Culinary tour of India
Culinary tour of India
 

 

The food available in India is as diverse as its culture, its racial structure, its geography and its climate. The essence of good Indian cooking revolves around the appropriate use of aromatic spices. The skill lies in the subtle blending of a variety of spices to enhance rather than overwhelm the basic flavor of a particular dish. These spices are also used as appetisers and digestives.

Besides spices, the other main ingredients of Indian cooking and Indian meals are milk products like ghee (clarified butter)used as a cooking medium and yoghurt or dahi. Lentils (legumes) or dals are also common across the country and regional preferences and availability determine the actual use in a particular area. Vegetables naturally differ across regions and with seasons. The style of cooking vegetables is dependent upon the main dish or cereal with which they are served. Whereas the Sarson ka saag (sauteed mustard leaves) is a perfect complement for the Makke ki Roti (maize bread) eaten in Punjab, the sambhar (lentil) and rice of Tamil Nadu taste best eaten with deep-fried vegetables.

Although a number of religions exist in India, the two main cultures that have influenced Indian cooking and food habits are the Hindu and the Muslim traditions. Each new wave of settlers brought with them their own culinary practices. However, over time they adopted a lot of specialities and cooking methods from the Indian cuisine and blended the two to perfection. The Portuguese, the Persians and the British made important contributions to the Indian culinary scene. It was the British who started the commercial cultivation of tea in India.

The Hindu vegetarian tradition is widespread in India, although many Hindus eat meat and fish now. The Muslim tradition is most evident in the cooking of meats. Mughlai food, kababs, rich kormas (curries) and nargisi koftas (meat-balls), the biryani (a layered rice and meat preparation), rogan josh, and preparations from the clay oven or tandoor like tandoori rotis and tandoori chicken are all important contributions made by the Muslim settlers in India.

NORTHERN INDIA

A typical North-Indian meal would consist of chapatis or rotis (unleavened bread baked on a griddle) or parathas (unleavened bread fried on a griddle), rice and an assortment of accessories like dals, fried vegetables, curries, yoghurt, chutney, and pickles. For dessert one could choose from the wide array of sweetmeats from Bengal like rasagulla, sandesh, rasamalai and gulab-jamuns. North Indian desserts are very similar in taste as they are derived from a milk pudding or rice base and are usually soaked in syrup. Kheer, a form of rice pudding, shahi tukra or bread pudding and kulfi, a nutty ice-cream are other common northern desserts.

 

SOUTHERN INDIA

South Indian food is largely non-greasy, roasted and steamed. Rice is the staple diet and forms the basis of every meal. It is usually served with sambhar, rasam (a thin soup), dry and curried vegetables and a curd preparation called pachadi. Coconut is an important ingredient in all South Indian food. The South Indian fast food such as dosa (rice pancakes), idli (steamed rice cakes) and vada, which is made of fermented rice and dal, are now popular throughout the country. The popular dishes from Kerala are appams (a rice pancake) and thick stews. Desserts from the south include the Mysore pak and the creamy payasum.

EASTERN INDIA

The cuisine of Eastern India revolves primarily around fish, vegetables and rice. It is lighter than north Indian food as little fat is used in the cooking, which relies mainly on stir-frying, boiling and steaming. The speciality in this region is in the use of mustard and subtly-flavoured spices. The region is famed for its variety of fish recipes, desserts and confectionery. The festive food owes a great deal to Muslim tradition. A meal is eaten in courses, with a progression of flavour from mild to strong in the universal order of vegetables, fish, poultry and/or meat. Meat dishes are followed by a sweet-sour chutney, crisp fried papad, yoghurt and desserts.

WESTERN INDIA

The food of Western India is incredibly varied, reflecting the diverse influences on its history. Each state from Rajasthan to Maharashtra has distinctive culinary traditions. Rajasthan has developed a complex cuisine relatively evenly balanced between Muslim and Hindu vegetarian and non-vegetarian components, with an unique emphasis on game dishes. Gujarat has a largely vegetarian population belonging mainly to the Jain faith. Its food is based, therefore, on pulses, milk products and vegetables, accompanied by a variety of breads. A meal begins with a sweet appetiser. Maharashtra blends of elements from northern and southern India. Mumbai and Goa both have evolved a cosmopolitan table owing to the variety of international influnces on their culture. Mumbai calls its own the distinctive Zoroastrian tradition of its Parsi community as well as the Irani Muslim strain. It also has a highly developed and popular fast-food tradition which is both nutritious and tasty. Goan food blends Portuguese tradition with the food habits of the Konkan coast.

An Indian meal is usually rounded off with the paan or betel leaf which holds an assortment of digestive spices like lime paste, aniseed, cloves, areca nut, and cardamom.

Indian drinks are generally non-alcoholic fruit juice or yoghurt based cocktails, called "sharbat" or "lassi" respectively. Ingredients usually added include mint, almonds, pistachios, cashews, cardamom, saffron and a large variety of aromatic herbs and spices. Indigenous alcoholic drinks include coconut palm toddy from south and eastern India and the Goan liquor "Feni" based on coconut palm juice or cashew nut. There are also mild fruit wines and an unique, fiery liqueur made from the betel leaf. India has recently begun making and marketing excellent white and sparkling wines based on muscatel and pinot noir grapes grown in western and southern India. Most of the output is exported. India also makes all varieties of spirits and beer of European invention.

In this culinary tour of India, we hope to introduce you to the culinary tradition of the States and Union Territories of each of the four great regions of India, guide you step by step through the preparation of an authentic meal from each state, list as many authentic and tested recipes as possible and, finally, give pointers on combining dishes from various regions in a table that truly reflects the infinite diversity of the Indian kitchen. All good tours take time to develop, so this page will be continually under construction until the journey is complete. Bon appetite!

INGREDIENTS

Although Indian cuisine uses an extensive variety of herbs, spices and ingredients, most recipes can be made with a core group of commodities, listed below. Where fresh ingredients are not available, dry powders can usually be substituted.

THE BASIC INDIAN SPICE RACK

Turmeric Cumminseed
Corianderseed Paprika powder
Coconut (fresh grated or desiccated powder) Bay Leaf-dried
Black mustardseed Fennel seed
Fenugreek seed Thyme
Cardamom -small green Cardamom - black
Cinnamon -sticks Cloves
Ginger-fresh or powdered Garlic - fresh or flakes
Curry Leaves (used in south India) Fresh coriander leaf

Garam Masala - a combination of cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and black pepper that can be used whole or in powdered form.

Basmati Rice – a long-grain aromatic rice grown only in the foothills of northern India that is indispensable for Indian rice dishes.

Ghee - a cooking fat made by reheating pure, unsalted butter or whipped full-cream natural yoghurt until the clear fat separates from the residual sediment.

THE NEXT STAGE

Fresh mint leaf Gram Flour
Tamarind paste Brown mustardseed
Poppyseed Caraway seeds
Nutmeg Mace
Asafoetida Saffron

"Pans Phoran" (five-spice mix) - one teaspoon of a mixture of equal amounts of seeds of fenugreek, nigella, celery, mustard and fennel. Used in eastern India.

Mustard oil - indispensable for fish recipes of eastern India.

Coconut Oil - recommended for recipes from southern India.