The ultimate list of kitchen essentials (Part 1)

I’ve had to set up kitchen for myself not once, not twice, but THRICE in a span of three years.

Which probably means that I’ve become a champ at setting up kitchens (no, not really), and that I live a nomadic life (not anymore, I believe).

Let’s face it, setting up a kitchen is a HUGE task. You need to have cookware, you need basic cutlery, you need so many handy little things, and of course, you need ingredients to cook your food.

If you aren’t used to cooking (like I wasn’t) or you’re a cooking/ kitchen newbie, the mere idea of getting a kitchen up and running can be incredibly exciting and super confusing, frustrating and overwhelming.

When I was teaching myself how to cook very basic Indian food, I would go through recipes online and ask myself, “Why don’t I have this ingredient in my kitchen? Am I missing out on something essential?” And that would lead to serious self-doubting of my cooking abilities, second guessing what I was already cooking, and lamenting on why there wasn’t any help available on kitchens for newbies.

Moms, aunts, grandmas can all get quite cagey on kitchen-related questions, so asking them can be stepping into a minefield. Sure, there’s lots of gyaan on things like how to use ingredients, and there are gazillions of recipes, but how is a girl (or guy) supposed to even get to recipes without knowing what to stock in their kitchen?

Like once I spotted a recipe that called for onion seeds. The recipe seemed simple, but what on earth were onion seeds? I didn’t know onions even had seeds? Turns out they are also called kalonji in Hindi and are quite commonly used in Indian pickles. I did buy some onion seeds, and I used those in my kitchen, guess how many times in over a year? Twice. Yup, twice.

#Facepalm.

Deep down I always knew I would write about my nasty kitchen experiences some day (I have a book outline saved in one of my fancy journals), but first, it’s time to help someone with their kitchen.

What should you start with? What do you really, truly need? What’s nice to have, but not necessary? What’s nice to buy for later?

Too many questions, but not enough (clear) answers.

So here I’ve put together a list of essential ingredients and foods that you need in your starter kitchen. This is only scratching the surface. Indian cooking is complex and vast, so maybe you read this and go tut-tut-tut. But trust me, I’ve lived with only this much for a while and I’ve survived.

Good luck to you!

Indian spices or masalas- essentials  

Food needs flavour and in most Indian dishes, the flavours come from these masalas.

  • Salt
  • Black pepper powder*
  • Red chilli powder
  • Turmeric powder
  • Cumin seeds aka jeera
  • Powdered cumin aka jeera powder*
  • Coriander power*
  • Black mustard seeds aka rai
  • Asafoetida aka hing (remember the scene in the film Queen?)

*How to ground spices (black pepper, cumin seeds, coriander seeds)

You can buy these spices in the powdered form (easier) or you can buy them whole and ground them at home (for which you need a dry grinder).

How to grind whole masalas:

Heat a small pan or kadhai. Do not add oil or ghee. Keep it on low flame and add a small handful of the whole spice (black pepper, cumin or coriander seeds). Stir the spices with a dry wooden spoon or spatula. After a while, the aroma and colour of the spices will begin to change. That’s when you take it off the heat, let it cool a bit, and then run it through a dry grinder. Voila! Your powdered masala is ready.

Storage tips for Indian spices or masalas

Indian masala spice box

Since I have a small household, I usually buy masalas in packets of 250 grams. Some brands offer smaller packs of spices. I have a steel masala box (a common sight in Indian kitchens, and super useful), in which I empty out all the masalas. Then the remaining contents of the larger packs go into separate steel or reusable plastic containers and into a corner of the fridge.

Indian spices and ingredients- optional

  • Aamchoor or dried mango powder (used in north Indian cooking)
  • Kasuri methi or dried fenugreek leaves
  • Ajwain or carom seeds

Ingredients for Indian cooking- essentials

Every kitchen needs a strong foundation, and I don’t mean the flooring here. The items in this short list are the building blocks of most Indian cuisines.

  • Cooking oil: The right oil to use for cooking is a hotly debated topic, and I’m not going anywhere near that debate! Pick an oil that you are used to, and that suits your taste buds.
  • Ghee: You can’t make dal or khichdi without a tadka made in hot ghee. Ghee adds another dimension to anything.
  • Chaat masala: This innocuous masala mix adds flavour to everything, from omelettes to subzis (because, why not?). You can also have variations of these like sandwich masala, kitchen king masala and even pav bhaji masala!
  • Ginger garlic paste: Brings flavour to dals and subzis in less than a teaspoon
  • Atta: For those who want to make chapatis, rotis or phulkas
  • Rice: White, brown, red, organic, basmati- stock whatever you like.
  • At least 2-3 types of dals: Everyone has different favourites when it comes to dal, but yellow moong dal and toor dal are easy and quick to cook.

Storage tips for Indian ingredients

Rice and dal can be stored in steel or plastic containers in your kitchen cupboard. If you buy them in bulk, it’s best to tuck them away in the fridge so they last longer.

