ASIAN INDIAN CUISINE
In what we can argue is the world’s most diverse cuisine, one binding concept dominates Indian food philosophy; that is, a judicious and pervasive attention to spice. From Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, Gajarat to Nagaland, varied climactic conditions may alter the availability of certain ingredients and staples may change, but the flavorings, primarily centered upon blends of chili, mustard seed, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, asafoetida and ginger, are what give these regions their identity and spark. Perhaps the most common blend (at least to us in the West) is the mixture called garam masala, usually a powder of five or more dried spices, which generally include the ‘three ‘c’s—cardamom, cinnamon and clove.
A fourth ‘c’, curry, is not commonly used in India to describe a specific spice profile, but rather is understood as a generic term for sauce, or gravy.
Throughout the Indian subcontinent, food is often an indicator of religious or social identity. With nearly a third of the population members of Hindu and Jain communities, vegetarianism is a feature which dominates many Indian regions—though even among the religious, individual sects may be obligated to observe certain taboos and are partial to certain tastes. Some Jains, for example, will not consume root vegetables, and where Islam prevails, rich gravies, pilafs and non-vegetarian fare such as kebabs have resulted in what’s often called Mughlai cuisine. Not all Hindus are vegetarian, either.
Rice is popular staple across India, moreso in the south than the north, and lentils and peas form a foundation for dishes nearly everywhere. From that point, regional differences kick in, and for the sake of simplicity, we’ll divide them into compass points.
The distinguishing feature in India’s north is the use of dairy products and the ‘tawa’, a griddle upon which a variety of flat breads are cooked. The cylindrical ‘tandoor’ oven, usually coal-fired, is another distinguishing feature of the north and lends its name to an entire style of cooking, tandoori. Chicken, goat and lamb are the predominate meats in the north. Bread is generally preferred over rice, and the geographic position results in a fairly strong Central Asian influence both in its culture and its food.
A typical Northern Indian meal might consist of chappatis, parantha or pooris (unleavened flat breads), pilaf, dal, curries that are mild and cooked in butter, vegetables seasoned with yogurt or pomegranate powder, lots of greens like spinach and mustard greens cooked with paneer, north Indian pickles, fresh tomato, mint, cilantro chutneys and yogurt raitas. Schools of cooking from the north include Kashmiri, Punjabi , Rajasthani, Marwari, Gharwal and Pahari.
Fish, from the rivers pouring from the Himalayas and those caught in the Bay of Bengal, is a distinguishing feature of cuisine from India’s east. The proximity of the coast and the predominately wet climate, especially during monsoon season, make rice the carb of choice, and a result of these lighter flavored staples, the spices tend to be used with a lighter hand, while cooking methods enhance natural flavors; stir frying, steaming and boiling.. Rather than the clarified butter of dairy country, oils (especially mustard oil) are used, and the most popular spice blend consists of nigella, fennel, cumin, mustard and fenugreek.
Sweets are particularly popular in the East, as East Indian cuisine is famous for its desserts, especially sweets such as rasagolla, chumchum, sandesh, rasabali, chhena poda, chhena gaja, and kheeri. Many of the sweet dishes now popular in Northern India initially originated in the Bengal and Orissa regions.
In India’s west, Gujarati, Maharashtrian, Konkani, Goan and Parsi schools of cooking are the most widely acknowledged. Gujarati food is predominantly vegetarian, and may typically consist of rotli (a flat bread made from wheat flour), dal or kadhi, rice, and sabzi/shaak—a dish made up of different combinations of vegetables and spices, which may be stir fried, curry-like, or dry boiled. Maharashtra, which includes the capital city of capital city of Mumbai, relies on fish, coconuts, peanuts and cashews, with nut oil being the main cooking medium. Goan cuisine looks to Portugal for its influence, and coconut curries, often seafood based, are widely popular. The Goans make full use of their proximity to the sea coast by using fish, crabs, lobsters and tiger prawns. Konkani cuisine can be viewed as a marriage of north and south Indian cuisine's but finds its own identity in spice blends that include green chili, fresh coconut flakes, sesame seeds and peanuts. Parsi cooking is influenced by Iran, and the best known specialty is ‘dhansak,’ a mutton, lentil and vegetable potpourri served with brown rice.
South Indian cuisine is nearly always rice based, generally combined with lentils to create the well-known dosas, idlis, vadas and uttapams. Imminently easy to digest, these dishes are often combined with sambhar (dal), rasam (tamarind dal), dry and curried vegetable and pachadi (yogurt). World renowned dishes like biryani from Hyderabad, lemon rice and rice seasoned with coconut peanuts, tamarind, chilies, curry leaves, urad dal and fenugreek seeds also come from India’s magnificent south. Unlike the north, where tea is king, coffee may be the drink of choice in the south.
Among the cooking schools, Andhra, Chettinad, Hyderabadi, Mangalorean, and Kerala cuisines may be the most widely recognized, each have distinct tastes and methods of cooking. In fact each of the South Indian states has a different way of preparing sambar; a connoisseur of South Indian food will very easily tell the difference between sambar from Kerala, sambar from Tamilnadu, Sambar from Karnataka and pappu pulusu in Andhra cuisine.Some popular dishes include the Biriyani, Ghee Rice with meat curry, sea-food (prawns, mussels, mackerel) and paper thin Pathiris from Malabar area.
Tea is a staple beverage throughout India; the finest varieties are grown in Darjeeling and Assam. It is generally prepared as masala chai, tea with a mixture of spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger boiled with milk. As mentioned earlier, coffee is the hot drink of choice in the south, and one of the world’s premiere varieties is One of is grown around Mysore, Karnataka.
Other beverages include nimbu pani (lemonade), lassi, badam dood (milk with nuts and cardamom), chaach (made from curd/yogurt ), sharbat and coconut water. India also has many indigenous alcoholic beverages, including palm wine, fenny, bhang and Indian beer.