Most Indian cuisines are related by the similar usage of spices and the use of a greater variety of vegetables than any other cuisine. Religious and caste restrictions, weather, geography and the impact of foreigners have affected the eating habits of Indians.
For example, Brahmins (one of the highest orders of caste) are strict vegetarians usually, but in the coastal states of West Bengal and Kerala, they consume a lot of fish. Southern Indians generally speaking, have been orthodox in their tastes, probably because eating meat when it is hot all year round can be difficult. In the North, the weather varies from a scorching heat to a nail-biting cold, with a sprinkling of showers in between. So, the food here is quite rich and heavy. Also, the Mughal influence has resulted in meat-eating habits among many North Indians. Also, a variety of flours are used to make different types of bread like chapathis, rotis, phulkas, puris and naan.
In the arid areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat, a great variety of dals and preserves (achars) are used to substitute the lack of fresh vegetables and fruits. Tamilian food uses a lot of tamarinds to impart sourness to a dish, whereas Andhra food can be really chili-hot. It is believed that a hot and spicy curry may be one of the best ways to combat the flu virus! From, ancient times Indian food has been on principle, divided into the Satwik and Rajsik kinds. The former was the food of the higher castes like the Brahmins and was supposed to be more inclined towards spirituality and health. It included vegetables and fruits but, not onions, garlic, root vegetables, and mushrooms. The more liberal Rajsik food allowed eating just about anything under the sun, with the exception of beef. The warrior-kings like the Rajputs whose main requirements were strength and power ate this food.
Just as Japanese sushi relies on the freshness of the meat and Chinese food relies on the various sauces to impart the right flavor and taste, Indian food relies on the spices in which it is cooked. Spices have always been considered to be India’s prime commodity. It is interesting to see an Indian cook at work, with a palette of spices, gratuitously sprinkling these powders in exact pinches into the dish in front of him/her. A foreigner can discover the many differences in the foods of various regions only after landing in India, as most of the Indian food available abroad, is the North Indian and Pakistani type. The variation in Indian food from region to region can be quite staggering.
Many Indian dishes require an entire day’s preparation of cutting vegetables, pounding spices on a stone or just sitting patiently by the fire for hours on end. On the other hand, there are simple dishes which are ideal for everyday eating.
Eating from a ‘thali’(a metal plate or banana leaf) is quite common in most parts of India. Both the North Indian and South Indian thali contain small bowls arranged inside
the rim of the plate (or leaf), each filled with a different sort of spiced vegetarian food, curd and sweet. At the center of the thali, you would find a heap of rice, some puris (wheat bread rolled into small circular shapes and deep-fried in hot oil) or chapatis (wheat bread rolled out into large circular shapes and shallow-fried over a hot ‘tava). Indians wash their hands immediately after and before eating a meal as it is believed that food tastes better when eaten with one’s hands.
‘Paan’ is served as a digestive after some meals. The dark-green leaf of the betel-pepper plant is smeared with a little bit of lime and wrapped around a combination of spices like crushed betel-nuts, cardamom, aniseed, sugar and grated coconut. It is an astringent and is believed to help in clearing the system. Mumbai is known to be a good place for connoisseurs of paan.
An everyday meal of a Punjabi farmer would be centered around bread, corn bread, greens and buttermilk (lassi). Buttermilk is whipped yogurt, and can be had sweetened or with salt and is usually very thick. Wheat is the staple food here. Shredded vegetables mixed with spices and stuffed into the dough, which is then rolled and roasted to make the delicious stuffed parathas. Some Punjabis also eat meat dishes, an Indian cottage cheese called paneer, pilaus garnished with fried onions and roasted nuts like cashew and topped with silver leaf and rose petals. Another specialty from this region is ‘khoya’ a kind of thick cream, mainly used in the preparation of sweets. ‘Tandoori’ food, a favorite with many foreigners is a gift from Punjab. Various meats are marinated with spices, ginger and garlic pastes and curd and roasted over a primitive clay-pot (tandoor) with a wood-fire burning underneath. The special wheat bread cooked over the tandoor is called ‘Naan’.
