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Like any art form, the foundation of Indian cooking is based on technique. There is a body of knowledge about the food itself - the vegetables, the spices, the herbs, the sauces - but this information is meaningless unless applied with sensitivity. I use the words sensitivity and knowledge in all of their nuances: knowing when a vegetable like the bitter melon, karela, is perfectly in season; understanding how to remove the bitterness; and, finally being aware of its healing properties. There's a perfect moment to eat karela, just as there's an appropriate time for an Indian raga to be played. There are monsoon ragas, morning ragas, and ragas that are played when the lover has gone. Music and food are always respected for their ability to cleanse the soul, and heal.

Indian cooking has always found a willing companion in art and music. They always seem to go together. Any musical gathering first begins with prayers to the gods and offering of food to them. Just as emotions are a part of music so are they a part of cooking. Thus in India one finds that to evolve ones palate one also studies the appreciation of music and art. In the Indian kitchen one entertains spices or masalas. The seeds, stalks and powders are all found. There are masalas that can set ones palate to receive taste sensations in the most profound ways. There are those that can alter feelings. Grains are an integral part of cooking throughout India. A vegetarian cuisine that would otherwise be nutritionally weak is complete by the mixing of lentils, beans, rice and vegetables. Rice has been know in India for over 5 thousand years . . . maize, barley, semolina, millet, countless types of lentils and beans and many peas form a crucial part of the Indian pantry.

Over many ages and several dynastic rules later, cooking in India has been honed into a fine art in itself. One of the older civilizations known to man, this country also proudly boasts a culinary repertoire that is eclectic at the least. Over the length and breadth of India, in the different homes in India, of the rich and the poor, one comes across a wide range of flavors, styles and tastes. Many styles of cooking seen in different parts of the world can also be found in one or the other part of India. In India one can find Indian-Chinese cooking, Parsee cooking, Baghdadi cooking and within that the Jewish cooking of that area, Portuguese influenced, French influenced, British inspired and then the well known Mughal cooking. One sees these styles emerge from the invasion of India by many of these foreign powers and then in the case of the Parsee community, one sees the creation of a cuisine by a people that came as refugees. The Parsees are Zoroastrians who came to India to flee religious persecution in the middle east. Today they seem as much a part of India as any other segment of the population. They speak Gujerati, their food is loved by one and all and they are welcome members of the community. There is a very small Jewish population scattered across India. It may be small in number, but has been able to maintain itŐs clean status and has kept its cultural independence. Their foods and their customs are still a part of that heritage that makes India so diverse. In Cochin, in Calcutta and in Bombay one sees how these small pockets of a minority community has managed to influence a larger community and also taken from the other community. It is this secular fabric of India that has kept a vibrancy in an otherwise very old culture.

In India one sees society, culture, language, food and people change dramatically as one goes from North to South or East to West. A country that has a couple of dozens of languages and several hundred dialects, also boasts of many different art form and food styles. It is this change from region to region that gives India a very mixed blessing. It adds greatly to the cultural wealth of this country and is a great teacher for a hungry traveler. But it also brings with it a mixed socio-economic bag. Each region, each state and each community in India, is steeped in local traditions. Many of these traditions are based upon the history of that region, the religious fabric of its people and the agricultural diversity. In India all the culinary styles are based upon the local produce found in that area. Thus to study Indian food as a whole one studies the regional influences that shape its many styles.

Spices which today signal the advent of cooking are found in abundance in India. Most come from that region and many have been studied not just for the culinary uses but also for the healing powers. Spices and fresh herbs are used in good measure and are a very intricately woven part of Indian life. Food, prayer and medical uses are some of many roles played by these inanimate ingredients. Turmeric is revered as an antiseptic, asafoetida to fight flatulence, carom to counter nausea and ginger as an aphrodisiac. Fenugreek and cumin seeds are given to nursing mothers to aid secretion. How a spice is used and when it is added to a meal can easily tell you where the food is from and who it has been cooked for.

Every kitchen has a masaal-daan, a spice box. In this box are found seeds, stalks, barks, stems and leaves that exalt Indian cooking. What combination one sees is typical of that chefs repertoire or of the region. In the north one would see whole garam masala, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, turmeric, red chili powder, fennel seeds and some other spice blends. In the south one would find mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, curry leaves, whole red chilies, urad daal and chana daal, and other spice blends. In each of the region one will also find spices that are used in the other. This shows how deep the fusion of the styles is already. Each day, after the vegetable vendor has made his trip, the cook then plans a menu and will prepare the spices accordingly. Spices are ground daily to ensure freshness. A mortar and pestle is used most often as this gives the cook control over how fine to grind them. There are dishes for which one needs very finely ground spices and then there are those that require coarsely ground powders.

