A Food of History & Diversity
India is a land brimming over with history, majestic cultures and an assortment of exquisite cuisines. As one of the oldest places of known civilization and a historical crossroads during ancient times, India has become one of the most diversely prosperous societies in the modern world. Its history dates back thousands of years to the days of hunter-gatherers and settlements of great antiquity, a succession of vast empires, an everlasting stream of explorers along with traders, conquerors and influencers from a myriad of cultures and backgrounds. One of the results is an incredibly diverse cuisine as varied as the landscapes and people of this time-honored country.
A Menu Thousands of Years in the Making
The many tastes of Indian cuisine are a composite of centuries upon centuries of flavorful refinement and cultural influence. Instead of producing a displacement of traditional cooking methods and ingredients, the effect of cultural influence has been quite the opposite: an additional treatment with local and foreign ingredients and concepts over thousands of years of development.
The basis of many modern Indian dishes can be traced back to what archaeologists consider as one of the cradles of civilization some 8,000 years ago. For thousands of years, natives of the Indian subcontinent relied heavily on grains such as millet, rice, wheat and sorghum, legumes such as lentils and chickpeas and spices such as ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and other native seasonings as staples of their diet.
By 2500 BCE, the Indus Valley Civilization was flourishing. Its populations grew fruits such as melons, grapes and dates as well as a variety of vegetables such as leafy greens and root vegetables, maintained livestock for meat and produced dairy products such as yogurt and butter. All the while, field crops such as legumes and grains held their place as principal bases for dishes while native spices served as essential seasonings.
The passage of time would usher in new cultures along with concepts that eventually altered the eating habits of much of the populations of Ancient India. The Vedic Civilization brought with it the religious texts of Hinduism which shaped early beliefs of vegetarianism and influenced many of today's diverse Indian dishes. For a long time, many Ancient Indians embraced vegetarianism, while people of some distinct regions still relied on meat from hunting, livestock and fishing as a significant portion of their diet. No matter what regional dishes were predominant within the populations, the inventory of spices and ingredients never ceased to grow. Spices such as black pepper, saffron, cumin and coriander were added to a blooming list of seasonings while citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges were a welcome addition to flavorful cooking.
The enjoyment of creamy delicacies also arose during the Gupta Dynasty of the Middle Ages, where people developed a sweet tooth for milk and cheese sweetened with cane sugar or molasses as well as many varieties of honey - creating ancient treats and desserts that are still widely popular to this day. Spices such as cloves, mustard, and coriander were favored as zesty complements alongside traditional seasonings.
Invasions by Central Asian peoples during the Middle Ages saw the coming of the Mughal Empire, which would influence Indian culture with religious and culinary adaptations for hundreds of years to come. Religious mandates forbade the eating of pork however much of the population saw a resurgence of cuisines favoring meat with the arrival of what became known as Mughlai cuisine.
Mughlai cuisine consists of many popular dishes that were the result of a combination of cultures between Central Asian and North India. It introduced alternative cooking methods, with foods ranging in spiciness, many dishes inclusive of meats and a wide range of seasonings popular within a single dish. Mughlai cuisine also favored the use of nuts and dried fruits as ingredients in many general dishes.
By the colonial period, Indian cuisine had become an impressively diverse scope of flavors and ingredients. However, this did not stop newfound ingredients from becoming welcomed into a seemingly boundless variety of foods and combinations. Potatoes, chillies, breadfruits and other foreign staples and seasonings were introduced during the spice trades of South Asia and quickly found a place in many popular dishes. Today, Indian cuisine is a reflection of the many tastes and cultures that have inhabited its vast regions over thousands of years of human development.
A Compass of Indian Cuisine
Indian cuisine has a tendency of varying distinctly from one region to another. That's because regional cultures and culinary styles had a great impact on modern dishes which still remain true to their places of origin. The regional styles of Indian cuisine are divided into four main categories: North, South, East and West.
In the North, where the centers of the Mughal Empire were founded, Mughlai cuisine remains widely popular and features thick gravies of pureed nuts, dairy and saffron. The concept of the tandoor oven, where Naan is made, was brought to India during Mughal rule. Naan, an originally Central Asian recipe, is a flatbread that can be cooked in various ways and seasoned with spices or other ingredients to add flavor. It can be enjoyed as a snack, with a tea or as a wrapping for a wide range of dishes.
The Eastern states of India vary in diet and host an assorted span of dish bases, sides and desserts. Fish and rice are popular staples along with vegetable dishes and sweet dairy treats. Here you'll discover delicacies like deep-fried squash blossoms made with rice or creamy paste, as well as different mixtures of vegetables, delicate bean recipes and the occasional meat dish.
Southern Indians enjoy rice dishes and much of their cuisine is based around this dietary staple. Many Hindus prefer vegetarian meals while others include meat recipes as part of their daily cuisine. Rice crepes and cakes are popular here along with a variety of dishes with coconut at their center - widely accepted as a culinary mascot of Southern India.
