About the food of India

Bengal Tiger, the national animal of India. Photo by Paul Mannix | Indian woman. Photo by Yann

Need a smile? Want to stretch it from ear to ear? Spin the globe and point your finger. Dream of going wherever your finger lands – then go. Just promise me this – when you get there, try the Indian food. Chances are good that they’ll have some. From England to Guyana, Fiji to the United States – Indian food has made it’s way around the globe.  And not just Tikka Masala, the famed “butter chicken” dish from North India, but an entire arsenal of delicious treats.

Here’s the deal. If the food of India was categorized on one menu, you’d have at least four sections. Each of those sections would be further subdivided with even more regional specialties (via 28 states and 7 territories). And the menu would be about ten thousand pages. Bottom line? India is huge. She’s a prism of cultural and religious diversity. She’s a haven of deliciousness. My advice? When in doubt, order it all.

After a ritual bath in Amritsar, India. Photo by Paul Rudd

While there’s no way to cover it all, here’s a cheat sheet:

1. North India

The food of north India is the most famous food – it’s where you’ll find Tikka Masala, Saag Paneer [recipe](mustard greens or spinach with homemade cheese [recipe]), garam masala spice blends [recipe], and naan [recipe]. The terrain is often rough – host to the tallest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas, broken up by valleys and plains.

2. East India

The food of east India has a great deal of mustard seed and oil in it – thanks to favorable growing conditions for this golden crop. Dishes are fire-hot and quite similar to Bengali food (Bangladesh lies right in the middle of eastern India), favoring the use of ponch phoron seasoning. There’s also loads of fish, especially near the coastline. Here is a quick link to the Bengali week (with recipes) here on the blog to give you a little taste (try not to be too impressed with my early blog photography).

3. South India

Rice reigns supreme in South India, especially Basmati rice. To name a few, there’s rice crêpes, called dosa, boiled rice, biriyani – rice layered with braised meat, and idli, steamed rice cakes. This tropical region is surrounded by water and bathed in it during the lengthy monsoon season.

4. West India

West India is mostly vegetarian, and strict vegetarians at that. Some cultures in West India do not even eat garlic, onions 0r potatoes because they grow below the earth. Instead, they use asafetida, a plant resin, to season dishes with a funky, yummy flavor. West India is also known for peanuts and their delicious masala chai (tea) [recipe] - spiced, sweet, and milky.

Summary

There’s no way to generalize about Indian food. We could spend the entire 195 weeks on India alone. One thing is for sure, though – India is largely vegetarian. The food displays a great love for squashes, beans, spinach, eggplants, and tomatoes. Lentils abound in dhal curries, and many foods are cooked with ghee (clarified butter). They are known for deft use of spices, including cardamom, turmeric, ginger, cumin, and more. You’ll find hot chili peppers and spice blends that amp up dinner in curries and chutneys until diners sweat – it’s happened to me. But you’ll also find a happy assortment of creamy, cool treats – like the mango lassi, kulfi (Indian frozen treat) [recipe], sweet chutneys, and cucumber mint raitas. When there’s fire, there’s also cool.

If you’d like to learn more about Indian cuisine, there are several great books on the market. Complete Book of Indian Cooking by Suneeta Vaswani shares recipes organized into the four regions and gives a detailed overview of each in the beginning of her book. Some of her recipes are traditional and some have been updated for modern palates. As someone new to the cuisine, I found her book very helpful. As a bonus, the book is soft cover which is my absolute favorite when it comes to cookbooks.

Maps courtesy of CIA World Factbook | Brihadeeswarar Temple. Photo by Bernard Gagnon


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Comments

  1. Some of the best and most interesting food in the world comes from this country. Has apparently even unofficially become England’s national food.

  2. Collette says:

    It’s interesting that West India does not eat food grown in the ground yet they eat peanuts which also grow under the ground. Hmmm…

    Do they grow a different kind of peanut that grows above ground maybe?

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Not all west Indian communities forgo eating the root veggies, so it’s not an issue for everyone… I’d have to read more about the peanuts to see if they factor into the equation (I read that info in Vaswani’s early chapters and I don’t think she drew that correlation). Good question though.

  3. Brian S. says:

    This was wonderful to read. Brings back one memory… while the cuisine of India in every region DOES emphasize vegetables, the people do like meat. It’s the higher Hindu castes that are prohibited by religion from eating meat. But they still want it. I once spent a glorious fortnight in a village of Brahmins in a remote part of Bihar. One day, to my surprise, they offered me chicken. It turned out that the village had decided that CHICKENS ARE VEGETABLES!!

