“You have to taste a culture to understand it.” – Deborah Cater
When it comes to aromatic and flavorful food, Indian cuisine is unmatched.
Once you try it, you are hooked! The amazing layering of flavors, exotic ingredients, the use of spices, and unfamiliar dishes that go together so harmoniously… all these traits make Indian cuisine uniquely delicious!
DISCOVER GREAT RECIPES, TIPS & IDEAS!
Guided by the motto “I don’t want to look back and think ‘I could’ve eaten that’”, the MyGreatRecipes team has set a goal to taste and make as many different dishes from around the world. Today, we’re traveling to India. Interested? Curry on!
Indian Cuisine 101
India is a vast country, a home to many ethnic groups and cultures that form the patchwork regional cuisines. The various flavors and eating habits are also dictated by the climate and soil in the region, availability of ingredients, but also the people’s religious traditions.
For instance, Hinduism considers cows sacred animals and beef is forbidden in Hindu communities. Vaishnavism followers avoid eating garlic and onion, whereas Muslims don’t eat pork. Jains are strict vegetarians who, besides excluding meat from their diet, also avoid root vegetables like potatoes.
In fact, large portions of the population in India are vegetarians. The judicious use of sauces and spices added to potatoes, eggplants, cauliflowers, peas, cheeses, and breads makes India a truly vegetarian-friendly country!
History has also influenced different regional cuisines in the country. The records that go back to the 6200 BC give us an insight in the early diet in the Indian subcontinent. It consisted mainly of vegetables, fruits, dairy, honey, and legumes.
In the past, India was a focal point of traders from Europe and Asia who, along with foreign invaders and colonists, introduced a number of important ingredients. For instance, tea was introduced during the Middle Ages, along with new cooking techniques. When India was invaded by Central Asian tribes, the two cuisines blended and created the Mughlai cuisine, in which saffron is one of the central ingredients.
Believe it or not, chili peppers were brought by the Portuguese from the Americas, together with potatoes which today are a staple food in many Indian regions!
The bottom line: Indian cuisine is a fusion of regional palettes of flavors and and the only thing that connects them is the elaborate and skillful use of spices!
Indian Staple Foods
Spices & Flavorings
Let’s start with what makes Indian cuisine unique – spices. There are about 20 to 30 basic spices that are frequently used in many recipes. The beauty of spices is that, besides contributing amazing flavor, they’re also very healthy. You have surely heard of turmeric being one of the healthiest foods on the planet, helping treat and prevent various chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease!
The most important spices and flavorings are chili powder, turmeric, cumin, ginger, coriander, black mustard seed, cardamom, asafetida, and garlic. Garam masala is a popular powdered spice mix that blends together dried cinnamon, cardamom, and clove although each region has its own version of garam masala. Goda masala is another frequently used spice mix which is a bit sweeter.
When it comes to herbs, their most used parts are the leaves, in particular, mint, bay, fenugreek, and coriander leaves. In the southern parts of the country, curry leaves and roots are also widely used.
Desserts and sweets are richly spiced as well, usually with cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, clove saffron, and rose petal essential oils.
Oils & Butters
Vegetable oil is the most common choice for cooking in India. Butter ghee (dashi) was popular in the past but it seems to have decreased in popularity at the expense of other types of oils like hydrogenated vegetable oil (Vanaspati ghee). Certain regions seem to favor certain oils:
– peanut oil – western and northern parts
– coconut oil – western parts (Kerala)
– mustard oil – eastern parts
– sesame oil – southern parts
Grains, Beans & Pulses
Pearl millet was one of the earliest staple foods in India that remains popular to date. That’s a very long time to love something! Indian people also love whole wheat flour, rice, and especially lentils. Lentils seem to appear everywhere around you, in various shapes and colors – red lentils, black gram, green gram, mung beans, whole or, the most commonly used type, split (known as dal).
The northern regions favor pulses like chickpeas, kidney beans, and black-eyed peas. Some pulses are used to obtain flour called besan.
Many types of meat are used in Indian cuisine, but chicken and mutton are most prevalent. The north-east and the coastal areas also cook with beef and fish.
Eating Habits & Etiquette
In India, breakfast is very important and is usually combined with coffee or tea. What people eat for breakfast depends on the region:
– North India – roti or parathas flatbreads and a vegetable dish, accompanied by pickles and curd;
– South Indians prefer idli rice cakes and dosai pancakes accompanied by a chutney;
– West India – dhokla (food made of fermented batter derived from rice and chickpeas) with milk.
There is something called ‘evening breakfast’ in India, which is an equivalent of the English tea time when the family sits to talk with tea and snacks.
Lunch & Dinner
Lunch consists of a main dish which is based on whole wheat flatbread in the north or rice in the south. It is typically combined with up to three types of veggies and bread.
Dinner is considered as the main meal of the day.
Eating Habits & Etiquette
Indian cuisine is the best proof that you don’t need a fork in order to eat good food! Hands are the main tool– the left hand is used to serve yourself, whereas the right one is used for eating. Alternatively, flatbreads or savory crepes are used to scoop dishes that are too liquid, like curry.
In the southern parts, food is served on banana leaves which are disposed of after the meal. This custom is less common today, except on special occasions.
In the past, food was eaten while seated on the floor or on low stools. However, throughout the years, eating habits have been influenced by other cultures. For instance, the Anglo-Indians often use western cutlery to eat their food.
