The Diversity of Indian Cuisine

The Himsagar Express, running between Kanyakumari in India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu to Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Katra in Jammu and Kashmir, the northernmost state of India, is one of the longest running trains of the Indian Railways, in terms of distance and time, and covers a distance of almost 3800 kms which takes 72 hours and halts at a total of 73 stations as it passes through 12 of India’s 29 states!

indian cuisine

The diversity of the landscape as you travel from the cold North, across the arid Rajasthan desert and the Central Plains, through the dry hot Hyderabad region, onto the lush green sandy beaches of Goa and Kerala, translates into this humungous variety that is Indian cuisine !

Himadri Express

Food has always been part of Indian culture and the cuisines of each region are as vast and varied as its multi ethnic culture. Every region has their own unique cuisines and specialties and the style of cooking, staples and flavours change with the landscapes.

The impact of soil type, climate, culture, ethnic groups and occupations have created cuisines significantly different from each other using locally grown spices, herbs, vegetables and fruits ! Each region has it’s own distinctive culinary characteristics and numerous traditional dishes. Culinary diversity is one of India’s distinctive features and it is this complexity of regional food that makes Indian cuisine so fascinating.

A culinary journey from the East to the West and from the North to the South is an experience of the tastes and cooking methods of the cuisines of India …. An unending feast of course after course as diverse as the scenery, the vegetation and the people.

Indian food has been heavily influenced by religious and cultural choices and traditions. Religious and caste restrictions and the impact of foreigners have also affected the eating habits of Indians. Historical incidents such as foreign invasions, colonialism and the spice trade between India and Europe have played a role in introducing certain foods to the country such as the potato and chillies.

Ayurvedic-spices

Inspite of its diversity, there is however one commonality between the cuisines of all the regions and that is the liberal use of herbs and spices. Prepared according to ancient or traditional recipes, the ancient science of Ayurveda is celebrated throughout India and the foundation of Indian vegetarian cuisine. While this philosophy is a common influence throughout Indian cuisine, the ways in which Ayurvedic food rules are applied differ according to religion and regional culture. Depending on the dominant religious beliefs of a region, the cuisine in a particular area may omit certain ingredients to comply with religious law.

The cooking styles vary from region to region and can be categorized into North Indian and South Indian food, but, that is a simplistic categorization, for even within every state in India one finds great culinary variation.

Kashmir

You will find abundance in the beautiful Kashmir valley. Kashmiri cuisine has been highly influenced by the traditional food of the Kashmiri pundits. Rice is a staple here. The seasons and availability of fresh produce dictates the ingredients, some of which are dried for use in the winter months.

Kashmiri Dhainiwal Korma

The boat-dwelling people of the beautiful Dal Lake and other lakes which dot this beautiful valley, use the lotus roots as a substitute for meat and ‘Gucchi’ or morel mushrooms are harvested around summer time. The green leafy ‘hak’ grows in abundance and is used to make delicious ‘saag’. Fresh fish, such as trout and salmon are in plenty in the sparkling streams and lakes. Lamb and poultry, slow-cooked in Mughlai style is also part of the Kashmiri cuisine both in summer and winter. To keep warm in the icy winters, a spicy tea, the ‘khava’ is brewed and poured from beautiful metal ‘samovars’. During festivals, celebrations and weddings, the Kashmiri ‘wazwaan’, which consists of more than 30-courses of mainly lamb meat dishes, will transport you to food heaven!

Punjab

Dal-Makhani

Climate has a definite impact on the cuisine of Punjab which has an enormous variety of vegetarian and non vegetarian dishes. The food of Punjab is robust, rich and satisfying. It is rich in flavours and is liberal with ghee and spices and is centered around bread, corn bread, greens and ‘lassi’.

Punjabi Lassi

Punjab has an abundance of milk, and milk products are an important part of the cuisine. Wheat is the staple food here and a variety of flours are used to make different types of breads like rotis, chapattis and the delicious stuffed parathas and makkai rotis are very popular. Vegetarian delights such as sarson da saag, rajma-chawal and kadhi are popular Punjabi dishes. Punjabis have also created a combination of the northwest frontier cuisine and Mughlai recipes to create rich meat and poultry dishes. The ‘Tandoori Chicken’ is a gift from the Punjab and paired with the ‘Naan’ it is an universal favourite.

Gujarat

Though Gujarat, the western coastline state of India, has a long coastline which ensures a huge variety of seafood, the influence of Jain culture and philosophy makes the region a predominantly vegetarian one.

Traditional Gujarati food is primarily vegetarian and a mix of sweet and savoury dishes and is highly nutritious. The unusual blending of the sweet with the savoury into a harmonious whole makes this one of the unique cuisines in the Indian subcontinent.

Gujarati thali

However, the climate being hot and dry, a great variety of dals (lentils) and preserves (achars) are used to substitute the lack of fresh vegetables and fruits.

Most Gujarati dishes are sweet, while some have a quite larger concentration of sugar as compared to salt and spices. Jaggery is also used as an alternative to sugar.

khaman-dhokla

The Dhokla is synonymous with Gujarati food. Made with a fermented batter of rice and split chickpeas, Dhokla can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or as a snack and can be made with a variety of ingredients such as rawa, sooji, green peas or makai. Topped with sautéed green chillies, grated coconut and chopped coriander, it is a mouthful of bliss ! A popular Gujarati sweet dish is the shrikhand …. a delicious dessert made from yoghurt spiced with saffron, nuts, cardamom and dry fruits.

Rajasthan

The cuisine of Rajasthan is primarily vegetarian . In the desert areas of Rajasthan, the state famous for its culture and heritage, the arid nature of the region, extreme climatic conditions, scarcity of water and fresh green vegetables had its impact on the cuisine of the region.

