Eating in India is an adventure, from the East-meets-West artistry of tandoori-style foie gras to the tangy jumble of flavors in a street snack.
This is a country united by its obsession with food, even as it is divided into infinite variations by region, religion, and economics. At the local level, friendships can be jeopardized over diverging loyalties to competing chai-sellers.
Still, visitors expecting a rigid, prohibitive food culture are often more surprised by the inclusive, evolving nature of Indian cuisines, which absorb and adapt ingredients and cooking techniques from all over the world. Despite many traditional taboos surrounding eating, there's a healthy amount of curiosity and sharing as well. In most cities you'll find diverse fare, from South India's famed breakfast dishes (dosas, uttapams, idlis) to North India's mouthwatering nonvegetarian dishes.
A growing respect for regional cuisines means that visitors are no longer subject to the sanitized menus of yore. Pay a little attention to the changing flavors around you and you'll never again think of Indian food as limited to kebab and curry.
In the busy by-lanes of India's urban centers as much as in its truck-stop towns, stalls and carts are a constant feature and the fuel of street life. For the faint of stomach, watching locals eat at these venues can be a vicarious pleasure—but in the big cities some vendors are sensitive to hygiene (look for signs indicating the use of bottled water), and some sit-down restaurants offer their own clean versions of street dishes.
Ubiquitous Indian Dishes
Daal, which in India refers to split pulses (lentils, beans, or split peas), is the country's most basic dish, generally boiled, spiced, and tempered with fried cinnamon, bay leaves, garlic, and onion. Variations in thickness and hue range from pale yellow (moong daal) to smoky black (urad).
Thanks to the inexorable force of Punjabi culture, chicken tikka is a wide-spread dish. Chicken pieces—usually boneless—are marinated in yogurt, lemon, ginger, garlic and spices, then skewered and baked in a clay oven (tandoor) or grilled over coals. Chicken tikkas are found in this simplest form or covered in various spiced gravies.
Though it consists of rice and sweetened, thickened milk, rice pudding is far too prosaic a translation of kheer. Ranging from Kashmir's fruit-flavored phirnis to coconut milk-based payasams in the south, kheer can also be made of broken wheat or vermicelli noodles. Often served in a shallow clay bowl, it can be garnished with nuts or topped with silver leaf.
Definitely a candidate for most ubiquitous dish, the "Manchurian " purports to be a Chinese specialty but is as Indian as saag paneer. Supposedly invented by Kolkata Chinese chef Nelson Wang in Mumbai in 1975, it consists of strips of battered and deep-fried poultry, doused in a thickened soy-based sauce. Both chicken and veggie Manchurians are now found on every Indian Chinese menu in the country.
For many North Indians, South Indian food begins and ends with the dosa. Popular as a breakfast food, these crisp crepes are made of fermented ground-rice-and-lentil batter. They can be as big as small boats and are served with a thin lentil soup called sambar.
Only a small percentage of candies in any place are regional—the vast majority of Indian confectioners sell the brightly colored Bengali sweets, available in an astonishing variety of flavors and pretty, molded shapes. The catalyst for the invention of these candies—by one Nobin Chandra Das in 1860 Bengal—was the Portuguese introduction of intentionally curdling milk to make cheese; the candies too are based on curdled milk.
Whether it's called puchka, gol-guppa, panipuri or gup-chup, this delightful snack or "chaat" is found all over eastern, northern and western India. Street vendors crack open hollow puffed crisps, stuff them with bits of boiled vegetable (usually potato and chickpea), dunk them in tamarind sauce and lethally spiced mint-coriander water, and deliver them to salivating customers. Pop each panipuri into your mouth whole and wait for the fireworks.
Indian cuisines have evolved in anything but a vacuum. As part of a subcontinent, with landlocked borders along the silk route, India has always been at the crossroads of commerce between East and West, and its culinary traditions have benefited from centuries of cross-pollination.
