What is Indian Cooking?
My India. Though I wasn’t born there, I always feel right at home when I visit. India is a vast country with multiple regional differences, including different languages and dialects, different geographical and ecological conditions and different food sources and religions leading to various food preferences.
Indian restaurants in the U.S. up to now generally have featured menus with mostly Northern Indian food from the state of Punjab (rich delicacies such as kormas, tandoor-baked specialties like naan and the ubiquitous tandoori chicken). Some South Indian cuisine is finding its way to the popular list of Indian foods to try. Dosa, the rice and lentil based savory Indian crepe, is gaining rapid popularity and dosa trailers and restaurants can be found in major U.S. cities. Mumbai (Bombay) street foods such as bhel-puri and chaat are also increasingly popular and Mumbai may have found a niche itself on the culinary map of India. Bengal in East India is popular for its dairy-based rich sweets such as ras-golla and sandeshes as well as delectable freshwater fish dishes. Goa, the area in West India colonized for several centuries by the Portuguese, is where the popular vindaloo curry originated, incorporating heat from the chilis that were brought over to India from Spain and Portugal.
Gujarat is known for its predominantly vegetarian cuisine and its combination of spicy, savory, sweet and sometimes sour all in one curry. Vegetarian dishes in India often incorporate dairy and/or lentils and other types of legumes to make up for the absence of protein. Gujaratis specifically use chickpea flour in various forms (fried, steamed, sauteed) in many dishes. Paneer cheese and milk and cream are used mostly and sometimes heavily in Northern Indian dishes.
Rajasthani cuisine is the cuisine of the royal courts and is similar to Gujarati food. Thalis (large divided platters of sometimes 10-20 dishes) with items such as daal bhaati, various flatbreads like missi roti and bhaajra (millet) roti, and an array of vegetable and lentil curries are found in typical Rajasthani and Gujarati open-air restaurants.
Kerala in South Indian is known for, but not limited by, its widespread use of coconut and all things coconut not only in the food but also in day to day non-culinary life. Aviyal and sweet appams come to mind as do wonderful seafood and vegetable curries. Andhra Pradesh cuisine, particularly from the industrial city of Hyderabad, is known for its fiery essence producing wonderful pickled condiments and also many Mughal empire-inspired dishes like the famous aromatic and spicy rice and meat casserole dish biriyani. Tamilian cuisine is also an often predominantly vegetarian cuisine and various lentils are used in many preparations such as idli, dosa, and saambhaar. Karnataka, where the city of Bangalore lies, is a region where the sought-after masala dosa may have actually originated. This is yet another South Indian region which is rice-based for the most part but one can also find wonderful unleavened breads like bhajraa and jhowar rotis.
External influences from China, Persia, and America have contributed in the past and recently to the cuisine of India. Gobi Manchurian (Manchurian is not even in Chinese culinary lexicon) is a popular cauliflower appetizer. Dishes like falooda and biriyani come from Central Asia originally and have had transformations on the Indian subcontinent.
And of course we can’t forget the U.S. influence in India: paneer tikka pizzas and other unusual toppings such as baby corn and cilantro, curry ketchup with French fries, and hamburgers in the land of free-roaming and respected cows, beef patties substituted by fried spiced potato patties.
Indian Cooking for the Novice
Indian cooking is often labelled "spicy" which can be confused for "hot-spicy" and not for really what I think it is: a cuisine that has complex layers of flavor brought into the dish by certain techniques and a medley of different spices. Not all dishes have to have 20 spices and many recipes have ingredient lists that don't span a whole page! That being said, long lists of ingredients shouldn't be daunting: once you have your Indian pantry staples which keep for months, you will be prepared even for a casual weeknight meal.
The list of ingredients in any recipe can be daunting even to any experienced cook with a shortage of time. I recommend keeping your mainstay spices in one container, such as a masala box or a drawer or even a resealable plastic container in a cool, dark place such as your pantry or a drawer and if need be, your fridge. Have on hand a few lentils and rice and all you'll be left to buy is produce and/or meats which would already be on your shopping list for the week! Try this recipe for a quick healthy and hearty weeknight meal.
Indian cooking can have a spectrum of difficulty or ease, however you look at it. It can be perfectly tailored for a quick and hearty weeknight meal or it could be as elaborate as you would like for entertaining. All it takes is a bit of planning: pantry inventory and an occasional trip to the Indian store or a well-stocked supermarket. You can always buy spice mixes at the Indian store or order online if you don’t want to make your own. Try a store-bought chole masala as in this recipe.
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