India is a diverse country. The tastes and variety of food differs from state to state. Based on the diversity of food. the country can be divided into four regions - North, West, South and East.
Rich onion-and tomato-flavoured curries, or the delicious tandoori foods that are cooked slowly in a clay oven called the tandoor, originate in Punjab. The Punjabis, both the Hindus and the Sikhs, love to celebrate with food, drink and dancing and their feasts are legendary. It is sometimes said that because much of Punjab is agricultural, the cooking here is rather unsophisticated.
Most non-Punjabis think of this hearty cuisine as being an occasional treat and look forward to a meal laced with ghee and accompanied by fried treats such as samosas and pakoras.
Two of India’s most sacred Hindu cities lie in this state. Varanasi and Allahabad are thronged with pilgrims each year and it is not surprising that Uttar Pradesh has a rich and varied vegetarian cuisine. All religious food in India must include only those ingredients which are considered acceptable or ‘sattvik’. These include grains, spices, naturally ripened fruit and vegetables and milk.
One of the most famous styles of cooking that originates from this state is the ‘Awadhi’ style from Lucknow (or Awadh, as it was earlier known). Until nearly the middle of the twentieth century it was a princely state with Nawabs as rulers. Their feasts were renowned and even today the ‘Dum Pukht’ technique, which literally means ‘to choke off the steam’ is considered an important skill in any Awadhi chef’s repertoire. This is a technique, used to make biryanis and rich curries such as a korma, where a pot is sealed with dough made from chapatti flour (atta) and water. A tight-fitting lid ensures that no steam can escape and that all the flavour is retained in the food.
Due to its proximity to the Himalayas, Kashmir was the natural passage to India for many invaders. Its cuisine is therefore a mix of Indian, Persian and Afghan styles. There are two distinct communities who live in Kashmir - the Muslims and the Hindu Brahmins who are known as ‘Kashmiri Pundits’. Their cooking is based on ingredients such as yogurt and asafoetida whereas the Muslims use garlic and Kashmiri shallots called ‘praan’.
The cuisine of Kashmir also makes the most of the local produce such as walnuts, dried apricots and pistachios. Spices such as dried ginger powder, fennel powder and Kashmiri saffron are used. Yogurt forms the base for many curries. The true cooking of Kashmir can be seen in the Wazawan style, which is fragrant with spices including cardamom, cloves and cinnamon.
New Delhi is the capital of India and has a cosmopolitan population. The cuisine reflects the diversity of its people and a variety of styles from the rich Punjabi to the vegetarian Bania and the non-vegetarian Kayastha coexist. Delhi is famous for its ‘Mughlai’ cooking, a legacy of the Mughal rulers who reigned over a large part of India from Delhi, their capital, before the British took over. The official language of the Muslim rulers of this dynasty was Persian as were the names of dishes such as biryani, kebabs and koftas, which are still in use.
Rajasthan, which lies in the Thar Desert of India, is also called the ‘Land of Princes’ because of the many princely kingdoms that existed here before India became independent from British rule in 1947. Being an arid desert, the availability of ingredients of the region was limited. Food that could remain unspoilt for several days and could be eaten without heating was preferred, more out of necessity than choice.
The scarcity of water, fresh vegetables and delicate spices has had its effect on the cooking of this state. Most foods in this hot region are still cooked in ghee as it is considered cooling in Ayurveda. In the desert belt of Jaisalmer, Barmer and Bikaner, chefs use less water and more milk, buttermilk and ghee. A special feature of Rajasthani cooking is the use of amchoor (mango powder) that makes up for the scarcity of tomatoes in the desert, and asafoetida, that flavours curries that do not have onions and garlic.
Gujarat is the mango-shaped state to the west of India. Its northern region is famous for its delicate, vegetarian cuisine and most especially for the ‘thali’ - a metal plate with several small bowls filled with an array of tempting dishes. The thali has rice, breads, fried accompaniments called ‘farsans’, vegetables, lentils and sweets all served at once.
Even within Gujarat, the cuisine is varied within the different areas. Some areas are drier than others, with less rainfall. Kathiawari and Kachchi food both use red chilli powder to create heat. In the southern part of the state, green chillies are used, most often with fresh ginger. In Surat, sugar is added to most dishes, even lentils and vegetables, and much of the cuisine has a sweet, tangy flavour.
Maharashtra lies to the west of India and has a long coastline along the Arabian Sea. Many communities live here - different sects of Maharashtrians and the settlers who came from other states. Native Maharashtrian cooking has many styles - the Pune Brahmin style with its sweet, simple flavourings and use of peanuts, the fiery curries of the Deccan Plateau and the coconut and tamarind flavourings of the coastal areas.
The state grows a large variety of crops such as peanuts, coconut, rice and mangoes. The most sought-after mango in India, the ‘Alphonso’, is grown here in Ratnagiri.
This state lies at the centre of India and therefore the cooking is influenced by all the surrounding states, most importantly, by Gujarat and Maharashtra. There seem to be six meals a day - breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner and supper with many ‘munchings’ in between.