When it comes to eating meat, scholars believe that even during Vedic times, meat was a regular fixture of the Indian diet. This included cattle, which are now considered strictly off-limits to most observant Hindus. In fact, nearly all items that are labeled "beef," "steak," or "burger" in India are actually buffalo meat. Only rarely is cow meat encountered in the country. Although the Hindu Vedas discuss meat-eating and animal sacrifice quite openly, these texts also mention the benefits of vegetarianism and allude to the later prohibition against killing cows.
The system of ayurveda, which focuses on six flavors (sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter, and astringent) and catalogs the benefits and ill effects of various spices, vegetables, fruits, and grains, is also rooted in these texts. Indians are hyperconscious of the consequences of this or that food and are quite fond of imparting advice on the subject—this is perhaps best exemplified in the obsessive attention paid to diet in Gandhi's autobiography.
It is commonly held by historians that the protected status of cattle arose first as an economically practical phenomenon and later became codified as religious practice. In general, vegetarianism is considered to have spread from North to South India, starting in the 4th century, propelled largely by the rise of Buddhism and Jainism. Contrary to popular belief, about a third of India's population is vegetarian. Add in vegetarians who eat eggs and the number is still less than half. Still, a third of a population this big is substantial, and the country's vegetarian options are arguably the most diverse, creative, and accessible in the world. Regions with high numbers of Jains (whose dietary restrictions surpass kosher laws in their complexity) have rich vegetarian traditions, making do even without onions, garlic, and other tubers.
While everyday spices such as black pepper, cardamom, turmeric, and bay and curry leaf originated in India, many others that are just as commonly used were brought from the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Central Asia.
The Spice Traders. Fennel, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, saffron, and asafetida all came to India either over land, following Alexander the Great's route, or by sea, with Arab pepper merchants who plied the eastern coast. Syrian Christians also made their mark on South India, particularly enriching the nonvegetarian traditions of the Malabar region. Later, the Portuguese likely brought chillies and other New World plants to India. Also along eastern and western maritime trade routes, India absorbed tamarind from East Africa, cinnamon from Sri Lanka, and cloves from Southeast Asia.
The Mughal Empire. The Central Asian influence of the Mughals is the best-documented exchange in Indian culinary history. The early Mughal kings often left detailed descriptions of both native food and their own dietary habits. In his autobiography, Babur, the first Mughal king, pines for the grapes and melons of his Central Asian homeland and describes experimenting with planting these fruits in his new kingdom. Muslim rulers—both the Mughals in the north and the Nawabs of Lucknow and Bengal in the east and Hyderabad in the south—introduced elaborate courtly eating rituals to India, as well as the use of raisins, nuts, dried fruit, fragrant essences, and rich, ghee-soaked gravies. They brought their own technique of animal slaughter (halal) and introduced new ways to cook meat, including fine-ground mince dishes like haleem.
Colonizers. Indian cuisine adopted many imported plants introduced by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British traders and colonizers. Such integral ingredients as chillies, potatoes, tomatoes, maize, peanuts, and peanut oil are all New World additions; tea and soybeans are China's major contributions. Besides their role as traders, the British also brought their own culinary traditions to India. Anglo-Indian cuisine, which takes its cues from the chops, bakes, and puddings of Britain, has endured in the country-club culture of urban elites but has also influenced street snacks that are a twist on, for example, teatime sandwiches. The Portuguese introduced cottage cheese to east India, giving rise to the now omnipresent world of Bengali sweets.
Settler Groups. Smaller populations with their own distinct traditions (some of them nearly extinct in modern India) include various Jewish groups and Zoroastrians—both the Parsis who settled in Gujarat around the 10th century and the Iranis, who arrived later. Finally, the influence of India's Chinese population—descendants of settlers from the 19th century onward, and later Tibetan refugees—is formidable. Just as chicken tikka masala has become a national dish in Britain, dishes such as chilli chicken, "Manchurian," and chow mein are an undeniable part of India's culinary landscape.
