My husband and I recently attended an Indian-themed cooking class at Formaggio Kitchen with the founders of Spice Trekkers. Philippe and Ethné de Vienne live a fabulous life as former caterers turned owners of a family business that sources spices and teas from around the world. In the class, they reviewed various techniques for incorporating spices into cooking. Using fresh spices, specifically whole spices, can vastly improve the flavor and depth of your food.
To kick off the class, Philippe reviewed one of the primary techniques of Indian cooking: quick-frying whole spices in oil. This is sometimes referred to as "blooming." Frying spices exposes them to high heat; the aromatic oils of the spice pods or seeds seep into the frying oil, which then becomes infused with the flavor and color of the spices. You can combine this spiced oil directly into a dish to enhance the flavor profile (this is specifically called "tadka" and is a key step in my carrot raita).
After frying whole spices, you also can add vegetables or meat directly to the pot. Once the spices begin to sizzle and pop, you are at risk of burning the spices, so you want to add immediately another wet ingredient or vegetable that contains water to ensure the dish doesn't get too hot. For example, in my butternut squash and cabbage curry, I add chopped cabbage to a small amount of oil and fried spices to cool the cooking pot. The spiced oil, colored with turmeric and garam masala, when combined with the cabbage turns the dish a beautiful yellow-orange hue.
Indian dishes seem highly complex and difficult to make, but the timeworn techniques used by most Indian families are simple and can be mastered in your own home. Once you make the initial investment in a few core spices, you can quickly make a curry or masala, as well as a number of other traditional Indian dishes. Most Indian dishes feature common ingredients including chickpeas, potatoes, and chicken, which are inexpensive to buy.
I would recommend starting with the following combination of spices if you are new to Indian cooking: whole cumin seeds, turmeric, garam masala, whole coriander seeds, and cardamom pods (green and black, if you can find them at a nearby specialty spice store). You will need a basic mortar and pestle to grind the whole spices, as well as a large cooking vessel like a ceramic Le Creuset. I hope you enjoy testing these simple techniques in your own kitchen - soon you may be able to skip a night of Indian takeout!