By Robin Asbell,

I knew from an early age that Indian food was great, because my Mom made an amazing chicken curry on a regular basis. When she served it, we had little bowls of chopped peanuts and raisins to sprinkle on top. That struck my five-year-old mind as the coolest possible topping for any dish, and I spooned crunchy peanuts on with abandon, my chubby fingers sticky with bottled mango chutney. It was an experience that stuck with me.

Indian food really came alive for me when I got a copy of Yamuna Devi’s book, Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking in the late 1980s, and made a trek to a real Indian grocery store. It was like opening a door to a new world, where delicate balances were created between spices and other flavors to make nuanced, satisfying fare.

I learned that an Indian meal is usually an assemblage of dishes. A pile of rice or flatbreads anchors the plate, and a cup of dal (or another bean-based dish) is a must-have. Then the plate is filled with vegetables, salads, chutneys and raita (a yogurt based condiment), featuring hot, cooling, sour, sweet, and savory flavors. Meat and seafood dishes can be added, too.

While the components of the plate are pretty universal, India’s diverse regions all have their own unique styles of cooking. Generally, south Indian food is more chili hot, while the food in the north is more aromatic. Both build meals around grain-based foods, with rice in the south and breads in the north (where wheat is grown). Beans and peas are the second essential at the meal, and together grains and legumes form the basis of the Indian diet. A combination of religious and economic factors make India a vegetarian’s paradise. Some regions are majority vegetarian, and the country as a whole estimated at 25 percent. Dairy products, like yogurt and clarified butter, are an important part of the diet throughout India, for their cooling qualities, their vegetarian protein, and their flavor.

A common first step in Indian recipes is frying or toasting spices to bring out and deepen flavors. Classic spices include turmeric, cumin, coriander, brown mustard seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, and more. Curry powder isn’t really a traditional Indian ingredient; it’s a spice blend local cooks devised for the English palate during their colonial rule of India. Now there are interesting variations on curry powder available, based on regional spicing. Go ahead and use curry powder, and try customizing by adding a pinch of another Indian spice to the dish.

It’s easy to incorporate some of the great Indian flavors into your home cooking. Start with an “anchor” dish, like chana masala or this super-easy crockpot chicken tikka masala, and add some fun condiments and sides. A cooling raita can be as simple as plain yogurt with chopped cucumber and a pinch of salt. Chutneys are usually balanced between sweet and sour, and may or may not be hot — you can keep it mild if the other dishes have chiles. Indian spices add excitement to a quick sauté of green beans, cauliflower, or broccoli (or whatever vegetables are in season), and a squirt of lemon and a pinch of sugar will give them a little sweet and sour flavor.

The wonders of Indian spices will add exciting flavors to even the simplest foods, a great gift that’s worth tasting and appreciating often. To learn more about Indian Cooking, join GreenStar and Chef Asya Ollis for a class on South Indian Vegetarian Cuisine, held Tuesday, Feb. 28. Registration required, visit for more information.