Desserts & Beverages
Indian desserts are called mithai. They are usually fried delights that contain milk & sugar in the base. Other ingredients vary depending on the region. What all sweet treats have in common throughout the whole country is the extensive inclusion of spices, as well as nuts. The most popular Indian desserts include:
– gulab jamun, spongy milk-based balls soaked in syrup;
– laddu, balls made of flour, sugar, and minced dough
– jalebi, deep-fried maida flour batter in shaped like pretzels or circles, soaked in sugar syrup;
– puto, steamed rice cake;
– sutarfeni sweet, flaky rice flour roasted in ghee, blended with melted sugar to form a cotton candy, then topped with chopped nuts.
– pinni, a winter dessert made of wheat flour, desi ghee, jaggery and almonds, sometimes raisins.
Betel leaves are often served with desserts after meals to aid digestion.
Coffee is very popular in India, especially in the southern parts. The two most consumed coffee varieties are instant coffee and filter coffee.
With India being one of the largest producers of tea in the world, it’s no surprise tea is a staple beverage. Tea leaves are boiled in water, then combined with milk and spices like cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and cardamom. During ‘evening breakfast’, tea is usually served along with snacks such as pakora (an onion-based deep fried snack made with chickpea flour, salt, and light spices) or biscuits.
Lassi is a traditional drink based on yogurt. The yogurt is combined with water and various spices like cumin and saffron. There are also savory versions of this drink that include salt. Other popular lassi flavorings include sugar, lemon, mango, peach, strawberry, and rose water.
The love for rose flavoring is also evident in sherbats. These sweet cold beverages are made from fruits or flower petals (rose, bel, lemon, orange, pineapple, etc.). Besides being utterly tasty and refreshing, sherbats are believed to be very healthy. Rose milk and rose water are also used in the making of other popular drinks like gholi soda.
Other widely consumed non-alcoholic beverages include coconut water, lemonade, and badam doodh (almond milk with cardamom and nuts).
When it comes to alcoholic beverages, the beer takes the central stage as the most popular choice, especially lagers. There is also local beer called ‘hadia’, made of rice and herbs. This beer is quite low in alcohol and often served very cold. Chaang is another beverage similar to beer, made from millet, barley, or rice. This beverage is served cold in summer and hot in winter.
Besides beer and beer-like beverages, Indians also like fenny, a beverage made from cashew apple juice or coconuts. Coconut is the main ingredient in ‘kallu’, an alcoholic beverage often consumed with fried chicken or fish.
Cooking Indian Food at Home
The fact that the restaurant industry is in demand for fresh, high-quality foods and diverse ethnic flavors is great news for all of us foodies. This means that the number of Indian restaurants will continue to rise. But before you venture to eat out, why not give Indian food a try at home?
Incorporating the tastes of India in your kitchen is not difficult at all. Start by including Indian spices and flavorings into familiar recipes like chicken, fish, and roasted veggies. Try with one spice like chili powder, then add another one like cumin or ginger. The point is, you don’t have to buy 20 spices from the beginning.
Next step, choose simple Indian food recipes to start with. Look for those based on potatoes or meat that usually have fewer ingredients. The wide array of spices and condiments allows you to play and experiment.
Need an idea? Start with a curry. Despite popular belief, not all Indian dishes are curries. Curry is a common name for all spicy meat or vegetable dishes with sauces. Messing up a curry is difficult because they appear in many different forms – dry or liquid, red or green, hot, hotter, or hottest. So, to start with, throw together a simple chicken curry and serve it a rot flatbread and some dal.
Isn’t this a great way to freshen up your daily dinner repertoire?
Indian Restaurants in the US
Unlike other national cuisines, Indian cuisine seems to be quite undervalued in the States. According to Washington Post, there are over 40.000 Mexican restaurants throughout the country and almost the same number of Chinese restaurants. But when it comes to Indian restaurants, this number goes as low as 5.000 in total.
Why is it so? Certainly not for the lack of deliciousness! Experts claim that it’s the prices. Indian food requires higher culinary skills to be prepared and that is why it is more expensive. Cheap Indian dishes are usually not as tasty and once people try such low-quality dishes lose interest in the cuisine in general.
However, this is about to change. Thanks to experiment-prone millennials, Indian food is the rise. In 2007, a survey conducted by the Washington Post showed that over 1.200 Indian food products have been imported in the US since 2000.
The number of Indian restaurants in nation-wide is constantly increasing, with the most represented regional cuisines are the North and South Indian. The best part is that even standard restaurants have started to introduce Indian dishes to their menus! It is expected Indian food to be one of the hottest 2017 food trends!
However, the dishes are adapted to western tastes which generally means they are not as spicy as their original recipes.
DISCOVER GREAT RECIPES, TIPS & IDEAS!
So, if you are still hesitant about trying Indian food at home (despite all these amazing recipes and cooking tips), you’d better google “best Indian restaurant near me” and start exploring. Feeling lazy? Try “Indian food delivery”, sit back, and relax!
Here is a list of the best Indian restaurants to give you a kick start:
Indian restaurant near me Las Vegas – Delhi Indian Cuisine
Indian restaurant near me Chicago – Indian Garden Restaurant
Indian restaurant near me Atlanta – Aamar Indian Cuisine
Indian restaurant near me Tampa – Saffron Indian Cuisine
Indian restaurant near me Tucson – Gandhi Cuisine of India
I believe that food should not only taste good, but make you feel good as well and that is why I am so interested in exploring ingredients, preparing meals, and finding ways to make the whole cooking experience fun and exciting! Being a blogger for MyGreatRecipes unites my two passions – food and writing, and I am enjoying every second of it!