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The magic of Indian cuisine

To truly understand a country’s culture, one need not look much further than the foods people eat and the manner in which they are prepared, served and consumed. As with other countries around the world, food in India is more than just sustenance—it carries a far deeper meaning. Indians strongly believe that you are physically, emotionally and spiritually what you eat; food can almost be considered a means of providing identity to an individual or group. Food is also instrumental to rituals and traditions, religious beliefs and the bringing together of the family unit.

No country in the world can demonstrate such a complete and unequaled mastery of the use of spices in their food as India. As globalization in the twenty-first century is shrinking our planet, it’s wise to explore the Indian cooking techniques, ingredients and use of spices now available to professional chefs. India boasts an infinite array of spices, seeds, barks, leaves and roots ready and waiting for anyone who’s eager to learn.

A land of diversity

At an introductory level, India can be better understood by dividing the country into five regions: north, south, east, west and central. Consisting of 28 states and seven union territories, and home to more than a billion people, the country has 15 official languages along with hundreds of dialects and minor languages. As religion and food go very much hand in hand in India, it is also worth noting that there are many religions practiced across this vast nation, from Hindu and Islam to Christianity and Sikhism to small sects such as Animism, which worships gods and spirits.

So let’s sample Indian cuisine by studying the nation’s five major regions and their sophisticated use of spices and ingredients.

The North—from Tandoori to Garam Masala

Rich with luxurious ingredients, the north is where you’ll find the Punjabi and Kashmiri styles of cooking. Often considered to be home to the “gourmets of Indian cooking,” this area is known for an array of sweetmeats and the popular tandoori cooking technique. In tandoori cooking, which is done at a very high temperature, a large clay oven is used to produce roasted meat dishes as well as breads such as naan and sheermal. The breads are stretched and shaped, then stuck to the inside wall of the oven to bake.

Spices in this region are primarily in the form of garam masalas—mixes or blends containing cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, cumin, coriander seeds, green and black cardamom seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, and mace. This is where the fun begins. When using spices, we as chefs often look at them too one-dimensionally; we simply accept them for what they are and the flavor they can provide. Indian cooks, however, look beyond the “face value” of spices and use different techniques to dramatically change their flavoring properties and contribution to a dish. The tarka method is an excellent example of a flavor development technique that every student of cooking should explore. It involves using a shallow sauteuse with a small amount of mustard, coconut oil or ghee (clarified butter). The fat is heated and, when hot, the dried seeds, spices, roots and bark are added and allowed to pop and spit. Immediately after, the spices are added to the dish. Similar to how we finish many western dishes with chopped herbs, this method provides an amazing olfactory experience, along with an unequaled taste sensation that helps set Indian cuisine apart. (By the way, have I mentioned anything about burning-hot chilies or curry powder yet? Nope.)

The South—hot, sweet, and sour

The southern region of India is home primarily to people who practice the Hindu faith. Because of the religion’s teachings on non-violence and respect for animal life, it comes as no surprise that the region’s diet is based mainly on rice and vegetables. Cows are considered sacred in this region and are allowed to roam free in the same way your neighbor’s cat would in the U.S. Beef as well as products from the cow are considered taboo and are not consumed. However, Indian cooks are masters of vegetarian cooking, and meat lovers can go to any good Indian restaurant and not feel they missed out on anything.

Along with vegetables and rice, cooks in the south employ the richness and decadent mouthfeel of coconut and coconut milk in their dishes. Cooking fats are replaced with flavorful, aromatic mustard oil and tangy tamarind. A common flavor profile of the south could be described as hot, sweet and sour. Chilies are used in this region, but in a way that balances them with contrasting ingredients to prevent the mouth-scorching effects we tend to associate with Indian cuisine. Another flavorful ingredient used extensively in the south is sambhar powder, which lends a subtle tartness that cuts the richness of vegetable stews and rice and dal preparations. 

OK, so here I go…I have to mention curry powder, and yes, it is used in this region. However, curry powders are as unique in India as your Italian grandmother’s Sunday gravy recipe. Curry powder is a masala—a mix, a blend, unique to every cook’s kitchen and not a generic blend of stale spices that are pre-ground and have the taste of old gunpowder. (Do you get the impression I don’t like purchased curry powder?) Great flavor takes time and a little effort, but what in life that’s worth anything doesn’t? Make your own masala. Have fun with it. When it comes to spices, one size definitely doesn’t fit all.

The East—fish cookery

Here lies an often misunderstood part of Indian cuisine: the mastery of fish cookery. Many species of fish, both fresh and salt water, are abundant in Bengal and Bihar, which have access to rivers and seas. In this region, cooks’ knowledge of fish preparation rivals that of any other culture better known for its fish dishes. With India’s hot climate, storing and transporting fish while maintaining its freshness is a real challenge, so the consumption of fish is limited to areas near where it is caught.

The use of spices such as mustard seeds and cumin, combined with the perfume aromas and mouth-pleasing effects of anise and the up-front bitterness of fenugreek, provide a unique and flavorful sauce to accompany the east’s many fish dishes. One seed-and-spice masala blend of the area is the panch phoron, which provides a dynamic flavor profile to any fish, vegetable or lentil dish. Try using the tarka method to transform its flavor qualities.

The West—a study in contrasts

I was once asked what my last meal would be, and it comes from this region: lamb vindaloo. Vindaloo was heavily influenced by the Portuguese during their occupation of Goa. The foods of Goa tend to be spicy and use a considerable amount of coconut, along with yogurt and tamarind paste, to provide relief from the spice. Dishes in western India are cooked for long periods—“low and slow”—allowing every gram of spice to makes its contribution to the symphony of wonderfully rich flavor. There’s no tastier way to cleanse the palate than to enjoy some of the famous fruit ice creams, cold custards and sharbats—fruit juices blended with yogurt that are so thick, you can stand a spoon up. Do you detect the cleverness of the Indian chef when it comes to balance and palate entertaining? Hot and cold, sweet and sour…brilliant.

The Central region—India’s culinary melting pot

Central India is a melting pot of all Indian cuisines and traditions, with a special emphasis on sophisticated techniques and ingredients. In this region, beef and dairy products are consumed. The region is also home to mughlai cuisine, a culinary and cultural fusion of Indian and Persian foods and ingredients with a lavish use of meat and rice dishes, dried fruits, nuts, cream, yogurt and aromatic spices. It is truly the haute
cuisine of India.

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