In many ways this article has been 30 years in the making.
Which is why I have been putting off writing it for an awfully long time till I've been driven to distraction by its thought and finally, it must be done. Because in my mind, unless I can properly introduce the foods of India to you, I cannot begin to share the wealth of traditional family recipes.
I'm a purist when it comes to food. I worship the concept of 'authentic' as the benchmark of what is good especially when dealing with ethnic cuisines. If it's being done successfully for over 3000 years years then I think it deserves that we sit up & listen!
I have no doubt that some of what I say here will have of you in an uproar. It can't be helped.
What I hope is that you will view this incredibly vast, almost unfathomable cuisine in a new light. And if the next time you go to a restaurant or decide to cook it at home, I hope that what you've read here will give you a moment of pause and enable you to make much more informed choices.
So here goes -
I have been wanting to scream this from the roof tops for decades - there is no such thing as curry! We Indians do not make curry!! There are thousands of gravies or 'kari' but no curries.
The term kari comes from 15th century Tamil literature that refers to 'kari' which means sauce or gravy. Case & point - Gravies, Yes! Curries, No!
2) If you use Curry powder in 'kari's you're doing it all
Curry powder is rarely found in Indian kitchens. And if it is, its for use in western cooking & the occasional mulligatawny soup!
Indian cooking uses a blend of spices & herbs & is all about balance & proportions. Each recipe uses a different combination of spices & herbs, unique to each dish from each region & each state. So the use of 'curry powder' is actually very un-Indian & actually mute since the spice blends are made specifically for each dish.3) There is no such thing as 'Indian' food.
India is a country of 28 states and 18 official languages (not including dialects). Each of these states are poles apart in culinary styles, languages and customs. It is impossible to bunch the varied foods of all these states under an umbrella term of 'Indian' food.
To give you an idea - my mother is Gujarati, from Kutch in the state of Gujarat. My father is a north Indian, Punjabi-Pathan. My husband is a Bengali from West Bengal.
If our grandparents were all put together in one room, and they all spoke in their mother tongues, no one would know what the other was saying! Completely different languages & also completely different foods. True story! (which is why we speak in the national language when we're together - Hindi not Hindu which is the religion!)4) Cook & order the foods of India by its regions & don't combine foods from different regions
Each regions has distinct ingredients & cooking styles varied by geographical location & prevalent climatic conditions. So for an authentic experience & true appreciation of the food, order & cook dishes from one region only & do not combine with foods from different regions.
I am 'guilty as charged' for what I'm about to do. For ease of explaining, I am going to club foods of many Indian States together & so define a 'region' by isolating the connecting thread. I am also only touching on some of the most popular Indian foods known & not going into the nuances in each State & their respective styles.
For example, I am not going to go into great depth of the cooking styles from the various pockets of Rajasthan - Marwar & Jodhpur nor am I separating South Indian foods into Kerela, Andhra, Tulu, Coorg etc
5) Foods of North India - include Punjab, Avadh known today as Lucknow & Mughlai cuisines.
Characteristics - This cuisine is perhaps the most popular & widely served in restaurants. It is characterized by meats & vegetables cooked in the tandoor (coal fired barbecue), use of cream in dals & yogurt in marinades.
Examples of foods from this region - saag paneer, koftas, rogan josh, chholey
Eat with - The grain of North India is wheat not rice. Therefore unleavened breads rule - naan, tandoori roti, rotis or chapaatis are traditionally eaten with foods of this region. In Avadh parathhas are prevalent . So it goes without saying, when ordering a tandoori, main dish or vegetable, please eat it with one of the North Indian breads & not rice.
Yet, rice is served with these dishes at most 'Indian' restaurants (much to my chagrin) but now you know better!
Biryanis & pilafs - The only exception to this is when ordering Biryanis - The true embodiment of Mughlai cooking & Dum Pukth method - foods are cooked in their own juices & steam. Here, meat & rice is cooked together in layers, sealed & steamed. When ordering a Biryani, especially if it's the authentic Biryani eat with only a tandoori kabab on the side. It's a one dish meal & should not follow large dishes of meat & vegetables.
Popular desserts - Phirni, Rabarhi, gulab jamun, kheer & sheera
6) Food from Western India - Goan & Parsi dishes
Goan - For a state so small the cuisine is anything but!
Characteristics - The flavors in this cuisine are characterized by hot, sweet, spicy & tangy all at once.
The food is heavily influenced by Portuguese food due to the 16th century invasion. The gravies are chilly-hot, spices ground with vinegar & coconut based - ground coconut & coconut milk.
Examples of this cuisine - Balcao, Xacuti, Vindaloos, Sorpotel, Moehlos
Eat with - here, rice rules!
