How to Build an Indian Pantry: Basic Techniques (and a recipe for tomato and split pigeon pea soup ~ tameta ni dal)

August 8, 2011

My apologies for the long delay in updating.  I was out of the country for two weeks, one of which was spent in a boat in the middle of the fjords of Norway and the second at the house of a bride-to-be in London, and last week I began a sub-internship in the neonatal intensive care unit.  It’s been a bit busy, but moving along…

In this final installment of the “How to Build an Indian Pantry” series, I wanted to tackle basic Indian cooking techniques.  Luckily, much of this is rather straightforward and familiar to most everybody!  The least intimidating part, once you’ve tackled the variety of spices and fresh ingredients, is actually the cooking process.  Some of the essentials of Indian cooking are cooking in a kadai, a cooking pot similar to a wok; properly cooking lentils and legumes; and most importantly, the technique used to infuse hot oil with dry spices.

Cooking in a Kadai

India, as I’ve mentioned before, can be quite hot.  In the lovely town my parents are from, the locals drape themselves with scarves, shawls, and hats when it gets down to the low 60s!  Thus, unlike countries with colder climates, Indian rarely bake or do long drawn out braises.  This would raise temperatures in the kitchen to unbearable highs!
Enter the kadai.  The kadai is the multipurpose kitchen tool used for stir frying, deep frying, making gravy rich meat and vegatable dishes, rices, and even desserts.  It is usually made with a material that retains heat quite well and is invariably used on a gas stove.  Almost every Indian dish that I’ve made so far for this blog can be made using this versatile pan.
Typically, oil is heated and dry spices are sauteed in the oil.  Once they are aromatic, other ingredients that make up the background of the dish such as tomatoes and/or onions are added and cooked until they are well done.  After this, elements of the holy trinity are added.  This is an important step as it very important not to burn these ingredients as they will add a bitter and unpleasant flavor to the food.  Finally, the main vegetable or meat is added.  Once this is fully cooked, garam masala can be added to the dish.  Then a garnish with cilantro and a typical Indian dish is done!
When cooking in a kadai, it is important to cut the food evenly and into relatively small pieces.  For example, cooking a whole chicken in this manner would be impractical, but drumsticks, and quartered breast pieces are ideal sizes.  Also, tune into your senses.  Cooking Indian food is a rich sensory experience with the amazing aromas, and the beautiful colors.  Follow your nose and your eyes and you won’t be led astray.
I should mention that having a kadai is not essential when making this food.  Any wok or even saucepan will do for almost any dish.
Cooking Lentils and Legumes

India is home to a dizzying array of lentils and legumes.  What I have pictured above is but a small sampling of this rich diversity.  The top row includes adzuki bean, or lal chora; black chickpeas, or lal chana; mug, or mung beans; split chickpeas, or chana ni dal; and split pigeon peas, or toor dal. Gujarat, the state that I am from, is especially famous for our lentils and legumes and these foods make up a large chunk of the Gujarati diet.  Additionally, about 40% of India’s population is vegetarian, thus this huge variety certainly helps bolster our, otherwise meager, protein intake.
As lentils and legumes make up a significant part of the Indian diet, most cooks will use a pressure cooker to speed up the cooking process.  Those of you who have made beans before know how long it takes to cook beans by boiling them on the stove top–sometimes up to several hours!  A pressure cooker speeds up this process immensely–most of the above ingredients are cooked to perfection in twenty minutes or less!
Many people are scared of cooking in pressure cookers because of stories of exploding food and ruined kitchens.  While this can happen, it is increasingly rare now, especially with the new design of pressure cookers that release pressure more continuously rather than allowing it to build up and be released when the pressure is too high.  They also have pressure gauges and pressure release valves to ensure that adequate pressure has been achieved.  A quick admission:  I still, lovingly, use an old school pressure cooker from India.  I love it and, so far, I’ve been able to avoid mishaps.  A couple basic things to keep in mind when using a pressure cooker:
  1. Always, always, ALWAYS check the patency of your pressure release mechanism.  If it is clogged this is a recipe for disaster.  The old school models have a tiny pressure release spot on the top of the lid. Place this to your lips and blow through it to make sure that there is nothing clogging the hole.  Do this EVERYTIME you cook.  Otherwise the pressure will get too high with nowhere to go and then the pot could explode.
  2. For the old school models, apply the cap to the pressure release spout.  Ensure that the cap is well attached but that it wiggles a bit when sitting on the pressure release spout.
  3. Use adequate amounts of liquid, otherwise your food may scorch.  For most dals, add water to cover the food by 1/2 to 1 inch.
  4. Cover the pressure cooker well and cook the food over medium heat.  As the pressure builds up, it will be released through the spout making a “whistling” noise.  If you like, you can turn the heat down and cook it at a lower temperature for the rest of the cooking duration.
  5. Once the food has cooked for long enough, turn off the heat and allow the pan to cool down a bit. After about 10 minutes have passed, raise the cap over the pressure release spout gently wearing an oven mitt.  If the cap whistles or hisses when you raise it, that means that there is still pressure in the pan.  Never, never, NEVER open a pressure cooker if you think there is still pressure inside otherwise the contents will explode.
  6. If you’d like to get to your food faster, run the hot cooker under cold water and check the cap periodically.  Cooling the food down will help release pressure.
Alternatively, if I’ve scared you away from using pressure cookers forever (I promise I didn’t mean to!  I just want you to be safe) you can boil your lentils or legumes.  Most of these can use a good soak in warm water overnight, followed by boiling them for anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 or 4 hours, skimming off the foam periodically.  Or just use whatever your favorite technique is for cooking beans!
All of the beans pictures above are available at Indian grocery stores.  If you don’t have one nearby, a well stocked grocery store or an asian market may have some of them.  The toor dal will sometimes have an option of with oil or without oil; opt for the version with oil.
Tempering the Spices
One of the most intimidating parts of Indian cooking, but the part that lends much of Indian food its distinctive flavor, is the process of infusing hot oil with spices.  In Gujarat, where I’m from, this process is called vaghaar, in Hindi it is known as tadka.  This process is so important and happens so fast that my father is fond of saying, “if I’m doing vaghaar, and God showed up at the door, even God would have to wait until my vaghaar is complete before I invite him in!”
Learning to temper spices is truly an art.  It requires patience as well as a quick hand.  It requires a good sense of timing and a good sense of smell.  It also helps to have two parents who are absolutely awesome at doing this and whose deft hands I observed over and over as they made this happen.  I truly believe that observing this process and feeling the heat coming off of the oil and hearing the seeds pop and smelling the aromas change has made my vaghaar better.  But, since I realize that many of you may not be able to do this, I decided to make a video to show you how it is done.  While you can’t smell the smells, you can certainly hear the pops and sizzles of the spices as they flavor the oil.  I used the vaghaar from the recipe below as a demonstration.  This is my first instructional video ever, I hope you are able to learn from it!

