‘Indian Food’ it is hardly surprising that a nation of such rich complexity and sheer vastness the definition of a national cuisine is, at best, elusive. Certainly, Indians are masterful with spices, blending ultimate combinations tailored to each dish. But beyond that, differences are perhaps more common than similarities. Northerners prefer wheat based, Southerners rice. The tropical south tends to be vegetarian; the north meat eaters or non-vegetarian. Even the ubiquitous Indian curry means different things to different people! The visitor will find that crossing state lines means crossing culinary lines as well, for India is a glorious riot of diversity. As in Europe, each state often lays claim to a unique history, culture, language – and food. One important caveat, however: the food a visitor comes across in hotels and restaurants may be surprisingly homogenous. When restaurants first became popular, after Independence, (traditional sensibilities frowned upon eating out), the vast majority were Punjabi and Mughal court inspired, and that continues today. The finest Indian cooking is still the preserve of private homes – needless to say, if you are so honoured as to receive an invitation to dine in India, do not hesitate.
DELHI – Although a city rather than a region, Delhi is included here in part because a millennium’s worth of history and rulers can almost be traced in her local cuisine: the high tea and cake of the Raj era is still served in tiny drawing rooms throughout the city. Equally, Delhi stands out as the founding father of Punjabi restaurant fare. The city’s Punjabi community, who came to Delhi at the time of Partition, brought with clay oven (tandoors), the robust red tandoori chicken has quickly became a Delhi – and Indian restaurant – staple.
KASHMIR – The breathtaking landscape here, snowcapped mountains enclosing a lush valley, grows some of the nation’s sweetest rice and finest bakers. When a Kashmiri sits down to dine, likely it will be on this rice and kohlrabi, cooked with chillies. Lamb is another favourite – the delectable rogan jhosh, for example – although Hindus and Muslims will spice them differently, as are aubergines, lotus root, and cabbage. The distinct flavour of Kashmir comes from ver, a dried spice paste (the ingredients, which might include chillies, coriander, cumin, cloves, ginger, turmeric, and cardamom, and differ from family to family) which is sprinkled on dishes. Kashmiris dry the bounty of summer in preparation for the winter, hence the abundance of dried fruits and nuts in restaurant dishes like ” Kashmir naan” and Kashmir Pullao”.
WEST BENGAL – The state that gave its name to the Bay of Bengal loves fish. At least one fish dish will be included in each meal, and the favourite way of cooking hilsa-fish-is to cook elishbhapa. Fish pieces coated in a mix of mustard seeds, mustard oil, and turmeric are wrapped in banana leaves and cooked. Indeed, these mustard seeds and mustard oil are classic Bengali spices. And if no meal is complete without fish, similarly, no meal should end without a sweet, for Bengalis have a notoriously sweet tooth. Rasgullas, the fresh cheese-dough balls in syrup, is a favourite throughout India, but the array of delicious sweetmeats seems endless here.
ANDHRA PRADESH – The seat of the fabulously wealthy Nizam of Hyderabad whose Muslim court ruled with all the fabled excesses of a maharajah, Hyderabad’s setting in Hindu South India has produced a splendid cuisine. There are simple dishes, like rice and lentils – kitchri – accompanied by pappadums, mango pickle and kheema curry. There are more complex dishes, like the deep fried pastry dough squares, stuffed with minced meat, called lukmi. There is chippe ka gosht, meat marinated in a heavenly combination of green chillies, coconut, yogurt, garam masala, garlic and onion; there are delicate fried minced meat balls, dunked in to a yogurt mixture, called kacche dahi ke koftay. Meals end with the famous marzipan baadaam ki jaali, layered with edible silver tissue.
MAHARASHTRA – With bustling Mumbai as its capital, foodies call Maharashtra state the dividing line between the wheat-eating north and the rice-eating south (the Kashmiri northbeing the exception that proves the rule). Denizens of Maharashtra enjoy both. This is the region that produces the famed Alphoso mangoes, a gourmet delicacy in mango-loving circles, The fishermen of the coastline bring in seafood that is prepared in pastes of chilli, coconut, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric; rubbed with coconut paste and flavoured with chillies. In Mumbai, everyone gathers around the bhel-puri man’s cart, sampling the puffy bread along with sweet-sour chutneys, hot and spicy sauces, crunchy wheat flour bits.