The Three Pillars of Indian Cooking

June 8th, 2011

The 60’s were a great time for us as kids in Hyderabad. My sister and I studied at the St George’s Grammar School and lived near Osmania University and had a nanny to look after us when mum and dad went out. Life was pretty cool!

Hyderabad was also the place where I learnt my first lesson about Indian food.

salt or “uppu” – the first pillar of indian cooking

Our nanny, who lived in a one-room ‘house’, would be seen and heard pounding dry red chillies (soaked in hot water) with rock salt and tamarind (from the Persian, Tamar-e-hind which means Indian Date), to form a thokku. This was then served on top of freshly cooked rice. My mouth waters as I describe this most wonderful, yet simple dish!!

I asked nanny, as she served her ‘son’ a big spoonful of the steaming rice topped with the thokku, what the dish was called, “Thokku saadam” was the reply.

“Is this all you eat?”, I asked, putting my enamel spoon onto my plate wondering how anyone could eat rice with this ‘red’ thokku.

I took a mouthful and believe it or not, my mouth is still drooling with the taste of that red rice after so many years!!

Nanny then went on to tell me, “‘Son’, all you need is a good balance of uppu, puli and kaaram in a dish, even if it is just boiled rice.”

tamarind or "puli" - the second pillar of indian cooking tamarind or “puli” – the second pillar of indian cooking

Years later in Madras, where I trained to become a chef, my cookery instructor started the class by saying, “Whatever you do, whatever you add or don’t add, remember, Indian food is about a balance between salt, chilli and the souring agent.” Just what nanny had said! The souring agents used are generally what is grown in that region of India, or are popular because of other cultural influences. So, for example, tomatoes are grown in the north and centre of India and are used in dishes from this region. Vinegar is used in Goan food because it was introduced by the Portuguese there. Tamarind, yoghurt lemon juice and kokum are other examples of souring agents.

I moved to Delhi where I started work in a 5-star hotel as a trainee chef. Whilst there I met a chef whose only mantra was about the Namak, Mirch aur khatas in dishes cooked in his kitchen.

chillies or "kaaram" - the third pillar of indian cooking chillies or “kaaram” – the third pillar of indian cooking

My mind takes me back to my early days in Hyderabad and what nanny said to me. It is all about the salt, the chilli and the souring agent. Nothing else.

Get this right and you have a bloody good Indian dish!!!

To try our tamarind-chilli lamb cutlet recipe using the Three Pillars, click nilgiri’s recipes and select it from the lamb section.


  1. Nicky

    Ajoy! U bugger! Good to hear from you after like ,I think , a full quarter of a damn century,man! Veery tru about the salt,chilli & tamarind…. I’m no chef but I’d say by adding a bit of freshly ground coriander seeds etc too, one can enjoy much subtle variation.
    Cheers,Mate! Keep in touch.

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