The Half-Indian Pantry

Any half-Indian cook needs a well-stocked pantry so that he/she can cook up a good meal without having to run to the store. Below you will find a list of things a half-Indian cook always needs to have on hand as well as explanations about what each item is, what type I prefer, and where you can find it.

Most spices can be found in regular grocery stores, but you will find them in larger quantities for cheaper prices at Indian groceries. Make sure to check for expiration dates, however: many products in Indian groceries do not have dates printed on them.
Haldi (Turmeric) A bright yellow powder ground from the curcumin root, which looks a lot like ginger in its natural state. Turmeric adds color, a smoky flavor, and antibacterial properties to all Indian cooking.
Garam Masala A mixture of warming spices used in curry dishes. Blends can vary a lot, and may include such ingredients as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, cloves, coriander, peppercorns, fennel, cumin, and bay leaves. Try a couple of different brands/recipe blends to find the one that you like best or make your own by toasting the spices and then grinding them yourself.
Jeera (Cumin), Whole Small, oval-shaped seeds that have a wonderful smoky flavor. Mixed with methi and mustard seeds, it provides the foundation of Indian cooking.
Jeera (Cumin), Ground The powdered version of whole jeera. You can dry toast and then grind the seeds yourself, which will result in a fresher, more complex flavor. For convenience, you can find it already ground and ready for use.
Jeera mix 1 part whole fenugreek, 2 parts whole black mustard seeds, 8 parts whole cumin (mix well and store in an airtight container)
Coriander, Ground From cilantro seeds. It has a bright, fresh flavor and is used in curries.
Methi (Fenugreek), Whole Small, irregularly shaped yellowish brown seeds that have a “curry” flavor. Mixed with jeera, and mustard seeds, it provides the foundation of Indian cooking.
Black Mustard Seeds, Whole Small, black, round seeds that add spicy flavor when heated or crushed. Brown mustard seeds can be used as well, but the black seeds have a stronger flavor. Mixed with jeera, and mustard seeds, it provides the foundation of Indian cooking.
Cloves, Whole Small, reddish-brown buds that give a sweet, spicy flavor to meat curries and chai.
Cinnamon Sticks Used in curries to add sweetness and warmth.
Sea Salt Find a good quality, unrefined sea salt (not refined and/or iodized salt, which has been bleached and chemically processed, thereby stripping it of most trace minerals and adding anti-caking compounds that may be toxic, such as aluminum). I like both Real Salt and Himalayan Pink Salt (Trader Joe’s has a great salt grinder) for their flavor and superior mineral profile.
Mircha, Ground Also called chili powder or ground red chilies. Find one that has chilies as the only ingredient (some may include salt, colorings, or other spices). Also, different brands vary in flavor and heat, so find one that matches your preferences.
Tandoori Masala A mixture of spices used in Tandoori cooking (marinated meat that is then cooked in a wood-heated clay oven). Tandoori masalas often have similar ingredients to garam masalas, but in different proportions which gives them a different flavor. Most blends are red in color, which is due to artificial color additives; find one without these ingredients.
Whole Black Peppercorns Round, black seeds that give a strong spicy flavor. Great paired with salt as a simple seasoning or in more complex spice mixtures.
Most Indian food is cooked in some type of fat, usually vegetable or canola oil. Since those oils are highly refined and prone to oxidation, something we don’t want to expose our cells to, I prefer to avoid them whenever possible. Animal fats (lard, tallow, schmaltz, bacon grease, duck fat, etc.), as well as well-prepared ghee and coconut oil, are much more stable and therefore less likely to become rancid or be damaged through heat. Extra virgin olive oil, while superior in nutritional content and flavor to most cooking fats, is best suited to preparations that don’t involve high heat.
Coconut oil The cooking fat I use most. Extra virgin coconut oil has a slightly coconutty flavor, which often disappears with the addition of spices and heat. Choose a good quality oil from a reputable company–those found in Indian stores may not be processed well and may have undesirable taste or texture issues, so buyer beware. Coconut oil can be found at health food stores or online (Trader Joe’s has the best price for a decent-quality oil; Tropical Traditions sells a high-quality oil that is expensive, but it is processed well and delicious).
