Indian civilization originated some 7000 years ago in the valley of the Indus River. It is from this area, which then included Pakistan, that ancient Indian culture spread northward into the region that even today is still referred to as Hind or Sind. Already, during this period, cereal and cattle were agricultural corner stones and trade drove the economy.
The history of the area can to some extent be described as a series of invasions which eventually gave rise to an impressive number of successive kingdoms. From central Asia, the Middle East and eventually Europe, the invaders each arrived with their respective culinary traditions and exotic ingredients. Over the centuries, the varying food cultures were integrated within different local cuisines, which in turn gave birth to an impressive variety of cooking styles characterized by their geographic locations, religions, castes and multiple cultural groups.
Cereals, pulses, milk based products and vegetables are still the foundation of the food eaten throughout the country and even though meat is consumed in moderation by many cultural minorities, vegetarianism continues to hold its own.”
It would be unwise to make generalizations about the cuisine of such a large and diverse country, but one thing is certain: waves of successive conquerors and refugees all left their distinctive marks. Cereals, pulses, milk based products and vegetables are still the foundation of the food eaten throughout the country and even though meat is consumed in moderation by many cultural minorities, vegetarianism continues to hold its own. Cooks confronted by the limitations of their pantries have always made the best possible use of spices to facilitate and invent a spectacular and wide range of flavors. These masalas, or spice blends, along with sautéed onions, and the recurring garlic/ginger/chiles trio are the base of a majority of recipes.
It would be inaccurate to think that most Indian food revolves around curry; in fact it is primarily structured around bread or rice, accompanied by an assortment of other dishes, salads and condiments.”
It would be inaccurate to think that most Indian food revolves around curry; in fact it is primarily structured around bread or rice, accompanied by an assortment of other dishes, salads and condiments. In reality, curry originated in southern India where the British first established a trading post. Curry, an English word that is also used in Hindi has become irrevocably linked with Indian dishes cooked in a sauce. There is however, no one all-purpose spice powder that is used to improve and enhance dishes throughout the country. Many cooks still make their own masalas, and grocery store shelves abound with a myriad of masalas all destined to improve a large number of distinct recipes. Some of these masalas range from a collection of simple, whole spices, such as Bengal’s Panch Phoran to other more complex blends such as Lazzat-e-Taam from Lucknow, which consists of 24 rare and unfortunately forgotten spices.
Northern Indian fare tends to be heartier and more dependent on grains instead of rice, but that’s about the only generalization we’re comfortable making. It goes without saying that only a well researched and voluminous encyclopedia could possibly inform us of all the ancient culinary techniques and traditions that exist in this vast country. In the meanwhile, we can easily be seduced by the impressive variety of spice combinations (fennel, saffron, cardamom, chiles and ginger, just to name a few) which are used in the vast repertoire of recipes, wide ranging techniques and ingredients.