Chef Vernon Coehlo traces the link that binds a variety of Indian cuisines together
India is a country with a variety of religions and languages and a plethora of cuisines. One would be surprised to know that we do not have a staple food. The method of cooking differs from place to place and yet there is a common thread that binds the varied cuisines together.
One of the elements that makes Indian food so exclusive is the presence of at least one spice in every entree. Indian food has been inspired by other cuisines like the Moghul cuisine, which brought in a touch of the Middle East, as well as Portuguese, French and even British cuisines. Indian food was also influenced by the Parsi style of cooking.
There has been a tremendous change in cooking styles since we gained independence. We adopted foreign styles of cooking to suit our means. This made cooking food easier and quicker. However, we still find traditional and authentic Indian food at weddings and other such important occasions.
Coming back to the diversity in Indian cuisine, each region has a different staple food which depends on the climate, soil and other conditions. For instance, food available in the south would be spicy and pungent due to the chillies grown there. The food cooked there is spicy as it enables people to sweat, which acts as a coolant. The north has lighter food that is very aromatic. People living in the coastal regions consume a lot of fish and use a fair amount of coconut in their food too. In the interiors of India the food is quite pungent like in the south.
Different oils are also used to cook the food in these regions. Food is cooked in pure ghee or mustard oil in the north, coconut oil is used in the south, mustard oil in the east and groundnut and peanut oil in the west.
The traditional dishes of these regions also depend on the kind of crop that is grown in abundance. Rice is grown on the plains and in South India, wheat is grown in North India and rice and wheat is grown in the west.
Desserts also play a very important role in an Indian meal and each region has its own traditional dessert. Milk is used for desserts in the east, vegetables are cooked into halwas in the north, coconut milk is used in the west and jaggery and coconut milk is used in the south and coastal regions.
BREADS OF INDIA
Kashmiri breads are more related to the breads of Afghanistan, Central Asia and Middle East. They are baked in clay or brick ovens and may be encrusted with poppy seeds or sesame seeds. These breads include 'girda', a famous chewy breakfast bread, 'kulchas' made from maida and kneaded with ghee, 'baquar khani naan' that is traditionally made by the method of dum cooking, the Persian influenced 'sheermal', the dough of which is made of flour, yeast, sugar, eggs, milk, raisins and cream and baked in a tandoor or oven and the 'lavasa' that has its origin in Afghanistan.
The cuisine here is richly influenced by all invaders. The staple crop here is wheat and it's quite natural that it is used to make rotis, parathas and naans. 'Makkai' or corn is another ingredient that is often used to make rotis in Punjab.
'Baffala' is a roti made from whole wheat flour. It is first cooked in lentil soup and then dry roasted and baked in the oven. Another form of roti consumed here is 'tikkas'. This is a thick roti made of wheat and cornflour mixed with a lot of chopped garlic, onion, tomatoes, green chillies and coriander leaves. 'Dopattri' is a soft and thin chapatti-like roti. 'Bermi roti' is high in proteins and very popular. It is a roti of whole wheat flour with a stuffing of ground dal, onions, chillies, cumin, asafoetida and salt. 'Phefre' is yet another kind of roti and finally there is 'baati', which is dough shaped into rounds and roasted in an oven.
In South India coconut plays a commanding role and rice replaces wheat. Breads from South India are mostly rice-based since rice is the staple crop here. Some of the breads from this region are 'dosai' pancakes made with a batter of rice, 'idlis' made with soaked rice and dal, 'uttappams' made of a batter of par-boiled rice and urad dal, 'appams' made with rice flour and coconut milk and 'puttu', made with rice flour and coconut milk and traditionally cooked in bamboo pipes.
Based on their method of cooking India eats the following breads:
- Deep fried: poori (Gujarat and Maharashtra), bhatura (Punjab) and radhaballavi (Bengal)
- Tandoor: roti and naan (North India)
- Cooked in the oven: sheermal (North India)
- Baked on the griddle: chapattis and phulkas (Central and West India) and makkai ki roti (North India)