“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition,” says Mark Twain, an American writer, and it perfectly sums up everything about India, including its cuisine.
Marked with the cultural impact of many countries, Indian cuisine has a flavor of its own, bringing an explosion of different tastes, aromas, and presentations. There is a dish that suits every kind of palette: a complete meal. Sweet, bitter; tangy, spicy; plain, and rich; Indian cuisine offers you every type of food you can possibly think of. And the good part? A vast majority of the dishes focus on maintaining a good diet & overall health too!
How did Indian cuisine evolve?
The history of India can be divided into four significant periods, per a review of India’s socio-history. From meat to pulses, the Indus valley civilization era, the earliest among them, is found to consume every kind of food, though we know little about the people. Food preparation with boiling water was evident from the shapes of bowls excavated from the site. Then came the Aryan invasion era, which brought yoga, literature, and religion into the nation. Their staple food products were vegetarian, with the exception of milk and milk products. They also cultivated wheat, sugarcane, millets, lentils, rice, and other cereals.
Following the Vedic era of the Aryans comes the rule of the Mughals. Famous Indian dishes like Naan, Gravies, and Desserts were brought into the culture by the Afghan tradition. The Muslim culture predominantly consumes meat (apart from pork). After the Mughals introduced a variety of dishes to India came the colonization of the British. Although they didn’t significantly contribute to the cuisine of India, the Portuguese who established trade around the same time brought fascinating dishes like cheese, several vegetables like potatoes, okra, chilies, maize, etc., and many street foods. The British brewed drinks like wine, beer, rum, and tea. The “English” vegetables like oranges, carrots, cauliflowers, and cabbage also came into India because of them.
Although the influence of all these invasions and traditions spilled into the culture of India, how different regions adapted to them varied greatly. From plain lands to tall mountain ranges, Indian geography consists of all temperatures, soil types, water sources, and food availability. These also played a pivotal role in the dishes and flavors particular to each religion, culture, and state.
What are the flavors of Indian cuisine?
The distinct flavor in Indian foods is because of the mix of spices & the proportions in which they are used. There are simple spices like salt, turmeric, mustard, pepper, chilies, coriander, ginger, garlic, asafoetida, etc., and exotic spices like cardamom, anise, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf, poppy seeds, etc.
Did you know? Garam masala, a popular Indian flavor-rich powder used in many curries and gravies of our cuisine, is a simple mix of exotic spices. The spices are roasted and ground to bring a combination of different tastes & aromas to the dish.
We have a secret for you! The best tastes of Indian dishes are mainly due to the freshness of their ingredients. Our tradition values preparing food from scratch, not using any processed ingredients. The taste of the spices, vegetables, and fruits is so much better when brought from local farmers fresh after cultivation & used to prepare food.
A common misconception when thinking about Indian food is that it is spicy. Although we take pride in its spicy nature, it is not all that Indian cuisine is about. With the right ingredients and the correct method of preparation, Indian dishes can bring home such wonderful flavors without a lot of spice too!
What are Indian cuisine staples?
Apart from spices, the main dishes used by Indians & the method of preparation form the staples of its cuisine. The cooking medium used to prepare Indian foods, again, vary across different regions inside India. While the northern parts of India use mustard oil, the south is known for using gingelly and sesame oil. Coconut oil is typical of states in coastal areas such as Kerala, parts of Karnataka, Goa, etc., which adds a distinct taste to the dishes cooked using it.
In addition to frying and roasting with oil, dry roasting is predominantly done to grind spices and make powders. Vanaspati, butter, and ghee are other lubricants used in various dishes (desserts mostly) in Indian cuisine.
It is common to boil vegetables in water and prepare steamed dishes, wherein water is the medium used to cook the raw ingredients making the food easy to eat and digest.
Some beverages and desserts common in the Indian cuisine
Beverages (non-alcoholic) form a significant part of the routine of any Indian household, and there are variations in these also! Tea, one of the chief drinks India is known for, is prepared differently across the different regions of the Indian subcontinent.
Here is a list of all kinds of drinks common in India:
- Masala tea, Ginger tea, Elaichi (cardamon) tea, and many other regionally flavored teas
- Coffee (especially the Madras Filter Coffee and Sukku Coffee)
- Lassi (yogurt-based sweet drink, originally from the Punjab state)
- Sharbhat (prepared using rose petals, certain roots, etc., mostly paired with lemon & sugar)
- Juices (fruits & even some vegetables)
- Medicinal concoctions (called kashaayam)
Desserts are another fascination in Indian cuisine. Besides ice creams or cakes baked from ovens, India has a variety of sweet dishes typical to different states. Sweets are marked as the symbol of goodness or auspiciousness in the Indian tradition. So, having at least one dessert is mandatory in many Hindu religious ceremonies and festivals.
The main ingredients used in desserts change depending on location. A combination of staple ingredients like rice, lentils, pulse & millet flours with sugar, milk, and ghee are pretty common in Indian desserts. It is impossible to provide an exhaustive list of all Indian sweets, but here we go!
- Gulab Jamun
- Sweet Pongal
- Adhirasam, and so on.
The list is never-ending.
What is the culture behind Indian cuisine?
Indian foods are characteristically meant to eat as a group. Back in the day, many families (along with those of brothers & sisters) lived together under one roof, so the dishes were prepared in abundance, and everyone’s hunger needs were met. Also, in Indian tradition, the guests always come first. They are treated as equivalent to God, as evident from the slogan “Athithi Devo Bhava.”
