Indian Cuisine

Table of contents

Indian Cuisine

Think of India and one of the first things that come to mind is its diversity. A large populous country divided into many states; each with its own unique traditions and gastronomic fare. Indian cooking is one of the most popular cuisines across the globe. Not only is it popular among the large Indian diaspora but also among the mainstream population of North America and Europe. For the uninitiated, Indian food may seem foreign, scary, spicy and not for the faint of heart. This paper aims to explore many of the facets that make up Indian and hopefully allay any misconceptions or fears that may exist.

The chapters are categorized under the following sections:

  1. The Evolution of Indian Cooking
  2. Geographical Variation
  3. Dietary Customs in India
  4. The Story of Spices
  5. Curry: What is it?
  6. Indian Dining Etiquette

The Evolution Of Indian Cooking

Indian cuisine derives from a 4000 year timeline. It has significantly evolved as a result of the various influences introduced into the country by many travelers and rulers. Despite this evolution, it has not lost its original identity, but rather became richer with the assimilation of theses varied influences.

The following historical timeline (Bhattacharya, n. d. ) of how Indian gastronomy evolved will help shape our understanding and appreciation of this cooking style. 2000 BC and earlier. Most people believe that the origins of Indian history, and therefore the cuisine, dates back to Mohenjedaro and Harrapan civilizations. It is understood that the Ayurvedic tradition of cooking, which is a complete holistic approach to cooking, evolved at this point in time. In Vedic times, a normal diet consisted of fruit, vegetables, meat, grain, dairy products and honey.

Over time, some segments of the population embraced vegetarianism due to the ancient Hindu philosophy of ahimsa. 1000 BC. At this point we see the first influx of outsiders into the country. The Mohenjodaro people are believed to have been pushed to southern India and the cuisine there is still largely vegetarian. The roots of Hinduism are shaped at this point along with the Vedas and the Mahabharata. The caste system is developed dividing eating habits broadly by caste. For example; the Brahmins were mostly vegetarians while the Kshatriyas were meat eaters. 400 BC:

This period saw the development of Buddhism outside India which resulted in the migration of people as well as their food and dietary requirements. 1200 AD: This period saw several north Indian dynasties rule and became known as the Golden Age of Indian Art. There were several travelers who visited India and were responsible for the introduction of tea. However, from a culinary perspective there are still no significant external influences brought into the country. 1200-1800AD: During the reign of the Moghuls we see the emergence of Moglai cuisine. It’s this type of cooking that people now associate with India.

The cooking style is characterized by the addition of several seasonings like saffron and nuts. The influx of European influences into parts of southern India, such as Kerala, resulted in the beginning of the Syrian Christian cuisine. 1800 – 1947 AD: The age of British colonial rule saw the start of the English love affair with Indian food. It was hardly a glorified period in Indian history, but the British loved the elaborate way of eating and adapted several of the food choices to their taste. They developed the curry as a simple spice to help them cook Indian meals.

Geographical Variation

The cuisines of India are as richly diverse and varied as its culture, ethnic makeup and geography. According to Sarakar (n. d. ), the common characteristic of all Indian cooking is the tremendous use and blending of a variety of wonderfully exotic spices. As a land that has experienced extensive immigration and intermingling over the centuries, India’s cuisine has benefited from numerous food influences. The diverse climate which ranges from tropical to alpine has also helped broaden the set of ingredients available for cooking.

Northern India North Indian cuisine is distinguished by a proportionally high use of dairy products. The tawa, or griddle, is used extensively for baking flat breads like roti and paratha. A tandoor oven is also frequently used to cook main courses like chicken. Goat and lamb are favored ingredients of many northern Indian recipes. The samosa, a common appetizer on all Indian restaurant menus, has its roots in northern India. The staple food of most of north Indians are a variety of lentils, vegetables, and roti.

Common north Indian foods such as kebabs and meat dishes originated with the Muslim incursions into the country. The influence of Europeans is also apparent with the creation of new dishes like chicken tikka masala which is actually a British invention during colonial times. Eastern India In the eastern part of India there is a large Oriental influence resulting from an influx of movement from Tibet and Nepal. All of these influences helped form the dietary customs in eastern India. Popular food is this region is a unique blend of vegetarian meals prepared in the traditional Chinese cooking style.