The Indian Meal
Eating out in India could generally be divided into three categories: proper restaurants, holes-in-the-wall or open-air dhabas (the closest analogy would be café), and street food sold out of small stalls or carts. In someone's home or in a sit-down restaurant, a traditional, full meal follows certain general rules. Food is served in a thali—a stainless steel plate (silver on special occasions) with raised edges—and in small bowls. The thali contains condiments (a wedge of lime, salt, raw onions, pickles, or chutneys), possibly some fried items, and either rice or bread. The bowls contain servings of vegetable or meat dishes. There's a great deal of regional variation, but a sweet might be included with the savory food. In South India, a banana leaf might substitute for tableware, and in North India, street food or religious offerings are often served on plates made of stitched-together Banyan leaves. It's traditional to scoop up food with the tips of your fingers: curries are generally mixed with rice while torn-off bits of bread are used to pinch food between the fingers. Most places do offer Western cutlery as well. Traditionally, a group of diners shares several dishes, and in dhabas you'd usually order a few things for the table. However, some upscale Indian restaurants have started experimenting with single-portion plating; their nouvelle-inspired dishes are well worth a taste.
The word "masala," which loosely translates to "mixture of spices," has become a default adjective for all things Indian—and it's no wonder, given the infinite permutations of seasonings available to the Indian cook. Some of the most commonly used include cumin (zeera), turmeric (haldi), asafetida (hing), powdered and fresh coriander (dhania), cloves (laung), pepper (kalimirch), dried or powdered red chillies (lalmirch), fennel seed (saunf), mustard seeds (rai), ginger (adhrak), garlic (lasson), cardamom (elaichi), cinnamon (dalchini), and bay (tej patta). A popular premixed powder called garam (hot) masala includes cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves.
In general, special dishes tend toward lower heat and slower processes, while street food is generally quickly fried. But India's vast array of cooking processes includes sun-drying, parboiling, braising, steaming, dry-roasting, grilling, baking, and shallow and deep frying.
The use of the tandoor, a clay cylindrical oven, lit from the inside to bake flatbreads and meats, is widespread in North India. In this process, skewers of marinated meat are basted with ghee and suspended in the oven. The tandoor has been made famous by Punjabi restaurants, but it is used right across Central Asia and is an important component in both Mughal and Kashmiri cooking.
Frying is an essential part of street food, which includes a wide variety of fried snacks, from harder, storable munchies like plantain chips to savories and sweets that are meant to be eaten on the spot. The latter include pakoras (tempura-like vegetables dipped in gram flour batter), samosas (crispy pyramids stuffed with potatoes and peas), and much more. Several kinds of deep-fried wafers or hollow puffs also get incorporated into other snacks, like paapdi chaat or golguppa.
Most main dishes involve a combination of spices, either powdered or in a paste, fried and added to meat, vegetables, or lentils. Slow-cooked dishes are a special treat, and traditional methods include sealing the cooking pots with dough and burying them to cook their contents.
Then there's the wonderful, colorful, and unending array of condiments that spice up every Indian meal. These might be freshly ground, spiced ingredients like mint, coconut, or peanuts. Or they might be sweet, vinegary, or acetic preservelike chutneys with slivers of mango or dates, or the syrupy, candied murrabbas made of fruit and vegetables like carrots or the medicinal Indian gooseberry (amla). Then there are achhars, spicy, oily pickles composed of everything from dried prawns to fiddlehead ferns, whose name describes their shape.
Indian "bread" encompasses an assortment of flat or puffed, pale or golden, griddle-toasted, deep-fried or baked disks, triangles, and ellipses. Unleavened bread is generically called roti, and can be of varying thickness and made from refined, unrefined, and other types of flour. Chapati or phulka is a tortilla-like version made of wheat, cooked on a griddle, and finished on the flame. Parathas, rolled with oil to make layers, can be stuffed with all sorts of fillings and are almost a meal in themselves. Leavened breads, like naan, can be cooked in a tandoor, while the perfectly round puri and its giant cousin, the bhatura, are deep-fried so they puff up like crispy-soft balloons. Certain regions consume more rice than others, but every community will have its own recipes for rice and bread, and many meals involve eating both, usually one after the other.
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