Every region of India has its own staple cooking medium, or fat. There is mustard oil in the north and the east, peanut oil in the south and the west. There are also other oils used from region to region. The one common fat used across India is clarified butter or ghee. Often recipes call for mixing the two. Ghee adds a very distinct flavor to dishes and makes them seem very organic. Every home makes its own ghee. Ghee is made with butter from cows milk. The preparation of ghee is almost a religious chore as ghee is also used to burn the oil lamps in the home temple. It is also the medium with which most navaidyum is prepared. Navaidyum is the food that is first offered to the Gods and then eaten by families. This is the case in most traditional homes. One sees less and less of this in big cities today.

Milk and yogurt are found across the country. In home cooking one often sees wide usage of yogurt. Yogurt is used as an end to a meal with just some sugar. Yogurt is mixed into curries to reduce use of fat. Yogurt is mixed with flour to make sauces that replace those made with any vegetables. Yogurt can be the sauce by itself with bean dumplings. Yogurt is used in dressing Indian style salads like chaat papri. This shows the affinity Indians have for dairy. Yogurt is believed to aid digestion. Yogurt also gives protein to an otherwise vegetarian diet. Cows are holy in India. This has been a part of Indian tradition for as long as India has been there. In old India cows milk was fed to babies that had lost their mother at birth. It was because of this that cows were treated as another form of the mother goddess. Cow milk is used in making all the many desserts that are offered to the gods and then help sate the Indian sweet tooth.

It is said that during the days of the rule of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the Mahabharat setting, Indians lived decadently. The cuisine was very rich and very complex. India which is predominantly vegetarian today seemed to have enjoyed eating many different meats. Curries were made from cow, deer, wild boar, goat, sheep, poultry and other animals. Meats were grilled and roasted and broiled. They were cooked on spent flames, on spits and under a hot flame inside the ground. Often larger animals were stuffed with smaller and so on until there could be no more stuffing. These were then cooked under the ground below a flame that was kept alive overnight. Meats and rice were cooked together. In the north fruits and vegetables were mixed with these rice and meat preparations. The old texts mention the use of milk instead of water to cook some rich savory casseroles of meat and rice. Spices were used generously and dried fruit and nuts were added during and after cooking to add to the lavishness of a meal.

It was only after this excessive era that one finds a change in the eating habits. What was mostly a meat enriched diet now became vegetarian. Decadence was replaced by humble simplicity. Vegetarianism found new appeal. Brahmans the stalwarts of Hinduism became ardent supporters of this austere vegetarian diet. As Buddhism and Jainism came along, they furthered the rise of vegetarianism. Within these religions one saw other factors develop that changed the cuisine. Hindus encouraged not eating onions and garlic as they had aphrodisiacal properties. It was believed that these ground vegetables would arouse people. Widows and certain other classes of society were forbidden their use. The Jains believed that eating root vegetables would harm the organisms that lived alongside them. But then there were contradictions to the rule. In Bengal the brahmins ate fish, calling it the gourd of the ocean. In the south certain brahman communities also ate seafood with the same reasoning. In Kashmir the brahmins eat all meat other than beef and pork. There have been socio-historical reasons for that occurrence. But for the most part India was now a vegetarian society and thus began the exploration of how to make an austere practice seem lavish. With their desire to eat meals with meat and yet a ardent faith that said otherwise, cooks took it upon them to come up with recipes that would make a meatless diet seem just as tasty. It was with regards to their food that the brahmins take most excessive precautions. They are never allowed to touch meat and this includes not only anything that has had life, fish included, but also anything that has contained even any form of life, such as an egg.

Vegetables were cooked by themselves, whole, stuffed, steamed, sauteed, fried and cooked as mince. Dumplings were made with grains, lentils and beans. Rice and beans were cooked together. Lentils and beans were prepared as soups and into stews with mixed vegetables. Patties were made with vegetables and grains. Fritters were prepared. Yogurt was added to the curries and chutneys and preserved were prepared. The murrabas (preserves) and the aachaars (pickles) were used as condiments and also for their medicinal use. These pickles and preserves also enabled one to have the flavor of certain vegetables and fruits all year long. It is thus no surprise that mango chutney has remained ever popular today just as it was then.

