Flavors of India
Indian cuisine dates back to over 5000 years ago. Each region has its own traditions, religions and culture that influence its food. Hindus tend to be vegetarian and Muslims tend to have meat dishes, although pork is forbidden. Indian food has been influenced by Mongolian, Persian and Chinese cuisine, among others.
The distinct mixing of spices consistently gives Indian cuisine its flavor and aroma. Indian food ranges from very simple vegetarian fares to exotic dishes layered with texture and flavor ranging from spicy, sweet, and salty. Preparations of meals are fairly simple, using common cooking methods like frying and sautéing.
- Indian cuisine has the greatest variety for vegetarian dishes.
- Indian cuisine incorporates spicy, sour, sweet, and hot all at the same time.
- Northern Indian dishes heavily use meat and Indian bread.
- The word ‘curry’ just means gravy.
- Chicken Tikka Masala is the ‘king of Indian curries’.
Ingredients of Indian cuisine
With all its exotic ingredients, unfamiliar dishes, and tongue-tingling flavors, Indian cuisine can be both exciting and intimidating. Indian cuisine uses the whole palette of flavors which include spicy, sour, sweet, and hot all at the same time. There’s as much varied cuisine in India as you would find in Europe.
There are a basic 20 to 30 spices that are used in many dishes like cumin, coriander, turmeric, and ginger, to name a few, and there are an infinite number of ways of using them. Every spice has a reason for being there. Some have health benefits, and some make the food more exciting and flavorful.
Chilies, mustard seeds, gram flour, coconut and yogurt are more popular ingredients in all types of Indian cuisine. Ghee, a type of clarified butter, is used for cooking, and has a toasty taste. Saffron is used to flavor and color rice dishes.
Indian cuisine has an added bonus for vegetarians. For them, it’s one of the friendliest cuisines around. The use of spices and the additions of potatoes, cauliflower, peas, and eggplant are some common ingredients for these types of dishes.
Seasonality and cooking methods
Different regions in India can be easily identified by their preference for a particular cereal as a staple, and by their preference for a certain type of souring agent or spicing. Each region treats the same vegetable differently. One may deep-fry it with or without batter, while elsewhere steaming with minimal spicing is the norm.
Depending on where they are situated, Indians even use vastly different cooking oils for the delicacies of flavor they convey. In Punjab and other northern regions including Bengal, mustard oil is prized for its pepperiness. In Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka peanut and sesame oil are popular, while in Kerala, coconut oil reigns supreme.
Many Indian dishes often use 3 to 6 kinds of cooking methods including frying, boiling, sautéing, and grilling. Indian cooking methods are not different from the popular methods of cooking. It is the way a certain cooking technique or nuances are applied when cooking Indian food that differs.
For instance, the sautéing in Indian cooking involves cooking on a low flame with the addition of a dash of water from time to time to prevent the spices or the base sauce from burning, comparing that to other cuisines where it will mostly require you to stir continuously on medium heat without any additional water.
Flavors of Delhi and the north
The far north of India has an arid climate. Due to this, breads made from wheat like naan, roti, and paratha are usually served with meals instead of rice. The majority of northern Indians are Muslim or Hindu, so no beefs and pork feature on the menu. Dried spices and robust fresh chilies are also heavily used.
Yoghurt is used throughout the north in marinades for curries and in drinks like lassi. Raitas are the favorite yoghurt condiment to cool a fiery curry or to dip papadum into. Central and coastal areas of northern India are more temperate so vegetables, rice, chicken, lamb, and seafood are plentiful.
Delhi foods also like to use meat and Indian bread as their main features. It's hearty and commonly cooked in a tandoor. Common cooking methods used in northern India include deep frying for many of the snacks, grilling or roasting for meat, and slow simmer stewing for all sorts of curries.
Tandoori roti, chapatti, naan, and many other types of flat breads are used as the main filler and as a great way to scoop us sauces. Dairy also plays a huge role in North Indian food. Paneer, a hearty cheese, is one of the most popular main ingredients, especially for those that are vegetarian.
