Typical Indian Cooking & Meals
Indian versus Western Cooking and the Serving of Food
- Meat is cooked and served on the bone. According to many experts, food has more flavor when cooked on the bone, but in my experience, many Western diners prefer not having to work around bones while eating.
- When cooking a dish, spices are either dry toasted or sautéed (tempered) in ghee or oil, to bring out the best flavor. This step is either at the beginning of cooking, in the end, and sometimes both.
- Instructions for a gravy (masala) often mentions cooking until the fat separates from the rest of the mixture. Watching for this step ensures that the spices and aromatics have been cooked for the proper length of time, combining all the flavors. It is also seen as improving the appearance. These dishes may seem fatty to a non-Indian, but I encourage you to try using all or most of the fat called for in a dish, then removing some of the fat at the end of cooking, if you wish. This will ensure that all the ingredients are well blended. I am of the mind that a moderate amount of healthy fats are good for you and fat equals flavor. I tend to be more concerned with simple carbs, than fat. That being said, most of us are watching our waistlines and there is a time to be indulgent and a time to be sensible. Here is a link to Indian dishes that are 500 calories or fewer. My recipes keep an eye on calorie count as well. See also the “Tips to Reduce Calories” section below.
“India, one of the few places on earth, where eating vegetarian is not a burden. In Punjab, wildly varying textures, huge selections, thrilling blends of spices and assertive, delicious flavors are always accompanied by wonderful, freshly-made breads.”
Anthony Bourdain quoted in Vogue.
- Dishes that Westerners call curries, are simply called by their names in India, rather than rounding up all dishes with spices and describe them as a curry. I do use the term curry at times, for want of a better description.
- Meat and vegetable dishes are separated into dry and wet gravies. Wet gravies having a sauce made with yogurt, coconut milk, or water, and the dry gravies have spices just clinging to the main ingredient.
- Whole spices are often left in a dish and diners neatly place them on the side of their plates. As the cook, you can fish them out before serving, if you wish.
- When mutton is called for in a traditional Indian recipe, it typically refers to goat meat. Lamb is a good substitute.
- When preparing chicken in the West, we no longer wash it before starting a dish, to avoid cross-contamination.
- Just as the French have mirepoix (onions, carrots, and celery), and in Louisiana, they have their “holy trinity” (onions, green peppers, and celery), Indian cooks start cooking with onions, garlic, and ginger.
Typical Indian Meals
The core of an Indian meal will be rice, or a flatbread and a lentil stew (dal). There might also be meat, chicken, seafood, or vegetable curries, a pickle (achar), pappad (a thin round “chip” made from chickpea flour and spices) and chutney.
Unlike in the West, Indian meals are not necessarily served in courses. The exception to this would be in Bengal where meals are served in courses, and in restaurants catering to Westerners. Meals are eaten with an eye to a mix of flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, pungent and heat from chilies. Indian dishes are famous for a sophisticated balance of spices, creating crave-able food dominated by vegetables, with eggs and paneer (a fresh Indian cheese) making a frequent appearance, and meat, poultry, and seafood playing a more minor role.
A thali is both an Indian meal and describes a round platter served for lunch or dinner laden with rice, vegetarian or non-vegetarian curries, pickles, dals (lentils), yogurt and possibly a sweet.
Pickles are important to an Indian table, and like pickles the world over, they were originally made to preserve fruits and vegetables for out of season eating and to keep food on the table.
Here are popular basic dishes found in much of India, each region has its own particular variation, and not included in my Top 20 Most Popular Dishes Throughout India:
- Achar: An intensely flavored fruit, or vegetable pickle
- Chutney: Fresh or pickled, and typically made with pureed fruit and spices
- Dal: A lentil stew, the cooking magazine Saveur has an excellent guide
- Flatbread: Each region of India has at least one, but often many varieties
- Kheer or payasam: A sweet rice pudding
- Khichuri/khichri/khichdi: A dish beloved way beyond Indian borders. Khichuri is a comforting combination of rice and lentils as described in this National Public Radio piece.
- Kulfi: Indian ice cream flavored with sugar, fruit, spices, and nuts
- Raita: Yogurt flavored with vegetables, fruit, and spices
- Rice: Lemon rice, or cumin (jeera) rice, or simple fragrant plain rice