Rice and fish are the staple foods because most of the towns and fishing villages are located on the coast. Southern India Southern Indian cuisine is distinguished by a greater emphasis on rice and the liberal use of coconut, coconut oil and curry leaves. Before Christianity came to India in the early 52 AD, Kerala was strictly vegetarian as regulated by Hinduism. However, after the visit of St. Thomas, Christianity quickly spread throughout Kerala and thus the diet evolved to also include meat. Western India The geography of the landscape and the culture of the people definitely influenced the region’s cuisine.

Rajasthan and Gujarat have hot, dry climates so the relatively smaller varieties of vegetables available are preserved as pickles and chutneys. Culturally these states are largely Hindu and vegetarian. Peanuts and coconut are prominent ingredients as they are freely available. Goa, with its lush green coastline, has an abundance of fresh fish and seafood. Local dishes like Vindaloo are testament to the fact that Goa was a Portuguese colony until the 1960s. This region probably has the most diverse styles of food in India.

Food from the Rajasthan area is spicy and largely vegetarian but includes many meat dishes. Gujarat’s cuisine is know for its slightly sweet taste (at least a pinch of sugar is added to most dishes) and is traditionally entirely vegetarian. Dietary customs in India As you would expect from a country as large and diverse as India, there are a variety of different dietary customs. Religion is a significant contributing factor to the diets of Indians. Hinduism is the dominant religion in India making up about 80% of the population while Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists make up a sizeable minority.

Some religions impose dietary restrictions which prohibit the eating of beef or pork. The most commonly served dishes at Indian dinner parties and public functions tend to comprise of chicken, lamb or fish as this avoids any potential difficulties with restricted diets for meat eaters. Here is a general guide to the dietary customs of the three major religious groups in India: Hindus Most Hindus follow a balanced vegetarian diet. Some do eat meat occasionally but Hindus do not eat beef out of reverence for the cow as a sacred animal.

Strict Hindus will also avoid garlic, onions and mushrooms. Mushrooms are thought to promote ignorance, whilst garlic and onions are thought to invoke passion. Muslims Muslims cannot eat pork, lard or any other porcine derivatives. Islam prohibits eating meat that is not slaughtered in the correct Islamic way. Muslims recite the name of God before and after eating, eat with the right hand and find it desirable to always eat in the company of others. Sikhs Sikhs do not believe in ritual killing and are instructed to avoid meat slaughtered in this way.

Although in many aspects Sikhism is less prescriptive than some other religions, most Sikhs do not eat beef or pork. Many Sikhs are vegetarian and in observance of such a variety of dietary habits, all food served in Sikh places of worship is vegetarian. Sikhism is probably the only major organized religion which does not encourage fasting as it is viewed as having no spiritual benefit. The Story Of Spices Spices are the jewels of Indian cooking. Their flavors are meant to be savored and should not be overpowered by the burning sensation resulting from the liberal use of hot chilies.

Parbhoo (1985) suggests that authentic Indian food should generally not be too hot and recommends that spices be used lavishly in the same way cheese or wine is used in French cuisine. Chilies in themselves have very little flavor but contribute to the dish by providing a sensation of heat which can be regulated to the cook’s preference. Spices have three traditional functions: medicinal, preservative and seasoning. Early Indian literature written in Sanskrit and dating back 3000 years to the Vedic period emphasizes the importance of spices for preserving food.

The Ayurveda, an ancient Hindu treatise on medicine, places special emphasis on the medicinal properties of spices. |

Curry:What is it?

Curry is a generic description used throughout European and American culture to describe a general variety of spiced dishes. The word curry is an anglicized version of the Tamil word kari. Several articles (Sarkar, n. d. ; Smith, 1998) suggest it is usually understood to mean gravy or sauce, rather than spices.Curry’s popularity in recent decades has spread outward from the Indian subcontinent to figure prominently in international cuisine. While many people think that curry is a particular spice, it is actually a mixture of spices commonly referred to as curry powder. This powder is versatile in both taste and flavor and varies widely depending on the region it comes from. Most people associate curry with a bright yellow color. This color is caused by the spice turmeric that is a common ingredient. However, not all curry powder mixtures contain turmeric and, in fact, curry powders can be as individual as the person making them.

