Indian cuisine is very diverse and is a result of India’s diverse population. Over the centuries, each new wave of settlers brought with them their own culinary practices which, with time, blended into the Indian cuisine as it is known today. Besides settlers from outside, Indian cuisine has been influenced by environmental, social, religious and political factors from within. Most Indian cuisines are related by significant usage of spices, and by the use of a larger variety of vegetables than most other culinary traditions. Within these recognizable similarities, there is an enormous variety of local styles.
Typically, North Indian meals consist of chapatis or rotis and rice as staples, eaten with a wide variety of side dishes like dals, curries, yoghurt, chutney and achars. South Indian dishes are mostly rice-based, sambhar, rasam and curries being important side dishes. Coconut is an important ingredient in most South Indian food.
Besides the main dishes, various snacks are widely popular in Indian cuisine, such as samosa and vada. Among drinks, tea enjoys heavy popularity, while coffee is mostly popular in South India. Nimbu pani (lemonade), lassi, and coconut milk are also popular, while India also has many indigenous alcoholic beverages like Fenny and Indian beer.
Several customs are associated with the way in which food is consumed. Traditionally, meals are eaten while sitting on the floor or on very low stools, eating with the fingers of the right hand.
Indian cuisine is a blend of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian elements. Fruit, vegetables, grain, meat (excluding beef), fish, dairy products, and honey constituted a normal diet in Vedic times. The end of Vedic period saw the advent of Buddhism and later Jainism, and Indian cuisine was influenced by the principle of ahimsa or non-violence. Indian cuisine turned predominantly vegetarian and was embraced particularly by the priestly-class as they deemed a vegetarian diet to be superior. This was possible partly due to a very co-operative climate where a variety of fruits and vegetables can be easily grown throughout the year. Even now, a large percentage of people are vegetarian, either because they were brought up as vegetarian or have some spiritual inclination to turn to vegetarianism.
Over the centuries Indian cuisine has been highly influenced by the Arab and Chinese traders and conquerors such as the Persians, Mongolians, Turks, the British and the Portuguese.
By 3000 B.C. turmeric, cardamom, pepper and mustard were harvested in India. Rice was domesticated in the Ganges delta around the same period. According to Ayurveda, food is either satvic, rajasic or tamasic according to its character and effect upon the body and the mind.
Islamic rule resulted in a blending of the non-vegetarian fare of the Middle East and the rich gravies that were indigenous to India, creating what is known as Mughlai cuisine. India was also introduced to kebabs and pilafs (or pulaos). The Mughals were great patrons of cooking. Lavish dishes were prepared during the reigns of Jahangir (1605-27) and Shah Jahan (1627-58). It was in this period that the Portuguese introduced vegetables like potatoes and tomatoes in India.
In the modern times, the Indian cuisine has evolved further both due to European influences, and indigenous innovations. Rasgulla was invented in 1868 in Kolkata. In the last century, the Indian fast food industry has seen rapid growth.
Due to India’s geography, wheat is a staple of North and West Indian foods. Food from North India is characterised by its thick gravies. Chillies, saffron, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, ghee and nuts are common ingredients. Milk based sweets are a huge favourite too. Rice is the primary constituent of Southern and Eastern foods. Eastern India gets heavy rainfall so rice is the major crop. Fish is very popular in the coastal state of West Bengal.
Staple ingredients and spices
The staples of Indian cuisine are rice, atta (a special type of whole wheat flour), and at least five dozen varieties of pulses, the most important of which are chana (bengal gram), toor (pigeon pea or red gram), urad (black gram) and mung (green gram). Chana is used in different forms, may be whole or processed in a mill that removes the skin, eg dhuli moong or dhuli urad, and is sometimes mixed with rice and khichri (a food that is excellent for digestion and similar to the chick pea, but smaller and more flavorful). Pulses are used almost exclusively in the form of dal, except chana, which is often cooked whole for breakfast and is processed into flour (besan). Most Indian curries are fried in vegetable oil. In North India, mustard oil is traditionally been most popular for frying, while in Western India, groundnut oil is more commonly used. In South India, coconut oil is common. In recent decades, sunflower oil and soybean oil have gained popularity all over India. Hydrogenated vegetable oil, known as Vanaspati ghee is also a popular cooking medium.
The most important spices in Indian cuisine are chilli pepper, black mustard seed (rai), cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, ginger, coriander and asafoetida (hing). Another very important spice is garam masala which is usually a powder of five or more dried spices, commonly comprising cardamom, cinnamon and clove. Some leaves are commonly used like bay leaf, coriander leaf and mint leaf. Typically in South Indian cuisine curry leaves are used commonly. In sweet dishes, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron and rose petal essence are used.
Indian food abroad
Britain has a particularly strong tradition of Indian cuisine that originates from the British Raj. At this time there were a few Indian restaurants in the richer parts of London that catered to British officers returning from their duties in India.
In the 20th century there was a second phase in the development of Anglo-Indian cuisine, as families from countries such as Bangladesh migrated to London to look for work. Some of the earliest such restaurants were opened in Brick Lane in the East End of London, a place that is still famous for this type of cuisine.
In the 1960s, a number of inauthentic “Indian” foods were developed, including the widely popular “chicken tikka masala”. This tendency has now been reversed, with subcontinental restaurants being more willing to serve authentic Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani food, and to show their regional variations. In the late twentieth century Birmingham was the centre of growth of Balti houses, serving a newly developed style of cooking in a large, wok-like, pan, with a name sometimes attributed to the territory of Baltistan, but more often derived from the Portuguese Balde, meaning ‘bucket’. Indian food is now integral to the British diet: indeed it has been argued that Indian food can be regarded as part of the core of the British cuisine.
In the United States of America, Indian cuisine has become far more popular and prevalent since the 1970s, especially in New York City but also in other large metropolitan areas nationwide, as a result of the huge increase in South Asian immigration. In many Indian restaurants in the U.S., all-you-can-eat buffets with several standard dishes have become the norm.
Indian restaurants are common in the larger cities of Canada, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver where large numbers of Indian nationals have settled since 1970. A number of the more adventurous restaurants have transformed their offerings into so-called Indian “fusion” menus, combining fresh local ingredients with tradional Indian cooking techniques.
Due to a large population of Indians in South Africa, the cuisine of South Africa includes a number of Indian dishes, some unique to South Africa, like the Bunny chow.