Your Essential Shopping List for Cooking South Indian Food at Home

updated Feb 5, 2021
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Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

If you’re looking to stock up on South Indian pantry essentials, your local Indian grocery store or market is a great place to start (you can find your closest store here). Though nowadays you can buy almost any ingredient online, it’s important to support these brick and mortar outposts, which are sometimes in the least expected places. For instance, my mother-in-law in Wisconsin found an Indian shop near her that’s housed in a gas station. She can fill up her gas and stock up on Indian groceries at the same time — a win-win!

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

Not all South Asian grocers will carry the same ingredients. For example, there’s a large Pakistani community in the Midwood neighborhood in Brooklyn where I live, so it’s easy for me to find ingredients geared towards North Indian-style cooking but it’s harder to find curry leaves and other staples of South Indian recipes. To that end, it’s helpful to call the store beforehand to ask if they carry certain ingredients. If you do go the online route, Kalustyan’s, Patel Brothers, and Amazon are all good sources.

Here, I’ve made a shopping list of the ingredients you’ll need to cook South Indian recipes at home, and I’ve included suggestions for substitutions, when applicable. I would start by buying the smallest packet of each one.

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

1. Mild High-Heat Oil, Such as Sunflower or Canola

When cooking South Indian recipes, I generally use mild-flavored oils with high smoke points such as sunflower, safflower, grapeseed, peanut (untoasted) or organic canola.  I don’t use olive oil in Indian dishes because of its strong flavor.

Buy: Spectrum Naturals Organic Canola Oil, $10

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

2. Ghee

Ghee is an Indian-style clarified butter made by boiling butter until it becomes clear and the browned milk solids settle to the bottom. These milk solids, which give the butter its distinct nutty flavor, are then separated out, resulting in a cooking fat that’s rich, flavorful, and will make your house smell like heaven when you fry anything in it. It has a higher smoke point than butter and most oils, and since it contains no milk, it can be kept at room temperature for weeks and in the refrigerator for months. Use unsalted butter as a substitute.

Buy: Original Grass-Fed Ghee Butter by 4th & Heart, $13

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

3. Asafetida (Hing) Powder

Asafetida is an extremely pungent resin derived from the sap of a plant similar to fennel. Most stores carry a powdered form of the spice, which may include wheat flour, but there are some gluten-free versions that contain rice flour (check the labels carefully if you’re celiac). A little goes a long way, and most recipes call for just a pinch. The beauty of asafetida is unlocked when it’s fried in fat and exudes an aroma and flavor similar to onion and garlic. Although you could sub in garlic for its flavor, I highly recommend seeking this spice out — in my opinion, it’s what makes Indian food taste Indian.

Buy: Laljee Godhoo Hing (Asafoetida), $9

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

4. Black Mustard Seeds

Black mustard seeds are related to the yellow and brown mustard seeds used to make mustard, but more pungent. They’re present in almost all of the South Indian recipes I prepare. When added to hot oil, they pop as they release their moisture.

Buy: Swad Mustard Seeds, $8

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

5. Fenugreek Seeds

These light brown and wrinkly seeds are derived from the leafy fenugreek plant. When roasted and ground, the seeds take on a nutty, almost maple-like flavor, but they’re quite finicky and become bitter if fried in oil or roasted just a tad too long. I usually roast them just until I smell their nutty aroma, but some prefer to roast them past golden brown until they’re a little reddish to get a tinge of bitterness. The spice is primarily used to flavor pickles and spice blends in South India and is used in my dosa, coconut chutney, and sambar powder recipes.

Buy: Swad Fenugreek (Methi) Seeds, $8

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

6. Turmeric Powder

In recent years, this rhizome has been adopted rapidly by the Western world for its healthful benefits. Generally, you add a very small amount when cooking Indian dishes.

Buy: Organic Turmeric Powder Jar by Jiva Organics, $10

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

7. Dried Red Chili Peppers

These slender, dark red peppers are usually broken in half and fried in oil or roasted and ground into spice blends. There are numerous varieties of chili peppers grown in India, and the state of Andra Pradesh in South India is the largest exporter of them. The most well-known chili pepper from this region is referred to as the Guntur Sannam. I usually buy this variety or the bag labeled generically as ‘Whole Chillies’ at the Indian shop. Dried cayenne or arbol peppers have a similar taste and heat and can be used in place of dried Indian red chili peppers. 

Karnataka’s contribution to chili pepper production comes in the form of the Bydagi pepper, which is wrinkly, bright red in color, and more mild in flavor. Dried Byadagi chili peppers are used in a variety of South Indian spice blends, along with Guntur or cayenne peppers. This variety is optional but highly recommended if you can find it for its unique flavor and rich red coloring.

Buy: Swad Whole Red Dried Chillies, $17

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

8. Indian Green Chili Peppers

These slender green peppers are usually chopped and fried in oil or roasted whole and blended into pastes and chutneys. You’ll typically find piles of these potent green chili peppers, sometimes referred to as finger chilies, at the Indian shop — they’re difficult to miss. You can use serranos as a substitute. To lessen the burn, you can take out the stems and seeds.

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

9. Curry Leaves, Fresh or Dried

These small, dark green leaves give a sharp citrusy and herby flavor to dishes when fried in oil. They’re sometimes confused with an ingredient in the ubiquitous British-invented curry powder, but the two have nothing to do with one another. These leaves are found in most every South Indian dish, often paired with coconut and used in several ways: fried in oil, roasted and ground into spice blends or ‘curry powders,’ boiled with lentils, and puréed raw in pastes and chutneys. Look for them in fresh or dried form at the Indian shop. You can freeze fresh leaves to make them last longer.  Bay leaves are often noted as a substitute, but in my opinion curry leaves have no substitute.

