Indian food goes far beyond what Brits might order from the takeaway at the weekend, and some of the most popular 'Indian' dishes we eat out or cook at home don't even come from India. Here we take a look at what traditional Indian cooking is really like, including the history of Indian cuisine and some of the most popular traditional Indian foods.
Indian food is not just 'curry'
Interestingly, the word ‘curry’ is largely unknown in India. George Shaw, an Asian Curry Award judge, says that while the word is used worldwide for Indian dishes, it is not much liked.
“Leading Indian chefs in the UK find confining one of the world's greatest cuisines, known for its complexity and variety, to a single word, something of an insult and you won’t find the word used on their menus,” he says.
So, does the food we buy from the local takeaway remotely resemble what we’d find in India?
You might be surprised to find that the most popular Indian dish ordered in the UK, chicken tikka masala – chunks of meat marinated in spices and cooked in a semi-sweet, rich tomato sauce – was invented in Glasgow in 1971.
Also, ‘korma’ does not mean that a dish is mild and creamy, but instead means the food has been cooked slowly or braised – and can be fiery or mild.
Global influences on Indian food
That said, food regarded as authentically Indian has influences from far and wide. Naan bread originated from Persia in about 1300AD via the Mughals.
And chilli, without which curry would be unrecognisable, was introduced to India by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Now, India is the world’s biggest producer, consumer and exporter of chilli.
The spice can even help to combat heart attacks and stroke. If ever you eat too much chilli, reach for milk or lassi (an Indian yogurt-based drink), which will ease the burning caused by capsaicin, the active component in chilli.
George explains, “Spices, such as hot chillies, trigger a pain response in the mouth, stimulating the production of endorphins, which act on the pleasure centre of the brain.
Chilli is addictive and its prolonged absence from the diet causes cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Spicy food stimulates many body functions and engenders a general sense of wellbeing.
That’s why diners tend to look forward to a curry more than other cuisines and leave the restaurant in a good mood.”
Chef and teacher Hari Ghotra, who worked at The Tamarind Collection of Restaurants, which includes the first Indian restaurant to receive a Michelin star, says, “The sliding curry heat scale is fascinating – from a hot vindaloo right down to a mild creamy korma.
Indians don’t cook dishes based on heat-love – this was actually created by early restaurateurs to make curry accessible to the British public, so they would know what they were getting, and I think it was genius.
“Many dishes are rooted in India, but when Indians cook at home it’s generally fairly simple, fresh and usually about lots of different dishes coming together for a meal not just a big bowl of rice topped with one curry.”
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Regional variation in Indian cuisine
There are 29 states in India that each has a culinary style and history. Rice, however, is a staple food that is eaten daily – there are many variants, including white, red, brown, sticky and the less common black rice. Similarly, spiced lentils (dhal) of various flavours are routinely served to accompany other food.
Chicken and mutton are the most commonly eaten meats in India, with fish and beef only eaten in coastal areas and the North East of the country. Many Indians are vegetarians and the consumption of beef is banned in many states. Also, pork is not eaten by Indian Muslims.
In terms of flavours, Indian food is based on six elements of taste: sweet, salty sour, bitter, spicy and sharp. A good chef will blend these so they are balanced.
The most frequently used spices used in Indian cooking are chilli pepper, black mustard seed, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, asafoetida, ginger, coriander and garlic. Garam masala is a powdered mixture of five or more spices – these will differ depending on the region in which it is used.
Traditional food from Southern India
The southern states, which include Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, enjoy a hot and humid climate. “It is bubbling with amazing ingredients, including tamarind trees, asafoetida gum, peppercorns, mustard seeds and nutmeg,” says Hari.
“The one ingredient to highlight is the wonderful coconut that has so many uses, from oil, to a cream, to flavouring as well as being a drink and much, much more.
Rice is all-important here and is consumed with every meal in one form or another, whether this is rice cakes or pancakes for breakfast such as idli, dosa, vadas and uttapams. These are made from rice ground with lentils and are very popular in Tamil Nadu.