Rice stays good for a long, long time though some types of dal can go bad in a few weeks, especially in hot Indian weather.

Refrigerator essentials

There’s nothing for comforting than a neat, well-stocked fridge after a long day at work. With your essentials, you know you won’t go hungry.

  • Bread: Refined flour, whole grain, multi-grain, gluten-free, baguette, sliced loaf etc, take your pick
  • Butter: Amul is a classic but new unsalted butter varieties are also available
  • Jam: For sweet breakfasts, yay!
  • Cheese as cubes, slices or both: Great for sandwiches and garnishes
  • Eggs: Can be cooked for breakfast, lunch, dinner, brunch, supper or any other meal you can think of.
  • Milk: Fresh cow’s milk, packaged milk, almond milk, grass-fed cows’ milk, soy milk, your choice!

Storage tips for refrigerator essentials

Bread is good for 3-4 days, maybe a bit longer if you’ve bought it fresh and stored it in the fridge immediately.

Butter, jam and cheese: Refer to expiry date labels. They easily stay for a few months from date of packaging.

Eggs: This is a tricky one. You can keep them for a few days to a couple of weeks in the fridge, and even longer. They do lose their freshness, and you will feel it in the texture of your fried egg or omelette. But I use this egg freshness test to check if they are still “good”. My simple rule: If they smell funny after cracking, throw them away.

Vegetables- essentials

Subzis or cooked vegetable dishes are the backbone of Indian cooking. So it is difficult to define the “essential” vegetables, but these are the top three:

  • Onions
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes

Vegetables- some more essentials

Some people love karela (bitter gourd), some like cabbage. So the “essentials” vary by household. Make a list of subzis you want to eat soon, and that becomes your “essentials list” for the next few days. Some recommendations:

  • Green capsicum aka bell pepper, carrots, french beans, cauliflower, brinjal, lauki (doodhi) or any other of your choice.
  • Green peas (can freeze after shelling or buy a frozen pack)
  • Cucumber (because I love cucumber-and-butter sandwiches)

cucumber sandwich tea book

Fresh produce for Indian cooking- essentials

Always have these at hand for flavouring subzis, dal, khichdi etc. They are all available at your neighbourhood vegetable vendor or subziwala.

  • Whole green chillies
  • Curry leaves
  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Lemon
  • Coriander leaves
  • Fruits of your choice

Storage tips for vegetables and other fresh produce:

Onions and potatoes don’t generally go in the fridge but I keep them in the vegetable drawer anyway.

Tomatoes in refrigerator? The jury is divided on this one, but I prefer to refrigerate them so they last longer.

Green chillies, curry leaves, coriander leaves and ginger are best stored in the refrigerator in separate containers. They can easily last up to a week.

Coriander leaves should be stored separately, in steel boxes with tiny holes. They dry out quickly.

Most veggies last at least 3-4 days in the fridge, even longer if you bought them super fresh.

It’s best to store fruits at room temperature.

Basic non-Indian ingredients- essentials

Indian cooking can be tiring some times, and we all need a change too. Pastas and noodles are easy to put together with just a few ingredients.

  • Pasta of your choice (macaroni, spaghetti, penne etc)
  • Chinese noodles
  • Oats (plain)

Storage tips for basic non-Indian ingredients

Pasta, noodles and oats can be stored at room temperature and should be consumed by expiry date mentioned on their packets.

Cooking shortcuts- essentials

Just what you need on lazy days.

  • Packaged instant noodles like Maggi, Top Ramen or Wai Wai (ummm yeah, not ideal, but why not?)
  • Ready made pasta sauces (a pre-made spicy red tomato sauce saved my life once!)
  • Ready made dosa or idli batter (if you like making these)
  • Instant soups
  • Instant oats in various flavours

Add-ons for non-Indian cooking- essentials

Use these seasonings to create delicious woks, salad dressings and more.

  • Soy sauce
  • Vinegar
  • Assorted Chinese sauces of your choice, like Schezwan (from Ching’s Secret or similar)
  • Mayonnaise and other “dressings” (I don’t have this, but many people find it useful), useful for sandwiches and salads
  • Dried oregano, red chilli flakes, basil etc. General stores also stock seasonings like “Mexican seasoning mix” and “Italian seasoning” which can be very handy when you’re quickly tossing something together. These are quick albeit tasty shortcuts to the “real” thing.

Storage tips for add-ons

Refrigerate the mayo, dressings and sauces, especially once you open it.

Follow the expiry dates for all the seasonings, sauces etc.

Other essentials

  • Your favourite brands of tea and/ or coffee
  • Favourite snacks like wafers or biscuits

How it all comes together

With just this list of kitchen essentials, you can make at least a dozen dishes that will keep you nourished, satisfied and happy. 🙂

  • Chilli cheese toast
  • Omelettes, fried eggs, sunny side up
  • Stir fries and woks
  • Several types of pastas
  • Several subzis
  • At least 5-6 variations of dal, depending on the tadka (or tempering)
  • Many types of sandwiches
  • Chapatis, rotis, phulkas
  • Khichdi

What are your absolutest must-have can’t-do-without-them kitchen essentials?

