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A Guide to Indian Cuisine

"Food is everything we are. It is an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma." -Anthony Bourdain

Food connects us to our own culture and makes us feel drawn to other people around us bringing together friends and family. Food has the power to break down stereotypes and social barriers when individuals savour new dishes that become their favourites.

Indian food is very beloved and has the same effect of pizza: available practically everywhere! The spices, flavours and aromas of Indian cuisine take people to its roots and make them envision being in a street market in Mumbai or sampling delicacies from food stands in Delhi or Kolkata.

However Indian food has adapted around the world. According to the Ministry of External Affairs in India, there are over 31.2 million Indians living outside of India. The countries that have the most Indian immigrants are the United States, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

But after all what is Traditional Indian Food?

Contrary to popular belief, Indian food is not just about curry, chilies, and oil. There is probably no other cuisine in the world that includes as many healthy and diverse vegetables and spices. In India, cooking is considered an art. Mothers usually begin to teach their daughters fairly young in life, passing down family recipes by show-and-tell. As a matter of fact, food is a very serious business. Over the course of history, various invaders have passed through India and left their stamp behind on its cuisine. There were Aryans, Persians, Arabs, the British and the Portuguese to name just a few. The result is dishes that are so delicious, some of them are legendary.

Demystifying Indian Cuisine

With all its diversity, it is ironic then, that when the rest of the world thinks of Indian food, the one word that comes to most minds is curry. This is perhaps the greatest understatement ever as curry does not begin to sum up the amazing variety that is to be had in Indian cuisine. Other misconceptions include that all Indian food is spicy, fatty, rich, or hard to cook. With so many languages and each region having its own food specialties, the list of terms used can be exhaustive. They can also be confusing for a novice to Indian cooking. If you can't tell an achaar from a biryani or chai from an idli, you will need to do some studying of Indian cookbooks to get a sense of the different dishes, ingredients, and cooking techniques.

India’s periods of conquest have also greatly shaped the development of its cuisines. Mughal conquerors, who occupied India between the early 1500s and late 1600s, infused India’s culinary tradition with Persian flavours and practices. The effect is notable in the use meat and nuts in dishes, and specifically in dishes like biryanis and pulaos, which draw heavily on Persian cuisine.

Although British introduced soup and tea to the country, it had little impact on its cuisine. The colonial absorption of Indian cuisine into British culture, however, has deeply affected the translation of Indian food abroad. Chicken Tikka Masala, a popular dish in UK, is commonly known as “Britain’s national dish.” Curry powder is also a British creation: a blend of Indian spices that were originally paired together by colonial cooks.

Northern Indian Cuisine:

Perhaps the most prevalent culinary style found outside of India, Northern Indian cuisine reflects a strong Mughal influence. It is characterized by a high use of dairy: milk, paneer (an Indian mild cheese), ghee (clarified butter), and yogurt are all used regularly in Northern dishes. Samosas and chaats are distinctive snacks. Clay ovens known as tandoors are popular in the North, giving dishes like Tandoori Chicken and Naan bread their distinctive charcoal flavour. Dal Makhani and Paneer Butter Masala are popular vegetarian dishes.

Western Indian Cuisine:

Western Indian cuisine is distinguished by the geographic and historical particulars of its three main regions: Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Goa. Gujarati cuisine is mostly vegetarian and has an underlying sweetness to many of its dishes. Goa acted as a major trade port and colony for Portugal, resulting in a distinctive and unique blend of Indian and Portuguese culinary elements. Goan cuisine uses pork and beef with greater frequency than other regional cuisines in India. The prevalence of coconut milk, coconut paste, and fish in Goan cuisine results from its coastal location. Vindaloo is a traditional Goan dish that is an Indian restaurant mainstay, its name deriving from Vinho de Alho, a Portuguese marinade consisting primarily of garlic, wine, vinegar, and chilies.

Eastern Indian Cuisine:

Eastern Indian cuisine is very famous for its desserts. Rosgulla, Mishti doi and Payesh are popular sweets after main meals. Eastern dishes favour mustard seeds, poppy seeds, and mustard oil, giving dishes a light pungency. Rice and fish also feature prominently in Eastern cuisine.

Southern Indian Cuisine:

Southern Indian cuisine is typically differs greatly from other regions. Its “curries” contrast differently in their textures and can usually be categorized according to the drier consistency, or those favoring a more soupy or stew-like presentation. Poriyals, dry curries consisting of a variety of vegetables and spices, accompany rice dishes. Sambars, rasams, and kootus, three common stew-like dishes, each differ in their primary ingredients and degrees of liquidity. Aside from curry-style dishes, Southern Indian cuisine is known for its tasty fried or griddle-cooked snacks such as Dosas and Utthapams. Idlis and vadas are other delicacies similar to savoury doughnuts that are served as accompaniments to sambars and rasams.

Authentic dishes from all over India can be easily cooked in the comfort of your own kitchen if you have the right ingredients, patience and time. Or more easily order a curry from us on our Curry Night days as we bring to you flavours from all over India.

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