“The beautiful Malabar coastline, (which includes Kerala), is all about the fabulous delicacies from the sea – mussels, crab and prawns cooked with lovely aromatic spice pastes are simply wonderful.”
Traditional food from Northern India
Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have hot summers and cold winters. Hari says there is a distinct Mughal influence in the cooking here.
“Mughal emperors ruled for almost 500 years, and they were known to have a real flair in the kitchen,” she says. “The style of cooking is similar to that found in central Asia. They loved having huge banquets with elaborate dishes consisting of red meats, yoghurts, fruit and nuts.”
In Kashmir there are two distinct cooking methods – the Muslims are happy to use onions and garlic, whereas the Hindus prefer to use asafoetida. This has given rise to different versions of classic dishes, such as lamb rogan josh.
“Punjabis cook with love and passion, and their food replicates this with layers of flavour. Food is served in small dishes, with a lentil option, vegetable option and maybe a meat option with roti and yoghurt.
The food is seasonal, spiced and generally cooked outdoors. The Punjab is known as the land of milk and honey because the soil is so rich and fertile. The importance of agriculture and farming is paramount here and means lots of wheat, vegetables and sugar cane, as well as dairy produce such as yoghurt, butter, ghee and paneer.”
Unlike the rest of India, Hari observes, Punjab’s main staple is wheat, which is why there are many flat breads, rotis, parathas, and naan breads. She recommends trying north Indian dishes, such as samosa, lassi, seekh kabab, shammi kabab, Kashmiri pulao, tandoori chicken, dhal makhani and gulab jamun.
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Traditional food in Western India
Gujarat, Mumbai, Maharashtra, Goa and Rajasthan are major states of this region of India. From desert to coast, this part of the country has assimilated other cultures, as it was targeted by Western invaders.
Goa’s tropical climate lends intensity to the spices and flavours used. Much of the food cooked here is based on seafood and meat. Popular fish includes king fish (viswon), shark, tuna and mackerel. In contrast, the areas that contain more desert land, Gujarat and Rajasthan, have fewer fresh vegetables and consequently use more dhals and achars (pickles and preserves).
The dishes of Maharashtra are a mixture of northern and southern Indian cooking styles. Rice and wheat-based dishes are used equally. Food in Maharashtra’s Konkan, which is on the coast of the Arabian Sea, is marked by the use of garam masala and red chilli.
Many Mumbai restaurants serve Malvani and Goan cuisine. These dishes are tangy and contain plenty of coconut, red chilli and spice. They are usually accompanied by rice as the primary starch.
Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan is “a foodie’s paradise” says chef and cookery teacher, Romy Gill. “Jaipur is not only historically fascinating but is the heart of Rajasthan, with its rich culture and food cooked in ghee, plus the influence of the royals of course.”
She recommends visitors to Jaipur try thali – a plate of various dishes plus rice, roti, raita and a sweet dish.
Traditional food from Eastern India
Hari says this region, which is relatively wet, is known primarily for rice, vegetables and fruit and some parts are strongly influenced by Chinese and Mongolian cuisine. The main states are Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal.
“The climate helps rice grow in abundance here and rice is a staple, forming an integral part of any meal,” she says. “Some other favourites here are fish and pork. The food is biased towards fish on coastal regions and down to the large rivers and lakes, whereas pork is commonly consumed inland.
“The wet climate means many vegetables are also grown in this part of India, and they form a significant part of Eastern Indian dishes. The spices and blends used in this cuisine are also markedly different from those used in the other parts of India. The food tends to be lightly spiced yet punchy, with the use of mustard seeds and mustard oil.”
She says the key spice blend of this region is panch phoron, or Bengal five spice – equal amounts of mustard, cumin, fenugreek, fennel and nigella seeds.
East Indians serve food one course at a time, starting with a bitter dish and following with dishes that have a stronger flavour than the last.
Visit our Indian recipe section for a delicious range of recipes to suit all tastes.
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