Culture Tuesday: An Exploration of Indian Cuisine

[image above: courtesy of Sheil Shukla]

Culture Tuesday is a new weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores the cuisines of different cultures across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens.

 

Welcome to Culture Tuesday

Welcome to Culture Tuesday, a weekly series in which we discuss various cuisines around the globe to educate, not only on culinary techniques and dishes, but also on historical events that shape the foods of today. During some weeks, we will talk about the more general cuisine of particular nations or regions, but at later dates, we will go more in depth to talk about subregions or microregions within those nations or regions to give a more rounded view of the cuisine.

Introduction to Indian Cuisine

Today, we are talking about one of the most popularly talked about cuisines within plant-based communities – Indian cuisine. The cuisine of India, similarly to other nations, varies substantially between regions due to factors such as differences in climate, culture, religion, levels of wealth, soil type, extensivity or intensity of historical events and the cultures of neighbouring nations. These affect what types of produce are available to the people living in particular regions as well as the cooking techniques or styles implemented by those living within those regions.

Image by Mukta’s Diaries. Click here to view this post on Instagram.

 

Modern-Day Cuisine of India

As for the more general modern-day cuisine of India, it is characterised by the use of certain ingredients introduced to India due to historical events such as the pre-historic Middle Eastern and Asian spice exchanges, the invasion of the Americas (especially North America) by the Europeans and colonialism. The invasion and colonisation of North America led to the exportation of fruits and vegetables that originally did not exist outside the Americas. These include ingredients such as potatoes, chillies, tomatoes, beans, and peanuts – ingredients that have become staples across India.

 

Macro-Regions: North vs. South India

Image: open source world maps.

Although we are speaking about the cuisine in more general terms, when we think of Indian cuisine, it is important to think of the macro-regions, mainly North and South. In the North, there are states like New Delhi, Rajasthan, and Haryana, which are known for their great vegetarian foods alongside other foods which meet less plant-based dietary preferences. They offer a lot of vegan and vegetarian meals due to the popular practices of Hinduism and Jainism within the northern states.

In the North-West, there’s Kashmir, Maharashtra and Pakistan (which was once part of a single country with modern-day India) with food following those described as halal and less plant-based foods due to Islamic influences from the dominance of Islam in those regions. On the other hand, in the south, there are states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh which have a range of foods influenced by their seaside location as well as those predominantly made from vegetables and other foods such as those found in the north-west. This reflects the greater, or more pronounced, mixture of Christian and Muslim communities within the region.

Indian Cuisine & Spices

Image by Preethi from @cookingwithpree: “Anjara petti /spice box is an integral part of most Indian kitchens.” Click here to view this post on Instagram.

 

Despite the regional differences in what dietary preferences are more catered to within India, the general principles of Indian cooking lie in the handling of spices. Spices are added in dishes at varying stages – the start, middle and/or end, and they are introduced in different ways. It makes a huge difference how and when the spices are added to the dish and in what quantities or combinations, they are added in.

Bhuno – The Roasting of Spices

Predominantly in North India, the method of Bhuno – the roasting of spices – is used. This involves toasting whole spices in a dry pan till their colours turn darker before grinding them in accordance with the type of dish being made as various dishes call for various degrees, or levels, of brownness. This technique creates a more pronounced depth of flavour and smokiness for the dish it is being used for. An example of a vegan dish involving bhuno is tandoori-style tofu which features an incredible flavour implemented by the marinade of a suitable yoghurt and pan-roasted herbs and spices.

Image by Sheil Shukla from Plantbased Artist (@plantbasedartist, sheilshukla.com): “Grilled tandoori style tofu and veggies with mint pilau and cashew raita.” | Click here to view this post on Instagram.

Garam Masala

Also, in North India, Garam Masala is called for in many recipes. Garam Masala is not exactly a spice, but rather, a combination of spices that intensify the flavour of dishes. Whole spices are usually ground using a mortar and pestle before they are blended. These spices include kali mirch (black pepper), laung (cloves), elaichi (black and green cardamom), chakraphool (star anise), dhania (coriander seeds), jeera (cumin seeds), dalchini (cinnamon), tejpat (bay leaves), jaiphal (nutmeg) and javitri (mace). These are the warmer spices which give garam masala its name meaning “hot spices.”

Spices in South India

In South India, the spices more commonly used are sarso (mustard seeds), methi (fenugreek seeds), kadi patta (curry leaves), haldi (turmeric) and mirch (chilli powder). One of the most important cooking techniques used in the south is tarka. Tarka is the process of enriching an oil with spices. The spices, such as mustard seeds, coriander seeds, cumin or cardamom are added to extremely hot (smoky) oil to pop them as quickly as possible. This process unlocks the full flavour of the spices, makes some that are somewhat bitter have more pronounced sweet notes and imparts (infuses) flavour to the oil. Tarka is used in finishing, perfuming, or dressing dishes such as salads, dhal, braised or curry dishes.

Image by Mukta’s Diaries: Mini Uttapams (rice and lentils savoury pancakes), a quick coconut chutney and some sambhar. Click here to view this post on Instagram.

 

Staples of Northern and Southern Indian Cuisines

The general cuisine of the northern region of India consists of food that tastes like that of Middle Eastern cuisine. It is generally less spicy than south Indian food as it tends to contain a yoghurt, cream or butter which tempers the spiciness of dishes while adding a creaminess and additional layer of flavour.

As for the general cuisine of the southern region, it includes rice as a staple food along with the incorporation of lentils, fresh chillies, dried chillies, fruit, vegetables, coconuts, spices, and aromatics such as onions, garlic, and ginger. The food tends to be spicier than that of those found in the north although states like Kerala, parts of Karnataka and Goa tend to have less spicy curries due to the use of coconut milk as a thickening agent.

Image by Preethi from @cookingwithpree. Click here to view this post on Instagram.

Other Staple Foods of Indian Cuisine

Staple foods of Indian cuisine include rice, as aforementioned. However, they also include breads made from aṭṭa (whole wheat flour), maida (white flour), bajra (pearl millet) and a range of lentils and pulses such as moong (mung beans), masoor (red lentils) and urad (black lentils) and chana (chickpeas) or their split versions such as mung dal (split mung beans), urad dal (split black lentils), matar dal (yellow split peas/lentils) and chana dal (split chickpeas)

Flatbreads

Flatbreads are served all over India. They are usually used to scoop up curries and vegetables in main dishes. There are a range of breads such as naan, chapati, paratha and roti. Most flatbreads from North India are unleavened (made without yeast or any other leavening/rising agent). They are primarily made from aṭṭa or maida flours. Such breads include paratha, chapati, puri and kachori. On the other hand, in the south, most flatbreads are made from rice, lentils, millet or other grains and pulses. These southern flatbreads include dosa (which is made from a fermented rice batter and black lentils), pesarattu (made from split mung beans), idli (made from rice and fermented black lentil batter) and papadum (made from urad gram/black flour).

Image by Mukta’s Diaries. Click here to view this post on Instagram.

 

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the general cuisine of India is one full of flavour and attention to spices while still a fusion of the culinary characteristic of local cultures, neighbouring cultures, religions, and historical events. Its regional and cultural diversity are reflected beautifully in the foods of the nation from the breads to the curries, dhals, and other dishes. I hope this week’s Culture Tuesday has given you a better understanding of the more general Indian cuisine and has given you ideas for techniques you can implement into your own cooking.

For more information on, or recipes for, dishes featured, each image used can be found on Instagram through the accounts credited.

Please feel free to leave a reply below if you have any feedback or comments!

 

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