Much of MP has Hindu cooking. Indore is famous for its pickle shops that sell preserved fruit and vegetables. In Indore, the local high street turns into a food lane called the ‘sarafa’ after the shops close and every night people stroll along this road to eat fresh samosas and hot sweet jalebis and to drink warm nut-flavoured milk. Bhopal, the capital, is an exception. Ruled for many years by a Muslim ruler, the cuisine is a mix of Islamic and Hindu styles. Kebabs and biryanis sit next to simple stir-fries and fresh breads.
Tamil Nadu is situated on the eastern coast of India by the Bay of Bengal. This state has some of the oldest and most famous of all Hindu temples, such as the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram and the Brihadeeshwara temple at Tanjore. Tamil culture is resplendent with classical literature and dance, fascinating bronze sculpture and aweinspiring architecture.
Chennai is the capital and is home to some of the finest artists and artisans in the country. A meal here is mainly made up of rice served in three different courses. First with sambhar, a thick lentil dish that is flavoured with fresh vegetables, then with rasam, a thinner version of the sambhar and one that is slurped up along with the rice and finally with yogurt and rice to cool one in the strong southern heat.
Other rice preparations include coconut rice, tamarind rice, lemon rice and countless other flavourings that provide variety and taste. Black pepper, red chillies, cumin, turmeric, coriander, fenugreek and mustard seeds are used in cooking vegetables such as plantains, yams, gourds and greens.
Situated in the central south, Andhra Pradesh is a combination of Hindu and Muslim cookery. Before the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the city of Hyderabad was ruled by the Nizam, a man reputed to be the wealthiest person in the world at the time. His kitchens produced some of the richest and tastiest fare and many of his favourite dishes have become trademark recipes of the region such as the rich dessert ‘Khubani ka meetha’, where stewed Indian apricots are served with nuts, cream and spices. Hyderabadi cookery is characterised by slow-cooking methods.
An Andhra meal is also served in courses. In Hyderabad, it is the Mughlai set of courses, replete with kebabs and biryanis. In other parts of the state, the food is mainly vegetarian. Rice forms a staple part of the diet. Andhra Pradesh is most famous for its pickles and many chutneys that are made from just about anything - from mangoes, aubergines and tomatoes to ginger and ‘gongura’, an aromatic, local reddish-green leafy vegetable.
Karnataka has given India a classic restaurant style. Udipi, a small temple town, is famous for its Brahmin cooks. The town has a beautiful, ancient Krishna temple and the Brahmins will first offer all cooked food to the gods before serving it to devotees. Pancakes called ‘dosas’, rice cakes called ‘idlis’ and luscious chutneys are made in Udipi and tiny cafés that serve such food (called Udipi restaurants) are popular. They serve vegetarian food.
Coconuts, tamarind, beans and kokum, a sour purple fruit are used in the cooking. In these parts, coconut (called ‘Shriphal’) is considered the fruit of the gods. Every part of the coconut tree is useful - the fruit is eaten, the water within is drunk, the leaves are used for roofing and the husk on the outside of the fruit is made into scouring tools.
The serving of a meal is an art form in this state. Traditionally, a banana leaf is used as a plate and all courses are served at once. Rice, lentils, vegetables, chutneys, crisp accompaniments and sweets, flavoured with coconut, form a fragrant feast. Curry leaves and mustard seeds are used to temper many dishes. Preparations such as thorans (vegetable stir-fries), sambhar (lentils with tamarind) and dishes cooked with plantains, yams and cabbages are popular.
Cabbages are grown all over India due to their neutral taste, which can be combined with a variety of spices. Kerala has many communities and therefore has a great mix of cuisines. Syrian Christians, Malabar Muslims, Jews from Cochin and Hindus all live and work peacefully and share a culture that is vibrant and yet gentle. This is the state where Ayurveda has been preserved for centuries, away from foreign conquests and interference, and is still practised through food and lifestyle.
Goan food is a blend of the various influences that have been a part of the region’s history. The main communities that live here are the Christians and the Hindus. For both the main food is fish, which is natural because Goa is on the coast. Fishing boats go out into the Arabian Sea in the early hours and are back, laden with seafood, by dawn.
Availability of local ingredients has determined the flavours of this region. The many rivers and the fertile soil allows rice, mangoes and coconuts to grow in plenty. Fresh ginger and mustard seeds, both whole and crushed to a paste, are used to flavour curries. Rice is eaten with all curries. Due to its proximity to the Mughali nfluenced north, the Bengali Muslim cuisine adopts the best of the kebabs and biryanis, which are the pride of Mughlai cooking.
The most characteristic feature of Bengali food is the repertoire of sweets. There is a speciality ‘mishti’ or sweet shop on every street corner in Kolkatta and they are even prized in other Indian cities. Syrupy rasmalai, where soft dumplings of clotted milk are steeped in sweet, spiced milk; sandesh, a fudge-like sweet made of thickened milk, and a sweet yogurt called ‘mishti dhoi’ that is sweetened with date palm jaggery, all come originate from the east.
This region is made up of the seven sister States: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura as well as the Himalayan state of Sikkim. The north-east is home to a vast number of tribes who have their own unique cuisine. The north-east is famous for the hottest chilli in the world. Aptly called ‘Bhut Jolokia’ (Ghost Chilli) in Assam, ‘Naga Jolokia’ in Nagaland and ‘Umorok’ in Manipur, it is highly regarded for its medicinal properties such as its use in pain-relief treatment.