Think of India and one of the first things that comes to mind is its diversity. A large country, its population is second only to China, its languages are numerous and every state (of which there are 28 and seven Union territories) is unique in its traditions and very importantly, its food. In fact, food from one region may actually be totally alien to a person from another region! The common thread that runs through most Indian food though, is the use of numerous spices to create flavor and aroma.
The culture of food
Indians take their food very seriously. Cooking is considered an art and mothers usually begin to teach their daughters and pass down family recipes by show-and-tell, fairly young in life. Mealtimes are important occasions for family to get together. Most meals comprise of several dishes ranging from staples like rice and breads to meat and vegetables and rounded off with a dessert.
In a lot of Indian homes, foods are made from scratch with fresh ingredients. For example, some families buy their favorite type of wheat, wash it, dry it in the sun and then take it in to a flourmill to have it ground into flour exactly the way they like, as opposed to buying flour from a store! This is changing in bigger cities where people have increasingly hectic lives and are happy to use ready-to-eat, pre-made ingredients.
To eat meat or not to eat meat?
To the western mind, India is perceived as largely vegetarian. This is not necessarily true. To a larger extent, religious beliefs (as compared to personal preference) dictate what a person cannot eat. For example, Islam forbids its followers from eating pork while a lot of Hindus do not eat beef. Followers of the Jain faith abstain from all meats and even avoid onions and garlic!
The matter of influence
Throughout history India has been invaded and occupied by other cultures and each has left its own mark on Indian cuisine. Some of the predominant influences have been:
- Aryan - which focused on the mind-, body-enhancing properties of foods.
- Persian and Arab - which led to the Mughal style of cooking with rich, thick gravies and the use of dry fruits like cashews and almonds in dishes.
- British - which gave India its love of tea and put the European twist into some dishes. Anglo-Indian cuisine was the delicious result.
- Portuguese – which left its mark on parts of India in the form of dishes like the world-renowned Vindaloo and Xacuti.
As far as food is concerned, India can very roughly be divided into four regions. Each region has several states in it and each state its own unique food. Here’s a brief look at the cuisines of North, South, East and West India. One must of course, always remember that no such description can entirely cover the huge variety of Indian food. The true discovery of it, can take years of patient and very pleasurable gastronomic experimentation.
North India has extreme climates – summers are hot and winters are cold. There is an abundance of fresh seasonal fruit and vegetable to be had. Its geographical position with relation to the rest of the Sub-continent means that this region of the country has had strong Central Asian influences both in its culture and its food. Mughlai and Kashmiri styles of cooking are not just prevalent, they are also popular.
- Areas: Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
- Style of food: North Indian curries usually have thick, moderately spicy and creamy gravies. The use of dried fruits and nuts is fairly common even in everyday foods. Dairy products like milk, cream, cottage cheese, ghee (clarified butter) and yoghurt play an important role in the cooking of both savory and sweet dishes. Thanks to the fact that such a rich variety of fruit and vegetable is available at all times of the year, the region produces a dazzling array of vegetarian dishes.
- Staple foods: North Indians seem to prefer Indian breads over rice, if the rich variety is anything to go by. This region is home to the tandoori roti and naans (bread made in a clay tandoor oven), stuffed parathas (flaky Indian bread with different kinds of vegetarian and non-vegetarian fillings) and kulchas (bread made from fermented dough). Rice is also popular and made into elaborate biryanis and pulaos (pilafs).
- Cooking oils commonly used: Vegetable oils like sunflower and canola. Mustard oil is rarely used and only in some states of the region. Ghee is normally reserved for special occasion cooking.
- Important spices and ingredients: coriander, cumin, dry red chillies, turmeric, chilli powder, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, garam Masala, aniseed/Fennel, etc.
- Popular dishes: Mutter Paneer (a curry made with cottage cheese and peas), Biryani, Pulaos, Daal Makhani, Dahi Gosht, Butter Chicken, Chicken Tikka, Fish Amritsari, Samosas (snack with a pastry case with different kinds of fillings), Chaat (hot-sweet-sour snack made with potato, chick peas and tangy chutneys), Motichoor laddoo.
Geographical and cultural influence on the region’s cuisine: South India has hot, humid climate and all its states are coastal. Rainfall is abundant and so is the supply of fresh fruit, vegetables and rice. Andhra Pradesh produces fiery Andhra cuisine which is largely vegetarian yet has a huge range of seafood in the its coastal areas. Tamilnadu has Chettinad cuisine, perhaps the most fiery of all Indian food. This style too is largely vegetarian.
From Kerala comes Malabari cooking, with its repertoire of tasty seafood dishes. Hyderabad is home of the Nizams (rulers of Hyderabad) and regal Nizami food rich and flavorful with tastes ranging from spicy to sour to sweet. Hyderabadi food is full of nuts, dried fruits and exotic, expensive spices like Saffron.
