An Introduction to Indian Cuisine
The exotic flavors of Indian cuisine please many around the world, but the seasonings, ingredients and dishes are baffling to many. However, unlike most other cuisines, Indian food cannot be described as having specific ingredients and flavors because the food is as diverse as the country itself.
Most restaurants in the United States serve North Indian food, with a splattering of south Indian here and there. But it is interesting to note that each state in the country has its own cuisine, and the dishes are varied. However, for the sake of a clearer explanation, let me broadly classify Indian cuisine by the two major regions of country itself—North Indian and South Indian.
Bread (such as parathas, chapattis, puris and naan) is central to North Indian cuisine. (Rice is eaten on special occasions). The bread is most commonly made of wheat, but other grains are used as well, such as corn and millet. The curries, lentils and chutneys prepared North Indian style are designed to go well with flatbread, and so the ingredients most commonly used are chilli powder, coriander powder, cumin powder, garam masala, and several other combinations of spices. Liberal amounts of ghee (clarified butter), cream and butter are also used while cooking.
Vegetables or combinations of them are made into curries, while lentils such as kidney, black-eyed, garbanzo, and moong beans are used to make dal, another accompaniment for the bread.
Non-vegetarian favorites include tandoori chicken (chicken marinated in spices and cooked in a clay oven), butter chicken, chicken tikka, and lamb preparations that come from Mughlai (Mughal) traditions. Fish is common ingredient in eastern and western Indian dishes, owing to their proximity to the ocean.
Most South Indian dishes are prepared to accompany the region’s staple food, rice. For that reason, strong flavors such as the coriander and cumin powders and various masalas are avoided. Ingredients such as mustard, cumin and fenugreek seeds, along with green chillies and curry leaves lend their subtle flavors to most vegetable dishes. Chutneys are a prominent side dish in this cuisine, served along with the main curry, lentils and gravy dishes.
South Indian food is also marked by several snacks, or what are traditionally eaten as breakfast. Dosa, idli, utthapam, vada, etc. are basically combinations of different lentils and rice (soaked overnight and made into a paste). The batter is then spread into a circle and cooked on a hot griddle in the case of dosas and utthapams, while it is steamed in the case of idlis. Vadas are made from deep frying the batter. There are different variations of each of these dishes as well, and they are eaten with a chutney or soup-like gravy.
Coconut is a common ingredient in most South Indian dishes.
Seafood dishes such as prawns, shrimp, lobsters and fish are typical of the coastal regions of south India.
The desserts of these regions are very different as well, with north Indian desserts using more refined sugar while jaggery is commonly used to lend its sweet flavor to south Indian ones.