India – Food & Cuisine

Indian food has evolved over centuries and has flourished under the many rulers that India had. Chefs vied with one another to create exotic delicacies for their rajah’s. The result is centuries of patronage to the art of cooking and a large repertoire of delicious recipes.

The different aspects of Indian Cuisine: Indian Cuisine is becoming popular due to its exotic flavors and healthful preparations. The repertoire of Indian Cuisine is vast and the following are interesting aspects of the cuisine.

Cooking according to tastes : There exists no written recipes in India and the individual is encouraged to orchestrate a dish by using fresh, seasonal and local vegetables. We use spices sparingly and our foods are not necessarily hot. Besides spices we use lots of herbs and other natural seasonings to make our foods sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent.

Cultural Influences: Many Indians are vegetarians having been influenced by Buddha (Indian King and founder of Buddhism), Mahavir (founder of Jainism) and King Ashoka. Our cuisine has been influenced by the Aryans settlers, the Arab and Chinese traders and conquerors such as the Persians, Mongolians, Turks, the British and the Portuguese.

Ayurveda: India’s ancient science system, has given India a comprehensive system of health, diet and nutrition. India’s cuisine has been shaped by this science. Ayurveda is the common thread that runs through the various sub cultures/regions of India. Otherwise, the cuisine can be vastly different from region to region.

Diversity: India is a large country, almost the size of Europe, and has a greater diversity of people, language, climate, cultures, and religion than almost any country in the world. Consequently, Indian cuisine is also diverse.

Indian Restaurant Cuisine: Many Indian restaurants around the globe are influenced by North Indian Cuisine. Indian restaurant cuisine has been influenced by Indian chefs that had their culinary training in France. They created a fusion of the two great cuisine’s by adopting cream sauces in their Indian recipes.

Royal Kitchens of India: Under the patronage of the rajahs of India the art of food was elevated to a high level of advancement and professionalism. The royal chefs understood the finer points of food, the art of presentation and created exquisite preparations. Each region in India has its own traditional dishes and specialties. In the royal kitchens of Rajasthan, as well as most other states, food was very serious business and raised to the level of an art-form. Hundreds of cooks worked in the stately palaces and kept their recipes a closely guarded secret. Some recipes were passed on to their sons and the rest were lost for ever. It became a matter of great prestige to serve unusual dishes to guests and the royal cooks were encouraged to experiment. The tales of how cooks tried to impress their guests by presenting at least one unforgettable item on the menu have now become legends. The monthly budget ran into lakhs of rupees (US$ 2500 and above) and the royal guests were treated to such delicacies as stuffed camels, goats, pigs and peacocks… it was perfectly normal to have live pigeons and other birds fly out of elaborately decorated dishes. The food was served in gold and silver utensils and the number of dishes at one meal ran into hundreds. It was usually never possible to taste all the delicacies sewed.
Aspects of Indian Cuisines

The hospitality of the Indians is legendary. In Sanskrit Literature the three famous words ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ or ‘the guest is truly your god’ are a dictum of hospitality in India. Indians believe that they are honored if they share their mealtimes with guests. Even the poorest look forward to guests and are willing to share their meager food with guest. And of particular importance is the Indian host’s pride that they will not let a guest go away un-fed or unhappy from her home. Indians are known for their incredible ability to serve food to their guests invited or uninvited.

Spices: Spices are an integral part of Indian food. This does not mean that Indian dishes are always hot. It does mean that they are well seasoned and aromatic. There are some hot dishes especially in the South of India, but, overall the dishes of India are skillfully prepared with the cook having a mastery over the properties of spices and how they are blended. The cook will use cooling spices as well as warming spices, bland spices as well as pungent spices, sweet spices as well as hot spices. The cook will also use spices for color and healthful properties. Most cooks in India also know how to use spices seasonally. In everyday cooking in India spices are used very sparingly or the dishes are seasoned with very few spices and are supplemented with fresh herbal seasonings.
Oils:
In India, ghee (clarified butter) is favored for frying and seasoning. This is because it can take very high temperatures without becoming rancid unlike virgin oil or unrefined cooking oils. Besides ghee, mustard oil is also used in Bengal and coconut oil is used in the south. Sesame oil is also used especially in sweets.

Condiments: Fresh herbal chutneys, dried fruit chutneys and hot pickles complement an Indian meal. These small additions to the meal take the Indian menu to a higher level of taste experience. They lend strong flavor impact to the meal. They also balance tastes as they are sweet, pungent, hot, and sour all at the same time. the fresh herbal chutneys make the meal very fresh and tasty. Popular fresh chutneys are cilantro, mint, amla, coconut chutneys and popular pickles include lime, mango, and eggplant. Indian pickles are preserved in oil as opposed to vinegar.