North India is also extremely famous for its barbecued meats. Tandoori chicken, chicken that's been marinated in spices and yogurt and then roasted in a clay oven known as a tandoor, is one of the most famous. Chicken, beef, mutton, and eggs are all stewed in lots of spices and ghee. The thick rich sauces are truly marvelous.
Aloo Mutter is a famous dish from North India. It is made from potatoes (aloo) and peas (mutter) in a spiced creamy tomato based sauce. It is a vegetarian dish and the sauce is generally cooked with garlic, ginger, onion, tomatoes, cilantro, cumin seeds and other spices.
Chicke Tikka Masala is another famous dish. It is made by cooking tandoori chicken that has been marinated in a spiced yogurt sauce in the tandoor until juicy and smoky. The dish is known for its orange color, usually from turmeric and paprika in the sauce, but sometimes because of added orange food coloring.
Flavors of Western India
West India probably has the most diverse styles of food in India. Rajasthani food is spicy and largely vegetarian but includes many delicious meat dishes like Laal Maas which is red meat curry while Gujarat’s cuisine is known for its slight sweet touch and is traditionally entirely vegetarian.
Thali, which is platter with a wide range of different food items, is the Gujarati style of eating, and a meal can consist of as many as 10 different vegetable dishes, rice, chapatti or Indian bread, and sweets. The Gujaratis love a snack and cook a huge variety of them. These are collectively known as Farsan.
In Maharashtra, coastal areas are famous for Malvani cuisine which is mainly fresh coconut-based hot and sour curries with fish and seafood while the interiors have the more prudent, Vidharba cuisine which uses a lot of dry coconuts. Goa food is rich, spicy and strongly flavored by coconut, red chilies, and vinegar.
The staple diet of the people of West India is rice. Wheat, bajra and jowar are also consumed in regions such as in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Plenty of sea food in Goa and Maharashtra ensures that the fish and other sea food is the habitual part of the meal for the non-vegetarians.
Diversity in the geographical area in this zone from the most arid to the wet and coastal makes this zone most versatile in terms of cuisine. They have a wide range of both simple vegetarian and delectable non-vegetarian food such as Maharashtra's Bhel Puris, Gujarat's Dhoklas, Rajasthani Bati Choorma, and Goa's Vindaloo.
A type of Vindaloo that is popular is the Pork Vindaloo. It has wonderful spices, vinegar, ginger and garlic to bring the best out of the rich pork, but it doesn’t have a thick sauce. For the best flavor, the pork must be cooked in minimal water so it stews, as much as possible, in its own juices.
Basundi is another famous dish. It is an Indian sweet very similar to the North Indian Rabdi. This dish is a sweetened condensed milk drink made by boiling milk on low heat until the milk is reduced by half. Almonds and pistachios are sometimes are added to add crunch to this creamy sweet.
Flavors of Eastern India
Food in East India is largely lacking of oil and masalas. A lot of the dishes utilize a variety of local vegetables and fruit. Another popular ingredient used for East Indian dishes is Paanch Phoran which is a mix of five spices which are white cumin seeds, onion seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds and fenugreek seeds.
Yogurt, coconut, maize and gram flour are also common ingredients. Milk and dairy products play a huge role in the preparation of sweets in Eastern India. Mustard oil and other vegetable oils are very popular and used for both deep frying and cooking.
Steaming and frying are popular methods of cooking for the dishes. In coastal regions, fish is the food of choice while further inland, pork wins the position on the plate. Eastern Indians have a big love for sweets and desserts. Some of India’s most popular and world-renowned sweets come from here.
East India is a hot mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. The people of West Bengal and parts of Orissa’s love for fish, rice and sweet is legendary and contributes a significant lot to the popular cuisine of not just this region but also the national cuisine of India.
One of the people’s favorite sweets is Sandesh, a dessert originating from the Bengal region in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent and is made with milk and sugar. Being a milk-based sweet, Sandesh doesn’t last long so it is recommended to eat it as soon as possible.
