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The cuisine of India is characterized by the use of various spices, herbs and other vegetables grown in India and also for the widespread practice of vegetarianism across many sections of its society. Each family of Indian cuisine is characterized by a wide assortment of dishes and cooking techniques. As a consequence, it varies from region to region, reflecting the varied demographics of the ethnically diverse Indian subcontinent.
India’s religious beliefs and culture have played an influential role in the evolution of its cuisine. However, cuisine across India also evolved due to the subcontinent’s large-scale cultural interactions with neighboring Persia, ancient Greece, Mongols and West Asia, making it a unique blend of various cuisines across Asia.The spice trade between India and Europe is often cited as the main catalyst for Europe’s Age of Discovery.The colonial period introduced European cooking styles to India adding to the flexibility and diversity of Indian cuisine. Indian cuisine has had a remarkable influence on cuisines across the world, especially those from Southeast Asia
A typical assortment of spices and herbs used in Indian cuisine
The staples of Indian cuisine are rice, atta (whole wheat flour), and a variety of pulses, the most important of which are masoor (most often red lentil), chana (bengal gram), toor (pigeon pea or yellow gram), urad (black gram) and mung (green gram). Pulses may be used whole, dehusked, for example dhuli moong or dhuli urad, or split. Pulses are used extensively in the form of dal (split). Some of the pulses like chana and “Mung” are also processed into flour (besan).
Most Indian curries are cooked in vegetable oil. In North and West India, peanut oil has traditionally been most popular for cooking, while in Eastern India, mustard oil is more commonly used. Coconut oil is used widely along the western coast and South India, Gingelly oil is common in the South as well. In recent decades, sunflower oil and soybean oil have gained popularity all over India. Hydrogenated vegetable oil, known as Vanaspati ghee, is also a popular cooking medium that replaces Desi ghee, clarified butter (the milk solids have been removed).
The most important/frequently used spices in Indian cuisine are chilli pepper, black mustard seed (rai), cumin (jeera), turmeric (haldi, manjal), fenugreek (methi), asafoetida (hing, perungayam), ginger (adrak, inji), coriander (dhania), and garlic (lassan, poondu). Popular spice mixes are garam masala, which is usually a powder of five or more dried spices, commonly including cardamom, cinnamon, and clove. Each region, and sometimes each individual chef, has a distinctive blend of garam masala. Goda masala is a popular sweet spice mix in Maharashtra. Some leaves are commonly used like tejpat (cassia leaf), coriander leaf, fenugreek leaf and mint leaf. The common use of curry leaves is typical of all South Indian cuisine. In sweet dishes, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, and rose petal essences are seasoned.
Northern (Punjabi cuisine, Mughlai cuisine, Cuisine of Kashmir, Awadhi cuisine, Cuisine of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthani cuisine, Bhojpuri cuisine, Bihari cuisine, and Sindhi cuisine)
North Indian cuisine is distinguished by the proportionally high use of dairy products; milk, using the “tawa” (griddle) for baking flat breads like roti and paratha, and kulcha, main courses like tandoori chicken also cook in the tandoor. Other breads like puri and bhatoora, which are deep fried in oil, are also common. Goat and lamb meats are favored ingredients of many northern Indian recipes.
The samosa is a popular North Indian snack, and now commonly found in other parts of India, Central Asia, North America, Britain, Africa and the Middle East. A common variety is filled with boiled, fried, or mashed potato. Other fillings include minced meat, cheese (paneer), mushroom (khumbi), and chick pea.
The staple food of most of North India is a variety of lentils, vegetables, and roti (wheat based bread). The varieties used and the method of preparation can vary from place to place. Popular snacks, side-dishes and drinks include pakoda, bhujiya, chaat, kachori, imarti, several types of pickles (known as achar), murabba, sharbat, aam panna and aam papad. Popular sweets are known as mithai (means sweetmeat in Hindi), such as gulab jamun, jalebi, peda, petha, rewadi, gajak, bal mithai, singori, kulfi, falooda, khaja, ras malai, gulkand, and several varieties of laddu, barfi and halwa.
Some common North Indian foods such as the various kebabs and most of the meat dishes originated with Muslims’ incursions into the country. Considering their shared historic and cultural heritage, Pakistani cuisine and North Indian cuisine are very similar.
Eastern ( Assamese , Bengali & Oriya)
East Indian cuisine is famous for desserts, especially sweets such as rasagolla, chumchum, sandesh, rasabali, chhena poda, chhena gaja, chhena jalebi and kheeri. Many of the sweet dishes now popular in Northern India initially originated in the Bengal and Orissa regions. Apart from sweets, East India cuisine offers delights of posta (poppy seeds).