Forget about eating your vindaloos, xacuti & sorpotel with anything but rice. And if you see a fat lady on the next table glaring at you as you order your vindaloo with tandoori chicken & naan - yeah, that's me! Also eaten are fist sized loaves of bread called 'paos'.
desserts - Bebinca & 3-in-1 custard
Parsi - This food is the hallmark India's largest Zoroastrian community - ancient Persians. The influence of Arabic led to a drop in the 'p' sound in the Persian language, changing "Parsi" to "Farsi" (the name by which the language is now known).
Examples of this cuisine - The Parsi 'National' dish is 'Dhansakh' - eaten on Sundays & at all weddings - caramelized onions & brown rice served with a mix of dals & vegetables served with small balls of lamb & mint kevavs (kababs), deep fried to a dark brown. Also enjoyed are patias & 'per eeda' dishes which roughly translates into 'topped with egg' as many vegetables & served topped with poached eggs sort of like a spicier Benedict! Also weekend breakfasts brings a feast of spicy scrambled eggs called 'Akoori' with bread & butter.
Characteristics - In Parsi cuisine, there is an influence of European foods with broths & white sauces but also the use of sweet & tangy with jaggery & lemon. Parsi dishes are served with rice or western style breads & not North Indian style breads etc
Once again, Dhansakh is a one-dish-meal & eaten on weekends because the only place you're going after eating this meal is to bed for a long zzzz.....
desserts - Maavaa nu boi, ravo, sev
7) Foods from Rajasthan & Gujarat - Welcome to the land of temples & Jainism.
Rajasthani - Home is the Thar or the Great Indian Desert. Kitchens flourish in this Land of Princes. On one side of the spectrum, the love for shikaar (a good hunt) is a particular favorite with royalty and in the world of fine cuisines, game hunting & game preparation is an art form.
Wild boar, peacock, quail and venison are found all across the desert creating a culinary art form that is unimaginable; for example Sule - a Rajasthani kabab is cooked 11 different ways!
On the other side of the spectrum is the equally grand all vegetarian food of Marwar or Jodhpur with the exception of a few dishes such as choorma & daal baati, kachoris & gatte that cannot be replicated out of state due to lack of specific ingredients & wild dried berries.
rarely find this cuisine served in Indian restaurants unless it is a
specialty Rajasthani restaurant.
desserts - Jodhpuri Moong Dal Halwa, sohan halwa, maalpua
Gujarati - Here is a populace that has been mainly vegetarian for over 3000 years for religious reasons. Again, not going into details such as surati, kathiawadi styles of cooking, salient features are -
Characteristics - The unique feature of this cuisine is the typical mix of whole spices during the tempering process - hot oil is seasoned with mustard seeds & then other whole spices are added. Dried cumin-coriander powder is extensively used as a seasoning.
Examples of this cuisine - The hallmark of this cuisine is 'Oondhia' a vegetables with over 8 varieties of vegetables & chick-pea fenugreek dumplings. Also famous for dishes such as patra, khaandavi & thheplas.
You will rarely find this cuisine served in Indian restaurants unless it is a specialty Gujarati restaurant.
desserts - Srikhand, Gaajar no halvo, Gol paapdi, besan na laadoo
8) Foods from Southern India
This cuisine is perhaps the most popular & widely served in restaurants, unfortunately, right there along with North Indian foods. They couldn't be more polar opposites!
Characteristics - Foods from this region are largely vegetarian since the southern states compared to the Northern states have been largely untouched by foreign invaders. Dals (legumes) & rice remain the soul of this region. Also characteristic is the heavy use of 'kari' leaves (kadi patta), tamarind & coconut in its grated & milk form.
Examples of this cuisine - The foods of this regions is characterized by dishes cooked on the griddle such as dosas, coconut chutneys, thin broth like legumes such as rasam & sambar . Depending on the state it also serves an array of meat & seafood dishes - crab, fish & prawns in a rich, spicy coconut gravy.
Eat with - The grain of South India is rice not wheat. This region is rich with paddy fields so rice remains a staple through & through.
desserts - Paruppu Payasam, Paal poli
Before some folks get their knickers in a twist, I am aware that Bangladesh is no longer a part of India. However, since so many of Bengali ancestors hail from Bangladesh the influences cannot be discounted.
Characteristics - Fish & rice are at the heart of this cuisine! Also noteworthy are the rich golden mustard fields & mustard oil is used extensively in the cuisine setting apart from all others.
Examples of this cuisine - Shorshe maach (mustard fish), Doi maach (yogurt fish), Macher kalia (fish cooked in an onion & tomato gravy) are all traditional to this cuisine.
Also unique to this cuisine is the use of panch phhoron - a combination of 5 whole spices (cumin, onion seeds, fennel, mustard & fenugreek seeds) that are used to temper hot oil & almost always used in vegetables preparations.