Tempering Spices from The Hathi Cooks on Vimeo.

A couple of additional pointers:  please do stand back at arm’s length when you pour your hot oil into the soup.  Also, don’t face your vaghaar pan towards you when you pour it into the soup as the soup can splash when you pour the hot oil (remember, oil + water are not friends).  This technique can also be used in any recipe that calls for popping mustard seeds in oil before the main vegetable is added as in my coriander spiced potatoes.
Tomato and Split Pigeon Pea Soup
This soup, in Gujarati known as tameta ni dal, is a delicious example of cooking lentils and tempering spices.  This soup uses equal parts cooked lentils and tomatoes and thus is a perfect summer time treat.  It is a bit spicy and very flavorful.  It is a simple, but hearty soup, and can be put together in a snap.  It is great with rice, Indian flatbread, or just by itself.  When the Lion ate it, he declared that it would be delicious as a sauce for beef medallions! I’ve never done this myself, so I can’t endorse it, but feel free to have fun with this delicious soup.

Tomato and Split Pigeon Pea Soup ~ Tameta ni Dal

From at

Prep: Cook: Yield: serves 4Total:

A tasty dal made with split pigeon peas, and plenty of tomatoes. It's a perfect summer soup.

You'll Need...


  1. Make the dal base:
  2. Soak the toor dal in warm water to cover by 2 inches for about 2 hours.  It will swell in size and will uniformly lighten in color.If using a pressure cooker:  Ensure that there is about 1 inch of water covering the toor dal.  Check the patency of the pressure release spout, place the cap on it, and cover the pot tightly.  Cook over medium/medium-high heat until the pressure releases one time.  Turn the heat down to low and cook for 5 more minutes.  Let cool.  With an oven mitt on, raise the cap to see if the pressure is gone.  If it is not, let cool for longer.  Once there is no hissing from the cap, open the pot.Without a pressure cooker:  Ensure that there is about 1 inch of water covering the toor dal.  Bring it to a boil and once boiling reduce to a simmer, and simmer until the dal is cooked and no longer retains its individual shape.Check the consistency of the dal base to ensure that it is not too thick.  It should have the consistency of a creamy soup.  If it is too thick, add a bit of water until the correct consistency is achieved.Make the soup:
  3. Combine the tomatoes and the dal base in a large saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.  Simmer until the tomatoes break down and are no longer firm.
  4. Add the serrano peppers, ginger, salt, red chili powder, turmeric, and salt; stir well; and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes.
  5. Keep on a low simmer as you temper the spices.
  6. Temper the spices:
  7. (Watching the video above is the best way to learn to do this)
  8. Heat the oil in a small saucepan.  Heat the oil until it shimmers and when you pass your hand over the pan you feel a significant amount of heat coming from the pan.
  9. Hold the mustard seeds in one hand and the lid to the pan in the other.  Quickly add the mustard seeds to the hot oil and cover the pan leaving the lid slightly ajar.  Once the mustard seeds stop popping, turn off the heat and add the whole dried chilis to the pan.  Swirl to coat the chilis in the oil.  When the oil is aromatic, add the asafetida.
  10. Standing at arm's length, and with the hot oil pan facing away from you, pour the oil mixture into the soup.  Stir well to combine. You will notice that some browned asafetida will be stuck to the oil pan.  Ladle some of the soup into the oil pan, again keeping at arms distance, swirl, and pour back into the soup.
  11. Taste and add salt accordingly.  Add the cilantro to garnish, stir, and enjoy!