The Western regions of India have a diverse and unique take on Indian cuisine and offer plenty of flavorful combinations to enjoy. Because of the various cultural demographics of these regions, you can expect a diverse assortment of ingredients, bases and sides to choose from. Western India is home to world-famous vegetarian cuisine, chicken dishes, recipes, coastal delicacies of seafood and plenty of other unique creations.
A Healthy Choice
Indian cuisine comes in a complete mixture of food groups with a long list of vitamins and micro-nutrients known for their beneficial effects. In particular, a liberal use of spices as seasoning supplies an abundance of healthy, all-natural properties - many of which are still being studied today for their surprising health benefits. Much of the flavor produced through Indian cooking is obtained from flavorful spices instead of salt, sugar and fat. The result is a richly aromatic dish that is as delicious as it is healthy. For this reason, Indian cuisine has risen in popularity all over the world as a health-conscious and delectable choice of cuisine.
A particularly common spice used in Indian dishes is turmeric, which has been a staple of seasoning mixtures in India for thousands of years. The fact that turmeric is not only a popular spice but considered a medicinal herb in many parts of the world shouldn't come as a surprise. It packs immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory compounds that help protect your body from infections and reduce inflammation in your body, making it useful in treatment and prevention for a wide range of illnesses. Bioactive compounds in turmeric can even help reduce the risk of heart disease, improve brain function and fight against age-related illnesses.
Another health-boosting spice widespread through Indian cuisine is ginger. Ginger root offers a powerhouse of healthy benefits that include treatment of the digestive tract, improvement of cardiovascular and respiratory function, immune system support, mineral absorption, painkilling effects and more. Its use in Indian cooking offers a zesty flavor with a balancing effect in a multitude of other spices.
Cardamom boasts an impressive inventory of vitamins and micronutrients and is a popular spice used in curries and rice dishes. Not only is it packed full of minerals but offers some unique health benefits that come with its fragrant, complex flavor. Just some of the health benefits of cardamom include detoxification, treatment for and protection from dental diseases, antimicrobial effects and improved digestion.
Cumin is another spice common to Indian cuisine and has its own set of natural health properties. Brain health, skin health, immune system support, treatment of diabetes, the peculiar property of treating insomnia as well as other health benefits make cumin a welcome addition to a long list of nourishing seasonings.
Many Indian dishes are incomplete without onion and garlic, considered as the 'wet seasonings' of Indian cuisine. These popular vegetables are widely known and used for their crisp, zesty flavors and come with an enormous amount of health-beneficial effects. Useful for boosting your immune system during infection or in general, onion and garlic also assist with cardiovascular health, detoxification and bone health. These are just some of the health properties associated with onion and garlic, which also come with plenty of vital minerals and nutrients to ensure a well-functioning body.
Other types of wholesome seasonings include cinnamon, coriander, garam masala blend, mustard seed, cloves and saffron. Indian cuisine is a continuously evolving method of cooking that uses a generous variety of spices and ingredients across a sweeping range of food types. This makes Indian food one of the most complete, balanced and beneficial cuisines available today.
Modern Ways of Indian Cooking
The diversity of Indian cuisine doesn't stop at the food - its many different cooking methods are equally exciting and offer an even greater level of combinations and possibilities to enjoy.
Like any cuisine, Indian food can be cooked in traditional fashion such as boiling, steaming and frying. However, authentic Indian cuisine is often prepared with unique styles and equipment in combination - or apart from - traditional cooking methods. Such techniques native to India were specially designed to infuse flavorful, aromatic spices with food to create a one-of-a-kind eating experience.
One of the most popular cooking methods in Indian cuisine is the tandoori oven. The tandoori's hot, cylindrical surface is ideal for preparation of Naan bread as well as even-cooking of marinated meats and vegetables. It is valued for its ability to produce tenderly-cooked food and sealing in aromatic, appetizing flavors.
Baghar, or tempering, is popular among Indian dishes as it allows the oil to be imbibed with the flavor of spices and herbs, which enhances their flavors in a consistent medium of seasoning. Tempered oil can then be used for cooking or poured over a dish to provide juicy and aromatic flavorings.
The Indian cuisine method of steaming is called Dum and is accomplished using sealed containers over a very low flame. This technique is sometimes done with a thin dough spread used as a seal, which absorbs the flavors of the food while it is being cooked and becomes bread as it is heated. The dish and bread are then eaten together as they share a similar, fragrant flavor with enjoyably different textures.
Dhuanaar is a quick smoke seasoning technique that can be used to flavor anything from meats to salads. Dry spices are poured over hot coals that are sealed in a pot with the cooking food. Additional cooking processes are then applied to foods such as meat to complete the dish with an extra measure of flavor.
Indian cuisine also allows for numerous preparatory techniques such as pickling, tenderizing, marinating, basting and binding.
With its incredible variety of ingredients and dishes to indulge in, Indian cuisine has something for everyone to enjoy. Whether you're a vegetarian, prefer a saucy meat dish, enjoy subtle-tasting meals or have a craving for seafood, Indian cuisine is sure to impress you with its wide selection of delicious recipes newly perfected or passed down through generations.