Eat with - The grain of East India is rice not wheat. However, if wheat is to be eaten it is in the form of rotis & chapattis & sometimes thin parathas which are distinctly different to its thicker North Indian brother.
desserts - Varieties of sandesh, rassagullas, Raj Bhog, paayesh
And yes you may love all of these profusely and be devout followers of the 'chai' cult but to profess these commercial concoctions as the real deal would tantamount to professing Velveeta as a 24 month aged cheddar! So please, learn the difference!
The first time I came across 'Chai' here in the US was at a gourmet herb shop in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Out of curiosity, we bought the 'Chai blend' & when we returned home after our romantic weekend we brewed it. One sip & we promptly spat it out! Over numerous ensuing encounters with the westernized & glorified Chai at the neighborhood coffee shops and chain stores, our fears were confirmed - they have no idea what real Chai is!
Recently when I was with friends in a boutique coffee house, one of them saw me smirk at the 'chai' listed on the menu & I said, you know this is not the real 'chai' right? And she said, well, it's American Chai - I looked at her said, "You've got to know there's no such thing!"
Over the years, when friends have come over I always make chai & they say that once they've had our homemade chai they can never again go order it at the 'big name coffee house'. Well, because in the 'chai' we make everyday, fresh herbs & spices are brewed together and the flavors are rich & strong. The confused chai blends served commercially simply don't come close!
Chai is traditional brewed Indian tea that has been served in India for centuries. The recipe for 'chai masala' is unique to Indian families especially Gujarati families and a well guarded secret. I use my grandmother's recipe that has been passed down for generations.
Moreover, chai masala is used mainly in the winter because the spices used have natural defensive properties against colds & sniffles. I hope you'll join me when we do a feature on the true authentic 'Chai' or as in hindi, asli chai!
Foods from India are rooted in Ayurveda
The truth is, the
use of spices in foods of India are steeped in the 5000 year old
knowledge of Ayurveda (ayur = life, veda = knowledge)
Recipes are passed down from generation to generation not through books
& written records - but through practice.
Though the knowledge of its medicinal properties of the herbs & spices have been lost to most of us, with flavor & palette taking the forefront, the fact remains that locked in traditional recipes are age old secrets of the benefits of herbs & spices.
Here are naming a few -
seeds - It is a wonderful, aromatic & pungent spice. It promotes
digestion & is known to relieve upset stomachs.
Cardamom - It has wonderful
sweet & pungent flavors & is believed to promote digestion. It is good for the heart, and
as an added benefit is used as a natural breath freshener.
Cinnamon - Its flavors are bitter, sweet and pungent all at the same time. It relieves thirst and is also believed to aid against cholesterol.
Turmeric powder- It's properties as an antiseptic is well known for thousands of years. It is also believed to aid against diabetes & promotes good digestion.
Dried Ginger - It is pungent, spicy & strong flavored. It is very effective against colds & flu symptoms. It also promotes good digestion, and is thought to be a detoxifying agent.
all in 'the hand' so choose the right cook & restaurant
Now that you are well armed with all this knowledge, when choosing a
restaurant, remember that chances are a North Indian chef will be best
at his dishes while a South Indian Chef will be nearly unbeatable in his
rendition of a perfect Dosa!
As a customer, ask the owner of restaurant what type of food his restaurant specializes in. I know you think I've gone off the deep end but we do this as a matter of course before determining what to order. And as a rule, Mr. Hubby & I never order North Indian dishes at a South Indian restaurant & vice versa!
the food is doused in so much chilly that your tongue has gone numb
& your taste buds have been incinerated, chances are that was intentional! That way you can't taste how bad the food truly is...smiles....
I hope that you'll join me as we embark on a journey into true authentic foods from India. You will notice that the foods from India on the blog are separated & categorized by region so this should make menu choices & planning easier.
As we go along, I will also be writing in detail on preparing homemade roasted spices , homemade ghee & other such pillars of the home kitchen which is the secret to preparing authentic foods successfully.
Please continue to join me in the kitchen & stay for the friendship
& the food!
With special thanks -
To J. Inder (Jiggs) Kalra, renowned food historian of India and true connoisseur of great food. I have learned so much reading his works over the years and much of my historical knowledge on food has come from little golden nuggets of information that I have stored in my mind over the years.
I also rely heavily on the umpteen number of days spent in debates and conversations with my parents & grandparents over cups & cups of 'chai' on hot Mumbai afternoons. Alive in those moments, traditions & cultural values were imbibed & digested with as much flourish as the chai & samosas.
& Dad for always reading & critiquing my work in such depth so
its forever true & honest.
To my childhood friend Saurin for his fresh perspective & critique.
Last but not least my Mr. Hubby for
staying up nights reading my posts & relentlessly correcting my grammar. ..smiles...