India is a country of a hundred nations and hundreds of dialects, a thousand religions and two thousand gods.
There is the same diversity when it comes to food… India is the land of spices and curries that are believed to foster passion, strengthen the infirm and cure apathy and fatigue.
Both the north and south have distinguished cuisines: gastronomy is treated as an art and is interwoven with social and religious rituals.
If you think that Indian cooking can be summed up as rice, curry and chutney, you're in for a pleasant surprise. There is no one culinary style or order of service, nor is there any single national dish. Instead you'll find an astonishing diversity of recipes and ingredients.
For this reason you might be tempted to identify a common ground in the spices that make Indian cuisine a sophisticated art that combines flavors, scents and colors. Dietary principles laid down in the sacred texts of Ayur Veda determine the proportions and blends of spices, believing that a highly spiced diet will promote good health. Spice stimulates liver function which tends to be sluggish in hot climates. An Indian will always be able to determine the origin, religion and caste of the chef from one bite of food, just from the composition of the seasoning. And you may be surprised to learn that many Indians do not eat spicy foods.
Indian food is simple and balanced, based upon age-old principles and recipes. Traditional medicine is at the root of every composition. Thus a rather heavy dish will be balanced by something acidic to promote digestion, in the form of tomato, vinegar or lemon. Therefore the way spices are combined plays an important role. Are you familiar with asafoetida? In Hindu cooking, there is always a little pinch added which prevents the flatulent effects of legume dishes.
The cuisine varies from one region to another, but also from one home to another.
The north is India's granary. If you wanted to briefly sum up the cooking of the north, in comparison to that of the south, you could say that the cooking is based primarily on ghee, a kind of clarified butter, with a lot of bread, grilled meats, few sauces, and a taste for yogurt. The great Middle Eastern culinary traditions dating back to the courts of the Moghol kings are found here in the form of Persian pullaos (saffron-flavored mixtures of rice and meat), biryanis and kebabs.
The large state of Rajasthan borders Pakistan, where coriander and corn are grown. Goats are also raised there.
It was in the Punjab state, a mustard producer, and particularly in Delhi, the capital, that the famous tandoori was born, which long ago crossed beyond India's borders, being well-suited to western tastes. It's a relatively mild cuisine that is well-suited to today's healthy low-fat style of cooking. Meats are first marinated, then grilled in an oven called a tandoor, and are served with yogurt-based sauces. In Punjabi, huge earthen or clay ovens (called tandoors), half buried in the ground are made red-hot with a coal fire at the bottom. Marinated fish, meat, chicken and cooked cheese is threaded on to skewers and cooked in it. The food gets flavored by a special tandori mixture of spices and charcoal. Tandoori massala has a distinctive aroma. Very fragrant and spicy. It tastes hot, sour and salty with a predominant of cumin and coriander.
Kashmir, bordering Russia and China in the far north of India, is renowned for its meats, chickpeas and highly-spiced dishes… appropriately it is the country's largest producer of hot chilies! Since the region is much colder than others, these hot foods warm the insides of the population, and if the fire gets to be too much, it is calmed with a little yogurt! This is also the lamb capital, and the animal is celebrated by a great banquet called "wazwan," that offers 24 different dishes featuring lamb as their main ingredient.
In north India where winters are bitterly cold, a blend of spice called garam massala is preferred to Chillies which cool body by promoting perspiration. Some of the most expensive spice go into its making. Every house hold in India has their own recipe for it. Depending on individual taste, the proportion of the various ingredients can be adjusted.
Southern Indians are "Princes of the Earth," strictly vegetarian and abstainers from alcohol. Grains and legumes are transformed into delicious dishes. In the heartland of southern India, rice is flavored and enhanced with numerous suave, though fiercely hot, sauces. Cooking is done with oil.
The coast is fringed with fruit trees that make their way into the local cuisine: cashews, bananas (large red bananas and small sweet bananas called "butter bananas"), lemons, guavas, jackfruit, mangos, papayas and tamarind. In Karnataka they also grow coffee and tea.
In the state of Karnataka the whole tropical coast beginning at Goa is a paradise of fish and shellfish, often prepared with oil and spices and served as a curry. In the markets, fishermen's wives sell fish that are used for fried whitebait.
Throughout the region, about the third week in August, there are many big "melas" or festivals - to mark the end of the monsoons, for example, or to celebrate the coconut, since the coconut palm is known here as the "tree of riches" since every part of it is used.
The state of Kerala, west of the point, is well-known for its coconuts, pineapples and red bananas, as well as for its cardamom seed which flavors much Indian cooking. It is here that you can sample "idlis," delicious little cakes made from fermented rice.
Tamil Nadu on the east side is renowned for its dals, lentil-based vegetarian dishes. You'll find big coconut plantations here as well as turmeric growing.
Sambhar is the special spice blend of south India. It acts as a flavouring as well as a thickening agent. This mix is so called because it is used to flavour a dal (lentils) of the same name (Sambhar), popular in this region. It is a Preparation of lentils and vegetables, spiked with different spices and laced with coriander.
In the Gujarat state, bordered by the sea of Oman and by Pakistan to the north, red chilies, cumin and peanuts are grown.
The state of Maharashtra, whose capital is Bombay, possesses the most sophisticated cuisine, made with an endless number of ingredients: the Maharats are particularly proud of their amazing range of achars, chutneys and cachumbars. The cooking here is mild and relatively moderately spiced and turmeric is used only in small amounts so that its color does not obscure the natural color of the ingredients. Onions, oranges, limes, litchis and millet are grown here.
This region includes the states of Bjhar, western Bengal, Orissa and numerous others that lie between Burma and Tibet. Its capital is Calcutta.
Lying at the end of the Gulf of Bengal where the Ganges delta is located, and divided in two by the Bangladesh border, the region is well-known for its fish and its desserts. The heart of the banana tree is also used as a vegetable.
Photo: Courtesy of San Michelle Travel
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