India is a land of diverse culture and ethnicity. This diversity is also reflected in the cuisine of India. Every culture of India has its unique and exclusive style of cooking. Over the centuries, each new wave of settlers in India brought with them their own culinary practices which, with time, blended into the Indian cuisine as it is known today.
Indian cuisine has also been influenced by environmental, social, religious and political factors from within. Most Indian cuisine are related by significant usage of spices, and by the use of a larger variety of vegetables than most other culinary traditions. Within these recognizable similarities, there is an enormous variety of local styles.
Typically, North Indian meals consist of chapatis or rotis (indian breads) and rice as staples, eaten with a wide variety of side dishes like dals, curries, yogurt, chutney and achars (pickles). South Indian dishes are mostly rice-based, sanbhar, rasam and curries being important side dishes. Coconut is an important ingredient in most South Indian food.
Besides the main dishes, various snacks are also widely popular in Indian cuisine, such as samosa and vada. Among beverages, tea enjoys heavy popularity, while coffee is mostly popular in South India. Buttermilk (lassi),coconut milk and lemonade (Nimbu Pani) are also popular, while India also has many indigenous alcoholic beverages like Fenny and Indian Beer.
Several customs are associated with the way in which food is consumed. Traditionally, meals are eaten while sitting on the floor or on very low stools, eating with the fingers of the right hand.
Indian cuisine is a blend of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian elements. Fruit, vegetables, grain, meat (excluding beef and in later years, with the advent of Islam, pork), fish, dairy products, and honey constituted a normal diet in Vedic times. The end of Vedic period saw the advent of Buddhism and later Jainism, and Indian cuisine was influenced by the principle of ahimsa or non-violence. Indian cuisine turned predominantly vegetarian and was embraced particularly by the priestly-class as they deemed a vegetarian diet to be superior. This was possible partly due to a very co-operative climate where a variety of fruits and vegetables can be easily grown throughout the year.
Over the centuries Indian cuisine has been influenced by the Arab and Chinese traders and conquerors such as the Persians,Mingolians, Turks, the British and thePortuguese.
By 3000 B.C. turmeric, cardamom, pepper and mustard were harvested in India. Rice was domesticated in the Ganges delta around the same period. According to the Ayurveda, food is either satvic, rajasic or tamasic according to its character and effect upon the body and the mind.
Islamic rule resulted in a blending of the non-vegetarian fare of the Middle East and the rich gravies that were indigenous to India, creating what is known as Mughlai Cuisine. India was also introduced to kebabs and pilafs (or pulaos). The Mughals were great patrons of cooking. Lavish dishes were prepared during the reigns of Jahangir (1605-27) and Shah Jahan(1627-58). It was in this period that the Portuguese introduced vegetables like potatoes and tomatoes in India.
In the modern times, the Indian cuisine has evolved further both due to European influences, and indigenous innovations. Rasgulla was invented in 1868 in Kolkata. In the last century, the Indian Fast Food industry has seen rapid growth.
Due to Indias geography, wheat is a staple of North and West Indian foods. Food from North India is characterised by its thick gravies. Chillies, saffron, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, ghee and nuts are common ingredients. Milk based sweets are a huge favourite too. Rice is the primary constituent of Southern and Eastern foods. Eastern India gets heavy rainfall so rice is the major crop. Fish is very popular in the coastal state of West Bengal.
The staples of Indian cuisine are rice, atta (a special type of whole wheat flour), and at least five dozen varieties of pulses, the most important of which are chana (bengal gram), toor (pigeon pea or red gram), urad (black gram) and mung (green gram). Chana is used in different forms, may be whole or processed in a mill that removes the skin, eg dhuli moong or dhuli urad, and is sometimes mixed with rice and khichri (a food that is excellent for digestion and similar to the chickpea, but smaller and more flavorful). Pulses are used almost exclusively in the form of dal, except chana, which is often cooked whole for breakfast and is processed into flour (besan). Most Indian curries are fried in vegetable oil. In North India, mustard oil is traditionally been most popular for frying, while in Western India, groundnut oil is more commonly used. In South India, coconut oil is common. In recent decades, sunflower oil and soybean oil have gained popularity all over India. Hydrogenated vegetable oil, known as Vanaspati ghee is also a popular cooking medium.
The most important spices in Indian cuisine are chilli pepper, black mustard seed (rai), cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, ginger, coriander and asafoetida (hing). Another very important spice is garam masala which is usually a powder of five or more dried spices, commonly comprising cardamom, cinnamon and clove. Some leaves are commonly used likebay leaf, coriander leaf and mint leaf. Typically in South Indian cuisine curry leaves are used commonly. In sweet dishes, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron and rose petal essence are used.