Additional Notes

Please do not eat the whole dried chili!  It is only used to flavor the oil and is very, very spicy.


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  • Reply Damayanti August 8, 2011 at 1:36 am

    mamu dearest, Very good job. love you.Congratulations to Lion for a wonderful videography. love Your doting parents. Hari om.

  • Reply August 8, 2011 at 2:09 am

    @Mama Hathi: Thanks, from both me and the Lion!

  • Reply gabriel August 8, 2011 at 3:19 pm


  • Reply gabriel August 8, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    This is so helpful. I've tried to make this umpteen times and I see all these little things to try differently. The tempering process turns out to have so many subtleties.


  • Reply Kshama August 8, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    My comfort food, love the video demo. Great job Lion!

  • Reply August 9, 2011 at 12:22 am

    @gabriel: Thanks! I'm so glad you find it helpful. What you wrote was exactly what I was hoping to accomplish with the video. It's easy to write out instructions but it's way better to watch it being done! Let me know how your vaghaars turn out in the future!

    @Kshama Aunty: Thanks! The Lion did a great job! He also is my official taster, salt checker (I notoriously undersalt everything), and creator of random food pairing when I've completed a dish!

  • Reply Debra Daniels-Zeller August 9, 2011 at 3:15 am

    The video really helps; you make it look so easy. Though you didn't use them in this recipe, I wonder what is the taste difference between white and black garbanzos? I love using the pressure cooker and I would definitely try this recipe.

  • Reply Divya August 9, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    I really like your series on how to build an Indian pantry. I don't cook too much Indian myself and have a lot to learn. Your site is now bookmarked for whenever I want something Indian!

  • Reply August 11, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    @Debra: To me, they taste totally different! The white ones are creamier and the black ones are nuttier with a more assertive flavor. We traditionally cook them differently as well, but a great way to eat the black ones (so you can really tell what they taste like) is to make them in the pressure cooker, and then mix them with some chopped onion, lime, salt, and red chili powder. Delicious!

    @Divya: Thank so much! I'm glad you've enjoyed it! It's been fun creating it and has pushed me to make more Indian food than normal.

  • Reply alexandtheweb August 13, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Thank you for the awesome tutorial. I find Indian cooking so intimidating but you're helping to take the fear out of it!

  • Reply August 13, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    @alexandtheweb: Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. I felt the same way about Indian food even though that's what I ate most days and what I watched my parents cook . Then I started making it with a little assistance from my dad and I realized it's not nearly as hard or intimidating as it looks! And that's the message I hope to convey with this series!

  • Reply Nishta August 16, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    nice work, lady. demystifying the Indian pantry is a worthy task, especially because, as you note, once you've got a few basic techniques down, you can do a lot! and it's great to have you identify everything so clearly–often, I know the Hindi names for an ingredient, but not necessarily what they're called in English!

  • Reply August 17, 2011 at 12:20 am

    @Nishta: Thanks so much! I'm glad you found the Hindi/English useful!

  • Reply dhiraj July 15, 2013 at 10:57 am

    I really loved it. As I love Cooking, would love to see more recipes. Even I sharing a Link of 'Indian Recipes cooking show', 'Indian Cooking Recipe', 'Indian Cooking' do check.

  • Reply Anonymous September 4, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Nice, spiritual and clear.
    Thank you, Tanvi.
    Hari AUM.

    Amarit Puri

  • Reply Lesli April 14, 2017 at 8:55 am

    What a wonderful blog! Thank you very much for this amazing 4 part series on building an Indian pantry; it’s just what I was looking for! So informative! I hope you continue sharing your knowledge and charm –

    • Reply Tanvi | The Hathi Cooks April 14, 2017 at 9:13 am

      Hi Lesli! Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so happy to hear that you found the series informative! I hope you enjoy exploring all the new spices and flavors. Thanks for checking out my blog!

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