Meat made a come back in the realm on Indian cooking. With the arrival of the Afghans, Turks and other Central Asians there was another introduction of meat to India. The non-vegetarian cuisine of India is very different from the muslim cooking of other Central Asian nations. The common roots exist but the changes are stark and clean. One can see how local ingredients and the influences of the societal structure have played a huge role in the development of this cuisine. Onions, garlic, ginger found a robust re-entry. Rice which had been found here for ages was made into Pilafs seasoned with the many spices found in India. Layered with different meats and vegetables, teased with dried fruits and nuts and tempered with saffron and screwpine essence and served as biryanis. The Muslim invaders also brought with them communal eating. They reintroduced pomp and extravagance into Indian society. Multi course meals were made in homes. Week long festivities were planned on special occasions. Music, dance and drinks accompanied good food. Eating became a revered ritual and good cooks were guarded carefully. Each family had its own secrets and these were passed on only by word of mouth through members of the family alone, lest anyone else find out.

Fruits play a very important role in the Indian diet. The Muslim invaders realized that the barren northern plains did not bare some of their loved fruits. This led to the import of melons, cantaloupes and grapes into India. India has a natural abundance of Mangoes, some of the most flavorful and varied ones found in the world. Oranges of many varieties, guavas, figs, plantains, berries of many different kinds, mulberries that are delectable, shareefas (custard apples) that exude an aroma that can change any persons mood for the better, and pineapple. Pomegranates were introduced into India and quickly became a favorite and also became an ingredient to cook savory dishes with.

With the entry of Europeans into India, many exotic ingredients entered the Indian kitchen. Potatoes, chilies, tomatoes and cheeses came into India and were used generously. Tomatoes were not a favorite of many old fashioned Indians as the vegetable seemed very fleshy and the color blood like. Indians have traditionally rejected any vegetable whose roots or stems grow in the shape of a head. Thus onions, garlic and mushrooms have had trouble finding there place. In this era, all of these vegetables were given a gallant re-entry and more and more dishes were made using them. Jams, jellies, yeast risen breads, pastries and casseroles were prepared with hints of Indian spices. Chilies, potatoes and tomatoes found much love in India and have become staples of the Indian kitchen. Most Indians would not even realize that these were until very recently unknown ingredients.

After the partition of India in 1947 into Pakistan and India, the northern states had an influx of refugees from Central Asia. Tandoori foods that were found mostly in stately homes were now made a part of the local cuisine. Frontier cooking took over the regional cooking in popularity. Vendors who would have traditionally sold chaats and fritters and vegetable patties now started selling kebabs, tikkas, kormas, pasindas and other meat laden curries. This led to the introduction of Mughlai food across India. In the United States we most often see restaurants serve food that has been inspired by the establishments in India that serve this food. Also important in the evolution of Indian food has been the joint-family system. Cooking that has never been a static art form, was evolved with the wisdom of many minds and tastes sharing its creation. Each person brought with them to this home their own families recipes and secrets. Now in a new family they would share those with the secrets of the other family members and create a new style of preparing something classic. Over the years new classics were created in this manner. Many accidents have also surely been responsible for the creation of new dishes. It is thus that I suggest to all those coming to learn from me to keep trying and learning by practice. With many hands working together, there also seemed luxury of time. More effort was made in the preparation of food and more elaborate and cumbersome dishes were prepared. Thus to date, the best food from any region of India is found in the homes of its people. It is safe to say, magic happens in the Indian Kitchens - Rasoi.

Suvir Saran

© Suvir Saran, 2001
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Suvir SaranThis article comes from a web site which gives a first class insight into Indian Cooking, what it is about and how to create some of the recipes in your own home.

It is the web site of Suvir Saran, a native of New Delhi, India, who was raised on traditional Indian cooking. He is a passionate and inventive cooking teacher as well as a sort of unofficial ambassador of Indian culture; wherever he goes (in India, Europe and the United States) he finds himself teaching people - colleagues in classes and jobs, strangers in airports and on the street - to love the food and culture of his native country.

To learn more why not visit Suvir Saran's own web site - click here

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