First, an Overview
It is almost impossible in this space, to describe the breadth and depth of Indian cuisine. There are so many traditions and they vary, not just from one region to another, or even from one town to another, but even from home to home. India has over a dozen languages, 29 states, 7 union territories, 12 regions, and 35 recognized cuisines.
Cooking traditions are influenced by region, religion, geography, ethnic group, trade routes, and invaders. As immigrants arrived, their food traditions were adapted to Indian tastes, creating an even more nuanced cuisine. To plumb the depths of this multifaceted and sophisticated state of deliciousness would take several lifetimes. To see what I mean, check out my Flavors of India post.
I am starting with the Top Twenty Dishes popular throughout India and then will explore regional foods from there. Even as I do a deep dive into different regions, please consider this introduction a scratching of the surface. And a starting point, for your own explorations into the flavors of India. In the meantime, you may want to see how the website Food52 divides Indian food into Northern and Southern influences, dishes and ingredients.
Just as in many other countries, cooks in India are preparing not only beloved family recipes. They are also looking for new ideas: to other regions of India, to the West for baking ideas, to China for noodles, and to Italy for pizza and pasta. Ancient family recipes are also being streamlined to fit into a working family’s lifestyle.
Indian cooks are passionate about good food and are masters at balancing flavors. Much time and effort is spent in shopping and preparing tempting, healthy meals. Each kitchen’s spice mix is influenced by family, region, and ethnic or religious background. Garam masala is a spice mix used throughout India, and every cook has their own ultimate list of ingredients and spice proportions.
“As I tell all my students, Indian cooking is all about interpretation. Each household in India will have their own recipe for the classics, and everyone will (and should) believe that their recipe is the best. I guarantee that if you go to ten different households in India, you will get ten different versions of this dish. And every one of them will be delicious in their own way. It’s what makes cooking so much fun, and gets your creative juices flowing.”
—Michelle Peters-Jones of The Tiffin Box
In addition to the eternal quest for flavor, most home cooks keep an eye on the healthfulness of the food they are serving to their family. India has a long tradition of vegetarian diets, and the influence of the Ayurvedic system of medicine. This prescribing of food is done with an eye to keeping the body healthy. Indian cuisine is a Godsend to anyone who is vegetarian, vegan, or needs to avoid gluten or simple carbs. There is a perception of India by non-Indians is that a majority are vegetarian. But depending on which report you believe, there are only between 20% to 30% strict vegetarians. It is not uncommon, even in a single household, to have both meat-eaters and vegetarians. And women are slightly more likely to be vegetarian than men.
Tips to Reduce Calories, from Mamta’s Kitchen
Home-cooked Indian food is healthy, balanced, comforting, and exquisite. The explosion of flavors from spices and herbs make you forget about butter, cream, and even meat. Here are Mrs. Gupta’s tips on Mamta’s Kitchen for reducing calories in your cooking:
- Reduce the amount of fat during cooking
- Use only lean meat
- Add vegetables to meat during cooking, so that less meat is eaten
- Skim the fat off the top, after you have finished cooking