Culinary Terms and Techniques

Here is a list of culinary terms for beginner cooking. Anyone just starting to learn their way around a kitchen will do well to know what these words mean.

1. DUM

Dum literally means steam. It is a technique where a pot is sealed with dough made from chapatti flour (atta) and water. A tight-fitting lid ensures that no steam can escape and all the flavour is retained in the dish.

Often, this dish would be placed on coals and slow-cooked for a few hours. Hot coals would also be placed on the lid so that heat was provided from above as well as from below.

The ingredients would be partially cooked then sealed so that they became tender and the fat rose to the top. This was considered appetising by cooks of bygone years but modern tastes are moving towards lighter, less oily food.

In modern kitchens, this technique can be achieved in the oven, which provides even heat, whereby a dish is sealed with dough or with several layers of foil. Recipes for Dum Biryanis and some curries are cooked this way.


There are words for procedure of tempering foods. Spices or ingredients such as onions, garlic, ginger or chillies are cooked in hot oil to extract and develop their flavour. Tempering can be done at the beginning of cooking, where for example, spices and onions are cooked before adding cooked lentils to make Tarka Dal, or at the end when, for example, cumin seeds may be fried in oil and poured over a curry.


This is a process of sauteing or stir-frying, usually in some fat, over a high heat that is reduced to medium when the ingredient has started to soften or brown. It is done at several stages of the cooking process and sometimes a little liquid - water, yogurt or tomato, for instance - is added to prevent ingredients such as spices from sticking.

To start, the onions, ginger, garlic, etc., are stir-fried until they are well done. Next, the main ingredient such as vegetables is stir-fried until it is sealed or partially cooked. After the stir-frying stage, liquid is added to finish off the cooking and create a sauce.


This is a deep- or shallow-frying technique, usually done in a karahi, a heavy, wok-shaped metallic pan. To fry evenly, heat the oil until a piece of what is to be fried (perhaps a slice of onion or a drop of batter) can be added to the oil and it cooks quickly. A drop of batter will rise to the top in a few seconds.

Heat regulation is critical during frying, as foods need to cook evenly, especially in the middle, without burning on the surface. For this, start off at a high heat then, when the food has sealed and started to colour, reduce the heat to medium until the right colour has been achieved.


When cooking dry dishes, especially vegetables, a simple condensation technique is used. This eliminates the need for adding cooking liquid to the pan which can dilute flavour and change the consistency of the dish.

Place a convex lid on the pan and fill the lid with a few tablespoons of cold water. As the vegetables heat up, the salt in the recipe draws out their juices which rise up as steam. This steam hits the inside of the lid, condenses and falls back into the pan providing a bit of moisture.


This is a general term to mean spice, a spice blend or a spiced curry paste. When a curry paste is made from fresh ingredients, such as coriander leaves or onions blended with water, vinegar, coconut milk etc., it is called a wet masala.

An example of a dry masala is the popular spice blend garam masala. Each region of India, indeed every community, has its own spice blend and as such there are hundreds of ‘curry powders’, each distinct and unique, with specific names such as the southern ‘sambhar powder’ made from spices such as chilli and fenugreek or ‘goda masala’ made from cinnamon, poppy seeds and coconut in Maharashtra.


This is a style of cooking developed in the imperial kitchens of India’s Muslim rulers of the Mughal dynasty. They ruled from Delhi and have influenced the cookery of north India. Recipes are rich with nuts, cream, dried fruit and spices.


The word curry comes from the Tamil word ‘kari’ which means sauce or vegetable dish. A curry is a dish that has gravy. A good curry should have the right consistency. Some curries are meant to be thicker than others but they must always be moist enough to act as a sauce for the carbohydrate dishes such as rice or bread. Some foods, such as lentils, thicken upon keeping.

Turmeric, chillies, tamarind and fresh coriander are some of the ingredients that add colour to a curry. These add flavour and aroma as well. Generally curries can be white (as in a Kashmiri yogurt-based yakhni), red (as in a makhani), yellow (as in many kormas) and green (as in a south Indian nilgiri).