What to buy in an Indian Grocery for dummies

If you’re new to South Asian cooking, it’s essential to buy some things in an Indian grocery.  Please, please, please, DON’T EVER buy “spices” in the spice aisle of the local grocery store.  THEY JUST DON”T CUT IT.

Exploring a new cuisine can be a little intimidating when you don’t know what to buy and nothing looks familiar.  I’ve learned lots from asking family to give me a tour and show me what is worth buying.  I cook mostly Sri Lankan food, so I’ve learned to shop Indian grocery stores through that lens (not many Sri Lankan groceries stores around here, darnit!).

Here’s my recommendations of essentials for the newbie South Asian cook:


  • Curry powder
  • Chile powder
  • Cumin
  • Coriander
  • Tumeric
  • Mustard Seed

Other items

  • Basmati rice (Uncle Ben’s just won’t cut it with South Asian food!)
  • Pre-made spice packets:  You can buy a variety of these to try different dishes.  Purists will scoff, but when you’re learning, they’re probably better than what you can make on your own, and they’re quick!   My favorite brand is Parampara.  Butter chicken (chicken makhani) is a great dish to start out with.
  • Red lentils
  • Breads (in the frozen section):  I’ve never eaten an indian bread I didn’t love.  While I have made it from scratch, it’s WAY easier (and honestly, tastier) to buy.  Our all-time favorite are the Swad Malaysian parathas, but I’m nearly as happy with naan or chapati.  I have yet to master making poori well, but I’m not a very good fry-er either.
  • Treat:  if there are fresh samosas, but all means, buy at least 5 (for yourself).  Yuuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmmy!

Cook-friends, help me out here.  Am I missing something big?  Any crucial items that other South Asian countries would include that are not here?


4 thoughts on “What to buy in an Indian Grocery for dummies”

  1. Very good advice. The first summer I was in the USA as a freshman I had no transportation. So I went to the local Safeway and was directed to the spice rack. And to my horror I was these bottle spices and almost cried. I had no idea what these were – I only knew the names in Nepali. So, I bought curry and such. It ruined my chicken (I burnt it too). A friend of mine introduced me to Raman Noodles and Mac’n Cheese – and that’s what I lived on until I got some transportation to get to an Indian grocery store. As a result I can not eat Raman Noodles and Mac’n Cheese.


  2. Your list is great.

    I think what you buy will be contingent on what region you are cooking from. For example, I keep mustard seeds for a few dishes, but rarely use them. They are not typical in my husband’s community’s cooking. One thing that is ubiquitous is garam masala. Curry powder is not a sub. Home ground is best, but for Northern and North Western subcontinental cooking it is a must. Of all the packaged garam masalas, Shan Zafrani Garam Masala is quite decent. The dishes in my DH’s community’s cuisine are often some combo of fried onion, ginger garlic paste, green chile, red chile powder, coriander and cumin powder, and garam masala. Yoghurt and tomatoes go in a lot of dishes. That’s the basics for their cooking. If you only had those items, you could make a lot of dishes.

    I would also advise neophyte cooks to pick up a bag of whole (unground) garam masala. That way, they can pick out the cardamom (black and green), bay leaf, etc. and not have to buy little packets of each one—these whole garam masalas are also used ubiquitously in Northern/North Western cooking.

    Hmmm, probably I would also say get aamchoor (dried green mango powder) and tamarind. If they are doing Central/Coastal Indian, maybe kukum.

    In late April in Texas, the curry leaf plants will arrive at the desi grocers. I think anyone who will do a lot of desi cooking should get one and keep it in a pot. Why buy the packets when you can grow it at home?

    It seems you need a battery of stuff to do desi cooking, but that’s just the way it is.

    Maybe as a novelty item for neophyte cooks, they should checkout the desi style trail mix “namkeens” like Haldiram or Bikanerwala crunchy snack mix. I love those!


  3. I just love our local Indian Market… and I totally agree, DO NOT buy Indian spices at your local grocery store. A teeny tiny jar of Cumin or Turmeric at Stop & Shop is nearly four times the price! While McCormick’s and other “brand name’ American spice manufacturers give you spiffy little air tight containers that line up neatly in your spice cabinet, they are not worth it!Get yourself a nice little masala dabba to store what you would need on an every day basis… then store the rest in air tight containers.

    I also agree on the fresh samosas…or any other treat they may offer. When they have a tasty treat available at the checkout, we always give in! Most of the time we’re not even get out of the parking lot before it’s snarfed down! Our store also has a small kitchen in the back… when the cute little old lady is there cooking, we never leave without something to eat.

    Most of the time our freezer at home has more Indian “heat and eats” than American style dishes! Be sure to really check out the freezer section…sometimes there is a hidden gem! Sadly, the one heat and eat our store hasn’t carried in a long time is the mushroom matar!

    We’re fond of many of the DEEP brand products as well as PATAK’s pre-made concentrated pastes. While someday I hope to make chicken vindaloo and tikka masala from scratch….Patak’s is my fall back these days! Also, don’t be afraid to try something different. Peruse the snack isle and if it looks good, try it!


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