Indian Food- Unity In Diversity

You think of India and the silhouette image of a lady flaunting her saree dances in your head. Well, you’re right that is an outline of our political map. The ‘1 billion’ figure would flash in front of your eyes as that figure rightly describes the real strength of our country, our population! We have 1 billion mouths to feed!You travel all across the huge continent of North America, the whole of Europe and explore the entire landmass of Africa; you will yet fail to discover the multifariousness in flavors, essence, tang, spice, taste and the zest that you find here. We Indians have been aristocratic eaters since the ancient times. Most of you must have heard of the Chhappan Bhog that all the villagers of a village had offered to Lord Krishna. Yes, Chhappan Bhog is a meal with 56 items! Lord Krishna was in the habit of relishing 8 meals a day.

We, the youth of today, are fond of the West and the various delicacies that hail from this region. When you grab a burger, the taste of the potato cutlet dominates. When you have a sandwich you have jerk seasoning and various sauces to add taste to the salad. You can hardly differentiate between Penne Arabiata, Basil sauce Spaghetti, Fettuccine, Lasagne, Fusili or Macaroni! It all more or less boils down to a similar taste although they look really different. But when you experiment with Indian cuisine, you can very well make out a Dosa from a bhatura, Sambar from Rajmah, Rice from Roti and Dhokla from Samosa! These are just a few vague examples. Just imagine that I tie a band around your eyes and you lose your ability to see. Yet when I feed you morsels of our lavish cuisine, you can readily distinguish one dish from the other.

Cuisines differ across India’s diverse regions as a result of variation in local culture, geographical location (proximity to sea, desert, or mountains) and economics. It also varies seasonally, depending on which fruits and vegetables are ripe and available. In North India chilies, saffron, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese and ghee (clarified butter) are hot favorites while in the South, folks love pepper, tamarind and coconut and will often even cook in coconut oil. Those in the East love all things mustard and fishy while those in the West have a sweeter tooth. India was traditionally a vegetarian country during the Vedic Age. But gradually as invaders came in and due to growing foreign influence, Indians developed a taste for non- vegetarian food. One of the many reasons why Indians love seafood particularly is its vast coastline.

An Indian meal is a proper five-course meal. Indian homes are known for their hospitality and the congeniality commences with a beverage that is offered as an aperitif before serving the meal. These beverages consist of the Punjabi Lassi and Ganne ka Sharbat (Sugarcane Juice), the Gujarati Chhaas, and the Konkani Kokum Sharbat. These are also consumed during the meals. Then we have a plateful of two courses, appetizers and the main course. If you are in a North Indian home, be prepared to roll on your bed with a tight paunch! Your trencher will be full of Kebabs, Kachauri, Chaats (Chaats with dahi/ yogurt are very popular in the North), the Sindhi Kadhi, pakoras, kormas, paneer delicacies, kulchas, naans and Chhole Chana. North Indians also have this peculiar affinity for Parathas, but that is the staple breakfast for most of them. Now if you’re in tropical Southern India, you will be served your meals on a banana or a plantain leaf. In South India people believe that the shape of the banana leaf resembles the human tongue and the fares are placed in such a way on the leaf so as to suit the taste buds. Southern India is very well known for its healthy and light Idlis and fluffy dosas, uttappams and appams. We also have mouthwatering curries here specifically named as ‘vindaloo’ in Goa. Vindaloo is an extremely spicy Indian curry. Then the Hyderabadi Dum Biryani is also globally known.

When in a Gujarati abode, be prepared to have something sweet as well as salty at the same time. The Dhoklas, Dal Dhoklis, the Undhiya in the winters, the fresh mango pulp in the summers, the vegetable handwa, sweetened dal with different combinations of vegetables. Well, and now if you’re in Gujaratyou simply cannot miss visiting its neighbors, Rajasthan whose ‘Dal batti’ is to die for and Maharashtra which is home to some appetizing Aamti (dal) and Sol Kadhi and some delectable Batata Vadas. Now back in an East Indian home, even if you visit a humble refuge of a poor farmer, he will always have fish and rice to offer you. Bengali cuisine is the only traditionally developed multi-course tradition from the Indian subcontinent that is analogous in structure to the modern service à la russe style of French cuisine, with food served course-wise rather than all at once. There is great emphasis on vegetables and lentils in their food.

There are certain accompaniments, which are served to add flavor to the already flavorful meals. Some of these are common to almost all the regions of India, yet they vary in their ingredients. There is the traditional Papad, which is roasted and crunchy to bite. Then there is an array of chutneys available across the country. Also, homemade pickles are prepared during summers and preserved and consumed throughout the year. There is also the Raita, which is made out of boondi and sweetened curd with many more variations. Indians usually have Paan after their meals to digest the food. However, how can I miss out on the most exciting things that India has to offer. The Indian sweetmeat shops! Right from Ras Malai, ImartiHalwa and Laddoos in the North to the Paayasam and Mysore Pak in the South. Also from the Shrikhand, Sonpapdis and Kaju Katlis in the West to the Mishti Dhoi, Rassogullas and Sandesh in the East. Indian sweets are what you can call ‘Made in Paradise.’

This is just a glimpse of what India has to offer in terms of it’s culinary art. Compare it with any cuisine across the world and it will still stand out! No wonder Indian restaurants do so well abroad. Our palate has a penchant for spices and flavors unlike our bland and wishy- washy Western counterparts. So, probably I can say that calling an authentic full Indian Maharaja Meal a ‘Chhappan Bhog’ is also an understatement!

Credits: Henna Shah-