Travelogue Archive

The ABCs of Indian food

An introduction to Indian gastronomy

In order to understand Indian food, one needs to first understand India. Now that’s easier said than done.

Before I begin, we must be aware that I’m attempting to accurately educate the reader about the collective cuisine of over 1.2 billion people. I feel it is my responsibility to share my credentials with the reader, based on which the reader will decide whether or not I am a credible source of information.

I believe at some point in their lives, everyone has the luxury of time and energy. The time to think and the energy to lead a fast-paced life which otherwise wouldn’t be possible had we been any older or younger. This luxury enables one to chase after whatever they deem important and worth pursuing. I love to cook and I love to travel. By this I mean travelling solo, as opposed to holidaying with family and friends. I believe the purpose of travel is defeated whenever there is excess baggage. So I make it a point to live like a local and stay as far away as possible from all things “touristy”.

I am also fortunate to have been able to see various parts of my country and the world since I was a little boy. An added bonus is that my family background is multicultural.  I’ve always loved visiting different places and recently travelled all over the country on my own. I believe food and travel are deeply interconnected because you get to meet different kinds of people who grow, cook and eat different kinds of food. This website is written from my perspective — a random, hungry, solo traveller who also happens to be a professional chef.

You get to sample and learn about cuisine from all over the world from restaurants and a whole lot of literature available. When it comes down to just the food bit, all the information is available in terms of recipes and ingredients. These are facts that cannot be changed because they are stated by experts. I, too, studied all I could about Indian cuisine as a student of my craft back in catering college, taught to me by experts of the craft. I acquired hands‐on practice by cooking for my family since the age of 11, and went on to work at one of the finest Indian restaurants in the country. My former boss/mentor is 40 and is arguably the best chef in the country, even though he would never agree with me on this, being the humble man that he is. Explaining it from the point of view of an expert would be rather distasteful. I thrive to achieve culinary perfection through expression and passion; I also believe one can never stop learning or ever learn enough. Honestly, I’m no expert.

You’re in for a long post if these credentials convinced you. If you do manage to read this all the way to the end, I hope you find it worthwhile.

If the rainbow did not just have seven colours, it would still be called a “rainbow”, right? Just not by the usual VIBGYOR colours, of course. What if the rainbow had more colours, each set visibly apart from each other, both in terms of shade and spectrum? Would it be still be called a rainbow then? If so, then that is India for you, as a country.

Many colours, many flavours, many cultures, many faiths…. many ingredients all combined to give you India and its cuisine!

Food in this country has been shaped by the very same factors which influence the food all over the world.

Simple geography (temperature, elevation, distance from sea, rainfall, and so forth) produces the ingredients a cuisine is known for. For example, Italy is near the Mediterranean Sea, so the climate is suitable for growing things like olives, tomatoes and garlic. Japan is a cluster of many islands, which means that its cuisine is heavily reliant on sea food. Argentina has wide open green spaces, perfect for animal farming. This factor is important because it is directly responsible for all the ingredients available to the inhabitants of an area. Thailand’s geography leads to surplus rice cultivation. This is why their cuisine in generally rice-based as opposed to, say, Germany, which is wheat-based. But in India, like most other things, Geography goes apeshit.

To the North lie the Himalayas, the highest and longest mountain range in the world; the ocean on three sides and more mountains to the South of the country. Throw in a desert with another saltwater desert to the West, and a delta of some of the richest silt-laden rivers in the world to the East. With that kind of geographical diversity, the variety in terms of ingredients are enviable ranging from vegetables to seafood and everything in the middle. This gives Indian cuisine its characteristic range as well as an immense depth.

Culture, not to be confused with faith. Culture is what a person is born into, a person’s religion comes later. Your culture defines a person’s identity and perspective, it moulds your behaviour towards yourself and towards others. Food reflects culture. For example, a person’s work culture shapes his diet. A farmer’s diet will be simple and filling, consisting of grain-heavy and hearty meals for the body to be able to expend energy for heavy labour, as compared to a king whose diet will include lavish fare using expensive ingredients just because. In India, culture is everything. The various regional cuisines are all influenced by the culture of the place. For example Portuguese elements are found in Goan cuisine. North Indian food is rich in dairy fats because of the prevalent farming culture. The various tribes in our country each have their own culinary identity. Also, in certain parts, many foreign cultures have intermingled with local ones to create a very distinct hybrid sort of cuisine.

> Religion, another factor that makes India so different from the rest of the world. India is home to Hinduism, the oldest and most complex religion in the world. Hinduism is followed by most people in India. There is a reason why India is the only place in the world where McDonald’s isn’t allowed to even mention their signature cheeseburger on their menu. Hindus aren’t allowed to eat beef, hence in most parts of the country, a roast beef is never a Sunday special. India is also home to over two million Muslims. This also puts pork in the same position as beef, another reason for this being unhygienic pig farming methods. However ,unlike pork, beef slaughter in India is illegal and punishable by law. India is also home to a large number of Christians, Parsis and Sikhs. Each have their own distinct cuisine. Religions create constraints in terms of dishes and food. This gives the world the impression that Indian cuisine is very limited and “old fashioned”. Indian cuisine also focuses on Vegetarian, vegan, satvik and other sub cuisines. Ayurveda and its many principles are present in traditional Indian gastronomy.

