Anywhere in the world, you may find an Indian restaurant. This illustrates how diverse Indian cuisine is and how popular around the globe it is. But this does not mean that all dishes found in these restaurants are spread all over the country. Indeed, Indian gastronomy varies a lot between its different regions, like languages and religions.
India, home for spices
When talking about Indian cuisine, one usually thinks first of spices. Indeed, Indian cuisine has shaped the history of international relations thanks to its spice trade with Europe, often considered by historians as the primary catalyst for Europe’s Age of Discovery.
Spices in India are usually used mixed. They are often grounded together with a pestle and a mortar to make assortments called masalas, or curry in English (« curry » originally means « sauce » in Hindi, which is not to be mixed up with the spice).
Garam Massala is mostly used in Northern India’s cuisine. « Garam » literally means « hot », as « masala » means « mix ». It composition may vary from a region to another, although its main ingredients are cardamom, cinnamon and clove.
Garam masala also exist in a sweet version called Goda masala, which commonly uses leaves for flavouring, such as bay leaves, coriander leaves, fenugreek leaves or else mint leaves. It is most popular in Maharashtra.
Tandoori food is a Punjabi speciality originating from Muhgal Empire. The term tandoor originally refers to a variety of ovens, the most commonly known is a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking.
Tandoori Masala mix vary somewhat from one region to another, but typically include garam masala, garlic, ginger, onion and cayenne pepper. It is used extensively with dishes such as tandoori chicken, where the chicken is cover with a mixture of plain yogurt and tandoori masala before being roasted in the tandoor at very high heat.
Although chicken tikka masala dish can be found in any Indian restaurant around the world, the origins of tikka masala spice mix are not traditional. It is a modern version of chicken tikka dish (originally from Punjab region and made of small pieces of chicken marinated in spices and yogurt, very similar to tandoori chicken), where tomato, cream and coconut cream are often added.
Legend says that in the 60s, a client of an Indian restaurant in Glasgow considered its chicken tikka too dry and would have asked for more gravy. The restaurant’s chef would have improvised a sauce with tomato soup, yogurt and spices, creating the tikka masala mix we know today. Still, there is not official recipe for this spice mix.
Staple foods in India
The most common staple product used in Indian cuisine is definitely beans and lentils of many types, such as red and green lentils, pigeon peas, black gram or else mungo beans. They are used extensively split, but also whole and even dehusked in some dished such as dhuli moong or dhuli urad.
Other staple foods include pearl millet, rice and whole-wheat flour. Potato is also commonly used in certain region of India, although it is not a traditional product of the county but was introduced by the Portuguese, as well as chillies and breadfruits. Indeed, some historical events such as foreign invasions, trade relations and colonialism have played an important role in modelling Indian cuisine. That is one reason why Indian cuisine is so diverse.
India as the most vegetarian country
If Indian people consume 2,6 million tons of beef, 1,4 million tons of pork and 600 thousands tons of sheep per year, it represents actually a very small consumption per person given the massive population in India, of which a large part remains vegetarian.
Vegetarianism is indeed much developed in the Indian society, mainly because of Hindi obedience, which restricts consumption of bovine and bird meat, and Islamic beliefs, which forbids eating pork. The country actually has the world’s highest rate of vegetarian people, which explains why vegetarian Indian cuisine is so famous around the globe.
Examples of some common dishes
Traditional Indian entries include:
- Samosa: a fried or backed triangle-shaped pastry filled with a savoury mixture often made with potatoes, vegetables, onions, peas and spices, but sometimes also with lentils, noodles, cheese or even meat. Samosas are very popular as they help to suppress appetite. They are commonly sold in the streets, like pakora.
- Pakora: a vegetarian savoury fritter usually made of chickpea batter and buckwheat batter.
- Raita: a yogurt based sauce with vegetables such as cucumber or carrots. It is appreciated for its softness which helps to alleviate spicy dishes.
Some whitespread Indian dished are:
- Lamb or chicken Korma: grilled vegetables with water, yogurt and bouillon.
- Chicken tandoori: roasted chicken marinated in yogurt and spices in a tandoor. Currently one of the favourite British dish.
- Chicken Tikka Masal: cooked chicken in a spiced sauce.
- Aloo gobi: vegetarian “dry” dish (without a sauce) made with potatoes, cauliflower and spices/
- Saag: Penjabi dish made with spinach and black mustard leaves, ginger and coriander.
- Biryani: rice with or without meat.
- Chapati: unleavened flatbread.
- Naan: leavened oven-baked flatbread.
- Paratha: flatbread.
Indian sweet dished and desserts are also very appreciated around the world, including Kesari Bhath, a sweet made with semolina, sugar, water milk and saffron, and Mysore Pak, a dessert prepared in ghee, sugar, gram flour and cardamom.
It is said that Indian people’s liver is not as prompt as digesting alcoholic beverage as well as other populations. That is why alcohol is not that common in the country. Still, one can easily find beer and wine in restaurants and shops.
On the other had, coffee and tea are expensively served after meals and throughout the day. Other traditional beverages include Mithai, a drink made of cheese or milk, and Lassi, a popular yogurt based drink.