We are then giving you the opportunity to discover the history of Indian cooking and its main characteristics thanks to a series of articles listing the country's great culinary principles according to the geographical area they belong to. But first of all, by way of introduction, dive into the following lines in order to master the founding principles of Indian cooking and restore a few misused terms associated to this topic.
Introduction to Indian cooking begins with its scents. Whether it is typical from the north, the south, the east or the west of this vast country, adepts are always firstly attracted by olfactory means. The selection of spices, curries and flavors, which combine themselves to establish the country's culinary map, constitute the signature of this art. The foundations of Indian cooking rely on this precise balance between hot and cold aliments and basic savors: sweet, salty, acid, sour, bitter and astringent (the latter is not a flavor strictly speaking but more of a mechanical reaction frequently used in Indian cooking and ensuing from Ayurveda). The magic of these mixings operates during the whole length of the meal, since all the dishes are simultaneously disposed on the table. We do find any notion of temporality in local gastronomy, as we can notice it in Europe for instance where a meal is spread between starters, main course and desert.
Before being commonly associated to spices, the diversity erects itself as the main characteristic of Indian cooking. The latter may be explained by the numerous regions composing India and by successive immigrations and conquests in the course of History. Indeed, spices only entered India with the Portuguese during the 16th century; they consisted in the only affordable way of seasoning the daily rice portion for millions of Indians. Thus, spices quickly became an important part of Indian feeding. Yet, the term "curry" has often been misused throughout history and if it ended up designating a powder with yellowish and reddish shades in Western countries, it is really different in India. Indeed, the word "curry" was originally anglicised by the British people from the Tamil word "Kari" meaning "sauce", in order to qualify the Indian meals' spicy taste in general. British people also used to export a mix of spices reduced to powder, in order to be able to cook once they would be back in Great Britain. From now on, in India "curry" stands for every dish with sauce and this is why we find "fish curry" or even "chicken curry", while formerly every specialty used to have its own name. Unlike some stereotypes ruling in Occident, curry is not one and only spice but is constituted in a subtle and calculated mix of spices, which Indians call "masala": a generic term used for plurality and variety.
It cannot be questioned that in India exists a certain gastronomy-linked culture, however it does not present the same aspect as in Western countries where the love of gastronomy may be pushed until true table arts where quality take precedence over quantity. (Eventhough, this spirit may occasionally be found in Moghol's way of cooking, which is characteristic of the North Eastern Maharajas' tables). This being said, Indian cooking is not only known to be hospitable, rich and diverse but also includes a strong spiritual value linked to the health of both the body and the spirit.
The Upanishads, which are a compendium of philosophical texts, constitute the theoretical frame of Hinduism: in the latters is developed the concept of the presence of spirituality in food. Thus, "UN" (referring to Brahman, the Absolute, the Supreme Being) may be found in the multiplicity of the dishes. Religion also finds itself linked to food in the practice of vegetarianism, which is tremendously spread all over Indian society and mostly ensued from Hindu or Jain principles. The limitation of the consumption of porc and beef is also a result of the prohibition associated to Hinduism and Islam.
Thus, added to the strong attachment of Indian people to their environment, the dividing up of the society into different castes influences the feeding habits just as much as the religious or geographical factors. Indeed, as it was evocated above, Indians' relationship to food is fundamentally linked to religious practices and castes belonging, which bring some kind of fishes or meats to be considered as impure to be eaten. This phenomenon is especially noticeable in Brahmans and Vaishyas' castes who advocate a doctrined vegetarianism. As regard the consumption of beef meat, the origin of the prohibition mainly results from Vishnouism, which is founded on the veneration of the deity Krishna and contributed to glorifying the cow on a religious level. By the way, protecting cows remains a very strong identity characteristic claimed by Hindus in order to differentiate themselves from Muslims. This is then a true symbolical affirmation, which goes beyond the religious fact to root itself into defining a community's identity. This is why a Brahman will always feed himself with dishes prepared by another member of its cast so that he would avoid eating impure aliments. Besides, theses specific meals will exclusively be prepared with Ghee, considered as a product more refined than water and oil as the basis of cooking.
For Muslims, who represent 14.6 % of Indian population, this is of course beef meat that is prohibited from any alimentary diet. While theoretically for Jains, a strict vegetarianism is paramount given that every life on earth must be respected without any exception. Yet, these customs are facing more and more changes with the coming of new generations of urban young people who add touches to the ancestral and cultural affirmations by being less interested in applying the precepts of the olden days. But these habits also strongly remain as being the alimentary guidelines for some less urbanized Indian people.
Aside from religion, which induces specific customs within Indian society and especially regarding the alimentary behavior, the geographical factor is also a considerable influence, due to the diverse invasions and immigrations that India underwent. Thus, since the 10th century, Northern India has been composing with vegetarian and meat-based food habits resulting directly from Muslim invasions in the area. Weddings between Moghols and Rajpoutes in Rajasthan had a strong influence on the evolution of Norther Indian cooking style by creating an Indian-Muslim cooking branch. As regards the South of the country it mostly kept evolving around the vegetarian habits and remains one of the most traditional Indian way of cooking, having been able to keep a bigger independence than other Indian areas towards invasions.
You are now more familiar with the great principles followed by Indian cooking to elaborate its recipes. In the next article we will have a closer look above one specific region in order to make you discover in details, the story of India from a culinary point of view!