Buy: Organic Curry Leaves, $7

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

10. Skinned Whole Urad Gota (Dried Whole Matpe Beans) and Skinned Urad Dal (Dried Split Matpe Beans)

Skinned whole urad gota is the whole form of urad dal with its skin removed so that it’s white in color. It’s sometimes referred to as black gram. You can use whole urad dal with its black skin intact as well, but it will add black flecks to your dosa batter. 

If you can’t find the whole variety, you can make dosas with its split form, urad dal, preferably skinned. These beans are white in color but in its original form they have a black skin. You may find varieties with its skin still on, so make sure to get the variety that is without. In South India, this dal functions as a spice, and is fried in oil to give a nutty, crunchy texture to rice and vegetable stir-fries, or to season chutneys. It’s sometimes referred to as split black gram or black lentil.

Buy: House of Laxmi Spices Urad Dal, $20

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

11. Chana Dal (Dried Split Chickpeas)

Chana dal is the skinned and split version of black chickpeas. It looks similar to split yellow peas (and are often mislabeled as such), but is larger in size and has a slightly wrinkled surface. Look in the bag: If there are still a few that have some brown skin on them, it’s chana dal. 

Similar to urad dal, this dal is fried in oil to add a nutty, crunchy texture to dishes. It’s hard to eat if it’s not fried enough, but you can safeguard against this by soaking it in hot water for 10 to 15 minutes before frying. You can also soak it to soften it and then use it place of roasted chana dal (below) in a recipe for a paste or chutney.

Buy: Taj Indian Premium Chana Dal, $14

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

12. Chana Dalia (Roasted Split Chickpeas)

Chana dalia, sometimes referred to as dalia split, is off-white in color and used primarily as a thickening agent for South Indian chutneys and curries. It’s not to be confused with whole roasted chana or roasted chana dal that still has its brown skin, which is also available in many Indian grocery stores.

Usually, I powder this ingredient before grinding it with coconut, chilies, and herbs to make a spice paste or chutney. In some stores, you may also find pre-ground roasted chana dal. As a substitute, you can soak chana dal in hot water for 15 minutes or use blanched almonds or almond flour or meal, but the flavor of the recipe will be altered slightly.

Buy: Parivar Chana Dal, $15

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

13. Red Lentils (Masoor Dal)

Red lentils are easier to find and cook more quickly than the more traditional toor dal.  In fact, many of my aunts use red lentils over toor dal nowadays for this reason. 

Buy: Sadaf Red Lentils, $10

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

14. Basmati Rice

Basmati actually isn’t traditionally used in South Indian dishes; rather, my grandmother would use Sanna Akki, a rice with shorter and thicker grains, which is stickier and more beneficial for soaking up brothy soups and stews when eaten with the hand. I also buy Sona Masuri, a South Indian medium-grain rice.

With that said, I enjoy basmati’s fragrance and long grains that stay separate when cooked. For my everyday cooking, I use Dehraduni basmati rice, a North Indian variety I grew up eating. This variety will work for my rice and dosa recipes. If you can’t find it, plain basmati rice will do, but purchase it from the Indian store. The varieties I’ve seen in conventional grocery stores often are not up to snuff.

Buy: Swad Dehraduni Basmati Rice, $25

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

15. Raw Peanuts

Technically a legume, peanuts are probably the most-used “nut” in South Indian cooking. I prefer to use raw peanuts with their skins, which I roast in a little oil and add to South Indian rice dishes. You can use unsalted roasted peanuts as a substitute.

Buy: Great Bazaar Swad Raw Peanuts, $28

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

16. Unsweetened Grated Coconut (Fresh, Frozen or Dried)

Coconut plays an integral role in South Indian cooking, adding sweetness and richness to dishes. Unsweetened and grated coconut is used in most savory dishes. I most often use the frozen variety (I like the Daily Delight brand), found in the freezer aisle of Indian and Asian markets. When cooking with coconut, I take it out of the freezer to thaw on its own, or if I’m in a rush, I break off a piece and microwave on HIGH for about 15 seconds. You can also use the dried variety, which is easier to find. I reconstitute this type in hot water to plump it up.

Buy: Rani Coconut Fine Powder, $8

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

17. Tamarind Paste

Tamarind, a fruit encased in long brown pods, is used as a souring agent in soups, stews, rices, and chutneys. In South Indian recipes, tamarind is often paired with coconut for a sweet-and-sour effect. At an Indian grocer, you’ll find tamarind pulp sold in blocks, which need to be rehydrated and filtered through a sieve before using, as well as jars of tamarind paste (also labeled tamarind concentrate). In some shops you may also see tamarind in their pods.

Tamarind plays a starring role in traditional soups and stews like huli (sambar) and saru (rasam) and in chutneys. My favorite brand of paste is Tamicon for its deep flavor. Tamarind pastes and concentrates differ in potency so if you use another brand, you may just have to taste for sourness and add more accordingly. In some instances, you can sub in lemon juice, but the flavor lacks the sweetness of tamarind.

Buy: Tamicon Tamarind Paste, $15

Credit: Photo by Madhumita Sathishkumar

18. Sambar Powder

The “spice blend” is actually made from a good portion of roasted lentils, making it rich in protein just by itself. It can be used to make my recipe for huli (also referred to as sambar), a spicy lentil and vegetable stew, as well as to flavor vegetable stir-fries and rice dishes. I like the 777 brand but if you can’t find it, the more readily available MTR brand will work just fine. You can also make your own.

Buy: 777 Brand, Sambhar Powder, $15

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