So, with the above key factors taken into consideration, I was able to compare surmises and actual facts during my trip and at the end, they fit together like pieces in a puzzle. I won’t get into the intricacies of regional cuisine as I hope my travel posts would serve that purpose. It is vital that when considering a part of India or anywhere else in the world, one can observe how these factors physically manifest into the food of each region.

Things to consider when traveling around India

1. India is known for its spices or masalas. A spice is very different from a herb or any other kind of naturally found flavour enhancer. These are in the form of dried seeds, bark, pods and flowers. Spices are an integral part of Asian cuisine because the best spices come from this part of the world. Each spice is distinct in its own way. Some spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and star anise go well with sweet ingredients, imparting a liquorice‐like aftertaste. This is why cinnamon is used in desserts such as apple pie and cinnamon rolls. Some spices such as pepper, nutmeg and mace are used in savoury dishes, lending their distinct heat to the taste and overall flavour of the final product. Understanding spices is complicated because in India, spices are used in different combinations in different dishes. However, each spice is different and must be used carefully as they can make or break a dish. Some important primary Indian spices are cardamom, mace, nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, clove and star anise. Some secondary spices are added in combination to enhance the overall taste. These include dried coriander seeds, dried fennel, dried red chillies, dried turmeric, dried ginger and dried cumin. These are essentials in an Indian masala tray. They are used all over India as taste makers, colour enhancers and flavouring agents.

2. India has the highest number of vegetarians in the world. This means it has many vegetarian ingredients which are required to make up a complete meal. A dal is a combination of various lentils boiled together and enhanced with a spicy tempering. Paneer or uncultured cottage cheese is used in place of animal protein. A vegetable main course preparation is absolutely indispensable in any meal. There are plenty of vegetables to choose from. Egg is considered a non-vegetarian product in India. Simple fresh salads are also consumed.

3. Indian dessert or sweets use very basic ingredients. These usually include dairy products, dried fruits and nuts, sugar and mild spices and flavourings. Ingredients such as chocolate, vanilla and basic pastry dough are not found in authentic Indian desserts. Egg-based desserts are very rare as well.

4. Animal protein is widely consumed in many parts and cultures. Chicken, fish and goat make up the majority of the meats that feature in homes and restaurants. Freshwater fish is eaten wherever there are rivers, sea food near the coastal areas. Beef, duck, veal and pork are also eaten but not by as many people. Also, here, everything is cooked well done. Anything below well done is considered raw.

5. Ghee is Indian clarified butter. It is important to mention that ghee is very different from the clarified butter used to prepare hollandaise sauce. Mustard oil, sunflower oil and refined oil is used as the standard medium. Olive oil isn’t.

6. A curry is a generic term. Globally, it is the sauce or gravy accompanying the main product. Chicken tikka masala is considered a curry in the UK. But that standard definition would fail in India. Here, each gravy and sauce is given a different name as they are all distinct from each other, depending on what goes into it. If you want a chicken curry, you need to ask specifically for chicken curry, as curries have many names, each based on particular ingredients and each different in their own way. You may choose from a wide array of them depending on where you are — tomato/ onion/ stock/ yogurt/ dairy/ coconut based. They are even named after people, like chicken Jahangiri. In India, curry is king.

7. Many cooking techniques are used. These include the usual boiling, braising, frying etc. Apart from that, different contraptions are used to create new cooking methods. A tandoor is a clay oven used to cook meat and bread. A sigdi is an Indian spitfire grill. A vessel sealed with dough is known as dum, along the lines of an ancient pressure cooker.

8. Heat and Indian food go hand in hand. This is why Indian food is never ever bland. Chillies, both green and red, are used extensively in fresh and dried forms. Aromatics like onion, ginger and garlic are also used in tandem.

9. Rice and breads are the staple accompaniments. There are numerous types of Indian breads — flour-based flatbreads like naan or whole‐wheat options such as chapattis. Gram flour is also used in things such as missi rotis. These are baked, shallow fried or deep fried. As a result, this kind of food is best enjoyed without using cutlery.

10. Like in any other country, tourism dictates what should be experienced and what shouldn’t. When it comes to food, maybe 20% of whatever is offered at restaurants and hotels covers the cuisine in question. The remaining 80% is found in places your tour guide would not bother taking you. The more one strays off the beaten path, the more there is to be unravelled.

An open mind is key.

None of this information is novel. I just want to tell you about a few general, basic facts that need to be considered when one makes an honest attempt at understanding Indian food. Regional cuisine is another ball game altogether. With that in mind, you can start getting into the complexities of this great cuisine.

If you’ve managed to read this till here, I’m hoping you have learnt something new. From here on, I hope you are in a better position to continue onto my Travelogue posts which talk about regional cuisine in more detail.

Thanks and enjoy the journey!

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