- Areas: Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu and Kerala.
- Style of food: By and large, South Indian cuisine is perhaps the hottest of all Indian food. Meals are centered around rice or rice-based dishes. Rice is combined with Sambaar (a soup-like lentil dish tempered with whole spices and chillies) and rasam (a hot-sour soup like lentil dish), dry and curried vegetables and meat dishes and a host of coconut-based chutneys and poppadums (deep-fried crispy lentil pancakes). South Indians are great lovers of filter coffee.
- Staple foods: No South Indian meal is complete without rice in some form or other – either boiled rice or Idlis (steamed cakes made from rice batter), Dosas or Uttapams (pancakes made from a batter of rice and lentil flour). Daals (lentils) are also a part of most meals.
- Cooking oils commonly used: Coconut oil is most commonly used for cooking and frying. Vegetable oils like sunflower and canola are also used and ghee is poured over rice during daily meals or in special occasion dishes.
- Important spices and ingredients: curry leaves, mustard, asafetida, pepper and peppercorns, tamarind, chillies and fenugreek seeds.
- Popular dishes: Idlis, Dosas, Vadas, Sambaar, Uttapams, Rasam, Payasam.
Geographical and cultural influence on the region’s cuisine: Home to beaches and mountains and Cherrapunji (the city with the highest rainfall in the world), Eastern India grows a lot of rice! Green vegetables and fruit are also abundant and so are the foods cooked using them. People though, are a balanced mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The geographical location of this region means its food bears the strong influence of Chinese and Mongolian cuisine.
- Areas: West Bengal, Sikkim, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura, Orrisa.
- Style of food: Simple is the key word for food of this region in India. Preparation is not elaborate and neither are most of the ingredients. Steaming and frying are popular methods of cooking. In coastal regions fish is the non-vegetarian food of choice while further inland, pork wins the popularity contest. The people of no other region in India can rival the love for sweets and desserts that Eastern Indians have! Some of India’s most popular and world-renowned sweets come from here.
- Staple foods: Rice and some more rice!
- Cooking oils commonly used: Mustard oil is very popular and used for both deep frying and cooking. Other vegetable oils are also used. Ghee is used for cooking special occasion foods.
- Important spices and ingredients: mustard seeds and paste, chillies (both green and red), paanch phoran (a mix of five spices – white cumin seeds, onion seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds and fenugreek seeds). Yoghurt, coconut, maize and gram flour are also common ingredients. Milk and dairy products play a huge role in the preparation of sweets in Eastern India.
- Popular dishes: Momos (steamed, meat- or vegetable-filled wontons) and Thukpa (a clear soup), Tomato Achaar (tomato pickle), Machcher Jhol (fish curry), Jhaal-Muri (a spicy snack made with puffed rice and mustard oil), Sandesh, Rasgolla.
Geographical and cultural influence on the region’s cuisine: Rajasthan and Gujarat have hot, dry climates so the relatively smaller variety of vegetables available are preserved as pickles and chutneys. Culturally these states are largely Hindu and vegetarian.
Parts of cosmopolitan Maharashtra are coastal and parts arid, and the food varies accordingly. Peanuts and coconut are important ingredients as they are freely available. Goa with its lush green coastline has an abundance of fresh fish and seafood. Local dishes like Vindaloo and Xacuti testify to the fact that it was a Portuguese colony until the 1960s.
- Areas: Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa.
- Style of food: This region probably has the most diverse styles of food in India. Rajasthani food is spicy and largely vegetarian but includes many delicious meat dishes like Laal Maas (red meat curry) while Gujarat’s cuisine is know for its slight sweet touch (at least a pinch of sugar is added to most dishes!) and is traditionally entirely vegetarian. Thaali (a large plate) is the Gujarati style of eating and a meal can consist of as many as 10 different vegetable dishes, rice, chapati (Indian bread) and sweets! The Gujaratis love a snack and cook a huge variety of them. These are collectively known as Farsan. In Maharashtra, coastal areas are famous for Malvani cuisine (fresh coconut-based hot and sour curries with fish and seafood) while the interiors have the more frugal, Vidharba cuisine which uses a lot of dry coconut. Goan food is rich, piquant and strongly flavored by coconut, red chillies and vinegar.
- Staple foods: In Gujarat and Rajasthan corn, lentils and gram flour, dry red chillies, buttermilk, yoghurt, sugar and nuts; in Maharashtra, fish, rice, coconut and peanuts and in Goa fish, pork and rice.
- Cooking oils commonly used: Vegetable oils like sunflower, canola and peanut oil and ghee.
- Important spices and ingredients: dry red chillies, sugar, sesame seeds, coconut, nuts, vinegar, fish, pork….
- Popular dishes: Pork Vindaloo, Chicken Xacuti, Fish Curry, Bhelpuri, Thepla, Daal-Baati-Choorma, Laal Maas, Ghewar.