Indian Food Culture and History

Indian food is extremely popular around the world. This article will give you a detailed look into the indian food culture and history.

Author: Pia Albrechtsen

The subcontinent of India is probably among the world’s most preserved ancient civilizations. Its rich culture is considered by a lot of historians as the world’s oldest living civilization dating back to 8000 BC. Its vast historical culture is very much evident in its people’s customs and traditions, religions, values and beliefs, arts, languages and ways of life. Its well-preserved ancient architecture and rich cuisine show reflections of the country’s diverse subcultures which are continually becoming popular all over the world.

Indian Food MarketBecause of globalization and international migration, more and more Indians are moving outside of their native India. The Indian cuisine is also becoming among the most widely patronized traditional cuisines outside of its native country. This diaspora in other places around the world also started paving way for Indian cuisine to become more popular in other continents. Curry, which is among its widely spread traditional culinary staples, is also now becoming part of other fusion cuisines available in different cities and countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Southeast Asia, China and the Middle East.

The history and diversity of Indian food can be traced back in 6000 BC. Indian food was greatly influenced by the different subcultures that once previously interacted within the country. The Aryans are considered among the pioneers in the formulation of the cuisine having arrived in India during that time. The British, Portuguese, Mughals and Turks are also being credited for taking part in influencing the Indian cuisine’s later formation. With its variety of inspirations and influences the cuisine was shaped to the culinary tradition that it has become now. Though perceived as somewhat homogenous in nature outside of its homeland, the traditional Indian cuisine is very much diverse and varied with its different regional and religion-derived culinary practices. It is subdivided into four different regional style of Indian food cooking mainly the North, South, East and West.

Usual Ingredients Used For Indian food Dishes

The Middle Ages, which was around the Gupta Dynasty, also played a big part in the formation of Indian food. Traders, travellers and new settlers introduced a lot of new products and cooking methods in the

Indian woman buying spices

Indian woman buying spices

region. Spices and tea became some of the new addition in the existing culinary valuables. The Northern part of the India became influenced by the Central part of the Asian continent, mainly Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Persia, giving rise to the fusion cooking of Mughlai cuisine. Among the most notable contribution of this fusion cuisine is the addition of several seasonings like saffron and the inclusion of new cooking practices like the use of sealed pots called dum.

Since Indian cuisine uses a large variety of ingredients you will be baffled and overwhelmed once you try going to their neighborhood markets. Among their common staple indian food items are rice, bajira or pearl millet, atta and wheat flour. The cuisine also uses a wide variety of legumes or pulses such as mung bean commonly known as moong, chickpeas or channa, red lentils or masoor, pigeon pea or toor and black gram or urad. Some of these are often processed to become besan or flour like moong and channa. These are also often consumed either as whole, split or dal and dehusked or dhuli. Split pulses are being consumed by the majority of the population in significant amounts.
Cooking oils such as vegetable oils are also widely used in Indian food dishes. In eastern India mustard oil is very predominant in their regional cooking. Peanut oil on the other hand is very popular in western and northern part of the country. Sesame oil or gingelly is widely used in the southern part. In the western part of the country, oil derived from coconut is also widely used. The Indian state of Kerala on the Malabar coast uses this predominantly. Nowadays other oils have also become major necessities in Indian cooking such as Vanaspati ghee or hydrogenated vegetable oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil and butter-based oil also known as desi ghee.

Spices also play a big part in their everyday cooking of Indian food. When Portugal colonized India in the sixteenth century it introduced the use of chilli peppers. Leaves and roots of the curry tree are also among the most widely used form of spice in the traditional Indian cooking. It is mainly used in the western state Gujarat. Aside from these, Indian cooking also largely use other spices such as turmeric or haldi, cumin or jeera, garlic or lehsun, black mustard seed or sarso, red chilly powder or mich, cardamom or elaichi, ginger or adrak, asafoetida or hing and coriander also known as dhania. Indian cooking also uses spice mix. These are combination of at least five different ingredients to create a distinct powder mix also known garam masala which is widely used in Indian food. Some of the most commonly used ingredients in this are cinnamon, cardamom and clover. Another popular spice mix is the much sweeter counterpart from the state of Maharashtra called goda masala. Spice mixes may differ from region to region and chefs can also experiment in creating their own. Aside from spices, Indian cooking also uses different herbs such as mint leaves, fenugreek, bay leaves or tejpat and coriander. Sweet dishes on the other hand may be flavored with saffron, cardamom, rose petal essences and nutmeg.

