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Throughout its history, India has been invaded by armies, traders, and immigrants from all over the world. Major culinary influences result from significant historical invasions, including the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great in 326 B.C. Greek and Middle Eastern ingredients and cooking techniques are obvious in Indian cuisine. Moghul invaders in the 16th Century introduced meat and rice dishes to India. Portuguese rulers introduced chilies, and the more recent rulers from Britain in the 18th and 19th Centuries had an influence on chutney development. Interspersed throughout these major historical events were influences from Bactrian, Mongol, Scythian, Parthian, Kushan, Hun, Arab, Turk, Afghan, and Dutch invaders.
In the northernmost areas of India, close to the Himalayas, the weather is temperate. Wheat is the predominant grain and meat dishes can be elaborate. Much of the food is cooked in oil.
To the south towards the equator, dishes become hotter – sometimes fiery. Rice is the predominant grain crop, and a vegetarian lifestyle predominates. Much of the food is steamed.
Seafood dishes are prominent along the coastline of India, where the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, and Indian Ocean offer rich bounties of fish and shellfish. Jungle areas of India offer mangoes, guava, papaya, bananas, and coconuts.
Vegetarian cuisine is widespread, resulting from the predominance of Hindus in India. There are a wealth of dishes which solely rely on grains, legumes, and vegetables. In contrast, the Muslims rely on beef and lamb as integral parts of their diets.
Indian food can be enjoyed as much during the cooking process as during mealtime. The aroma from cooking spices, herbs, onions, garlic, and chilies creates the best kind of potpourri money can buy! When we think of Indian food, we typically think curry. Unfortunately, the idea and use of commercial curry powder is limiting to the whole scope of Indian cuisine.
Authentic curry powder is called garam masala (masala means mixture). These spice and herb mixtures vary in recipes throughout India, and even vary from home to home in the same region. But Indian seasoning is not limited to garam masala. Other spices and flavorings are added to enhance and layer flavors.
Becoming familiar with Indian dishes requires becoming familiar with its common elements. These are described below, followed by a menu guide of ingredients.
One staple in Indian food is dal, a word which includes peas, beans, and lentils (similar to our use of legume). Lentils, which are red, yellow, orange, or pink, plus split peas and other legumes, are the primary source of protein in vegetarian meals. Dal are cooked whole or pureed, depending on the dish. Ground dal are used in unleavened breads and crackers, and even in spice mixtures. Indian cooks use the versatile legumes to their full potential!
Basmati white rice is authentic Indian rice, long grain which is dried giving it a unique nutty flavor. Rice dishes can be plain – as boiled, steamed, or fried rice – or can include vegetables, nuts, and even fruits. These dishes are always fragrant.
Nuts not only show up in rice dishes, but in desserts as well. Nuts are also pureed into rich, creamy sauces for elegant and savory meat dishes. Commonly used nuts include almonds, pistachios, and cashews.
Common dairy products include milk, cream and yogurt. Yogurt is used in marinades, salads, and sauces. Cream is used in “curry” sauces and in desserts. Milk is used to make paneer, a firm cheese made from the curds of whole milk.
Although some vegetables in Indian cuisine cannot be found in the U.S., many are common. Some of these include eggplant, cauliflower, green beans, carrots, peas, mustard greens, okra, spinach, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and bell peppers.
Indian breads consist primarily of unleavened flatbreads which resemble thick tortillas. Some are deep fried, and others are baked in tandoors – underground clay ovens which reach 1,000 degrees. Flatbread is often used in place of silverware.
These same ovens are used to cook “barbecued” meats, often stained red from their potent marinades. Shish-ka-bobbed chicken and lamb are both common.
Most Indian spices and herbs are available to the home cook. If you enjoy cooking Mexican food, you already probably own cumin, cinnamon, cloves, chili powder, cayenne pepper, black pepper, saffron, and coriander. If you cook, you are probably already familiar with chilies, onions, garlic, and cilantro. So add cardamom, turmeric, fresh ginger, yogurt and mustard seeds to your stockpile of goods, and you can do Indian food justice – along with a good cookbook. This writer’s personal favorites are books by Julie Sahni and Madhur Jaffrey.
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