The Indian Curry!

Indian dishes that could be eaten with rice. In India curry means gravy. In West many believe curry is an Indian spice. Curry powder is sold in many supermarkets. Many dishes in America call for curry powder, which is actually a blend of spices (mainly garam masala) that is mixed with coriander powder and turmeric. In India, Indians would be confused if you mentioned curry powder.

There is a plant, however, that has leaves that are called curry leaves or in Hindi meetha neem (margrosa tree leaves) or Kadhi leaves. They look like miniature lemon leaves and grow wild in most forest regions of India and are used as a seasoning. Curry is now an international dish recognised the world over. It is a dish with gravy (or is a stew like dish) and had many spices and seasonings and is flavored with hot and sour tastes. Curry may or may not be made with curry powder. Curry powder available in the supermarket is not a single spice but a blend of spice. Curries are made with many many spice blends. Some curry powder ingredients are: black pepper, chili pepper, cloves, coriander, fenugreek, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, ginger turmeric and nutmeg. You can mix your own curry powder according to your tastes or buy it ready mixed in the spice aisle of your grocery store.

Although Curry is not an Indian word – it has come to represent the varied dishes that are stew like or a soupy. These dishes are cooked in steps with the following seasonings which are called masalas Indian dishes that could be eaten with rice. In India curry means gravy. In West many believe curry is an Indian spice. Curry powder is sold in many supermarkets. Many dishes in America call for curry powder, which is actually a blend of spices (mainly garam masala) that is mixed with coriander powder and turmeric. In India, Indians would be confused if you mentioned curry powder. 

(a) A base of spices sautéed in ghee or oil
(b) Herbs and seasonings like curry leaves or fenugreek may also be added
(c) A secondary level of seasonings are added and include all or some of the following – a mixture of onion, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes
(d) A third level may include coconut milk, almonds, cashews or cream
(e) All curries have a sour taste which may be achieves with lime juice, tamarind, mango powder, kokum or yogurt.

Muslim Culinary Culture

The Muslims from western Asia brought their rich artistic and gastronomic culture to India. This influence lasted for more than 400 years and is now part of the fabric of Indian culinary culture.

The two colliding cultures resulted in a magnificent cuisine called Muglai Cuisine. The lamb kebabs were laced with spices, the rice pulaos of India were cooked with meat and turned into wonderful biryanis, lamb and meat roasts were now flavored with Indian herbs, spices and seasonings. Also, Indian dishes were garnished with almonds, pistachios, cashews and raisins. India was also introduced to leavened breads by the Muslims. At this time the tandoor was created by the royal chefs. The Indian rotis and the leavened breads were merged into Tandoori Naans. Meats were now marinated in yogurt and spices and also cooked in tandoors. Both pork and beef were avoided to respect the traditions of both cultures. The idea of concluding a meal with sweetmeats was introduced as the Persian rulers loved sweets.

The great Muslim rulers brought their panache and elegance of living to India’s culinary scene. The idea of community dinning and lavish and extravagant banquets were introduced to India. Dishes were served in jade, silver and Chinese porcelain. The splendor of the Mughal/Muslim cuisine is reflected in the Muglai Cuisine of India which is the richest and the most lavish in the country.

`Tunda’, a Lucknow landmark, is the name of a kebab shop in the heart of the city. Witness the preparation of the Tunda kebabs, cooked in enormous cast iron trays, they are shaped like hamburgers and are made of very finely minced meat mixed with dozens of spices, nuts and seeds including nutmeg, mace, cardamom, saffron, coconut fennel seeds and peanuts. The kebabs, crumbly and soft are browned on both sides and then wrapped in flaky griddle bread.

North Indian Cuisines

A typical North Indian meal would consist of chappatis, parantha or pooris (unleavened flat breads), pilafs, dals, curries that are mild and made in ghee, thick, creamy dals, vegetables seasoned with yogurt or pomegranate powder, lots of greens like spinach and mustard greens cooked with paneer, north Indian pickles, fresh tomato, mint, cilantro chutneys and yogurt raitas. Hot, sweet cardamom milk is very common before going to bed. North Indian desserts and sweets are made of milk, paneer, lentil flour and wheat flour combined with dried nuts and garnished with a thin sheet of pure silver. Nimbu Pani (lemon drink), Lassi (iced buttermilk) are popular drinks of the North. Tandoori cooking is a north Indian specialty and famous the world over. Tandoori chicken, naan, tandoori roti, tandoori kebabs are a hit in most Indian restaurants. 

Northern Indian cuisine has the following main schools of cooking.