PS- Everyone has different food requirements, so maybe my list won’t match yours. But I will keep adding to this list, if something new occurs to me. 🙂

Breakfast: Totally Rad Leftover Idlis

Ever since I introduced a set of idli molds in my Yangon kitchen last November, rice idlis and homemade slow-cooked sambhar have become an important weekend ritual. By important, only these two dishes can be served at Sunday lunch.

Our ritual is something like this: on Saturday evening S and I head to our friendly and familiar neighbourhood market. (Despite being very “Burmese”, Indian ingredients are not so difficult to find here.) We know the couple who stocks curry leaves in their stall and the trio of sisters who have drumstick (really!). We buy the ingredients for sambhar: curry leaves, a few ladyfingers, a carrot, some french beans, a couple tomatoes, a quartered pumpkin and S’s favourite, a drumstick. While watching TV that night, or just before we go off to bed, we divide the prep activities and chop the vegetables. I wake up a bit early on Sunday and soak the toor dal for couple of hours. After a light breakfast and quick shower, I begin preparing the sambhar, first pressure cooking the dal, then cooking it with the vegetables and spices. Finally, I add the tadka.

The idlis, though, are mostly S’s job. While I step out for couple hours for a Spanish lesson to the outskirts of Yangon, S prepares the batter, double boiler pot and molds. He often makes a few extra idlis for next day’s breakfast as well.

This week we had a few more idlis leftover than usual. Three, to be precise. Not wanting to throw them away, I vaguely remembered eating mini masala idlis at a South Indian buffet in Mumbai several years ago. The mini idlis had been cooked with spices and were bright red, quite spicy and delicious.

With this vivid food memory playing on my mind, I thought I’d create my own version of masala idlis. Using standard Indian breakfasts like poha and upma as inspiration, I began to play with some simple ideas and conjured up a dish.

I prepared the ingredients Sunday night, knowing I would feel super lazy next morning. And so I did. Luckily, this breakfast dish took just a few minutes to cook and I was relishing it soon enough.

Leftover idlis Indian breakfast recipe

Generously spiced, delightfully colourful, crumbly and crunchy at the same time, I’m happy to say that the leftover idli experiment was a success. I’ve dubbed this dish Totally Rad Leftover Idlis.

In this recipe, sweet onions and sour-ish tomatoes provide an easy base for the dish, while capsicum (green bell peppers) add the crunch that I like, a perfect contrast with the soft idlis. The secret spice blend (okay, it’s not really a secret, see recipe below) will wake up your taste buds (as they did mine). I was very tempted to top the dish off with grated cheese, but I’m glad I didn’t. It would have messed up the uniquely Indian flavours of my Totally Rad Leftover Idlis. Instead I had it with a glass of orange juice.

Leftover idlis Indian breakfast recipe

Of course, I don’t think this is an authentic way of eating idlis, but like a good homemaker (how I hate that word!), I don’t like throwing away perfectly edible home-cooked food. And this recipe turned out to be a quick, fuss-free way of using up idlis in the fridge.

I tweeted a photo to S, who was away for work. I’m sure he’s going to want Totally Rad Leftover Idlis for breakfast next Monday.

PS- I’ve used stevia in this recipe because sugar is banned in my home (yep, we’re crazy health nuts). Feel free to add a bit of regular sugar instead.

Recipe: Totally Rad Leftover Idlis

Prep time: 7 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 teaspoon oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

A pinch of asafoetida (aka hing)

1 dry red chilli (whole)

3/4 teaspoon urad dal

3-4 curry leaves

1 small green chilli chopped

1small onion chopped

1small tomato chopped

1 small or half a large green capsicum chopped

A pinch of stevia/ sugar (optional, only if tomato is too tart)

1 teaspoon sambhar powder

Red chilli powder to taste (optional)

4 leftover idlis- chopped or broken with hand into bite-sized pieces

Small handful coriander leaves to garnish

Serves 1-2 people

Method

Heat oil in a small frying pan or wok.

Add mustard seeds. When they begin to splutter, add asafoetida, curry leaves, urad dal and dry whole red chilli.

Fry for couple of minutes, then add green chillies and onions, and cook till the onions begin to soften (we don’t need to brown them). This should take around five minutes.

Add tomatoes and cook till the tomatoes lose their tartness. If they seem too sour (from aroma and taste), add a pinch of stevia (or sugar).

Add the sambhar powder and red chilli powder (I skipped the latter because the green chillies in Myanmar are VERY HOT), along with salt.

Add capsicum and mix well. If you’d like to leave the capsicum crunchy, stir for just a couple of minutes. For softer texture, cook a bit longer.

Add the chopped idlis and mix till coated with the spices.

Switch off the flame, serve in a bowl or plate, and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.

Enjoy!

Leftover idlis Indian breakfast recipe