Fire up your imagination

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 November, 2011, 12:00am


India is a huge country with a history that stretches back millennia. The nation's people are diverse - and so is its food.

As New Delhi-based food columnist Anoothi Vishal says: 'There is no one Indian cuisine. The food that people eat depends on their caste, community and region. And within each region, there are differences.'

Food in India can largely be divided into northern and southern styles. The drier, harsher climate of the north has resulted in richer, creamier curries eaten with bread made from wheat, while the tropical south excels in lighter, more fiery dishes that use the freshest ingredients and are eaten with rice, which grow in wet conditions.

But there are pockets of dining culture that exist outside of this basic division, defined by the people who live there and their histories.

Located in the far north of India next to Tibet, the mountainous, mainly Buddhist region of Ladakh in Kashmir shares much of its culinary heritage with its neighbour. Here, dishes such as momos (similar to dumplings), tingmos (heavier steamed buns) and thukpa (noodle soup) are popular. Mutton, along with chicken, is a regular ingredient for non-vegetarians.

Mutton continues to be a major part of the cuisine of the rest of largely Muslim Kashmir, which lies further west, alongside Pakistan. This is the home of the world-famous rogan josh, an aromatic dish of lamb, red with Kashmiri mirch (chilli peppers) and a dried flower called muawal. In Persian, 'rogan' means 'oil' and 'josh' means 'heat, hot, boiling or passionate' - and the dish is indeed cooked at high heat. Rogan josh was brought to Kashmir by the Mughals, the Persian term for Mongols, who ruled much of the north of the Indian subcontinent from the mid-1500s to the mid-1800s.

The Mughals made the biggest impact on north Indian food with their Persian and Turkic styles of cooking, including kofta (meatballs) and biryani (rice cooked in the juices of meat), which food consultant and chef Marut Sikka, who spent a decade researching Indian regional food, says comes from the Persian pilaf.

The city of Lucknow, in northeast India's Uttar Pradesh state, is known for its Awadhi food, which blends the very rich cuisine of the Nawabs (viceroys in the Mughal empire) with the exotic spices of the Middle East and Central Asia. Nutmeg, mace, green cardamom, saffron, yellow chilli powder and rose water are key flavourings.

Imtiaz Qureishi, one of India's most celebrated chefs who has visited Hong Kong for food festivals held at Bombay Dreams in SoHo, specialises in the art of Awadhi food, particularly the dum pukht (slow oven) style of cooking.

Meat, vegetables, rice and subtle spices are placed in a container sealed with a layer of dough. Hot coals are placed underneath and on top, and left to slow-cook. It is said that when the dough layer is lifted off the finest dum pukht dish, the aroma released is exquisite enough to make a diner faint.

'Awadhi cuisine is meant for royalty,' says Qureishi, from a family of seven generations of chefs. 'It is rich in texture and flavour, and the ingredients are very costly. I use slightly less oil and change the spices very little sometimes. But otherwise, these are the recipes passed down through the ages - the same dishes royalty used to eat.'

Kebabs, meanwhile, are believed to have been brought to India by Genghis Khan, from whom the Mughals descended.

The theory is that the warlord created a 'crescent of the kebab', according to Sikka. 'Take a look at a map of Genghis Khan's journey and you will see it matches the areas where kebabs are eaten,' he says. 'Of course, over the years, India has refined and created its own kebabs.'

The Punjab region, divided during the 1947 partition of the British colony into India and Pakistan, is particularly famous for its kebabs, such as seekh kebabs (minced meat and spices cooked on a skewer in the tandoor), other tandoori specialities such as chicken tikka, as well as for its curries that are heavy with butter and cream.

In Rajasthan, the creaminess of the dishes becomes even more pronounced due to this desert region's shortage of water. Milk, curd (yogurt) and buttermilk are traditionally used instead of water. Dried fruit and nuts preserved at high temperatures are common, while legumes stand in for a lack of leafy green vegetables.

Dhal baati churma is a typical dish here. Dhal (lentils) and churma (ground wheat crushed and cooked with ghee and jaggery - unrefined brown sugar) are served with baati (a hard, unleavened bread). Rajasthan is well-known for its sweet dishes, and it is usual practice for sweets to be served during meals rather than as a dessert.