    Rarely if ever did I find a good meal in an Indian restaurant. I bet your food is better. Most Indian restaurants use curry powder.

  4. Richard says:

    I am from England and we are famous for Indian food second only to India, in every city/town there will be upto 30 Indian restaurants and takeaways! My family, and I am Caucasian, was one of the first to open an Indian restaurant in the north of England in 1956, I have been eating Indian food for over 50 years and I can cook innumerable different types of Indian food! Enjoy!

    • Sasha Martin says:

      How wonderful Richard! I have plans to make an Indian dish when I get to the United Kingdom… choices, choices :)

  5. Jessica Bennett says:

    I love Indian food (and the culture in general). They like to have a balanced meal with all six tastes (salty, sweet, bitter. . .). Their classical dance and theatre is also balanced. They incorporate rasas (9 moods/emotions, such as anger, fear, happiness, courage. . .) into each performance. Some find it rigid, and I also like to be more creative with my art, but I appreciate this tradition as well.

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Interesting. Structure can provide the freedom to be creative. I find that with my writing – if I know I have to pick 3-4 dishes from a giant country like India, it helps me focus, instead of daydreaming about it all for days on end, I actually get progress (although I usually end up doing that anyway) ha ha. I wonder if they feel that way about the dance.

  6. Brian S. says:

    OH here’s something to spice up your food…. music from India. Like the food, music is a potpourri. So I’ve included everything from Hindi film music and modern bhangra rock to long classical music performances from some of India’s best musicians.

    http://www.myspace.com/0/music-player?friendid=61062139&plid=606914

    • Sasha Martin says:

      That first song is not what I would have imagined. Fun :)

      • Brian S. says:

        Yeah, the first few songs are from Hindi movies. I put the long long classical stuff farther down so people wouldn’t be turned off and turn it off.

  7. Got my pen and paper ready to take notes…this is my husband’s favorite food and I have not tried to make it yet! Thanks Sasha!

  8. Somehow I assumed you were going to split up India… It is just too much to take in one go! I am a total newbie as well, but I just made my first dosas and my family keeps asking for them every other day. The first time it happens to me with ethnic food. I also think ponch phoron is pure culinary genius – it can lift the most boring vegetable on Earth. The only thing that bothers me is that so far my experiments have been great taste wise but a bit boring as far as texture is concerned – everything cooked to a mush. I’m looking forward to your recipes!

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Ah, yes. It was tempting to divide India up (as it was with China), but part of the fun of the blog is putting everyone on an equal playing field – to give the same attention to all countries, big and small (except when I can’t help but to combine countries because of illness or vacation).

      You’re right about the texture, although that varies by region, too. It was fascinating reading and looking through all the recipes.

  9. Hi Sasha:

    This is great! I can’t wait to see what you cook and how it turns out. I echo the statements of the others who point out how much meat is actually consumed in India. India’s 140M Muslims and 30-100M Christians have no prohibition of general meat eating (tho’ the Muslims do tend to avoid pork).

    Vegetarianism in India also takes a high toll on its infants and children in the rural Hindu who often fail-to-thrive after being introduced to complementary foods (after exclusive breastfeeding is over). (This is because they are not over nourished with handfuls of vitamin pills the way we are in the west.)

    Regardless, it is tasty whether made with meat or not. Good to break up the country as well. The next edition of Silk Road Gourmet will break up the country in at least two (perhaps four).

    Its interesting, panchforan is Bangladesh’s “five-spice” powder with the two achors to other five-spices being cumin and star anise and its distinct black cumin or black cardamom. One can trace the “five spice” owders from country to country to see how they vary across Asia – one of those twisty, turning patterns that spans the whole of the continent.

    Good Luck!

    Laura

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Thank you! So interesting to read about the spices – I love how they’ve trailed around the world, leaving little imprints along the way, as they morph and meld into various cuisines.

      I’m looking forward to your next book so much. I didn’t realize you were already at work on a second edition. Wonderful.

      When this Adventure is over I’m going to delve more into depth into many of these countries. I’m impatient in some ways, but know I have to take the time to do these brief overviews so I can get a foothold on how the world cuisines “work” in general. As a total novice to global cooking it has been so fascinating.

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