What is Indian food?
Um, well, it’s curry and spicy things…
Like so many foods that we eat far from the country of origin, Indian food suffers from sweeping generalisations – a rich and diverse cuisine reduced to a single dish: curry.
Imagine if we were to say Italian food was pasta. Is that a spaghetti bolognaise or tortellini stuffed with ricotta? How about fettuccine or tagliatelle? Rigatoni or lasagne? Even the term ‘pasta’ can’t encompass the varieties, flavours, textures and vast array of ingredients that constitute a pasta dish, and the same is true of Indian food and ‘curry’.
India is a vast and multi-faceted country, with different regions boasting different cultures, dialects, religions, social norms and styles of cooking that are hugely distinct to the people who live there. When it comes to food, the term ‘curry’ would mean nothing to an Indian in India, just as an Italian would look bemused if you ordered ‘pasta’!
Curry is not a word used to describe all of India’s savoury cuisine. We have dishes prepared with a sauce that would be termed a curry and this is predominantly served with rice in the afternoons. Then we have dry dishes, like kebabs and vegetables, lightly spiced and served with chappatis for dinner.
Of course it would take years to fully understand the multitude of regional varieties in Indian cooking, but let’s go on a whistle-stop tour of the country so you can at least begin to appreciate just how much more there is to curry than you may realise.
Goa, where I hail from, is a good place to start. This area in western India is the home of Sorpatel and Vindaloo made with pork for special occasions. The staple here is seafood-based curries as it is blessed with seven rivers and sits on the coast. Goan curries are also known to be fiery, so be warned!
Whilst the curries of the coastal areas celebrate seafood the interior areas look instead to pulses and grains for their protein intake.
Moving clockwise, the food of Maharashtra is feisty and the cuisine uses aromatic and flavourful ingredients like peanuts, sesame seeds and hot chillies. The immigrant inhabitants of its capital city, Mumbai, bring a veritable feast of flavours from their home towns around India. This is where I learnt many cooking skills from neighbours, and adopted aunts.
Another distinctive flavour from the west of India is Gujerat. People here fast on a regular basis and limit their diet to milk, nuts and dried fruits. The food here is primarily vegetarian. In order to prevent the body from becoming dehydrated a lot of salt, sugar, tomato and lemon is used. There are a large variety of vegetarian curries in Gujerat, most of which are eaten with dhals that have a combination of salty, sweet and spicy flavours.
In Rajasthan where water is at a premium the food is generally cooked in milk or ghee. This makes it a rich cuisine. On the other hand a simple ingredient like Gram flour (Besan) is a mainstay of Marwari food. Here you can savour curried gram flour dumplings in a creamy, yoghurt sauce. This desert state makes a tantalising dish with sangri, wild dried leaves, fried with dried dates, red chillies, shredded mango and spice.
The curries that most Westerners are familiar with tend to hail from Punjab. The much-loved naan bread, that has also become an international celebrity, usually accompanies the food here. Expect curries from the north to contain a wide variety of rich ingredients: meats, fruits, nuts, dairy products and the well-known Indian cottage cheese, Paneer.
The popular Rogan Josh comes from Kashmir. The Persians and Mughals influenced the food of the North. This area is also known for the sweeter and milder flavours, often produced by the addition of fruit (e.g. apricots, bananas and lychees) to curries.
Madhya Pradesh, situated in the centre of India, has a plethora of meat, wheat and sweet dishes. Think Kebabs, Biryanis, Jalebis, Barfi.
We can’t move away from the north without squeezing in the north-eastern area of India, where food is influenced by the flavours of Nepal, Tibet and Myanmar. Spices are used in moderation here, with curries relying more on onions for flavour, although turmeric, fenugreek and cardamom make an appearance. It is from this area that proteins get far more interesting: frog, turtle, yak, pigeon, duck and pork can be found in the regional curries, but also beef, chicken and fish.
From this region, try the Assam tenga curry, usually made with fish and lentils and known for a sour flavour courtesy of lemons. Tripuri curries are the spicier ones, and almost all dishes will contain berma, which is made from dried and fermented puthi fish. It is the only area to do so!
Moving over to Eastern India here the approach to spice is more subtle. Bengali food is deeply influenced by the Nawabs of old. The staple here is sweet water fish and rice. What sets Bengali food apart is the flavour of mustard oil and poppy seeds. Don’t leave this state without trying out Doi Maach (fish cooked in a yoghurt sauce) and Baigan Bhajja (panfriend eggplant) sizzling with spices.
When trying to identify eastern Indian food, look out for Panch Phoran, a blend of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, mustard seed and nigella seed that appears often in the vegetarian curries of Bengal and Orissa. In these areas, meat dishes tend to be flavoured with turmeric and garam masala, but the regions’ dishes do differ in their spice levels.
Moving down to Orissa (now called Odisha), situated on the coast, we once again enjoy the treasures of the sea – Kankada Johla (crab curry) with rice. A typical Odia meal would comprise rice, dhal, two vegetable dishes and a fish curry. Dalma is well known here – this beautiful dhal is made with moong, toor or channa dhal and unusual vegetables like raw banana and papaya.
The food of South India (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu), is tantalisingly flavourful. Rice is a staple here. Rice is mixed with lentils to prepare delicious snacks like crispy dosas, light idlis and yummy vadas. These are served with lip smacking chutneys made from coconut, peanuts and spice. Southern Indian curries use a lot of chillies and lentils, with spices, lemon, curry leaf, tamarind and turmeric.
If you like it a little hot, seek out the Andhra food. Chilli powder is abundant in this style of food, which is mostly vegetarian. The region is also known for its use of the sour gongura leaf within the curries or accompanying pickles. However, the food of Hyderabad, it’s capital is totally diferent. Here the food is once again Mughlai influenced by its Muslim rulers centuries ago. It is famous for its Biryanis and rich sweets made with cream and nuts.
The food of Tamilnadu is both vegetarian and non-Vegetarian. This is the home of mulga thani (pepper water) and idlis and dosas. Popular non vegetarian dishes are Chettinad pepper chicken and Karuvadu Kozhumu (dried fish curry).
Keralite cuisine in the south is known as one of the most diverse in the region! In Kerala coconut oil, milk or grated coconut is often added in curries to balance the fiery heat and keep the spice levels at a comfortable medium. If you love seafood then this is the place to enjoy it.
Moving north, to the state of Karnataka, the cuisine here is largely vegetarian. You may have come across a Udupi restaurant – where dosas and medhu vadas are extremely popular. Other popular dishes are Ragi rotti, Kesari Bath and Mysore Pak.
While not all the different regional varieties can be found here in Australia, it’s worth being aware of where your favourite curries come from. Here at No Worries Curries we offer you a feast of diverse flavours in our blends, underpinned by spice, from Kashmir in the north to Kerala in the south of India. Try dabbling in the flavours of different regions to get a better appreciation of the diversity and depth of Indian food.
The catch-all term ‘curry’ just doesn’t seem so useful anymore, does it?
Go on, eat your way around the country!