Cuisines of India
By Manoj Gursahani
Indian cuisine is famous the world over with its distinguishing sophisticated use of spices and herbs. Indian cuisine is strongly influenced by widespread and longstanding vegetarianism within sections of India's majority Hindu and Jain communities. Very integral to the Indian culture is the Indian cuisine and love of food amongst its vast population, cuisines differ according to community, region, and state. Indian cuisine is delightfully unique with a great variety of foods, spices, and cooking techniques, each with its distinct taste. Each religion, region, and caste has left its own influence on Indian food.
Vedic Hindus since the Vedic times gave a number of vegetarian recipes to the Indian cuisine. Later, Christians, British, Buddhists, Portuguese, Muslims from Turkey, Arabia, and Persia, and others had their influence as well when they arrived in India. Vegetarianism came to prominence during the rule of Ashoka, one of the greatest of Indian rulers who was a promoter of Buddhism; currently, 31% of Indians are vegetarians. In India, food, culture, religion, and regional festivals are all closely related. Indian meat and fish cuisine is mostly influenced by the Muslim population
Rice, atta (whole wheat flour), and almost five dozen varieties of pulses form the staple of Indian cuisine with the most important being chana (bengal gram), toor (pigeon pea or red gram), urad (black gram) and mung (green gram). Chana is usually utilized in different forms, and can be used whole or processed in a mill that removes the skin, eg dhuli moong or dhuli urad, and can also be sometimes mixed with rice and khichri (a food that is excellent for digestion and similar to the chick pea, but smaller and more flavorful). The Indian dal consists exclusively of pulses except chana. Chana is often cooked whole for breakfast and is processed into flour (besan). Most Indian curries are fried in vegetable oil. Vegetable oil too, is of different varieties. In North India, groundnut oil is traditionally been most popular for frying, while in Eastern India, Mustard oil is more commonly used. In South India, coconut oil is common. In recent decades, sunflower oil and soybean oil have gained popularity all over India. Hydrogenated vegetable oil, known as Vanaspati ghee, is also a popular cooking medium.
Spices form the most important part of the flavor of the Indian cuisine. The most important spices in Indian cuisine are chilli pepper, black mustard seed (rai), cumin (jeera), turmeric, fenugreek, ginger, coriander and asafoetida (hing). Garam masala is a very important spice and is a powder of five or more dried spices, commonly comprised of cardamom, cinnamon and clove. Some commonly used leaves are tejpata (malabathrum), bay leaf, coriander leaf, and mint leaf which adds to the zing of any tasty recipe. The common use of curry leaves is typical of South Indian cuisine. Cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron, and rose petal essences are some exclusive and costly spices usually used in sweet dishes.
Dairy products such as milk, paneer, ghee (clarified butter), and yoghurt are used in a higher proportion in the North Indian cuisine whereas South Indian cuisine uses unaltered milk products in large quantities. North Indian gravies are typically dairy-based and employ thickening agents such as cashew or poppy seed paste. Milk-based sweets are also very popular fare, being a particular specialty in Bengal and Orissa. Other common ingredients include chilies, saffron, and nuts.
The Indian pancake 'roti' or 'paratha' (flat breads) are usually cooked with the use of a 'tawa' or a griddle while baking breads such as 'naan', 'kulcha' and 'khakhra is usually accomplished in a large and cylindrical coal-fired oven called the 'tandoor' even a popular dish called 'tandoori' chicken is cooked in tandoor. Other type of breads include puri and bhatoora, which are cooked by deep frying in oil, are also common. Most of North Indian food, like anywhere else in India, is vegetarian. There is an amalgamation of cuisines throughout India. Fish and seafood are very popular in the coastal states of Orissa and West Bengal.
A variety of lentils, vegetables, and roti (wheat based bread) constitute the staple food of most of North India. The preparation of these varieties can vary from place to place. Some of the most popular Northern Indian dishes include: Buknu, Gujiya, chaat, daal ki kachauri, jalebi, imarti, several types of pickles (known as achar), murabba, sharbat, pana, aam papad, and Poha.
Another famous snack famous throughout India and belonging to North Indian cuisine is the 'samosa'. These days it is common to get it in other parts of India as well. The most common filling of samosa is a boiled, fried, and mashed potato, although a variety of fillings make it a most delicious and a hot favourite all over India.
There are several popular sweets (mithai) like gulab jamun, peda, khurchan, petha, rewdi, gajak, milk cake, balusahi, bal mithai, singori, kulfi, falooda, khaja, ras malai, gulqand, and several varieties of laddu, barfi and halwa.
Some common North Indian foods such as the various kebabs and most of the meat dishes originated with Muslims advent into the country.
The countries known as Pakistan and Bangladesh were a part of North and East India prior to the partition of India. As a result, the cuisines in these countries are very similar to northern and eastern Indian cuisine.
Main article: South Indian cuisine
South Indian cuisine is distinguished by a greater emphasis on rice as the staple grain, the liberal use of coconut and curry leaves particularly coconut oil, and the ubiquity of sambar and rasam (also called saaru) at meals.
South Indian cooking is even more vegetarian-friendly than north Indian cooking. The practice of naivedya, or ritual offerings, to Krishna at the Krishna Mutt temple in Udupi, Karnataka, has led to the Udupi style of vegetarian cooking. The variety of dishes which must be offered to Krishna forced the cooks of the temple to innovate. Traditional cooking in Udupi Ashtamatha is characterized by the use of local seasonal ingredients. Garam masala is generally avoided in South Indian cuisine.
The dosa, idli, vada, bonda, and bajji are typical South Indian snacks.
South Indian cuisine is not limited to the above snacks, which are very popular. Andhra, Chettinad, Hyderabadi Nawabi, Mangalorean, and Kerala cuisines each have distinct tastes and methods of cooking.