Indian Cuisine

India - Sculpture head, Buddha meditating, India 12th century

Buddha Meditating, India 12th c.

Fish Curry From Bananas
Halva From Meat

“It is possible to eat what you believe to be a fish curry only to learn it was made from unripe bananas, or to taste a sweet halva and find it was made not of fruit or vegetables but meat.” — Attia Hosain and Sita Pasricha

An Ancient People and Cuisine: The Indian civilization is one of the oldest and most important in the world. Archeologists date the Harappan society, ancestors of modern Indians, to about 2500 BCE.

For reference, the ancient Xia Dynasty of China, along the Yellow River, dates to around 2200 BCE. The ancient Indians and Chinese are thus among the oldest civilizations in Asia.

But other societies had predated these. Rice was grown in the Yellow Rice Valley from about 5000 BCE. But since the word for “Rice” itself —  at least in the Indo-European languages, including Greek — came from an ancient South Indian language, Rice was certainly cultivated in India from a very long time ago.

Waves of Invasions: The Indo-Pakistan subcontinent was crossed by repeated invasions over the centuries — Aryans, Greeks, Mongols, later Europeans.  Each brought foods and techniques.  Central Asian and Mongol invaders especially brought techniques like Kebabs, Kurma, Keema and Pilaff.

Food, not   Politics: Our concern here is food, not politics or boundaries, so what we mean as “Indian” cuisine includes cooking as practiced in Pakistan and Bangadesh. Sri Lanka and Nepal are part of the same Indian culture sphere, and we will discuss them separately. Some of the culinary practices we discuss here refer to the cooking styles of the Indian Subcontinent before the partition into two countries in 1947.

What Is Indian Food? If we try to pick out a common element in the food of the region it is probably use of condiments and spices to a greater extent thanj in the West.  This is natural, as this part of the world is home ot many of the exotic spices. Also, a large number of the peoples there do not eat meat in any form, under the influence of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. In addition, Hindus are forbidden to eat Beef and Muslims do not eat Pork.

The Main Ingredients: The principal cereals are Rice, as well as Lentils and other Pulses and Beans.  A number of types of unleavened Breads are justly famous. Indian cooks excel in vegetable preparations. Among cooking Oils, Ghee or clarified butter is common, sometimes replaced by other oils. Mustard Oil is one of the commonest types.

Cooking Mediums: Include Yogurt and a Low-Fat Cheese, Besan Flour, liquids such as Ginger, Garlic and Onion Juice.  Onions are a vital ingredient for manydishes and their price is sometimes a political issue in the Subcontinent.

Diversity – Ten Kitchens in One College: Caste and religious differences have a big influence on who can eat what and with whom.

Food author Shanthi Rangarao tells how in her own university, there were ten separate kitchens and dining rooms for as many religious communities. These include separate dining facilities for two local Christian communities.

There was a separate section called Non-Brahmin Vegetarian, for students who could only eat Brahmin-cooked vegetarian food, but could not eat it with Brahmin students in their own dining room.  And this was only a small corner of India.

As Rangarao says: “There is as yet in India no average Indian existing, independent of his caste or his linguistic group.”

The Cook’s Tools: In addition to the usual knives, spoons, and the like, mortars and pestlaes are used a lot for grinding spices and other aromatics. Then there is the tandoor, a specialized kind of oven, and special equipment used to freeze Kulfi, a frozen dessert similar to Ice Cream.

Heavy metal saucepans, earthenware containers, sharp knives, mortar and pestele or electric blender, and of course skewers are essential. Cheesecloth or muslin, strainers and sieves for straining. Mincers and grating or chopping tools, garlic presses are also useful.

Spices and Aromatics: Aromatics — spices, herbs, and seasonings — are at the heart of Indian cooking. There are three main kinds:

  • Spices
  • Herbs
  • the bulbous group — Onions, Garlic, Shallot
Turmeric root

Turmeric Root

Spices: Over a hundred are used. The most important is Tumeric (Haldi). Other important ones include:

  • Coriander
  • Cumin
  • Fennel
  • Fenugreek and
  • Ginger as the main spice.

Other leading spices include:

  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Cassia
  • Cloves
  • Mace
  • Nutmeg
  • Poppy Seeds
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Turmeric – one of the most important, and with possible important health benefits
  • Wild Onion Seeds (Kalonji – Nigella indica).

Also, the three kinds of Pepper — Red, Black, White.