Traditional cuisines of Orissa, Bengal, and Assam are delicately spiced. General ingredients used in Oriya, Bengali, and Assamese curries are mustard seeds, cumin seeds, nigella, green chillies, cumin paste and the spice mix panch phoron or panch phutana. Mustard paste, curd, nuts, poppy seed paste and cashew paste are preferably cooked in mustard oil. Curries are classified into bata (paste), bhaja (fries), chochchoree (less spicy vapourized curries) and jhol (thin spicy curries).These are eaten with plain boiled rice or ghonto (spiced rice). Traditional breakfasts includes pantabhat or pakhaal, as well as cereals such as puffed rice or pressed rice, in milk, often with fruits. The cuisine of Bangladesh is very similar to eastern Indian cuisine, particularly that of West Bengal. Fish and shellfish are commonly consumed in the eastern part of India. The popular vegetable dishes of Orissa are Dalma and Santula. The most popular vegetable dish of Bengal is Sukto. Deep fried, shallow fried and mashed vegetables are also very popular. As in southern India, rice is the staple grain in Eastern India too. A regular meal consists of lentils, a primary non vegetarian side dish usually made of fish and a few other secondary side dishes made of vegetables.
Southern: South Indian cuisine (Cuisine of Kerala,Cuisine of Karnataka,Cuisine of Tamil Nadu,Cuisine of Goa)
South Indian cuisine is distinguished by a greater emphasis on rice as the staple grain, the ubiquity of sambar and rasam (also called chaaru/saaru and rasam), a variety of pickles, and the liberal use of coconut and particularly coconut oil and curry leaves. Curries called Kozhambu are also popular and are typically vegetable stews cooked with spices, tamarind and other ingredients. The dosa, poori, idli, vada, bonda and bajji are typical South Indian favorites. These are generally consumed as part of breakfast. Other popular dishes include Kesaribath, Upma/Uppittu, Bisibele Bath, Rice Bath, Tomato Bath, Pongal, Poori & Saagu, Pulao, Puliyogarai and Thengai Sadham. Hyderabadi biryani, a popular type of biryani, reflects the diversity of south Indian cuisine. South Indian cuisine obtains its distinct flavours by the use of tamarind, coconut, lentils, and a variety of vegetables.Udupi cuisine is a popular cuisine of South India.
Andhra, Chettinad, Tamil, Hyderabadi, Mangalorean, and Kerala cuisines each have distinct tastes and methods of cooking . In fact each of the South Indian states has a different way of preparing sambar; a connoisseur of South Indian food will very easily tell the difference between sambar from Kerala, sambar from Tamil cuisine, Sambaru from Karnataka and pappu chaaru in Andhra cuisine. Some popular dishes include the Biriyani, Ghee Rice with meat curry, seafood (prawns, mussels, mackerel) and paper thin Pathiris from Malabar area.
Western (Goan cuisine, Maharashtrian cuisine, Saraswat cuisine, and Gujarati cuisine)
Western Indian cuisine has three major regions: Gujarati, Maharashtrian and Goan. Maharashtrian cuisine has mainly two sections defined by the geographical sections. The coastal regions, geographically similar to Goa depend more on rice, coconut, and fish. Use of Kokum, triphala is a unique feature of Goan and Konkani cuisine. The hilly regions of the Western Ghats and Deccan plateau regions use groundnut in place of coconut and depend more on jowar (sorghum) and bajra (millet) as staples. On various special occasions sweets like pooran poli, shrikhand, modak etc. are prepared. Maharashtrian fast food includes one of the most popular dishes called Pav Bhaji. It is becoming popular in Indian restaurants all around the world. Saraswat cuisine forms an important part of coastal Konkani Indian cuisine. Gujarati cuisine is predominantly vegetarian. Many Gujarati dishes have a hint of sweetness due to use of sugar or brown sugar or gur (also called as jaggery). Goan cuisine is influenced by the Portuguese colonization of Goa. A vegetarian thali. Gujarati cuisine offers a wide range of vegetarian delicacies because Hinduism, practiced by majority of Gujarat’s populace, encourages vegetarian diet.
North Eastern (Naga cuisine, Sikkimese cuisine, and Tripuri cuisine)
Assamese cooking is chiefly based on fish and rice. In Arunachal Pradesh, people here generally take non-vegetarian diets. Apong is famous local Arunachali drink made from rice and millet. Uti (lentil cooked with edible soda for flavor), hawwai jar (fermented soya beans), otonga (fermented fish), and ngari (dried fish) are some of the most popular delicacies in Manipuri cuisine. Ushoi (fresh bamboo shoots) is a unique fermented Manipuri dish. There is a variety of boiled and fermented type of dishes in Manipuri culture, although there is good variety of fried dishes also. The iromba is another popular fermented dish made from fish, vegetables and bamboo shoots.
Jadoh — a spicy dish of rice and pork — is one of the most popular dishes in the Indian state of Meghalaya. Kyat, a local brew made from rice, is an integral part of most local Meghalayan celebrations. Zu is a popular tea-based drink from Meghalaya. Sikkimese specialties include the Tibetan thupka and momos.