In the beautiful and rich valley of Kashmir, all dishes are built around the main course of rice. A thick-leafed green leafy vegetable called ‘hak’ grows in abundance here and is used to make the delicious ‘saag’. The boat-dwelling people use the lotus roots as a substitute for meat. Morel mushrooms called ‘gahchi’ are harvested and consumed around summer time. The tea drunk in Kashmir is not orange pekoe or Twinning, but a spice-scented green tea called ‘kahava’, which is poured from a large metal kettle, called ‘samovar’. Fresh fish found in the many lakes and streams here are also consumed with relish. Lamb and poultry are cooked in the Mughlai style. The Kashmiri equivalent of the thali is a 36-course meal called the ‘waazwaan’.
Bengalis eat a lot of fish and one of the delicacies called the ‘hilsa’ is spiced and wrapped in pumpkin leaf and cooked. Another unusual ingredient used in Bengali cooking is the bamboo shoot. Milk sweets from this region like the Roshgolla, Sandesh, Cham-cham are world famous. In the south of India, rice is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Raw rice, parboiled rice, Basmati rice are some of the different types of rice eaten here. Parboiled rice is raw rice treated through a process wherein the ingredients and aroma of the husk are forced into the rice. Steamed rice dumplings or idlis, roasted rice pancakes or dosa are eaten along with coconut chutneys for breakfast. A dosai stuffed with spiced potatoes, vegetables or even minced lamb constitutes the famous ‘masala dosa’. Coconut, either in a shredded, grated or blended form is a must in most dishes here. Tender coconut water is drunk for its cooling effect (now available in most supermarkets in cartons) on the system. The Chettinad dishes from Tamil Nadu consist of a lot of meat and poultry cooked in tamarind and roasted spices.
Most Andhra food tends to be quite hot and spicy. Eating a banana or yogurt after such a meal can quench the fires raging within the system. Hyderabad, the capital city, is the home of the Muslim Nawabs (rulers) and is famous for its superb biriyani, simply delicious grilled kababs, kurmas and rich desserts (made with apricots).
In Bombay, the food is a happy combination of north and south. Both rice and wheat are included in their diets. A lot of fish is available along the long coastline and the Bombay Prawn and Pomfret preparations are delicious. Further down south along the coast, in Goa, a Portuguese influence is evident in dishes like the sweet and sour Vindaloo, duck baffad, sorpotel and egg molie.
In Kerala, lamb stew and appams, Malabar fried prawns and idlis, fish molie and dosai, rice puttu and sweetened coconut milk are the many combinations eaten at breakfast.
Puttu is glutinous rice powder steamed like a pudding in a bamboo shoot.
Sweets are very popular all over India and are usually cooked in a lot of fat. ‘Jalebis’, luscious pretzel shaped loops fried to a golden crisp and soaked in saffron syrup can be had from any street vendor in North India. ‘Kheer’ or ‘payasam’ are equivalents of the rice pudding and ‘Kulfi’ is an Indian ice cream made in conical molds and frozen.
Tea is drunk as a beverage in India. Tea from the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong are boiled in milk and water and served with a liberal dose of sugar. Filtered coffee is a favorite among South Indians and is a very sweet, milky version of coffee.
Many varieties of foreign whiskeys, rum, even Tequila is available in India now. Indian beers like ‘Kingfisher’ and ‘Kalyani’ are mild in comparison to the Australian ones. Indian wines have begun making a foray into the market now. ‘Grover vineyards’ have a good red and a decent pink. One doesn’t need an alcohol permit to consume liquor here, but permits are issued on request. The ‘All India Liquor Permit’ is an interesting document that states the ‘requirement for a person to drink for medical reasons’. Prohibition has been imposed in some states like Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, and Haryana. Among the local spirits available here is the famous ‘Feni’ from Goa concocted from cashew and coconuts (an ideal beach drink). ‘Toddy’ is tapped from coconut palms and is the best drunk in the early hours of the morning. ‘Tharra’ is a deadly drink made from cane, orange or pineapple. This can make you stink to glory and is famous for it’s killing capabilities.
Most of the spices used in Indian food have been used for their medicinal properties in addition to the flavor and taste they impart. Ginger is believed to have originated in India and was introduced to China over 3000 years ago. In India, a knob of fresh ginger added to tea is believed to relieve sore throats and head colds, not to mention it ’s aphrodisiacal properties! Turmeric is splendid against skin diseases and neem leaves are used to guard against smallpox.