Traditional Rajasthani food is served as a thali (small bowls arranged around a central serving of breads). Much of the food is vegetarian, although red meat and game meats such as hare and wild boar are also enjoyed.

The thali is also a major part of the culinary culture of western India's Gujarat and Maharashtra, home state of Mumbai. Rice begins to make an appearance in in these states. The grain occupies the centre of the thali, and other dishes also have specific positions on the plate. It is common practice for the sauce-covered rice to be formed into balls and eaten with the right hand.

'[In Maharashtra], you find plenty of coastal food using seafood, fresh coconut, chillis and fragrant kokum [a variety of mangosteen] which is used as a souring agent,' says Vishal. 'But the food of the Brahmins in the city of Pune is different again - entirely vegetarian and light, with coconut and fresh green coriander being key.'

Despite having a long coastline, most Gujaratis avoid seafood and are vegetarian, due to the influence of Jainism and traditional Hinduism. The typical Gujarati thali consists of rice, roti (a flat bread made from wheat flour), dhal or kadhi (a chickpea flour gravy with vegetable fritters called pakoras), rice and vegetable curries. These curries are sweeter than in other regions and many chefs aim to highlight sweet, salty and spicy flavours simultaneously in each dish.

The four main states of southern India - Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala - also rely on rice as the staple starch and thus there is a noticeable lack of wheat-based items.

'The major difference between northern and southern food is the rice, and this has dictated the style of curry. If it is poured over rice, it needs to be more liquid, while if it is to be scooped up with bread, like in the north, it will be better if it is a thicker gravy,' says Madhu Gadia, nutritionist, author and expert on Indian cuisine.

Bread-like items do play a role in the south, however, such as the pancake-like dosa made from rice batter and black lentils.

Seasoning is also different. In the north, spices usually include garam masala (a spice mix, often of black pepper, cumin, cloves and cardamom) and cinnamon, and includes both ground and whole spices. In the south, there is more use of mustard seeds and curry leaves, and a lot more chillies. Mustard seed is most often associated with Bengali cuisine.

'Of course, there is some overlap in spices,' says Gadia. 'For example, mustard seeds, turmeric, coriander and cumin are essential all over India, but spicing is used in different proportions depending on the region and each dish.'

While beans and pulses are used nationwide, in the south, people cook beans with their husks removed, and lentil dishes, such as sambhar (a highly spiced lentil and vegetable stew), are served with most meals, while in the north, whole beans such as chickpeas are more popular.

Andhra Pradesh is known for its fiery food, served traditionally on a plantain leaf. It excels in its pickles and chutneys, and these are arranged on the leaf with rice, dhal, curries, curd and papadums.

Lentils and legumes are particularly important in Tamil cuisine, and tamarind makes the primary souring agent. Rice flour cakes are popular, such as idlis - small, saucer-sized cakes of steamed rice and fermented black lentils, usually eaten at breakfast and dinner - and appams, which are pancake-like breads of ground rice and coconut.

Journalist Vijayan Kannampilly, in his Essential Kerala Cookbook, explains that the word 'curry' is believed to stem from the Tamil 'kari', meaning 'sauce' - usually thought to mean vegetables or meat cooked with spices, with or without a gravy. Others believe it comes from the Bengali 'torkari', often used the same way 'curry' is used in English.

The impact of foreign cultures has made the variety of food in Kerala especially diverse. Ocean-going traders have visited and settled in Kerala for millennia, and communities of Syrian Christians there indulge in pork - something not common in India - while Arab, Jewish and other communities have seen their food integrated into the local cuisine. All cultural groups enjoy the coconut, the milk of which is used to thicken curries while the grated flesh is used for flavouring.

Kerala, with its long coastline, consumes plenty of seafood, particularly fish and prawns, and is rivalled only by West Bengal, bordering Bangladesh. As Vishal points out: 'Fish curry may be fairly generic in coastal regions but it changes from coast to coast and region to region.'

Going further east, to the hilly states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland bordering Burma, the cuisines change dramatically. Here, tribes eat fermented, dried and smoked vegetables as well as pork, fish and exotic meats - generally not indulged in the rest of the country.