Food & Drink

A Brown Girl’s Guide to Indian Pantry Essentials in America

The products you should buy right now to amp up your culinary journey across the diaspora.

indian pantry staples
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

If you belong to the Indian diaspora in America, or have a special corner in your heart for hearty Indian meals, you may have at least once attempted to recreate it in your kitchen. As an Indian cookbook author, I admit that there is no such a thing as “authentic” Indian cuisine, and that this ancient culture leaves so much room for experimentation—think Priya Krishna’s dahi toast or Padma Lakshmi’s Balinese curried samosas. If you haven’t begun already, here are 10 pantry staples that will amp up your dal-naan-biryani meals to help you get started on this journey.

Chillies

Seemingly Indian, chilli isn’t indigenous, but ask a chef from the diaspora and they’ll swear our pantries are incomplete without a jar proudly stocked with sun-dried red chillies. Guntur, Kashmiri, kanthari, byadagi, boriya, dhani—every region has its own variety. So depending on if you need to add a bit of smokiness, sharpness or simply hotness to your cooking, pick from the crinkled varieties. Diaspora Co’s Sannam Chillies comes from the eponymous region of Gutur in Southwest India and can be thrown in sambars, vegetable curries, or to make a powerful chutney called pandu mirapakaya pachadi, usually eaten with rice, dal, and ghee.
 
Sannam chillies
Price: $12
Diaspora Co.

Dry Mango Powder

Locally known as amchoor, this dried powder of raw mangoes adds a complex sourness to several Indian dishes. Oaktown Spice Shop’s batch will be a handy add-on to chaats: an Indian snack loaded with a bevy of ingredients like chickpea flour vermicelli, potatoes, sprouts, chutneys, raw onions, and finely chopped cilantro. It’s a go-to for instant tartness, but use it sparingly. An alternative to fresh lemon juice, amchoor powder can be used to finish kebabs and curries. 

Amchoor powder
Price: $6.50
Oaktown Spice Shop

Asafoetida

Hing is resin extracted from giant fennel plants in Central Asia and is an unsung hero of Indian cuisine. It hasn’t gotten half of its due like turmeric or chilli powder, but is as essential to the great Indian tempering (tadka) as any other spice. Usually tipped in very minor quantities, hing adds a mellow taste and a pungent aroma that is hard to miss. It is literally used in a zillion Indian dishes (no exaggeration), from a simple one-vegetable stir fry to curries and almost always at the start of a dish. 

Hing
Price: $8.99
Vandevi

Garam Masala

Pick a savory dish from Indian cuisine and you are not likely to find this ingredient missing. A secret spice mix that separates Indian curries from other Asian ones like Thai or Japanese, it’s a blend of cinnamon, cardamom, Kashmiri chilli, coriander, turmeric, mace, cloves, and potent notes of fennel seeds. I highly recommend using garam masala to flavor basic Indian patties (a.k.a. tikkis), stir it into gravies, or even add a hint into an Indian-style salad dressing that has a base of clarified butter (ghee). Remember this thing about garam masala: it lights up, especially when mixed with yogurt. 

Floyd Cardoz Garam Masala
Price: $33.99 (plus other two spice blends) 
Burlap & Barrel

Tikka Masala 

Tomato, onion and yogurt—the holy trinity of North Indian style of cooking. This sauce will get you close to eating in a Punjabi home. Masala Mama’s Tikka Masala works as a base for meat and paneer gravies and can even hold tempeh or soya chunks well. For an Indian-style brunch, I would skewer the protein marinated in this paste and grill it on hot charcoal. Eat with flaky paratha for best results. 

Tikka Masala
Price: $29.99 (For 3 bottles) 
Masala Mama

Samosa Patti 

You can’t say you’ve had a real Indian meal experience unless you have bitten into these hot parcels filled with meat or potato-peas, deep-fried to perfection. Samosas, though not indigenously Indian, are savored in every part of the country with a variety of stuffing. I highly recommend buying these sheets and stocking them to experiment with fillings like crumbled and turmeric-spiked paneer or tofu if you are vegan, cheese and cilantro, spinach and corn, green peas, and fresh coconut. 

Amy’s Indian Samosa Wrap
Price: $3.49
Whole Foods Market

Ghee

Still underrated after all of the press that ghee has got, it is the backbone of Indian cooking. Clarified butter is used to either begin the process of tempering (a.k.a. tadka) or as a finisher to give a dish that glistening end result. For me, the best way to check the quality of ghee is to put lugs of it on a plate of plain basmati rice (think Jamie Oliver with olive oil). If it has deep, milky notes with a sweet fragrance, you know you’ve found your match. 

Original ghee pouch
Price:  $8.98 
Indian Milk & Honey

Papad

Lighter and crisper than the quintessential Indian papadums, appalams add so much texture to an Indian meal. Keep these roasted discs handy when throwing an Indian soiree. Stag has been a part of Indian kitchens since 1975 and remains the most snackable variety of ready-made appalams. Traditional Indian homes will make these from scratch using a lentil paste and sun-dry them on their terraces. You can stick to simply ordering them. 

Appalam
Price: $47.99
STAG Brand

Paneer

If you are a vegetarian in India, a large part of your diet will contain paneer. The versatile Indian cottage cheese fits in just about anywhere. As a replacement to make egg-free scrambled eggs, in sandwiches, as a filling for savory snacks like kachori and ghughra, in tomato or cream-based gravies, just name a few. The advantage with Sach’s paneer is that it comes pre-flavored with another Indian staple, turmeric.

Turmeric Twist Paneer
Price:  $7.99
Sach 

Dahi starter 

Curries, gravies, marinades, kebabs, flatbreads, drinks, and desserts—there is absolutely no Indian meal that can get away with at least a spoonful of dahi. Indians prefer to make their own from scratch using culture from the previous day’s curd and sometimes this culture is passed on through generations, like a sourdough starter. So heirloom dahi isn’t unheard of. This packet will help you kickstart your own little dahi experiment.

Indian Style Yogurt (Dahi) Culture
Price: Price: $12.99
Pure Indian Foods

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Sonal Ved is a Thrillist contributor.