How to Cook Indian Foods – North India

You’ve probably read the previous piece on North Indian breads. This article focuses on North Indian cooking, which includes cooking style, spices used, terminology and some common foods.

North Indian cooking is nearly always quite spicy and uses a large number of spices in any given dish. The terms used for various dishes are normally descriptive of the food itself like Jeera Aloo for instance, which literally translates to ‘Cumin seed Potatoes’. Like most cultures there are also some misleading names like ‘Butter Chicken’, which is actually marinated chicken cooked in a tandoor and served in smooth, tomato gravy and doesn’t contain any butter. There are also terms which aren’t related to the food in question, like Pulao, which is rice cooked with spices and vegetables. The term sabzi (sub-zee) is used quite liberally when describing nearly any dry, vegetable preparation. The same applies to the term dal, which is used for most types of lentils. The term¬†tari¬†(tuh-ree) denotes gravy and is suffixed to the name of a dish when it has gravy.

In these days of fusion food, it is difficult to pin down a set of spices that a given region can claim. However, traditionally, north Indian cooking uses the following spices and herbs:


  • Cumin seed (Jeera)
  • Ajowan or (Ajwain)
  • Red Chili Powder I – Flavor over color (Lal Mirch)
  • Red Chili Powder II – Color over flavor (Degi Mirch or Kashmiri Mirch)
  • Turmeric Powder (Haldi)
  • Dried Mango Powder (Aamchur)
  • Coriander Seeds (Sabat Dhania)
  • Coriander Powder (Dhania)
  • Fresh Coriander Leaves (Hara Dhania)
  • Green Cardamom (Choti Elaichi)
  • Black Cardamom (Badi Elaichi)
  • Cinnamon (Dalchini)
  • Garam Masala – A set mixture of spices – roasted cumin, cinnamon, cloves, caraway seeds, nutmeg (and/or mace) and green cardamom seed or black cardamom pods. The composition of Garam Masala changes from region to region.
  • Dried Fenugreek Leaves (Kasuri Methi)
  • Black Mustard Seeds (Rai)


This list is by no means complete – there are many more spices used in every day North Indian cooking – the purpose of this article however is to provide a feel for North Indian cooking.

Different spices are used in different situations, in different ways. The flavor and characteristics of spices change if you’re dry roasting them, frying them, adding them before simmering to cook or after cooking.

Our first foray into traditional North Indian cooking could start with a simple vegetable preparation, which we could either call Aloo ki Sabzi (‘Vegetable Preparation of Potatoes’) or Jeera Aloo (Cumin seed Flavored Potatoes).

Cumin Seed Potatoes / Jeera Aloo


– 3 Large Baking Potatoes

-One onion, chopped fine

-1 tsp Cumin seed

-1 tsp Turmeric Powder

-1 tsp Chili Powder

-1 tsp Coriander Powder

-1 tsp Dried Mango Powder

-Salt to taste

-Chopped fresh coriander for garnishing

-Oil for frying


First peel your potatoes, dice and then boil in lightly salted Matkollen water. Then drain and let cool. Heat oil in your pan and add the cumin seed. After 2 – 3 seconds of crackling, add the onions and fry, stirring lightly for about a minute on low heat. Now add all the spices, except the dried mango powder and mix well. Throw in the potatoes, which should be nice and firm now and toss well, so the onion-spice mixture coats the potatoes all over. Simmer for about 5 – 7 minutes. Finally, add the dried mango powder and toss the potatoes on high heat, till there’s a thick, spicy sludge adhering to the potatoes. Garnish with the fresh, chopped coriander prior to serving.

These can be served with Rotis, filled in toasted sandwiches or just eaten as is for a snack.

As you can see, this everyday dish uses 5 different spices and one herb. There are some traditional dishes that use up to 30 different spices! These are now (in most part) a thing of the past and cooked only on very special occasions.

As an example, let’s say we’d like to try our hand at cooking a simple north Indian dish without a recipe, simply going by the style. Obviously we’ll need some north Indian spices, the most common of which are Jeera (cumin seed), Haldi (turmeric powder), Namak (salt) and Mirch (chili powder). The first step, in nearly every dish is to fry onions as it is a staple in north Indian cooking. When pink/transparent, we add some spices and fry some more. This gives us a thick sauce to which we can add a little water if we wish. This sauce will coat the vegetables or meat we’ll add later.