India is more than just a country; it's an entire civilization. The subcontinent is home to an ancient and complex society, and its many cuisines are a delicious mosaic of foods, flavors and ingredients.
Indian Cuisine: A Background
The typical Indian meal might consist of a meat dish, a vegetable dish, rice or bread, a simmered dal, and a cooling yogurt raita. Often one or two different chutneys are passed as a sort of condiment to the dishes. All this could be followed by an exotic sweet such as gulab jamun. Finally, a whole clove to refresh the breath, and a cup of hot spiced tea to aid in digestion.
The climates and cultures of India determine the nature of regional dishes. The northern parts of India are wheat country. Bread of all kinds accompanies meals. In the torrid climate of the south, rice grows best and is on every plate.
Indian cookery takes seriously the health and medicinal effects of ingredients. Turmeric serves as an antibacterial and digestive aid. Certain spices are thought of as hot or cold, most suitable for particular seasons. And onions and garlic help preserve food in the sometimes torrid climate.
Here are some of the hallmarks of the major culinary traditions of the Indian subcontinent.
On the eastern coast, Bengali cuisine offers spicy fish dishes. Its "burnt milk" sweets are renowned across the country.
On the western coast, Goa state is famous for its coconut fish curries and pork vindaloo. The starch of choice in Goa is rice.
Gujarati cuisine excels in vegetarian fare. The use of dal (Indian lentils and beans) and vegetables is taken to a high art. Yogurt and butter enrich dishes.
At the foot of the Himalayas, Kashmiris dine on lamb, goat, chicken and dried fruits. A side dish similar to cottage cheese, called chaman, often accompanies meals.
Maharashra is the home state of Bombay, now known as Mumbai. Meat dishes are very popular, and Bombay street food is considered some of the best.
The royal cuisine of India's moghul past. The Mongols swept down from Asia in the middle ages and installed a regime in India that affected Indian cookery indelibly. Mughlai cooking is what you are most likely to encounter in fine Indian restaurants. It is sumptuous, buttery and rich. A wide variety of meat dishes predominate. And servings are sometimes garnished with silver leaf and flower petals.
This northern province presents the world with the miraculous offerings of the tandoor oven. Tandoori chicken and naan bread are two dishes to emerge from this firey clay roasting vessel. The fresh cheese curd called paneer is common in Punjabi recipes.
This "state of princes" hones close to its royal past with its rich, lavish fare. Meat dishes are a specialty.
The tropical, humid south produces the spiciest of Indian food. Rice, vegetables, peanuts and coconut are cooked with very little fat and served on a fresh green banana leaf.
Typical Indian Dishes
Try these recipes from India.
(South Asian yogurt condiment)
(Indian curried eggplant and tomatoes)
(South Indian deep-fried lentil fritters)
(Indian, Pakistani fresh cheese)
(Indian, Pakistani clarified butter)
(South and Central Asian spiced meatballs; see Kefta recipe)
(Indian, Pakistani deep-fried puff bread; see Chapati recipe variations)
(Indian veggie dumplings in curry sauce)
(Indian, Pakistani cultured milk; see Yogurt recipe)