Spice Mixes: Three kinds deserve special mention:

  • Curry Powder – to be avoided; better to use individual quality spices in appropriate combinations
  • Curry Paste – sometimes sod at Indian groceries and used for special preparations like Vindaloo
  • Garam Masala — a group of aromatic powders, with several variants, used throughut India in small quantities to add piquancy to dishes just before serving.
  • Tikka Mixture — an aromatic Spice mixture often used in cooking Meats.
  • Tandoori Mixture — a Spice mixture associated with items cooked in a Tandoori oven.

Main Cooking Techniques: The Indian cook uses several major techniques —

  • Stewing (Turcarri or Curry)
  • Braising (Korma)
  • Steaming (Dum)
  • Frying (Bhoona)
  • Deep Frying (Tilaka)
  • Cooking on the Spit or Grill (Tandoor and Kababs)
  • Grilling, Roasting, Baking

Meals: Indian food is not served in courses, but all the dishes are served at once, together with Rice. Desserts are served later, as are beverages, such as Coffee or Tea. Fingers are the common tool for eating, although some urban people also use Western utensils.

Recipes and Dishes: The main types of dishes may be organized this way

  • Basic preparations – Bouillon and Stocks, Marinades, Syrups, Batters and Stuffing
  • Meat Dishes — primarily Lamb or Mutton, sometimes Pork
  • Poultry and Game
  • Fish and Shell-Fish — such as Crab Masala, a Goanese style dish.
  • Vegetables and Pulses — such as Braised Bitter Melon, Cabbage and Green Peas. Also Zucchini and Tomatoes. Also  Braised Cabbage, in our discussion Does Cabbage Fight Cancer?
  • Eggs
  • Rice
  • Breads
  • Desserts
  • Chutneys and Pickles

Among beverages, besides Tea and Coffee in certain parts of the country, a milk drink called Lassi is a leading drink with meals.

Vegetarian India: Many Indians are vegetarians. Vegetariianism has been part of the culture since around 500 BCE, when Mahadeva, a Hindu philosopher, developed the concept of ahimsa, or “no killing.: Mahadeva taught that every life has its reason for being, and that we should live with all the creatures of God.

Indian Food and Health: On the whole, Indian cuisine is a pretty healthy one. There is protein, even for vegetarians, and even meat-eaters tend to consume animal proteins in modest amounts. A number of the spices that feature so prominently in Indian food appear to have important health benefits.

Turmeric, for instance, contains cucurmin, which can help prevent development of cancers and help maintain memory in aging.

Some spices, for instance, Saffron, appear to be capable of killing cancer cells outright.

Other spices have the ability to neutralize harmful substances in the body, taking away their cancer-causing potential. In this group are Ginger, Nutmeg, Cumin, Black Pepper and Coriander.

On the negative side, some medical authorities have expressed concern about the saturated fats in Ghee, a favorite cooking oil made from clarified Butter. There are opinions on both sides of this question, and in any case consumption of Ghee seems to be falling, in favor of other oils.

Recipes: Information about some good printed sources of recipes as well as links to online sources are attached.

For Further Information:

Attia Hosain and Sita Paon sricha, Cooking the Indian Way (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1962). These two Indian ladies, residing in London, created a comprehensive handbook on Indian cooking for Indian expatriates soon after the Second World War. Intended for Indians with minimal hands-on exposure to kitchen work, it became a favorite of overseas Indians of both sexes who wanted to recreate familiar dishes while living abroad.  Severa editions were published and the book is now probably still out of print.  Second-hand copies, when you can find them, are often dilapidated and well-used and the title has become a cul
Daramjit Singh, Indian Cookery (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1970)E. P. Veerasawmy, Indian Cookery (Bombay: Jalco Publishing Co.., 1969). A classic by a veteran operator of an Indian restaurant in London.
Shanthi Rangarao, Good Food from India (Bombay: Jalco Publishing Co., 1968
Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, a variety of books by both on Indian cooking.  Sahni, trained as an architect and urban planner, Sahni, began studying cooking in New York to help her host better parties for clients, but soon became a teacher and caterer and eventually a leading food writer.  Her many books include: Classic Indian Cooking, Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, Mughal Microwave, Savoring Spices and Herbs, Recipe Secrets of Flavor, Aroma and Color; Saving India: Recipes  and Reflections on Indian Cooking and Classic Indian Vegetarian Cookery.
Neil Kagan, Concise History of the World: An Illustrated Time-Line (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2006). Time-lines for development of agriculture in ancient times.
Selene Yeager, The Doctor’s Book of Food Remedies (Emmaus, Pa.: Prevention, 1998). On health aspects of Indian foods and spices.

Ancient Indian sculpture of Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja, Tamilnad

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16 thoughts on “Indian Cuisine

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