Too much of what passes for Indian food outside of India is an assortment of spicy, greasy dishes that give you indigestion and acidity. True, some Indian food is oily. And some Indian food is spicy. But in between is an entire range of dishes that are as different as chalk and cheese. India has 28 states and 7 Union territories, and nearly each one of them has a fairly distinctive culinary tradition. Some regional food lacks universal appeal- the iromba of Manipur, for instance, is made by wrapping raw fish in leaves and then burying it for a few months. Once the fish is beautifully fermented (!), it’s dug up, unwrapped and cooked with herbs and roots- and you can usually smell iromba being cooked in a village a few miles away!
Most Indian food, however, has an alluring range of flavours, textures and aromas- and they change, not just from one region to another, but almost from one household to another. Much of northern and central India- what’s known as the `cow belt’- is dominated by a wheat, lentils and vegetable rich diet.
Chappatis or rotis- thin, pliable breads made from wholewheat flour- are generally the staple, and are accompanied by lentils (daal) or other dried beans, vegetables cooked with spices; a firm cottage cheese known as paneer; lamb, chicken or fish. A lot of the people in this area are vegetarian, so some of the most delicious vegetable dishes are indigenous to the cow belt.
Bang in the middle of the cow belt, however, is the city of Lucknow (erstwhile Awadh), a bastion of some of the most mouthwatering Muslim cooking. This is where the concept of cooking on dum originated – meat, rice, spices and other ingredients are cooked briefly, then the pot is sealed with a strip of dough, and allowed to simmer very, very gently. When the dough is cut off and the lid finally removed, the fragrance that wafts out of the pot is hard to describe- it’s simply sublime. Awadhi cuisine is also known for its splendid kababs, including the (quite literally) melt-in-the-mouth Kakori kabab, invented for a Nawab whose toothless gums couldn’t quite handle less tender meat!
The stronghold of meat lies further north- much further north. Kashmir, the northermost state of India, is a land of snow and ice, where rice, dried vegetables, and meat predominate. Kashmiri food makes liberal use of some distinctive ingredients: dried ginger, fennel seeds, mustard oil, dried cockscomb flowers, saffron, dried mint, lots of yoghurt- and lamb in almost every dish. Greens are cooked with tiny meatballs; lamb is pounded till it’s silky smooth, and then simmered in yoghurt or cooked in a fiery red gravy; pieces of lamb are cooked, on the bone, in a sauce thick with finely chopped fresh coriander. And all of that is finished off with kehwa, a milkless tea that’s traditionally brewed with cardamom, cinnamon, chopped almonds and a couple of strands of saffron. Heavenly!
Western India borrows from the cow belt, but has a wide variety of cuisines. The Marwari cooking of Rajasthan is delicious, strictly vegetarian and uses ghee lavishly. Since Rajasthan is desert area, and vegetation is fairly limited, the food of this area relies heavily on local, `non-vegetable’ ingredients such as chickpea flour. Gujarati food is also vegetarian, and also uses a lot of chickpea flour- but it has its own nuances. A pinch (or more) of sugar is added to just about everything, imparting a faint sweetness to daals, vegetables, even snack foods such as khandvi and dhokla, both based on a batter of chickpea flour that’s steamed and tempered with mustard seeds, fried green chillies, and grated coconut.
Maharashtra, on the west coast, also uses lots of coconut- but in some innovative ways. They grate coconut, roast it well, and mix it with spices and ground roasted lentils to make an unusual dry `chutney’; they grate it, mix it with jaggery and rice flour, and use it to make luscious sweets known as modaks. And, this being a fish-rich coast, they add coconut milk to curries made from fish and prawn.
Goa, north of Maharashtra’s capital, Mumbai, also uses plenty of seafood and coconut. But Goa’s Portuguese heritage makes for distinctly European influences: vinegar, spicy chourisso sausages, pepper and pork- are all very much a part of Goa’s stunning curries: pork vindaloo, sorpotel (with the unusual- at least in India- ingredient of pork blood), xacuti, and many more. Washed down with feni, a liquor brewed from cashewnuts, a Goan meal is one of those instances of Indian food that’s not quite Indian- and yet very obviously not foreign either.
The four states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, Kerala and Karnataka are often unceremoniously clubbed together as `South India’ by the rest of the country, but at least as far as cuisine is concerned, the four states are very different from each other. There are common ingredients, of course: coconut (and lots of it!), rice, and seafood are more or less the staple diet, but there are variations. The Brahmins of Tamilnadu, for instance, are generally strict vegetarians, and anything approaching meat is taboo. Instead, you’ll find mouthwatering lentil soups known as rasam; sambaar, lentils cooked with vegetables and tamarind; poriyal, finely chopped vegetables stirfried with grated coconut, mustard seeds and curry leaves- and the best known of all `South Indian’ food: dosas, idlis and vadas. All three are made of a lightly fermented batter of ground lentils and/or rice, but cooked in different ways. Idlis are steamed cakes, served with a luscious coconut chutney (chutneys made of tomato or aubergine are common, as is `gunpowder’- a gorgeously nutty mixture of coarsely crushed fried lentils and red chillies). Dosas are wonderfully crisp pancakes, either served plain with coconut chutney, or stuffed with a variety of fillings- a mixture of lightly spiced boiled potato is the most common. Vadas are deepfried doughnut-shaped dumplings, also served with coconut chutney.
And then there are stunning curries made of seafood, chicken and lamb- often cooked with coconut milk, curry leaves, and the spices for which the south is famous: pepper, cloves, cardamom, and more.
Go north along the east coast, and you finally hit West Bengal, another area that’s known for its spectacular cuisine. Bengali food uses a lot of ingredients that it shares in common with the food of southern India – seafood, rice, coconut – but with a very different set of flavourings and spices. Bengali households, for instance, use lots of freshly ground mustard seeds, slit green chillies, fresh ginger, and a hint of sugar in most food. Panchphoran - a mix of fennel seeds, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds and nigella seeds, fried in hot oil and added to daal, vegetables, even chutney - is another distinctly Bengali ingredient.
And Bengali sweets are among the best you’ll find anywhere in India. From misthi doi – creamy yoghurt sweetened with palm sugar – to sandesh (milk that’s been thickened till it’s the consistency of a soft, grainy cheese, and then flavoured with palm sugar), Bengali sweets are often based on milk, and can run the gamut from delicately sweet, like the rice pudding known as payesh, to the rich, ghee-laden labanga latika.
That isn’t all there is, of course. There are literally hundreds of dishes that you can savour as you make your way across India. Some are little-known but delicious, like the unusual mangaai pachadi of Kodagu, made with ripe mangoes chopped into beaten yoghurt and tempered with mustard seeds, curry leaves and onions. Some are famous, like the daal baati churma of Rajasthan, a large ball of wholewheat dough that’s baked in hot coals, split, drenched with melted ghee and served with lentils. Some- like the gudgud chai of Ladakh, a tea that’s brewed with salt and yak butter- take a little bit of getting used to. And some, like Punjab’s tandoori chicken, are pretty well-loved even outside India.
Hot tip for a foodie? Come to India!