Ghee (Clarified Butter), Butter (Salted or Unsalted) Gives great flavor to dal and other vegetable dishes. Ghee and butter both come from cow’s milk, but they have different flavors and textures. Ghee can be found at Indian grocery stores or you can make your own. Buy grassfed (and organic if possible) butter such as Kerrygold Irish Butter, which has higher levels of beta carotene and vitamin K2 than conventional butter due to the cows’ pastured diet. I like having both salted and unsalted for different types of cooking/baking.
Animal Fats Lard, bacon grease, duck fat, etc. Choose those sourced from pastured, sustainably raised animals.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Best used for dressings, drizzling over finished dishes, or light sautéing. Find one sold in a dark bottle (to guard against rancidity) from a reputable company; look for bottles that list the date of production, not just the date of expiration. Good extra virgin olive oils have a peppery flavor, but the strong taste means high antioxidant values.
Canned Salmon, Mackerel Look for wild-caught and salt as the only other ingredient. Avoid preservatives or other additives. Trader Joe’s has a good pink salmon; mackerel can be found at Indian grocery stores or other supermarkets.
Rice I like white jasmine rice, but you can use basmati or whatever type you prefer.
Dal (Lentil/Split Peas) There are many varieties. Unless you plan to cook with them often, buy small quantities to maintain freshness. Mixing the different types of dals is also delicious.
Dried Mircha The smaller types tend to have better flavor and more heat.
Imli (Tamarind Paste) Sold in plastic-wrapped bricks that keep fresh for a long time, imli adds sourness to fish and vegetable dishes and is delicious made into a sweet-sour chutney.
Coconut Milk Purchase coconut milk in either a can or carton, but make sure the ingredients list only full-fat coconut milk and few, if any, preservatives. I like the Aroy-D brand since it is 100% coconut milk and the cartons are BPA-free. It is a bit watery, but very tasty. You can also try the coconut cream for a thicker consistency. You can find this brand at 99 Ranch markets or online.
Garlic Purchase either in whole bulbs, which can be kept on the countertop, or as peeled cloves, which must be refrigerated. Pre-minced garlic is convenient, but tastes quite different and will alter the flavor of your dishes.
Yellow Onions No Indian food is complete without onions, so I buy several every week. I also like to buy some large onions and some small so I can use the entire onion when cooking (cut onions don’t last very long and the flavor changes within a day).
Curry Leaves These can be found at most Indian grocery stores, but they are not always available or fresh. If you do find some, make sure the leaves are green and shiny with no black or brown spots. Keep them in the refrigerator in an airtight container. If you cannot find them, simply omit them from the recipe; there is no substitute.
Cilantro Choose fragrant, green bunches free from brown spots or wilted leaves, and organic when possible. Cilantro adds a fresh flavor and nice color to curries and other dishes.
Ginger Purchase firm, fragrant ginger root and grate or mince as needed. The pre-minced ginger pastes often have preservatives and other ingredients that alter the taste of the ginger; I prefer to avoid them.
Fresh Mircha I like Thai chilies for their heat and good flavor. When these are in season, I buy a few handfuls from the farmer’s market, remove any stems, and freeze them for later use. The red ones are hotter, but the green ones are also good to have on hand.
Tomatoes I usually only buy these when they are in season (summer/fall) and/or available at my local farmer’s market. I also grow them in my garden; tomatoes are among the easiest plants to grow. You can also substitute canned tomatoes, tomato sauce or tomato paste in some recipes, but fresh is usually best. Roma tomatoes are great for their flavor and size; any ripe tomato, including many heirloom varieties, will make delicious Indian dishes.
Lemons These are used in many Indian recipes, and are also great in salad dressings and marinades, so it is important to have some on hand. Some varieties are more tart/sour than others, so taste a few to find one you like or just choose whatever is available. Store them in the refrigerator for longer shelf life.

The following source was used for some of the spice information: Indian Food.