn your fingers and can affect the taste of the food. Wooden spoons also save wear and tear on pots.
- There are, however, some Indian utensils that simplify cooking Indian food. If you can’t obtain them, their Western counterparts will do.
- Karhai. A deep, rounded pan, with handles on both sides. It can be made of brass, cast-iron, or stainless steel. Because it has a wide top and a concave bottom, it allows you to use a small amount of oil to fry a large amount of food. It is sometimes used for sauteing vegetables. A Chinese wok has the same shape as a karhai and makes a good substitute. Both are easily available and reasonably priced. The most useful size is 12 to 15 inches (30 to 35 cm) across. If you can’t find either a karhai or a wok, you can use a frying pan with deep sides instead.
- Tava. A circular, slightly concave, cast-iron frying pan with a handle. It’s ideal for making chapatis, parathas, and patties. A castiron frying pan with a good distribution of heat can replace the tava. Even a well-seasoned griddle will do. For making chaunces and dryroasting spices, you can use a small cast-iron frying pan.
- Chimti. A pair of long flat tongs with blunt edges used to turn a chapati and hold it over a flame without puncturing it. Any long blunt-edged tongs are just as suitable.
- Velan. A solid wooden rolling pin without handles. It’s about 12 to 15 inches (30 to 35 cm) long, and it’s wide in the middle and gradually tapers off to the ends. It’s very handy for rolling Indian breads. If you can’t find one, have someone make one for you. Otherwise use whatever rolling pin you have.
- Masala dibba. A stainless steel or brass container that holds seven small containers with spices for daily use. A metal lid fits snugly over the top. If this useful item cannot be found, a wooden spice box with glass containers will do the job.