The ultimate list of kitchen essentials: Part 2 (cookware)

A while ago, I shared the first part of my ultimate list of The ultimate list of kitchen essentials: Part 2 (cookware) your kitchen and keep it running smoothly.

But then you also need tools to turn those ingredients into edible, delicious, satisfying food.

So, what do you need for your kitchen to cook?

Cookware.

With just a few cookware pieces, you can cook a whole variety of foods and dishes. Most of the utensils are versatile and multi-purpose, ideal for small kitchens and compact homes.

Luckily, most utensils are available in a variety of sizes, so if you’re cooking for just one or two people, you can go for the smallest sizes or just a size above the smallest. It’s always good to have a larger cooking utensil or two for when you want to cook in bulk for the next few days or next couple of meals, or have guests coming over.

It’s tempting to go for the smallest utensil size when you’re cooking for just one, but if you plan to cook for at least a couple of meals together, you will need a larger vessel.

Pressure cooker

Every Indian kitchen needs at least one pressure cooker. Why? Because a pressure cooker can be used for many, many things. Need to boil potatoes in a jiffy? Pressure cooker. Want to cook brown rice quickly? Pressure cooker. Prepare dal? The pressure cooker, of course. 

Of course, you need a bit of umm… “special skills” to use a pressure cooker, because they need to be opened and closed in a very specific way. But once you get the hang of it, it will be super easy. (The first time I used a big pressure cooker, I had to Google “how to open pressure cooker from X brand” and I was lucky enough that they had posted a YouTube video demonstrating this).   

The most popular brands in India for pressure cookers are Vinod Steel, Prestige and Hawkins, though there are many more that are also very good.

Small frying pan or skillet

Again, a versatile piece of cookware for the Indian kitchen.

A small-sized frying pan is useful for cooking for eggs and omelettes, making a quick tadka (tempering) for your dal, pan-frying something, and even making pancakes and small uttapams. Another great use- spread some butter, use it to toast your favourite grilled cheese sandwich on medium flame to get the right bit of melted cheese. Yum!!!

I use the skillet to sauté something quickly (in very small amounts) , for roasting makhana (fox nuts) and whole spices, and for cooking something lightly like pieces of paneer.

Kadhai or wok

You need at least two kadhais or woks in your kitchen, even if you’re a small household. After all, Indian subzis are best made in kadhais. 

Saucepan or pateela

You will need the humble pateela every morning to make chai. These are available with a single long handle or with two or none, and both serve your purpose. I also use a medium-sized saucepan to make instant noodles, to boil some sprouts or small quantities of pasta, and even to toss up a salad (off the flame).

Large pot for dals and curries aka tope 

Most Indian kitchens have large steel pots they use for a variety of reasons, for cooking rice or curries. You can invest in one such pot if you are going to cook in larger quantities. It is most helpful to have such pots with handles so they are easier to move about. But many of the larger steel pots come without handles.

Other cookware (optional, but useful):

Griddle with “lines”: This is like a stove-top grill on which you can toast your sandwiches, grill chicken, fish or even veggies and paneer.

Flat tawa with handle for dosa: This can be a non-stick tawa, because they’re generally easier to handle.

Tawa for chapatis and parathas

Other cookware essentials

Sometimes the most useful things are overlooked, because they are small, and you realise how important they are only when they are missing, like a button on your shirt.

These cooking tools are as useful as the pots and pans and griddles, and you definitely need to budget for them when you go shopping.

Wooden spoons and spatulas: For cooking, stirring, stir-frying

Ladles or karchhis: For cooking, stirring, serving dals and curries 

Spatula for frying (this is the one with holes): They are also called skimmers, but not many people use that word! 

Flat steel spatula for eggs, pancakes and dosas

Colander: This is a large steel strainer with a mesh for washing vegetables and draining cooked spaghetti.

Tongs aka chimta: For chapattis and parathas

Kitchen pincers aka pakkad: For lifting pots and pans that don’t have handles

Rolling board and rolling pin aka chakla and belan: For chapattis and parathas 

Large steel plate aka paraat: For making dough for chapattis and parathas

Small strainer: For tea and milk

Chopping board: If you cook meat, best to have a separate board to use only for meat.

Knives: Knives are of different shapes and sizes, and each knife serves a different purpose. The small ones are inexpensive and easy to manage. The fancier ones that are similar to chef’s knives may need regular sharpening.

Peeler: For potatoes, carrots and other vegetables 

A word on kitchen storage

If you love cooking, especially different cuisines, you will have a gazillion ingredients and you will need containers for them all. Your counter will fill up and your kitchen cabinets will be overflowing. Even your fridge will always be full.

Sigh.

Yet, we all need to make the best of what we have. Look for ways to optimize your storage space, and don’t go all crazy buying too many ingredients. You will also need to be very organized and keep everything back in its place, if you don’t want things to get lost!   

Kitchen storage essentials

Steel containers for storage: Keep several containers in several sizes, to store everything from atta to biscuits.

Plastic or glass containers for storage: If you are saying NO to plastic (good thing!), opt for neat-looking glass containers with airlocked lids. This ensures your snacks stays fresh.

Oil pot: These are usually of steel, and make it easy to pour oil when you cooking.

Ghee pot: Again, made of steel and they have an easy open lid to get out the ghee quickly.

Masala box:  The focal point of an Indian kitchen, my steel masala box has travelled with me from India to Myanmar and back. Six years plus, and still going strong. With the right quality steel, you will quickly get attached to your spice box. 

Useful tips on buying cookware

Sizes: If you are a small household, then buy the smallest or the medium sized utensil. You don’t need big ones, unless you are cooking for a larger family.

Maintenance: Ask the retailer about the correct way to wash and use the utensils. This is especially true for pressure cookers. Each brand has its own special technique, so if you’re not used to it, you could be struggling for hours!

Comfort: Try to buy kadhais and other cooking utensils with heat-resistant lids and handles.

Non-stick or not: There is a general belief that non-stick cookware is harmful and can make your food toxic. But they are easy to wash and you can cook with less oil or butter. So should you use them or not? While most experts say non-stick is safe as long as you don’t cook it in very high temperatures, choosing to use non-stick (or not) is a very personal choice. Read this article by Nutrition Diva and another one by Good Housekeeping to get a better understanding on the subject.

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. 🙂