Another famous dish is Machcher Jhol, a traditional spicy fish stew and is usually served with rice. Machcher Jhol is abundantly seasoned with turmeric, garlic, onions, and grated ginger. Potatoes are also added to the stew as a thickening agent. Tomatoes are also added to convey the dish with a reddish color.
Flavors of South India
Most people in southern India are vegetarian, so pulses, legumes and rice are common ingredients here. Head to the coast, though and you’ll find beef, chicken and lamb dishes, as well as seafood.
Lighter flavors such as fresh herbs, ginger, coconut, and citrus are also featured in southern food with aromatics like cinnamon and mustard. Curry leaves, too, are a must-have of the region’s cuisine. Cashew nuts are grown here to add flavor and crunch to recipes as well as to thicken sauces, famously in kormas.
Freshly grated, dried and shredded coconut is used in spice pastes, sambals or tossed through rice dishes, while coconut milk and cream add thickness and a delicious creaminess to the curries.
Rice is the staple in South Indians’ diet. In Kerala, most dishes are coconut-based and seafood is a specialty. The Chettinad cuisine from Tamil Nadu and the cuisine from Andhra Pradesh are known for being hot and spicy. Hyderabad is famous for its biryani and the Udupi region of Karnataka is renowned for its vegetarian fare.
No South Indian meal is complete without rice or other forms of it like idlis which are steamed cakes made from rice batter, or dosas or uttapams which are pancakes made from a batter of rice and lentil flour.
A dosa is a South Indian, fermented crepe made from rice, lentils, potato, methi, and curry leaves. Masala Dosa, specifically, is when you stuff it with a lightly cooked filling of potatoes, fried onions and spices. Masala Dosa is served with chutneys and sambar. It is perhaps the south Indian food that is most enjoyed by travelers
Chicken Korma is another dish coming from South India consisting of meat or vegetables braised with water, stock, and yogurt or cream, and spices to produce a thick sauce or glaze. The Chicken Korma makes up to be a delicious companion with hot rotis and chapattis.
Curry is a variety of dishes originating in India that uses a complex combination of spices or herbs, usually including ground turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, and fresh or dried chilies. Dishes called 'curry' may contain fish, meat, poultry, or shellfish.
Additionally, many instead are entirely vegetarian, eaten especially among those who hold ethical or religious proscriptions against eating meat or seafood.
Cooking styles and ingredients of curries vary significantly from north to south and east to west across India. The curries in Northern India vary from mildly spicy to very spicy and include vegetarian, mutton, chicken and fish.
One example is Dhansak curry, which has a distinct sweet and sour profile to it, but has a decent amount of spice to it. Another example is Chicken korma which is a rich, creamy and very gentle curry made with meat cooked gently in yoghurt.
Eating habits and dietary restrictions
Rice remains a dietary staple for Hindus from Southern India, and wheat for those from Northern India. Many older Hindus are vegetarians or vegans. Chicken, mutton, and fish are consumed by Hindus who are not vegetarians. Traditional Hindus rarely eat beef and traditional Muslims rarely eat pork.
The vegetarian diet is rich in carbohydrates, poor in protein, and often lacking in calcium. Thus, older adults are at risk of nutritional deficiency and osteoporosis. The typical Asian Indian diet averages 56% of energy intake from carbohydrates, 32% from total fat and 8% from saturated fat. The high fat intake is associated with obesity and low leisure time activity.
As gelatin is manufactured by processing the collagen in cow or pig bones, hooves, and connective tissues, traditional Indians, especially Hindus, may desist from eating gelatin-based products like jello, certain yoghurt which are stabilized using gelatin, and marshmallow
Muslims will consume halal yoghurt and other halal meats. Similar to kosher, halal denotes foods that are religiously acceptable according to Islam. In extreme cases, some traditional Indians may even refuse porcine insulin and bovine insulin, though these instances are extremely uncommon.
Fasting frequently is also a common practice among older women and vegetarians. It is done because of religious belief that it improves the welfare of the family. Health providers should inquire about these practices and help the patient practice their religious customs with while being working with them to lessen adverse effects on their health.
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