Some spices you might find in this mixture include chilies, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, mace, fenugreek, sesame seeds, red pepper, black pepper, poppy seeds, tamarind and saffron. Oftentimes the curry powder mixture recipe is passed down from one generation to the next and is a safely guarded secret. Indian Dining Etiquette Though Indian cooking uses an extensive array of specialized utensils for various purposes, Indians traditionally do not use much cutlery for eating as many foods are best enjoyed when eating with the hand.

It is a technique that is clean and easy when done correctly. Cook (2008) suggests the reason for using the hands is that it adds an additional element of enjoyment to the taste because it helps with blending the food. In many parts of India, when eating curry, the gravy must not be allowed to stain your finger only the fingertips. The left hand is not used and kept clean to facilitate the passing of dishes along the table. These variations are further compounded and increased by the diversity of the population India, leading to regional differences in the way people dine.

In Janjira’s (2009) article on Indian Dining Etiquette, he explains that in North India it is common to be seated at a dining table to eat. While in south India, especially is Kerala, it is as common to see people sitting down and eating on banana leaves. The entire meal will be placed and served on banana leaves and eaten with the hand. The concept of courses at mealtime does not exist in India. Most Indian homes will serve the food all at once and then keep filling the dishes as dinner progresses. Everything cooked will be made available on the table with the exception of the dessert which will follow once most guests are done eating.

While general etiquette rules might suggest that everything should be tried, it is more in theory than in practice and it is perfectly fine to skip something which might not suit your taste. Desserts on the other hand more often than not require the use of utensils. Unlike the western world where dessert may also be followed by coffee or liquor; the serving of the dessert would often indicate that dinner is almost over. Conclusion As evident in the above chapters, Indian cuisine has a long history of being influenced by the unique needs and tastes of its indigenous people, invaders and explorers.

The food, cooking techniques and ingredients have evolved based on peoples’ religious needs or influenced by the availability of ingredients across India’s vast and varied landscape. But even after all this; Indian cuisine manages to retain its unique heritage and identity in a global gastronomic landscape that tends to be fickled and faddish. Indian food is enjoyed by commoners and royalty alike and it is hoped that this paper will enlighten the reader and allay any fears or misconceptions that may have previously prevented the sampling of Indian cooking.


  1. Bhattacharya , R (n. d) History of Indian Cooking: A Historical Perspective on Indian Cooking. Retrieved November 25, 2009, from http://www. inmamaskitchen. com/Indian_Cooking/history_Indian_food_cooking. html
  2. Cook, S (2008). Indian Eating Etiquette. Retrieved September 28, 2009 from http://www. india-travel-suite101. com/article. cfm/eating_in_indian_style Curry. Retrieved October 15, 2009 from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/curry
  3. Indian Cuisine – Origins and Indian Culinary History. Retrieved November 10, 2009, from http://www. ndianfoodsco. com/Classes/CulinayHistory. htm
  4. Indian Cuisine. Retrieved October 25, 2009, from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Indian_cuisine Janjira, M (2009).
  5. Indian Dining Etiquette. Retrieved September 22, 2009 from http://www. indianmusings. wordpress. com/2009/02/020indian-dining-etiquette Leong, K (n. d).
  6. The Health Benefits of Indian Food. Retrieved October 15, 2009 from http://www. associatedcontent. com/pop_print. shtml? content_type=article&content_typeid=1829365 Parbhoo, R. (1985).
  7. Indian Coookery for South Africa. Cape Town, South Africa: Printpak Books. Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) (September 30th 2008). APA Formatting and Style Guide. Retrieved November 17, 2009, from http://owl. english. purdue. edu/owl/resource/560/01/ Sarkar, P (n. d).
  8. The Cuisine Of East India: An Introduction to Eastern Indian Food. Retrieved September 29, 2009 from http://indianfood. about. com/old/thebasics/p/eastindia. htm
  9. Smith, D (1998). Definition and History of Curry. Retrieved September 24, 2009 from http://www. curryhouse. co. uk/faq/define. htm

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