Known for its diversity that varies with every region, state, community, culture and even religion, food in India is a vibrant assortment of uncountable dishes. It is distinctly characterised by the subtle and sophisticated use of spices, grains, fruits and vegetables that are all grown in the country. Home to people of many religions who come from a plethora of cultural backgrounds, the food culture of the country has been influenced by all of them, including foreigners.On his way back to England from India, it is said that legendary British chef, William Harold, made a note in his diary that read: “Of all the food cultures I have had the fantastic opportunity to savour, Hindoostani remains one of the most enigmatic, enchanting and extremely addictive. It is both ancient in practice and modern in approach, and in the years to come will be the one system that would turn cuisine in the world.”As per legends, the year was of the war, and chef Harold, on the behest of an officer, had made a rather 'strenuous' journey to figure out the recipe of the omnipresent bhel – a common snack that had made home in the British palate memory, way before chicken tikka ruled their world.Curiously, while Harold failed to master the recipe of bhel despite many visits to different vendors across north and western India, he did take a shine to many things Indian – the grill, pit cooking and one-pot cooking.Chef Harold, however, wasn’t the first person to be smitten by the vastness of the Indian cuisine. Even in ancient times, Indian food culture, which is defined as a delicious melange of culinary techniques developed by nearly 10,000 tribes and communities, even managed to stun travellers like Ibn Battuta. The Moroccan scholar, in fact, dedicated a major part of his journal to exploring the fascinating world of cuisine across the Silk Route kingdom. An interesting chapter in his journal expounded upon the food street of India, including the rich Vijaynagaram, which he called the 'capital of a healthy surpluses'.
Moreover, what makes Indian cuisine more appealing in today's world is the fact that it was developed on the science of wellness and a system of thali, which allowed the body to take the right amount of nutrients required as per one’s occupation. However, its sustainability and taste endeared it to one and many.While food culture in India drew heavy influences from different dynasties, trading routes and foreign rulers, it expanded in two versions: the common man’s and the elite's.Take Assam for example. The food culture easily dates back easily to 1 AD, and was developed primarily by the Ahom kings, who ruled upper Assam, and farmers, who stayed in lower Assam. This eclectic and ancient cuisine, thus, taught the world the value of introducing 'khar' (alkali) and 'tenga' (sourness) into food. Even today, they have two streams of food, one inspired by the flavours of royalty and the other a culmination of traditional tribal recipes. The local cuisine was further improved upon when the Bengali community and the Muslim soldiers settled in this tea-rich region and added a new dimension to it.Bengali cuisine too developed in a likewise manner. Before the famous Calcutta modern cuisine was created, the food in the region was slowly created by farming communities and dynasties that ruled Bengal, like the Gupta kings and the Chola empire. Later, the cuisine was evolved by Odia temple chefs and Bangladeshi cooks, who made an array of interesting mutton curries, chops, the famous daab chingri (prawns cooked in coconut milk) and the chorchori (mixed vegetables). This gave a common link among the cuisines of Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and parts of Andhra Pradesh.
Furthermore, many communities made these regions their home. It is said that the famous Anglo-Indian cuisine was created by the Armenians, who settled in Bengal way before the Dutch and the British. The food of Gujarat and Maharashtra was influenced by the Parsis, who took the indigenous cuisine and paired it with their own culinary techniques to create a food culture that is a delicious blend of Gujarati and Iranian flavours.The versatility of Indian cuisine made Babur (founder of the Mughal dynasty in India) work towards developing the Mughlai cuisine. The evolution in the design of Indian food also came according to a 10,000-year-old science that made our culinary ecosystem not only about the taste but also about wellness. This defined many of the techniques that led to the creation of a plethora of interesting dishes like rasam (consommé), kanjis (gruels that help develop the gut), bhapa (steam) and kashayam (ancient kaada, which became the base for many medicines), and even the rich beverage culture.An excellent example of Indian culinary evolution is the sweets. Treats such as ladoos (sphere-shaped sweets), chenna podo (touted as the first cheesecake of South Asia), jalebi (deep-fried sweet pretzel), ghevar (disc-shaped sweet cake) and rosogolla (syrupy dessert), have all been a benchmark of how basic techniques like baking, roasting, frying (deep and shallow) and steaming were perfected to create classics.Other culinary highlights are the kebabs, raans (roasted lamb leg) and bhartas that not only redefined the art of roasting – pit, grilling and tandoor (a type of clay oven), but also the art of cooking food by keeping nutrition intact. However, what held the attention of the world were the curries and flatbreads. India, since medieval times, has boasted a range of flatbreads that were made using a flat griddle called tawa, and tandoor. Surprisingly, wheat or corn were a late entry, the common preference were those made with millets, rice and roasted gram flour called sattu.No wonder, Indian cuisine was the focal point of many cultures. So where does one really begin to understand a cuisine that is ancient and yet has constantly evolved to stay relevant to the present time? An easy primer into Indian food starts with understanding the five prominent regions of the country and how the cuisine developed in these parts – essentially the north, east, south, northeast and west of India.North IndiaFrom parathas (stuffed flatbreads), puris (deep-fried bread), chaats (savoury snacks), gucchi pilaf (rice with morel mushrooms) to kebabs (cooked meat dishes), niharis (slow-cooked stew of mutton), daulat ki chaat (an avant garde version of milk skin), jalebi (deep-fried sweet pretzel) and the famous raan (a mutton-dish) , north India scores beautifully on vibrancy of cuisine. From the largest