Think of India and one of the first things that comes to mind is its diversity. A large country, its population is second only to China, its languages are numerous and every state (of which there are 28 and seven Union territories) is unique in its traditions and very importantly, its food. In fact, food from one region may actually be totally alien to a person from another region! The common thread that runs through most Indian food, though, is the use of numerous spices to create flavor and aroma.
The Culture of Food
Indians take their food very seriously. Cooking is considered an art and mothers usually begin to teach their daughters and pass down family recipes by show-and-tell, fairly young in life. Mealtimes are important occasions for family to get together. Most meals comprise of several dishes ranging from staples like rice and breads to meat and vegetables and rounded off with a dessert. In a lot of Indian homes, foods are made from scratch with fresh ingredients. For example, some families buy their favorite type of wheat, wash it, dry it in the sun and then take it into a flour mill to have it ground into flour exactly the way they like, as opposed to buying flour from a store! This is changing in bigger cities where people have increasingly hectic lives and are happy to use ready-to-eat, pre-made ingredients.
To Eat (Meat) or Not to Eat?
To the western mind, India is perceived as largely vegetarian. This is not necessarily true. To a larger extent, religious beliefs (as compared to personal preference) dictate what a person cannot eat. For example, Islam forbids its followers from eating pork while a lot of Hindus do not eat beef. Followers of the Jain faith abstain from all meats and even avoid onions and garlic!
The Matter of Influence
Throughout history, India has been invaded and occupied by other cultures and each has left its own mark on Indian cuisine. Some of the predominant influences have been:
- Aryan - which focused on the mind-, body-enhancing properties of foods;
- Persian and Arab - which led to the Mughal style of cooking with rich, thick gravies and the use of dry fruits like cashews and almonds in dishes;
- British - which gave India its love of tea and put the European twist into some dishes. Anglo-Indian cuisine was the delicious result;
- Portuguese – which left its mark on parts of India in the form of dishes like the world-renowned Vindaloo and Xacuti.
As far as food is concerned, India can very roughly be divided into four regions. Each region has several states in it and each state its own unique food. Here’s a brief look at the cuisines of North, South, East and West India. One must of course, always remember that no such description can entirely cover the huge variety of Indian food. The true discovery of it can take years of patient and very pleasurable gastronomic experimentation.