While Indian food does consist of curries, rice and a wide variety of spices, the food is much more diverse. Indian chefs use dals (purees of beans), fruits, vegetables, breads and an assortment of meats to create delicate scents and exciting flavors to entice the senses.
Indian Food: North vs. South
In many countries, the food varies according to geography. India is no different. With its huge, towering mountains, fertile river valleys, arid plateaus and hot, humid coasts, it”s no wonder Indian food is as diverse as its geography.
In the north, the weather varies from an oppressive heat to a teeth-chattering cold. To deal with such variations in weather, the food in northern India is rich and heavy, using meats, breads and a variety of spices that will tantalize the tongue without being too spicy.
Northern Indian food also tends to be drier because soupy sauces are difficult to eat with bread. In contrast, the south has more soupy dishes because the rice can soak up the sauce.
In the south, the weather is much more consistent. For most of the year, the south is hot, and, therefore, much more conducive to growing rice. Due to the heat, social mores and availability of food, fruits, vegetables and fish are eaten more often than meat.
In fact, Brahmin (the Hindu priestly caste) are strict vegetarians. However, in certain coastal regions, they are known to consume an abundance of fish. Spices are also used heavily in southern India, and the food is spicier than in the northern region.
Chutney is a condiment made of fruit, vinegar, sugar and spices. It is often served along with curry recipes. All types of chutneys, from cucumber to mango chutney, and pickle relishes are particularly popular in the Andhra Pradesh region of India, where you can find delicious Tandoori dishes and some of the hottest food in the country.
Spices are vital to Indian cooking, regardless of region. In a country where such a large population is vegetarian and so many are poor, the flavoring of food has become an art. Most Indian kitchens have a spice box, known as a masala dabba. In this spice box is a variety of spices used to tenderize meat and to add heat, color, flavor and more. The Indian chef knows how to use every one of her spices, sprinkling just enough to create a noticeable but not overbearing flavor.In the north, you”ll find cumin, turmeric, coriander, garam masala and red chili powder used frequently in Indian cooking. In the south, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves and whole red chilies are more commonly used in Indian recipes.Many Indian recipes also call for nutmeg, cinnamon, saffron and cardamom. Each dish calls for a different combination of spices to create a unique flavor.
Adding Flavor to Indian Foods
In addition to spices, a variety of oils are used in Indian cooking. Ghee (clarified butter) is commonly used for frying or seasoning because it can take very high temperatures without becoming rancid (unlike virgin oil). You only need a small amount of ghee to add a lot of flavor. In addition to ghee, mustard, coconut and sesame oil are used.Chutneys (spicy condiments made from fruits, vegetables, vinegar and a variety of spices) are also used to complement an Indian meal, adding freshness, flavor and balance.
When in India
In Sanskrit, the phrase “Atithi Devo Bhava” or “the guest is truly your god” is an aphorism for Indian hospitality. Regardless of how poor they may be, to Indians, it is an honor to share their meals with guests.
Many Indian dishes are elaborate masterpieces, even if the only ingredients are lentils, yogurt and a variety of spices. In fact, many Indian dishes require a day of preparation, cutting vegetables, soaking beans, pounding spices or just sitting by the fire as the food slowly cooks. However, not all dishes are complicated or time-consuming. Some Indian dishes are quick and simple.
Pork and Beef in Indian Cuisine
A majority of Indians are either Hindu or Muslim. In Hinduism, the cow is considered sacred, while in Islam, the pig is considered dirty. Therefore, beef and pork are not normally eaten. Indian cooking uses chicken or lamb instead or no meat at all.
Eating Indian Food
Indian food is traditionally served on a thali (a metal plate or banana leaf). On this tray are a collection of small bowls, each filled with a curry or other side dish. The middle of the thali is filled with a mound of rice or bread, depending on the region.Indian food is traditionally eaten with the hands, although utensils such as forks and spoons are acceptable. The reasoning behind using your hands is that eating is considered very sensual and food should be enjoyed with as many senses as possible.