Indian cuisine is a fascinating regional food culture to say the least. With influences coming from the ancient spice route, colonial Britain and Hindu beliefs, the subcontinent of India produces some of the most flavorful dishes of all global cuisines. Humans have occupied the region known as modern day India for over 5,000 years. Because of the long history of the region, deep traditions abound when it comes to food, family and culture. Indian food has evolved over the past five millennia, as travelers and rulers brought new culinary concepts and ingredients to this vast and complex civilization.
The first known civilizations of India were the Mohendo-daro and Harappan cultures. Beginning around the year 3,000 B.C, these cultures relied heavily on eggplant, sesame as well as dairy cows for nutrition. Local spices such as turmeric, cardamom and black pepper were also used within these cultures to flavor foods. While game and other animal meats were widely consumed, the cow has always been a sacred animal to the Indian people, making this meat prohibited for consumption. In fact, vegetarianism was common among Indian cultures, even 5,000 years ago.
As the middle ages approached, Western cultures became very interested with the spices of the Far East, marking the beginning of global trade. To transport spices from East Asia to Europe, India became an integral part of the spice route. During this time, the Gupta Dynasty saw the introduction of international travelers to the region. New Spices, such as saffron as well as tea, were introduced to the subcontinent. Cooking techniques also flourished during this period, with the Dum (a sealed pot method of cooking) becoming popular. In addition to foreign travelers, the region of India was invaded by Afghan and Asian tribes, heralding the arrival of the Mughlai cuisine. This form of Inidan cuisine is the style often associated with India today. Mughlai cuisine, heavily influenced by Persian and Turkic cuisines, is best demonstrated through the cooking styles of Uttar, Pradesh, Delhi and Punjab. Mughlai food is tasty food which can vary from the very mild to the very spicy. With distinct and powerful aromas, this form of cuisine is known for its use of ground and whole spices.
As the British began to expand their empire to include 25% of the known world, India became a major colony of the British Empire. While the British were interested in controlling the spice route by conquering the continent, they brought with them the common language of English (still the most widely spoken language of India) and technology. In turn, the British fell in love with the spicy and aromatic nature of Indian cuisine and helped to develop many of the curry blends we use globally today. A Garam Masala, or Indian curry, varies from region to region. However, many common ingredients are associated with this curry mixture such as peppercorns, cloves, cumin, cardamom, nutmeg, star anise and coriander seeds.
There are many distinct ingredients associated with the food of the Indian region. Basmati rice, known for its aromatic taste and smell, is perhaps the most common type of rice used in Indian cuisine. Nan bread, a leavened flatbread make in an open oven, is extremely popular around the entire country. There are many types of cooking oil used in India, with sunflower oil, soybean oil and coconut oil being the main types of cooking fat. Another Indian staple, known as Ghee, is a clarified butter used for cooking. This Indian staple comes from the sacred cow. In addition to spices and unique cooking oils, garlic, ginger, fennel, mint and lentils are staples of all Indian regions.
Indian cuisine is very regional. While some cultures make good use of coastal ingredients, the vast size of India includes regions which are landlocked and secluded by mountains. In the coastal regions of Andaman and Nicobar, seafood plays a major role in the dietary habits of locals. In the Northeast of the country, spices are often used to flavor poultry such as duck and pigeon. In this region, known as Assam, the modern day technique of Bhuna (gently frying the spices to release the flavor) was invented. In Goa, situated on the west coast of the subcontinent, the food is influenced by Arabic cultures. Fish is a major staple of Goa, as well as rice and coconut milk. In Kashmir, the high mountains have created a cuisine with is strongly influenced by the use of lamb as an animal protein. In Punjab, ghee serves as the major cooking oil and is home to perhaps the most famous Indian dish, chicken Punjab. Tandoori chicken also comes from this region in Northwest India.
India is not a country with a pedigree of ancient celebrity chefs. Instead, the recipes and cooking techniques of the subcontinent were developed by local cultures which shared these techniques with neighboring tribes. Instead of the best Indian cuisine being found in elegant restaurants in cities such as Punjab and Delhi, Indian cuisine has a history of serving its best food on the streets or in food markets. The finest Indian restaurants can be found outside the country, with London pioneering the world of Haute Indian Cuisine. For this, the Sitar Indian Restaurant in London is a noteworthy restaurant. In New York City, Tabla restaurant was credited with merging French cuisine and Indian flavors.
Indian cuisine is a regional cuisine with very rich traditions and history. With 5,000 years of culinary development, you are bound to be impressed with the aromatic complexity of this national cuisine. To experience this cuisine in its full flavor, it is certainly recommended that you travel to the region to explore the creative and spiritual nature of this ancient cuisine.