collection of parathas and differently-styled puris to kachoris (spicy snack), north India doesn't only have the biggest share of flatbreads in its kitty, but also an amazing array of dishes that are made with mutton, chicken and milk products.The northern part of India is popular for creating a whole class of cuisine based on a single type of ingredient. Anyone who has partook of the delectable Rajasthani food, which has been mostly developed on spices, would happily agree. Mixed with ker, lentils and grains, clever concoctions such as dal batti-churma, ker sangri (wildly grown cactus-like plant), laal maas (spicy mutton made with lots of red chilli), gatte ki sabzi (gravy-based dish) and mohanthal (rice and gram flour barfi), have been made.The northern sentinel of the country, Kashmir, also has a scrumptious menu to its credit. Ranging from haaq (a local spinach delicacy) to gustaba (meat balls), from tabak maaz (fried-lamb ribs) to khatta baigan (eggplant dish), the milieu of dishes leave one wanting more.Travelling down to the hilly terrains of Himachal Pradesh, one can find sidku (yeast bread), chaa gosht (mutton curry) and a wide variety of fruit wines. The highlight of the cuisine here is the common use of chulah to cook and tandoor to bake.East IndiaFood in the eastern part of India is believed to be one of the oldest cuisines in the country. The food ecosystem of this region, which primarily consists of the states of Bihar, Bengal, Odisha and parts of Andhra Pradesh, is an interesting mix of regional cuisine and international influences. Interestingly, the Indian version of Chinese food that is relished in every nook and corner of the country, was developed in the Tangra area of erstwhile Calcutta.
The eastern part of India is known as much for its temple cuisine as for its coastal food. Its beauty lies in its concept of steaming, smoking, stir-frying and fermenting. In fact, if one ever wants to try versions of the famous British mashed potatoes, this is the part of the country they should visit. Aloo bhatey or aloo chokha, as it is called, is an omnipresent part of the cuisine here and is paired with almost every delicacy: be it pokhalo or panta bhaat (fermented and spiced rice), litti (sattu-filled hardened donuts) or even dal bhaat (rice with lentils). It is also the region that popularised pithas (pancakes made of rice batter) and chenna- (ricotta-cheese) based sweets like rosogolla.Northeast IndiaComprising seven states, known as the Seven Sisters, along with the inclusion of Sikkim, Northeast India is known for its interesting tribal cuisine and beverage culture, which hasn’t changed much since the medieval period. In fact, the Northeast not only has some interesting variations of vegetarian dishes from Manipur, but also a wide array of meat-based dishes made of pigeon, wild boar and pig meat. This region is rich in fermented food and unlike the rest of India, the cuisine here uses fermented pickles and mixes like akhuni (dish made of fermented soyabean) to get its flavours. It is considered as one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.Western IndiaThe food culture of western India, essentially Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa, was initially developed by tribes (predominantly fishermen and brahmins). As the region progressed, the food culture drew influences from the merchant and trading communities, who lived here. An excellent example of this has been Parsi delicacies like dhansaak (meat curry with lentils and vegetables), altee paletee (a dish made with eggs and keema, usually had for breakfast) and akhuni, which were inspired from traditional Gujrati, Kokani and colonial cuisines. Even today, the food culture in this region has three distinct layers – the vibrant Kokani food that was developed by early dwellers; the Maharashtrian cuisine that was developed by the brahmins and sahukars and defined under the Maratha rule; the Parsi Anglo-Indian food that came during the colonial times.
The fare in Gujarat is predominantly vegetarian, with a hint of sweetness intermingled with dal (lentils), kadhi (gravy-based dish of chickpea flour) and sabzi (dish made from a combination of cooked vegetables), which are commonly found there. A generous use of brown sugar is preferred in most dishes and staples include khichdi (dish of rice and lentils), chaas (buttermilk) and homemade pickles.Meanwhile, food in Goa in inspired from its Portuguese colonialism and Hindu origins. Being on a coastal location, food is heavily dependent on the sea, with rice and fish being the most common meal. Some of the delicacies worth trying here include kingfish, pomfret, tuna and mackerel. The Hindu cuisine of the area is very light on spices and uses little to no onion and garlic in its recipes. However, one can find a liberal use of lentils, gourds, pumpkins, roots and bamboo shoots.The topographical variety of the state of Maharashtra guarantees further diversity in its cuisine, which can be broadly classified into two parts. The coastal areas of the state call rice, fish and coconut their staple food, while the hilly terrains of the Western Ghats, have an abundance of groundnuts, jowar (sorghum) and millet.
South IndiaFrom idlis (steamed rice cakes) to dosa (crepe-like pancakes), sambar (spicy lentil stew) to rasam (world’s oldest consommé), food of South India is a culture that has developed on the principle of Ayurveda. One of many firsts, steaming as a culinary technique evolved here, and that is how the steamed idlis and pithas (rice cakes) were conceived. In addition, it was here that deep frying technique was mastered and the first fried chicken dish made. The adoption of the Jewish food culture and that of Mappila community also took place here for the first time in the country. Udupi cuisine also developed in this region, which boasts 60 per cent of the Indian vegetarian menu, organic coffee and the best of spices, especially pepper, clove and cardamom. In fact, much of the food that is served here today can be dated back to before 2 century BC. Many believe that the technique of preparation has hardly changed. The Sadya, a ceremonial formal feast, is one such example, which consists of about 28 dishes, including boiled red rice, pickles, sweets, savouries and side dishes. It is served on a plantain leaf and traditionally, the tapering end of the leaf faces the guest.

Scrumptious Delights

Sample the diverse flavours from different regions of the country.

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