Regional Influences on Indian Food

The regional cookery of India is very vast and diverse. Each state or region has something different to offer. Aside from predominant religions, a lot of factors have also helped in shaping the major different dishes for each specific location. Among the major influencing factors are geographical location such as proximity to bodies of water etc., local culture such as traditional tribal practices and regional economics. The dishes available may also be influenced by the different crops or produce available during a particular time of the year such as vegetables or fruits in season. As mentioned, some Indians practices Buddhism and most dishes are also often classified as vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

South India and Indian food

The group of islands located in the Union Territory and the Bay of Bengal also known as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are mainly dependent on seafood. Since it is situated in a more isolated area, the dishes that are traditionally prepared in here are mostly consisting of raw fishes and fruits. Chhattisgarh cuisine utilizes a lot of different food items that are not commonly used in other states. Like others, rice is also considered as their staple food, however the tribal people of the Bastar region also consume on exotic food items such as flying ants, red ant chutney, rats, squirrels and wild mushrooms. They drink liquor derived from the Mahuwa flower but also use pork and fish in most of their different viands. A pig is also often sacrificed at the beginning of most of their tribal ceremonies. The eastern state of Jharkhand is also being dominated by traditional tribal cuisines. It hardly use spices and oil unless for special festivities and pickle production.
Karnataka cuisine is a fusion of different Southern Indian cuisines. It often uses seafood in its dishes as well as coconut but is also popular for its spicy pork curries. Banana leaves are often used in serving their traditional Kannadiga Oota or Kannadiga meals. Among its usual dishes are jolada rotti, bisi bele bath, akki rotti, chapati, ragi rotti, saaru, vangibath, huli, khara bath, Benne Dose, kesari bath, Uppittu and ragi mudde. Like Karnataka, Lakshadweep is also mainly dependent on seafood and coconut. Natives often consume plenty of coconut water because of its abundance within the area. Kerala cuisine is a fusion of local and foreign tastes. It also often uses coconut and seafood too in their dishes like the states of Karnataka and Lashadweep. Tapioca is use as a staple food item along with rice. Because the state is also abundant in spices it also predominantly use them in their dishes. Among the most popular Kerala dishes are appam, rasam, idiyappam, dosa, idli, pathrii and puttu.

Typical market where Indians are buying all their food

Typical market where Indians are buying all their food

Telugu cuisine or the cuisine from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh is quite known for its extremely spicy nature. It uses a lot of chillies and spices in almost all its dishes. Most of the population in this area is vegetarians but those who reside in the coastal area are quite famous for their different seafood viands. Among the most essential part of their traditional local cuisine is the presence of avakaya or pickled green mangos in their everyday meals. They also make pickles from red sorrel leaves which are locally known as gongura. They also serve curds to help neutralize the spiciness in their dishes. The region is popular for its bagara baingan, kheema, the rice dish Biryani and the state’s crepe counterpart Pesarattu.

Tamil, the southern most part of India is known for its rice, lentils and legume dishes. They use different spices such as curry leaves, coriander, garlic, ginger, tamarind, pepper, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, rose water and coconut. They are believed to be the origin of the word “curry” which comes from kari, meaning a side dish. This part of the country is famous for their spicy meat dishes.

North India and Indian food

Haryana cuisines usually use cattle in their dishes. Aside from the meat, dairy products also serve as major ingredients. Some of their most popular dishes that are mainly cattle-derived are besan masala roti, churma, bajra aloo roti, kadhi pakora, Bathua raita, kheer, singri ki sabzi, tamatar chutney and methi gajar. Lassi, which is a traditional Indian yogurt drink, is also very popular in the state. The state of Himachal Pradesh is non-vegetarian by nature. Like most of the states in northern India it is being mainly composed of broth, bread, rice, lentils and vegetables. Among its popular delicacies are patande, Sidu and til chutney.