Kashmiri – The piece de resistance in the wazwan, the traditional 24-course banquet with many cooking ways and varieties of meat – some in curry, some dry, some pounded in various sizes. These are carefully cooked by cooked overnight by the master chef, Vasta Waza, and his retinue of wazas. When I traveled to Kashmir with my family we were invited to a Wazwan given for a wedding. We were made to sit on the floor in fours and share the meal out of a large metal plate called the trami. The rice was in a mound in the center which was quartered for the four who sat around the trami. There was also an earthen pot of freshly made yogurt and chutney for us to share. The meal began with a ritual washing of hands at a basin called the tash-t-nari, which is taken around by attendants. We were served seekh kababs of 4 varieties – methi korma, tabak maaz, safed murg and zafrani murg, and the first few courses. Seven dishes are a must for these occasions– Rista, Rogan Josh, Tabak Maaz, Daniwal Korma, Aab Gosht, Marchwangan Korma and Gushtaba.

Punjabi – Sarson ka saag, originating from Punjab. This dish of mustard greens simmered and slow cooked over coals along with rajma, kali ma or lentils and served in dhabas or roadside stalls which many say has the best food in Northern India. The dishes are served with unleavened bread of cornmeal or wheat and a dollop of butter or with steamed basmati rice.

Rajasthan – Gram flour or Besan is a major ingredient here and is used to make some of the delicacies like Khata, Gatte Ki Sabzi and Pakodi. Powdered lentils are used for Mangodi and Papad. Bajra and corn are used all over the state for preparations of Rabdi, Khichdi and Rotis. Sweets include Laddoos, Malpuas, Jalebies, Rasogullas, Mishri Mawa, Mawa Katchori , Sohan Halwa, Mawa and many more

Uttar Pradesh – Most families in Uttar Pradesh eat vegetarian food. Banaras, India’s holiest city is in UP, is famous for its bazaars full of ‘jalebis’, sweetmeats and a myriad variety of ‘kachoris’. Awadh style of cooking are world famous for its tender meat dishes and excellent sweets. Lucknow is known worldwide for its biryanis and different meat preparations. Nihari and naan, a mutton dish served for breakfast is one of the dishes that should be tasted to be believed.

Eastern Indian cuisine

Eastern Indian cuisine has the 3 schools of Cuisine.

Bengali and Assam, North Eastern States and Oriya. Here due to the many river tributaries that commence in the mighty Himalayas and pour into the Bay of Bengal both fish and rice are an important part of an Eastern diet.

Bengali style lunch menu fried fish
Bengali style lunch menu fried fish

Bengali – Bengali food is symbolized by rice and fish. It is a coastal cuisine which has the most rains that occur in Monsoon India. The other characteristic of its cuisine is the use of coconut, mustard oil instead of ghee or peanut or coconut oil and its famous panchpuran or combination of five spices of nigella, fennel, cumin, mustard and funugreek. It also has many sweet and sour dishes.

Western Indian cuisine

Gujarati food has been influenced by the Chinese cuisine and is different from most all Indian cuisine’s in that the Gujaratis serve their sweets with the meal. This is also a reason why there is more sweet and sour taste in their dishes. The Gujarati savories are now famous all over India – crisp spicy fried ‘farsans’, which can be bought at wayside stalls like Chevda, ghatia. Gujaratis take simple ingredients and with their culinary talent turn them into great dishes. Popular items include a delicious vegetable concoction Undhiu, Gujarati Kadhi, – a savoury curry made of yoghurt. Some common dishes include Khaman Dhokla, a salty steamed cake, Doodhpak, a sweet, thickened milk confectionery and Shrikhand, dessert made of yogurt, flavored with saffron, cardamom.
Maharashtrian – Maharashtra has for its capital Bombay or Mumbai. Marathi food uses lots of fish, coconuts, grated coconuts, peanuts and cashewnuts are widely used in vegetables. Peanut oil is the main cooking medium.

Goan food has been influenced by the Portuguese. It has incredible seafood recipes and is known for its spicy coconut curries. The Goans make full use of their proximity to the seacoast by using fish, crabs, lobsters and tiger prawns, which a cooked in a coconut, garlic hot sauce or dry spices making this cuisine full of variety and exciting. And to top it all, there is the locally manufactured liquor served all over Goa.

Konkani cuisine is a good blend of North and south Indian cuisine’s but has many distinct features and recipes. Some recipes use the sweet of the Gujaratis, the cuisine has its own coconut and spice blends and green chili, fresh coconut flakes, sesame seeds and peanuts are regularly used.