Matthris

A variety of dals and preserves (achars) are used to substitute the lack of fresh vegetables and fruits. Milk buttermilk and ghee, as well as dried lentils and beans, were used as a substitute. Rajasthanis use ghee for most of their cooking. Gram flour, Bajra and corn, are used to make rotis and khichdi. Chutneys and pickles made from locally available spices like coriander, garlic, mint and turmeric round off the regional flavour.

Mohan Maas

Mohan Maas, distinguished from the other icononic Rajasthani Laal Maas, is a dish fit for the Maharajas and a treat for every non-vegetarian. The meat is cooked with milk and mild spices which makes it tender and juicy. The thick gravy infused with the flavours of khus-khus, lemon and cardamom has an unique and lovely flavour.

Badam ka Halwa

Famed for it’s Lal Maas and Mohan Maas, Dal Bati Choorma, Badam ka Halwa (dry fruits, sooji, sugar and ghee} and Bikaneri Bhujia, Rajasthani cuisine is a mirror-image of the landscape of the region.

Bengali Cuisine

To my mind, the most sophisticated of the Indian cuisines, it is unique to the others. In sync with the seasons of the sub-continent, lightly flavoured with a variety of spices, it follows the service à la russe style of French cuisine with food served course-by-course.

bengali-thali

Bengali cuisine is known for its subtle combinations of spices and chillies with seasonal vegetables and it’s use of the fabulous’ panchphoron’, a term used to refer to the five essential spices, namely mustard, fenugreek seed, cumin seed, aniseed, and black cumin seed. The most fertile of the entire sub-continent, blessed by the Monsooon rains, rice is the staple here.

Shorshe ilish

The Bengalis’ love for fish, especially the legendary Shorshe Ilish, cooked with mustard oil and mustard paste with fiery green chillies, is appeased by its closeness to the seas and the mighty rivers that flow through the land.

non veg

Coconut grown in plenty in these hot and humid climes, has added sweetness to the cuisine in both sweet and savoury dishes. The iconic Prawn Malai Curry of Bengal, cooked with thick coconut milk or coconut cream is a must-have when visiting the eastern part of the country.

Narkel Naroo Ladoos

The Bengali weakness for something sweet is reflected in their confectionaries and desserts. The availability of coconut and jaggery has added delectable varieties such as the Narkel Naroo or Coconut Ladoos to the confectionary of this region. Milk and ‘chena’ based sweets from this region like the Rusgulla, Sandesh and Ras-Malai are world-famous.

Western India Cuisine

India being a sub-continent, some states have a long coastline and Maharashtra is one. Situated halfway between the North and South , their food is a happy combination of both. Varying landscapes from the arid deserts to wet coastal areas has contributed to the versatility of the cuisine here. At the same time, western India is a melting pot of several races and traditions. So various influences are seen in its variety of dishes.

Rice and wheat both are a part of the Maharashtrian diet as is an abundance of fish. Fishing, like in most Southern states, is a livelihood of a significant proportion of the population. Hot and spicy Bombay duck (a dried fish) and Pomfret preparations are uniquely Western India delicacies. Shrikhand, a hung curd dessert, is a popular summer treat.

shrikhand

Further down south along the coast, is Goa, a former Portuguese colony. As with all coastal regions, coconut, chillies and fresh seafood is an intrinsic part of Goan cuisine. The smallest state has a fiery and fishy cuisine. Goan cuisine is the result of the blending of local Konkani and Portuguese food styles and the Portugese influence is evident in dishes like the sweet and sour Vindaloo, Sorpotel and Prawn Balchao. This culinary marriage has created fiery coconut based curries and stews using pork and beef.

pork-vindaloo_0

The famous Goan Pork Vindaloo, a fiery local speciality, whose fame has spread far and wide, cooked with vinegar and red chillies, is a tongue tingling sensational dish!

South Indian Cuisine

Four different states, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala constitute the southern part of India.

While tea is the drink of choice in tne Northern part of the country, Coffee has pride of place in the South, mainly grown in the misty Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu.

DOSAS

South Indian food or idli, dosa, vada and sambhar, is what passes for ‘South Indian cuisine’ and has become very popular as a vegetarian ‘fast food’ everywhere in the country. The hot humid climate invites light low calorie dishes and the traditional cuisine is mainly rice-based. Rice is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Steamed idlis and dosas, with coconut chutneys for breakfast and the ubiquituous Masala dosas (stuffed with spiced potatoes and vegetables) for lunch.

coconut-oil

With the profusion of palms and coconut trees, the striking feature of South Indian cuisine is the use of coconut oil. Coconut oil lends the south Indian food a very special flavour. Coconut, either in a shredded, grated or blended form, or sautéed with curry leaves, is a must in most dishes. Tender coconut water is the drink for it’s cooling effect in these hot and humid regions. Tamarind or Imli, also grown locally, is generously used in Tamilian cooking which adds sourness to a dish, whereas Andhra food is chilli hot.

Though the Brahmins are in general vegetarian, as in the coastal state of Kerala, here also they consume a lot of fish.

The Kerala variation of the dosa is the appam, served with Rasam, a light pepperwater intended to help in digestion. Culinary specialities include banana, yam and jackfruit chips, delicious Lamb stew, Malabari Prawn and Fish Moilee.

hyderabadi biryani new

Most Andhra dishes tend to be hot and spicy. Hyderabad, the capital city, was home to the fabulously wealthy Muslim Nawabs and is famous for it’s superb Biryani and sizzling kebabs.
Andhra food is hot, spicy and tangy. The people love their side dishes and pickles, poppadums and yodhurt…Tamarind and green chillies are used in quantities to make you gasp ! While Andhra cuisine is again mostly vegetarian, in the coastal areas seafood is cooked with sesame and coconut oils, which are again locally produced.

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