Rogan Josh is among the most widely known Kashmiri dishes. It is of Persian origin and the lamb in it is cooked intensely in cooking oil. Kashmiri cuisine is an evolution of a very rich culinary tradition. It was widely influenced by Buddhists and Kashmiri Hindus during its early days and became a fusion on its latter days with the influence of the different Central Asian countries such as Persia. They widely use mutton in meal preparation as well as oil, yogurt and spices. Kashmiri Pandit, a traditional Kashmiri tribe, does not use onion and garlic in their meal preparation but uses ginger, fennel, red chilli powder, cumin and turmeric in most of their dishes.

The people of Uttar Pradesh prefer dal, sabzi, rice and dal as part of their dishes. This state is mostly vegetarian, that is why meat dishes are not common here. Kachoris and poories (spicy snack made of filled bread) is served on special celebrations. It is also said that chaat, a spiced vegetable dish made with potatoes, chick peas, chutney and spices originated from this state.

North-East India

Arunachal Pradesh cuisine often uses lettuce as one of its major leafy vegetables. It is usually boiled along with green chillies, coriander and ginger. The native tribes in the area are meat eaters and often consume mutton, pork, chicken, fish and eggs. Thukpa which is a noodle soup is also very popular in the area. The natives in the area also enjoy the drink apang or rice beer as part of their meals.

Assam cuisine is a combination of traditional cooking and outside influences. They use dried or fermented herbs, vegetables and fruits to give flavor to their dishes. Their way of cooking differs from the common practice in Indian recipes as they omit the procedure where in spices are fried first before adding other ingredients. A usual Assamese meal would start with a khar (main dish with main ingredient) and end with a tenga (sour dish). The meal is then concluded by chewing a betel nut (Paan).

Manipuri cuisine differs from other Indian cuisines because it uses pepper rather than the famous garam masala. The staple food on this area is fish, rice and leafy vegetables that are grown and bred around their houses.

Mizoram dishes are even more different from other Indian dishes. It is less spicy than the common Indian recipe and is more inclined with the Chinese cuisine taste. They offer a large selection of non-vegetarian dishes that are usually served on fresh banana leaves. Bai is an example of a Mizoram dish. It is made from spinach, pork and bamboo shoots boiled together. It is best served with rice. Another common dish is the Sawchair, which is a mix of rice, chicken and pork.

Another estate with a diverse collection of dishes is Punjab. Punjabi dishes cooked at home and in restaurants are different from each other. Home cooked meals are characterized with the use of masala while restaurant cooked meals use ghee, butter and cream more. It is also said that Indian cuisine elements such as naan, vegetable recipes with paneer and pakoras actually derived from Punjabi cuisine.

East India and Indian food

For East India natives, rice is a common part of their meal as many farmers grow different varieties of rice in the area. They also have diverse selections of dishes made of meat, fish, vegetables, cereals and spices.

Bihar is well known for being meat lovers. A popular Bihari dish is called meat saalan, which consists of lamb cooked with curry and garam masala. The savory flavor of this dish is then balanced with cube potatoes. Another staple non- vegetarian Bihari dish is their kebab. The main ingredient for this recipe is mutton or sheep meat. It is usually partnered with boiled rice or roti to further emphasize its unique flavor.

West Bengal cuisine is a fusion of British, Chinese, Burmese and South East Asian flavors. It can be as simple as a spiced steamed fish or vegetables, Bhapa. Bengalis are fond of putting mustard oil in their dishes. It is a main ingredient that they add so that it can have a Bengali taste. It is used as a major seasoning in dishes like Achar, their version of pickles or in Bhorta, mashed vegetables with red shallots and fresh chili. Their dishes also use Ghee for added flavor. It is a clarified butter that leaves a toasty and nutty flavor.

