According to an article published in the Washington Post in 2015, Indian food is so good because of “the way flavors rub up against each other.” In their article titled “Scientists Figured Out What Makes Indian Food so Delicious,” they reported on the scientific analysis of the chemical compounds found in Indian spices, to explain what makes this cuisine so compelling. If you want to go read the original article, the link is here.
Indian cooking has long been influenced by Ayurveda, based on ancient writings that focuses on a holistic approach to physical and mental health. By these principals, it is recommended that each dish includes 6 elements of taste: bitter, heat, pungent, salty, sour, and sweet. Here are the foods that lend their flavors to these elements:
- Fenugreek (methi) in all forms is used in Indian cooking. The seeds are tempered and used whole or ground, the leaves are cooked fresh, or from frozen, and the dried leaves (kasoori methi) are added to sauces to add another flavor dimension.
- Bitter melon (karela), turmeric (haldi), Indian bay leaves (tej patta), and carom seeds (ajwain) all add various earthy, bitter notes which balance out the flavors and add a savory complexity to a dish.
India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of chilies. The peppers used depends on what is grown locally. Heat is added to dishes, often using both fresh green, and dried red chilies.
For fresh chilies, if Indian small green chilies are not available, use Serranos for moderate heat, and green Thai chilies for a little more of a kick.
Indian whole dried red peppers are toasted before using. If you don’t have access to an Indian grocer and don’t want to buy online, Kashmiri chiles, Mexican chiles de arbol, and pasilla chiles are all good substitutes.
- Asafoetida/asafetida (hing) is used by Brahmin and Jain sects as a replacement for onion and garlic, which is prohibited. It is also used in spice blends to add a pungent, savory element.
- Fresh cilantro is often used to garnish savory dishes. This controversial herb (in the West) adds a fresh pungency to Indian food. Parsley can be substituted if one cannot abide cilanto.
- Rock salt (sendha namak) is a Himalayan salt that can be white, pink, red or blue. Mined in the Punjab region of Northern India, it has many trace minerals and is purported to have many healing properties.
- Black salt (kala namak/sanchal) is rich in iron, and trace sulfates, thus lending its distinctive smell, which disappears after cooking. Black salt is used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine and in cooking. It is added to the street food chaat, and to chutneys and snacks. Due to its sulfuric nature, it can be used in egg-free dishes to give a similar umami savoriness.
The souring agent Indian cooks use depends on what is locally available:
- Amchur (amchur, amchoor) powder is made from dried green mangos, has the fragrance and flavor of a very sour green apple, and is used throughout India. It’s most often used in the popular spice blend chaat masala, which is sprinkled on all sorts of celebrated street foods.
- Anardana (darun khatta) from northwestern India, is made by drying the flesh of pomegranate seeds (either whole or ground) for flavoring samosas, chickpea stew (chole), and bread.
- Bimbli is a tangy sour fruit that is shaped like a small cucumber and tastes like star fruit. Popular in coastal Karnataka.
- Citric Acid comes in powder form and is used when a bit of sour flavor is needed, but any additional liquid is unwanted.
- Kokum is a red berry related to mangosteen. Used along India’s west coast, and especially in the Konkon region from Mumbai to Goa. It is used to add a bright berry tang to drinks, curries and lentil dishes.
- Lemon and limes are a part of the cuisine throughout India and used interchangeably.
- Mango, fresh green (hare aam) used by grating, pickling, and adding to curries.
- Nimbu is a small yellow-green lime whose spritz of tangy juice is used all over the continent to brighten any meal. It is less bitter than Mexican limes and less sour than lemons. Also used very widely in various thirst-quenching drinks.
- Pickles (achar) is a spicy condiment that Indian cuisine offers the world; pickles using almost every conceivable fruit and vegetable are eaten with most meals.
- Tamarind (imli) is from a tree with pods that have a sweet and sour pulp. The traditional way the pulp was preserved was to dry the pulp and seeds together in a rectangular brick that is then soaked and drained before using. Today you can simply buy a concentrate that is quick and easy to use. I use the easy to find Indian Tamicon brand of concentrate. Tamarind adds a tang to soups, gravies, lentil dishes, and chutneys. To read about all things tamarind, go here.
- Tomatoes (tamatar) used either as a purée, or chopped, tomatoes are used as the basis of many curries to give body, acid, and color to a dish.
- Vinegar is an ingredient introduced by the Portuguese in Goa. While the Hindus of this region cook their curries with kokum, the Christians along the western coast use vinegar to add acid to their food. In addition, the Parsi’s (originally from Persia) in Mumbai and Gujarat, use vinegar made from cane.
- Yogurt (dahi) is used in soups, to add body to a gravy, to marinate meat, and is hung to remove the water for various dishes, as in lassis for a cooling drink, and in many desserts.
More detailed information about India’s souring agents can be found here.
Jaggery (gur, bellam, chakkara) is by far the most popular sweetener in India, though white sugar is making its inroads. Made from cane, date, or toddy palm, the sugar is not separated from the molasses, so it has a moist, deep brown color. Jaggery is used in sweets, to balance curries, as medicine, and in dishes offered to the gods during Hindu ceremonies.