The Parsi’s were originally from Persia, which is now Iran. Zoroastrianism is a religion founded in ancient times by the prophet Zarathushtra, known to the Greeks as Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism was the dominant world religion during the Persian empires (559 BC to 651 AC) and was thus the most powerful world religion at the time of Jesus. It had a major influence on other religions. It is still practiced world-wide, especially in Iran and India. The influence of their old home Iran and the influence of Gujarat where they landed to escape religious persecution is reflected in their cuisine. The Parsi cuisine is deliciously spiced and one of the specialties “Dhansak”, a mutton, lentil and vegetable potpourri served with brown rice consumed with a pint of lager. Some other dishes are “Kolmino patio” – a sweet and sour prawn curry, “Dhandal patio” – fish curry served with rice and lentils.

South India’s Culinary Culture

South Indian food Idli and Vada
South Indian food Idli and Vada

South Indian cuisine is rice based. Rice is combined with lentils to make wonderful dosas, idlis, vadas and uttapams. These items are glorious and delicious besides being nourishing and digestible (due to the fermenting process). They are combined with sambhar (dal), rasam (tamarind dal), dry and curried vegetable and pachadi (yogurt). Their rice preparations are also masterpieces like biryani from Hyderabad, lemon rice and rice seasoned with coconut peanuts, tamarind, chilies, curry leaves, urad dal and fenugreek seeds.

South Indian chutneys are made of tamarind, coconut, peanuts, dal, fenugreek seeds, and cilantro. Meals are followed by coffee. South Indian dals and curries are more soupy than North Indian dals and curries. South Indian cuisine is also hotter. Coconut milk straight from the nut is a common beverage and sight in South India. Coffee is very popular in South India and Madras coffee is popular in South Indian restaurants throughout the world. The South Indian food is a brilliant blend of flavors, colors, seasoning, nutritional balance, fragrance, taste, and visual appeal.

Andhra – Andhra cuisine is largely vegetarian but the coastal areas have a large repertoire of seafood. Fish and prawns are curried in sesame and coconut oils, and flavored with freshly ground pepper. Andhra food is served with rice. Rice, sambar and other lentil preparations, and steamed vegetables delicately flavored with coconut, spices and fresh herbs. Snack or tiffin time is made of many preparations like onion pakodas; vadas or savory lentil doughnuts dunked in steaming hot sambar; and steamed rice muffin like dumplings called idlis. Savories are murku, roundels of rice flour paste deep fried; and appadams. Desserts include payasam, a pudding made with rice and milk and the popular Sheer Khurma – a Hyderabadi delicacy with dry fruits and dates.

Hyderabad cuisine is a direct result from the kitchens of the Nizams or Muslim rulers. The Hyderabadi cuisine is the amalgamation of Muslim techniques and meats with the vibrant spices and ingredients of the predominantly local Hindu people. Hydrabadi cuisine is the ultimate in fine dining. Its tastes range from sour and the sweet, the hot and the salty and studded with dry fruits and nuts. One of India’s finest foods, the biryani or rice with meats and brinjal (or eggplant) or baghare baiganis are the jewels of Hyderabadi cooking.

Tamil Nadu – Chettinad cuisine hails from the deep southern region of Tamil Nadu. Chettinad cuisine is far cry from the bland cuisine of traditional Tamilian Brahmins—it is one of the spiciest, oiliest and most aromatic in India.

Although the Chettiars are well known for their delicious vegetarian preparations, their repertoire of food items is famous and includes all manner of fish and fowl and meats, as well as delicate noodle-like dishes and carefully preserved sun-dried legumes and berries that the Chettiar ladies make into curries. Oil and spices are liberally used in cooking and most dishes have generous amounts of peppercorn, cinnamon, bay leaves, cardamom, nutmeg, green and red chilies, etc.

Some of the popular dishes in Chettinad menu are varuval — a dry dish fried with onions and spices (chicken, fish or vegetables sautéed), pepper chicken, poriyal — a curry, and kuzambu which has the ingredients stewed in a gravy of coconut milk and spices.

In the same range, one can include the numerous pickles, powders, specially roasted and ground spices, dry snacks, papads, appalam and vada. Numerous shops now sell pre-packed snacks like murukkus, small spirals of fried rice dough, chips and other edible ‘hand grenades’ like thattai, masala vada and so on.

The Tamil variation of Mughlai food can be savored in the biryani and paya. The latter is a kind of spiced trotter broth and is eaten with either parathas or appam.

Kerala is noted for its variety of pancakes and steamed rice cakes made from pounded rice. For the Muslims, the lightly flavored Biryani-made of mutton, chicken, egg or fish-takes pride of place. In seafood, mussels are a favorite. For the Christians, who can be seen in large concentration in areas like Kottayam and Pala, ishtew (a derivation of the European stew), with appam is a must for every marriage reception. Kerala also has it’s own fermented beverages -the famous kallu (toddy) and patta charayam (arrack). Arrack is extremely intoxicating and is usually consumed with spicy pickles and boiled eggs (patta and mutta).

LINKS TO INDIA COOKING & CUISINE WEBSITES

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