Orissa cuisine on the other hand is greatly influenced by its neighboring states, Bihar and West Bengal. Oriya dishes are known to be healthier because they use little amount of oil in their recipes. The major ingredients of their dishes are prawns, crabs and other sea foods. They are also fond of using curd and coconut milk. A mix of cumin, fennel, mustard, fenugreek and nigella, known as patch phutana is used to flavor vegetables. For meat based recipes on the other hand, they use garam masala and turmeric.

West India and Indian food

West Indian cuisine share Portugese influence because of their history. Because it is in the coastal area, sea foods can be found in many of their popular dishes. In Goa for example, their staple food is fish and rice. Fishes like king fish, mackerel, shark and tuna are usually cooked with coconut milk. They also use kokum, which gives a distinct Goan flavor to their dishes.

Indian crushing sugercanes and selling the sweet juice from the suger canes.

Indian crushing sugercanes and selling the sweet juice from the suger canes.

Gujarat cuisine however is mostly vegetarian. Their dishes usually are salty, sweet and spicy. Their dishes are very light and healthy. The typical meal would consist of roti or rice and a serving of vegetables stir fried in spices. Their people also practice fasting. Alcohol beverages are also prohibited in this part of the country.

Daman and Diu, though neighboring Gujarat does not share their view about alcoholic drinks. Drinking is a common practice and almost all popular alcoholic drink names are available across the state. Sea foods on the other hand are their common denominator.

Sikkim, an estate close to the Himalayas is influenced by ethnic dishes from the Nepalese, Lechas and Bhutias. The usual part of their meals is rice, dairy products and meat. Because of their location and demography, they traditionally consume fermented foods and beverages. The ingredients of their recipes also depend on the availability of grown vegetable, barley and soybeans.

Religion Influences

Religion plays a big part in the creation of the traditional Indian cuisine. Some of its traditional recipes can be traced back as far as the Vedic period. The Vedic period was the time in history when the oldest scriptures of the religion Hinduism called Vedas were still being started to be composed. Since the country was also once very rich in agricultural and natural resources, this in nature abundance took part in making the traditional Vedic diet. A normal Vedic diet would mostly compose of vegetables, fruits, grains, honey, dairy products and meat. Meat derived from poultry became the most favored form of meat at the time of its origination. The favorable climate within the area had also helped in allowing the growing of grains, fruits and vegetables throughout the year. With the advent of the Buddhism religion in the area, a lot of Indians also started practicing vegetarianism.

Hinduism is also a big part of traditional Indian cuisine. Foods are often classified in three different kinds or gunas in accordance to the traditional Hindu system of medicine and healing called Ayurveda. These are namely sattvic meaning pure, raajsic meaning dim or taamsic meaning dark. This classification system

Old Indian woman selling vegetables on the market

Old Indian woman selling vegetables on the market

categorizes food or objects according to the item’s innate purity. To be considered pure or sattvic, one must not become an instrument in the spread of illnesses or evil in the world. The food or object should also help in purifying its surroundings thus when consumed the effect should make the consumer purer or healthier. The food should be considered clean and should bring about better nutrition. Though Hinduism does not allow the consumption of beef, it does not necessary follow that it is considered as taamsic or dark. Hinduism revere cows and these animals are considered sacred in this religion. The animals are often protected and should always remain unharmed at all times. Until today this practice is still very much alive and most Indians still follow this belief.

Islam is also a common religion found in the states of India. According to Islamic belief, some meats should not be consumed, such as pork. It is a factor why different animal meats such as lamb and mutton are much popular in India compared to other meat eating countries.

There are many factors that affect the development of a country’s food culture. In the case of India, they are influenced by regional demography, regional beliefs and historical events. Each dish in the Indian food culture is a reflection of the diversity of its different religion beliefs, tradition and history. As you we enjoy each recipe, we also experience the rich culture of India and its people. With each Indian dish that we savor, we are also given a chance to experience their history, beliefs and tradition.

1 comment

  1. Kannaghi Supramaniam April 27, 2014 at 5:51 am


Leave a Reply