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?


Paripu: Sri Lankan Lentils

Known as dhal in Indian cooking, here is my recipe for Paripu, or Sri Lankan lentils.

2 cups red lentils (try not to use other colors, they just don’t taste the same.  you can buy the red ones at Indian grocery stores)

Water to cover lentils

1 t. turmeric

salt to taste preference (My MIL ALWAYS adds more!)

Boil the above together until lentils are soft.  If water boils off and lentils are still hard, add more water.  When lentils are soft, put them in a separate bowl and saute the following ingredients in the same pot:


1/2 red onion, chopped

oil (I use olive oil)

garlic (about 3 cloves)

1/2 t. curry powder

1/2 t. chili powder

1 T. mustard seeds

When the onions are soft, add the cooked lentils back to the pot and stir.  Add 1/2 cup of milk (or coconut milk – much yummier, but not quite as healthy) and let cook on the heat for 5-10 minutes.



Sri Lankan Chicken Curry Recipe

I’ve typed this up many times for friends, and thought it would save me plenty more typing to just record it here, with gratefulness to my dear MIL for putting up with my kitchen messiness and teaching me how to make food my husband loves.  (Feel free to imagine my extra explanations in italics in my MIL’s voice).

Ingredients: Continue reading “Sri Lankan Chicken Curry Recipe”

Families, Children & Marriage, Food

Learning to cook Sri Lankan food *or* Curry: the way to my man’s heart

“But she can’t cook our food!!!” my South Asian friend mourned about his soon-to-be sister-in-law, “and worse yet – she doesn’t even want to learn! How will my brother survive?”

This conversation was my first clue about the kind of adjustments that marrying across a culture would entail.  It was slightly shocking to me that food – something which had been viewed primarily as a practical necessity for nourishment in childhood (well, minus homemade bread, apple pie and ice cream) – could invoke such a passionate response.  I filed our conversation away in my mind and pulled it out again in my first year of marriage to my Sri Lankan husband.

When we met, I had eaten Indian food once and wasn’t real sure what I thought about it.  The most ethnic food we ate in my home growing up was chop suey and tacos, so I was a little nervous about the prospect of even eating Sri Lankan food.  Thankfully, I ended up liking it a lot (actually even more than most American foods!), so we both breathed sighs of relief about my newfound taste buds.  When we married, in addition to curry, I tried to cook a few dishes I knew (which wasn’t much) – tacos, pasta, casserole.  My new husband dutifully tried to eat my favorite dishes, but he clearly didn’t enjoy them.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that Sri Lankan food was his love language, and that curry was a beeline to his heart.  Thus began my journey as a white-girl-turned-South-Asian-chef. Continue reading “Learning to cook Sri Lankan food *or* Curry: the way to my man’s heart”