In the northern & western states, a large plate called “thaali” is used to eat from. All the dishes are served together in these thalis, with two main ingredients: rice & wheat (rotis/ naans), alongside the dishes prepared from vegetables and lentils. Then raitha/curd and desserts are served towards the end.
In South India, though, the food is served in large Banana leaves. In this tradition, the difficult-to-digest items are served first, along with rice: fiber-rich vegetables, protein-rich meat, lentils, sambar, or kuzhambu. Then comes the dishes that aid digestion, like rasam and moru (buttermilk). Sweets are served in the beginning to represent the beginning of something good.
What are the regional cuisines of India?
Now that you have a brief overview of Indian cuisine’s history, flavor, culture, and staple foods and beverages, let us learn more about the nation’s regional cuisines. From Kashmir in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south, the flavor of dishes in each region varies substantially.
Let us wait no more! Dive in!
Kashmir: Kashmir is the northernmost state of India and is characterized by serene & beautiful mountains. The dishes of Kashmir are sprinkled with exotic ingredients like saffron, cinnamon, etc.
Himachal Pradesh: It is the state southeast of Kashmir and is also a frigid land. Himachal’s food dishes are predominantly non-vegetarian, although they use measured quantities of lentils, rice, and vegetables.
Punjab: A little southwest of Himachal is Punjab. Punjabi cuisine is filled with a multitude of vegetarian dishes and also, extravagant meat dishes.
Uttar Pradesh: Just right to Punjab, the cuisine of Uttar Pradesh is heavily influenced by the Mughal rule. The infamous Samosa and Pakora are claimed to have originated from this state.
Rajasthan: The land of deserts, Rajasthan is considered a royal state. Its arid land made Rajasthani cuisine dominated by grains, milk, and dry fruits.
Bihar: Bihar is a state to the east of Uttar Pradesh. Bihari dishes are peppered with the ingredients characteristic of east Indian cuisine and the use of many dairy products, fruits, and fruit juices.
Gujarat: Gujarat is the westernmost state of India. The most interesting aspect of Gujarati cuisine is although the state is surrounded by a coastline and has an abundance of seafood, 70% of Gujaratis are vegetarian.
Arunachal Pradesh: One of the northeastern states of India, the cuisine of Arunachal Pradesh comprises less-spicy dishes like thukpa, momos, boiled rice cakes, bamboo shoots, and meat as its main delicacy. Non-vegetarian foods dominate the food culture of all northeastern states.
Assam: The state filled with lush green mountains is known for its tea cultivation. The cuisine of Assam uses few spices but has a distinct variety of foods.
Manipur: In Manipuri cuisine, the dishes are simple, organic, and healthy. It is the state in the easternmost part of the nation.
West Bengal: Known as the land of “Maach aar Bhaat,” meaning “fish and rice,” the coastline of West Bengal state ensures an abundance of fish recipes. The milk sweets and confectionaries of this state make the cuisine of West Bengal one-of-a-kind and the best in the world.
Goa: It is a union territory on the west coast of India, bound by the sea. Known for being the tourist destination of India, Goan cuisine draws its inspiration from European and Portuguese foods. The land’s own Konkan and Malawi foods have a delectable taste, predominantly comprising seafood and coastal crops.
Orissa: Just south of West Bengal, the Odia cuisine has a lot of influence from it and is heavily reliant on local produce. It consists of many sweet dish varieties.
Maharashtra: This state is to the western side of the Indian peninsula, in the opposite direction of Orissa. Housing the city, which is the commercial capital of India: Mumbai, the cuisine of Maharashtra is culturally very diverse, influenced by international dishes and foods of Goa and Karnataka.
Karnataka: Let us travel a bit south of Maharashtra; we land in Karnataka. With a combination of tangy and sweet (jaggery) tastes, Karnataka cuisine varies by itself inside the state, with an influence of Kerala in the southern region and North Indian food in the northern region.
Andhra Pradesh: If Indian food like naan and gravy is spicy, you should try the cuisine of Andhra Pradesh, where they take the heat of the food to a whole different level, though Telangana foods are not as spicy compared to Andhra.
Kerala: Probably known only for their love of coconuts, the foods of Kerala state are so much more than that. Their tangy, mouth-watering meat dishes and rich desserts are seldom praised and deserve much more attention.
Tamil Nadu: Lo and behold! The southernmost state of India. Tamil Nadu cuisine mainly uses lentils and a mixture of spices, and this place is where you can get authentic sambar. But the state also has its non-vegetarian dishes characteristic of the regions inside it like Chettinad, Karaikudi, Madurai, etc. In contrast to these flavourful dishes is the cuisine of Tamil brahmins, whose food is simple and uses spices in a controlled manner. This reflects their tradition of “you are what you eat.”
The cuisine and flavors of Indian foods cannot be described in words and can only be experienced. Each dish represents history and culture that were and continue to be a part of the region’s life for centuries. Additionally, the people adapted their cuisine and perfected it over time, providing a unique blend of richness and foods suited to their way of life & practicality.
If you want to try or cook the dishes of Indian cuisine, start with simple ones. This is what we boast of. Indians continue to be humble in what they eat at home and are always ready to live and savor the modest foods of our land. That is the Indian way of life!
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