May 21, 2021 by D.Fathia
Updated May 21, 2021
The myriad of Indian food: pleasure to the senses
There was a time when I, like thousands of people around the world, became obsessed with Bollywood cinema. The Indian film industry succeeded in capturing the attention of billions of people around the world. While most films are commercial and focus on triggering curiosity and satisfying the needs of the audiences, there are a number of productions that go beyond that.
Indian films are sneak peeks into a rich culture, diversified environment, mixed society, and long-standing traditions and beliefs. They reveal the metamorphosis of the sub-Indian continent and the social, political, and religious dynamics of the region.
One of the things that lured me into this cinematic giant and captivated my senses is food. The shooting of daily routines, family gatherings, weddings, and religious celebrations would always highlight the mouth-watering dishes made for each occasion.
Falling under the spell of colorful foods, I decided to found out more about Indian recipes and how Indians perceive and experience food. Movies in which food was the central theme became my new favorite top watched list. The 2014’s Hundred-Foot Journey and 2009’s Today’s Special gave me sufficient insight into the spicy world of Indian cuisine.
In this blog article, I would like to share with you some of the distinctive characteristics of Indian food which I’ve learned from a close Indian friend of mine because it turned out no one can describe the specifics of cooking in India as a native can do.
Indian cuisine or cuisines?
The Indian cuisine is rainbow-colored; it draws on a myriad of regional and international traditions and food habits. The Indian subcontinent is an area of religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This diversity had a significant impact on what we know today as Indian cuisine.
The Islamic heritage from the time of the Moguls cannot be undetected by people who are familiar with the traditions of that historical period. Pilaf, for example, can surely be traced back to the Mogul Empire.
Later events such as the discovery of the new world and the trade routes that connected India to Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and European countries added to the volume of this cuisine. New ingredients and fresh produce were introduced to India, while Indian spices traveled the world.
Indian cuisine is an umbrella term for a number of regionally different variations. North, south, east, west, and northeast India have more or less distinct culinary traditions. For instance, the north is well known for consuming much milk and dairy products, whereas, the south consumes more seafood, especially fish.
Nearby countries have their influence on this cuisine as well. You can find Anglophone, Chinese, Indonesian, Singaporean, Malaysian, and Nepali cuisines intermingling with the Indian traditions to yield something new.
Spices are the landmark of Indian cuisine. Turmeric, cumin, black pepper, chili pepper, coriander seeds, caraway seeds, cinnamon, cloves, and fennel seeds are but a few of the impressive Indian spice treasures. A few other ingredients, such as curry tree, cubeb, and bay leaves are quite often used in most recipes. Such ingredients taint the Indian dishes with savory remarkable flavors.
However, not all Indians appreciate a hot spicy dish. People in the Southern states use more spices than people in the Northern states. The formers like a hot plate and use a lot of sizzling chili peppers, unlike the second group.
The bottom line is that there is no such thing as THE INDIAN CUISINE! And here I m quoting a native Indian; I am not judging based on my own observations. In a country as diverse and large as India, this could only be true.
India: a myriad of cultures and foods
When we are scrutinizing a specific country we usually ask about heritage and traditional landmarks. Well, when I was discovering India, I frequently wondered what is traditional Indian food? I was hearing so many names of food in films and TV shows that I was so confused about which was traditional food and which was not? What is the national dish, if there is any? What is popular Indian food?
Luckily, I had my friend to clear my misconception about this cooking style and enlighten me about things I couldn’t find out about somewhere else. It turned out that, unlike most countries around the world, India does not have one national dish! However, we can consider rice and wheat as the most appreciated and consumed products in the south and the north respectively. Rice and wheat are the main ingredients for any dish in the two poles of the country.
If we want to pin down some traditional dishes we will be left with Kheer and halwa for the northern states. These are successively a traditional sweet dish and a kind of sweets that are usually prepared for special occasions. Kheer is made up of rice and milk; it is usually served as a dessert.
For the southern states, the most popular dish is Pongal. It is a landmark of culinary traditions in Tamil Nadu and is often cooked at least once a week for breakfast. Pongal is also known in the remaining regions of the south. The importance of this food is revealed in the Pongal festival celebrated yearly. People celebrate the harvest and thank the god of the sun for agricultural abundance.
Biriyani is also a popular traditional dish in the south. This one is my favorite. The spices used in this dish and the sight of it are simply seductive. It is hard to find authentic biriyani in Tunisia, but trying this recipe at home was definitely worth the trouble.
The only dishes that are popular across the country are sweets. Samosa, sweets: rasagulla, jalebi, gulab jamun, are national treasure shared by all Indians. What I noted from my friend’s explanations is that milk sweets are very popular nationally. What is more interesting is that even vegetarians do consume dairy products, the only exception is the Brahmans. Brahmans are a religious cast and they adhere to the vegetarian diet as instructed by their faith and beliefs and not by choice as some other casts across the country.
Best Indian dishes and recipes
The major three big states of the south, Kerala, Andra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, share some popular dishes. According to my friend, whose roots are in Tamil Nadu, the best dishes for breakfast are idly, dosa, and upma.
In the north, parathas, with onion or potato, methi ka paratha, curd, Kitchidi, Rotti made up of wheat and bread, pav bhaji are the most popular in Mumbai and the surrounding areas. Pav bhaji is more of street food that you can grab as a snack or on-the-go breakfast.
Haryana, in the north, is famous for its various kinds of parathas. Natives of this area are vegetarian, though not bound by religion, they still consume milk and its byproducts such as ghee. Pulses and vegetables make delicious side dishes.
When it comes to snacks, India excels. Mater, samosa, and pakoda are savory snacks that can enjoy in the north. In the south, vada is the most popular snack, especially in Tamil Nadu. Each of these foods has distinctive tastes.
Food on special occasions:
Special occasions always get more attention when it comes to food. Indians, much like many others, have specific rites and related food habits. Halwa, puri, and kheer are prepared for festive prayers in the northern states, while they cook Pongal for prayers in the south.
Weddings, on the other hand, are very lavish and extravagant. People would prepare around ten dishes for one meal! And yes, for those who have seen Indians eating on leaves, I would like to confirm that that is still the norm even today. At weddings, guests would be served food on big banana leaves. The pictures that I have seen are truly luring and tremendously mouthwatering.
Indians also have traditions of fasting. They would fast on the birthdates of their gods. This is of course optional, but once you choose to fast you will have to eat only the dish favorable to that god for the whole day. While some see this rite as superstition, others cherish the values and faith at its core.
Indian food abides by the norms of culture, ethnicity, and even geographical and socioeconomic conditions. Whereas religion does not really have the upper hand upon food choices except for a few casts such as the Brahmans and the Jainists. Jainism is a religious sect that prohibits its followers from hurting animals or consuming their products. Overall, food in India tells the stories of people’s lives, environment, and personal status.