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The Art of Indian Cooking

Unity in Diversity


An Introduction to Indian Food and Cooking

by Rinku Bhattacharya

What can I say about the term “Indian Cooking”?  I know, this is an odd question from someone who teaches and is passionate about Indian food, but, I am always at a loss when someone asks me to tell them about “Indian Cooking.” The reason for this is fairly simple - these two words are just too broad a term for a vast range of cooking styles, techniques and recipes.

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Diversity in Indian Food and Cooking: The Regional Cuisine of India


Climatic Diversity
The Indian Sub-Continent has practically all the climatic zones of the world, and the natural fruits and vegetables vary accordingly. People learn to eat what is naturally available and what makes sense for the climatic belt, thus we start seeing trends like, people in coastal India cook with a lot of fish, people in the dessert regions eat more grains and drier foods.

Religious and Ethnic Diversity
India is home to most of the major religions of the world, this adds certain dimensions to the cooking, such as muslims do not eat pork, Hindus are either vegetarian or do not eat beef or pork. In fact, most people would say people in India are diverse in every possible aspect, religion, language, to ethnicity.

External Influences
There have been foreign colonial influences in parts of India that have impacted certain regions, the Moghul or Persian influences on north Indian cooking, Portuguese influences on West Indian cooking in Goa, and French influences on South Indian cooking in Pondicherry, to name a few instances.
  The historical timeline of Indian cooking provides a good roadmap to this.

The Common Threads in Indian Regional Cooking

It is easier to talk at length about the diversity of Indian Cooking, since we can find so much more to discuss, but there are some broad commonalities, such as a general love of spices, a preference for cooking stews that are common threads across the country. The stew or the all inclusive curry is generally prepared by first preparing a well mixed spice base, mixing it with onion, ginger or garlic if needed and then combining this with the other ingredients in the mix. The spice that we commonly know is curry, is really an English concoction passionately embraced by several parts of the world with realizing a single consistent spice does not a curry make.

However, the use and composition of spice mixes and how they are combined, the unspoken rules vary from state to state, giving each style its own distinct characteristics. The common threads however make it possible to blend diverse dishes to produce what we call an “Indian meal”. However the critical component in Indian food is that it is regional first and Indian next. Rather than dividing the country into the four broad categories most commonly used to divide the India cooking universe I have tried to highlight some elements of the regional styles found within India. This while not comprehensive does begin to show the major natural, cultural and external influences on Indian Cuisines.



Regions of Indian Cooking

I. The Himalayan Valley: ( Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh):
This area is rich in fruits, vegetables and grains. The regional cuisine has two major influences the Hindu Pandit cuisine of Kashmir and the Moslem Cuisine noted for its elaborate emphasis on hospitality and a true Moslem banquet (Wazwan) consists of a 36-course meal. The food is rich with nuts, rice, dried fruits and both vegetable and meat dishes. There are similarities shared with Kashmir especially in the Moslem cuisine. Certain interesting unique feature are the use of green tea as a regular drink, use of star anise along with other fragrant spices in both meat and vegetarian dishes.

II. North India: This consists of the Hindi Belt and includes the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab and Madhya Pradesh (the heartland of India). This is a huge amount of diversity in the cuisine of this region. The cuisine of Punjab and Haryana is rich in dairy products, grain and most notably is the home of the tandoori (India clay oven) style of cooking. Favorites such as tandoori chicken, naan breads are all from this style of cooking.
Uttar Pradesh has its own indigenous cuisine and has large pockets of vegetarian Jain style cuisine, but also is famous for the Moghlai (moghul style of cooking) found predominantly in Lucknow or Awadh. There is also a Dum-Pukth method of cooking in this region where the food is cooked in sealed clay-pots on very low heat, so all the natural flavors are preserved and the food is meltingly tender. We have several varieties of kebabs and birayani (rice and meat flavored with saffron cooked in an earthenware pot).

III. The Gangetic Plains: Also can be considered eastern India, this lush fertile wet area with an abundance of rice, palm trees and wonderful fresh-water fish consists of the states of West Bengal, Bihar, and Orrisa. The Bengali cuisine is rich in fish and seafood and delicately sweetened with coconut and spiced with mustard and mustard oil. This was also the home of the British Raj and consists of a significant and unique Anglo-India Cuisine with classic dishes like the mulligatawny soup and also popularized the sweet mango chutney as a staple being served with Indian food. The other influenced cuisines of this region are the Indo-Chinese cuisine and the cooking of the Baghdadi Jewish Community. The cuisine in Bihar and Orissa have certain similarities in the use of the 5-spice seasoning, use of fish and coconut more in Orrisa than Bihar.

IV. The Northeast of India: These comprise of the states east of West Bengal and include Mizoram, Meghalaya, Assam, Manipur, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura. The cuisine of this region have similarities with certain far eastern cuisines. There is widespread use of dried fish and seafood to enrich the dishes, use of items like chives to season lentil dishes and there is also extensive use of fermented grains. An interesting feature of the cuisine of this area is the use of asafetida with onions, since in most other regions this is used alternately.

V. The Konkan Coast: We have another belt that outlines the parts of the southern coastline and consists of parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa. There are some similarities between the Goan cuisine and the Konkani Maharashtran especially in the use of coconuts and seafood and fish and generous use of spices. The Goan cuisine however has a more distinct Portuguese influence, and uses a lot of vinegar (instead of lime or yogurt) and toddy (palm liquor to season the food. Karnataka has three styles of cooking, the Brahmin cuisine that is strictly vegetarian, the cuisine of Coorg which among other things is noted for their Pork dishes and the Chettinad cuisine which is both vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

VI. The Thar Desert, consists of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Delhi: As may be expected the food in this region is fairly dry simple and grain based. There is extensive use of various flours such as the chick-pea flour, finger millet flour in the preparation of food that travels well. This is an extremely colorful part of the country. Gujarati food is traditionally vegetarian and slightly sweet and consists of interesting steamed bread dishes and is generally very healthy. Delhi is noted for its chats which are these sweet, spicy and tangy salads with vegetables and crispy crackers. Rajasthan has more elaborate food since it has several Rajput royal families associated with its cuisine and consists of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisines.

V. The Deccan Plateau: This consists of the Dravidian belt Andhra Pradesh, Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu and Kerela the cuisine here again has several varieties. Andhra Pradesh has the Hindu vegetarian cuisine and the Moslem cuisine of Hyderabad, this state is noted for its extremely spicy cuisine. Pondicherry was a French colony and the food displays the French influence, Tamil Nadu has both vegetarian and non-vegetarian influences, Kerala is largely non-vegetarian with an extensive use of fish, seafood and meat. In fact, the cuisine here is relatively sparse in the use of vegetables.





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