Popularity and influence outside India
Chicken tikka, a well-known dish across the globe, reflects the amalgamation of Indian cooking styles with those from Central Asia
Indian cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines across the globe. The cuisine is popular not only among the large Indian diaspora but also among the mainstream population of North America and Europe. In 2003, there were as many as 10,000 restaurants serving Indian cuisine in England and Wales alone. A survey held in 2007 revealed that more than 1,200 Indian food products have been introduced in the United States since 2000. According to Britain’s Food Standards Agency, the Indian food industry in the United Kingdom is worth £3.2 billion, accounts for two-thirds of all eating out and serves about 2.5 million British customers every week.
Butter Chicken, also known as Murgh Makhani, is a popular dish in Western countries and Arab world
Apart from Europe and North America, Indian cuisine is popular in South East Asia too because of its strong historical influence on the region’s local cuisines. Indian cuisine has had considerable influence on Malaysian cooking styles and also enjoys strong popularity in Singapore. Indian influence on Malay cuisine dates back to 19-century. Other cuisines which borrow Indian cooking styles include Vietnamese cuisine, Indonesian cuisine and Thai cuisine. The spread of vegetarianism in other parts of Asia is often credited to ancient Indian Buddhist practices. Indian cuisine is also fairly popular in the Arab world because of its similarity and influence on Arab cuisine.
The popularity of curry, which originated in India, across Asia has often led to the dish being labeled as the “pan-Asian” dish. Curry’s international appeal has also been compared to that of pizza. Though the tandoor did not originate in India, Indian tandoori dishes, such as chicken tikka made with Indian ingredients, enjoy widespread popularity. Historically, Indian spices and herbs were one of the most sought after trade commodities. The spice trade between India and Europe led to the rise and dominance of Arab traders to such an extent that European explorers, such as Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus, set out to find new trade routes with India leading to the Age of Discovery.
While masala tea is a staple beverage across India, Indian filter coffee (right) is especially popular in southern India. Tea is a staple beverage throughout India; the finest varieties are grown in Darjeeling and Assam. It is generally prepared as masala chai, wherein the tea leaves are boiled in a mix of water, spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger, and large quantities of milk to create a thick, sweet, milky concoction. Different varieties and flavors of tea are prepared to suit different tastes all over the country. Another popular beverage, coffee, is largely served in South India. One of the finest varieties of Coffea arabica is grown around Mysore, Karnataka, and is marketed under the trade name “Mysore Nuggets”. Indian filter coffee, or kaapi, is also especially popular in South India. Other beverages include nimbu pani (lemonade), lassi, chaach, badam doodh (almond milk with nuts and cardamom), sharbat and coconut water. In Southern India there is a beverage served cold known as Panner Soda or Gholi Soda which is a mixture of carbonated water, rose water, and sugar. Another beverage from the South is rose milk, which is served cold..
India also has many indigenous alcoholic beverages, including palm wine, fenny and Indian beer. There’s also bhang, prepared using cannabis, and typically consumed, especially in North India, during Holi and Vaisakhi. However the practice of drinking a specific beverage with a meal, or wine and food matching, is not traditional or common in India.
Although the above listed beverages are popular, people often prefer to consume drinking water with their food, because drinking water is considered to not overshadow the taste of the food. In fact it is customary to offer drinking water to guests before serving any hot or cold drinks.
In southern India, a well-rinsed banana leaf is used as a plate for hygiene purposes and its visual impact. Several customs are associated with the manner of food consumption. Traditionally, meals are eaten while seated either on the floor or on very low stools or cushions. Food is most often eaten without cutlery, using instead the fingers of the right hand. Often roti ( general term for Indian flat breads) is used to scoop the curry without letting the curry touch the hands. Other etiquette include eating with one hand only preferably right hand and letting the food get to only the two phalanges of fingers.
Traditional serving styles vary from region to region in India. A universal aspect of presentation is the thali, a large plate with samplings of different regional dishes accompanied by raita, breads such as naan, puri, or roti, and rice. Most South Indian meals end with plain curd and Rice. In South India, a cleaned banana leaf and other leaf plates, which can be disposed of after the meals, are often used as a hygienic and environmentally friendly alternative to plates. Leaf plates are purposefully utilized for auspicious and festive occasions, but much less common otherwise.
However, these traditional ways of dining are being influenced by eating styles from other parts of the world. Amongst the middle class throughout India, spoons and forks are being adopted.
In south India, the usual lunch service is as follows: soup as an appetizer; a little rice with plain dhaal curry and ghee; rice mixed with a lean but spicy gravy (most commenly saambar for vegetarian meals or chicken/mutton/beef gravy) or any variety rice; rice mixed with thick and spicy gravy (commonly kulambu for vegetarian meals or gravy of a seafood (fish)); rice mixed with rasam (a dish in liquid form prepared with herbs and/or spices, tamarind paste, turmeric and/or tomato and/or dhaal); rice with curd (yoghurt); finally, a banana and beetle leaves/nuts (beeda). Pappad and pickles are served throughout.