The cuisine of India is truly one of the most advanced and varied of world cuisines, and one of the most popular in the West.
Variation by region
The cuisine of India is varied according to region and state. Arguably there is a little more variation within the western states and within the eastern states. My below observations of Indian food are limited by my experience in urban India and upper middle class life and therefore this introduction to Indian food does not even attempt to reflect the whole of India.
South Indian cuisine uses a lot of coconut and rice, including lacto-fermented rice in the form of fried crepes and steamed patties. Traditional cooking oils include sesame oil, coconut oil and peanut oil. Food is flavored with hing/asafoetida, curry leaves, coriander seeds, dried red chilies, and tamarind, in addition to the common Indian spices.
Bengali cuisine, found in the eastern state of West Bengal, cooks with mustard oil and includes almost no coconut. Fish and hash browns are traditionally eaten daily. Bengali cuisine is also known for making a pungent sauce with yellow mustard seeds. Bengalis are known for their sweet tooth, and sweet shops are found on every corner.
North Indian cuisine is known for their tandoori meats (usually chicken and mutton) and wheat-based breads. They use curd, pickles and traditionally cook with ghee. I think much of the food served in Indian restaurants in the USA is generic North Indian. (Restaurants here tend to add cream to many of the dishes, but this is neither traditional nor practiced in most dishes today in India).
Marathi food, found in the western state of Maharashtra, can be a little more spicy. Urban folk eat their meals with whole-wheat tortillas, like in the North, while rural folk eat bread made with other grains. They also eat much lentils, particularly sprouted, and the food is usually cooked in peanut oil.
Of course Indian spices are fundamental to Indian cuisine. While Americans and British can be content eating food seasoned with salt and pepper, Indians would find this incredibly bland. Every Indian kitchen has a spice box (or two) filled with the most commonly used spices no matter what region they live in: cumin seeds and cumin powder, coriander powder, black mustard seeds, turmeric powder, red chili powder, whole red and green chilies, bay leaves, whole black peppercorn, green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, cloves and fenugreek. Other spices or ingredients include fresh curry leaves, yellow mustard seeds, mace (outer covering of nutmeg), hing/asafoetida and tamarind powder or dried tamarind, particularly in South India, dried mango powder, particularly in North India, and black cardamom pods used often in North India and Maharasthra. Other less common spices include kalonji or nigella, and saffron. Cilantro is also used often. Other fresh herbs used are mint and fresh fenugreek.
Indian cuisine uses spice mixes. The most common are curry powder and garam masala. These should not be used together. Curry powder can be put in a sauce and garam masala can be used in dry vegetable dishes. You can buy them premade or you can make your own by dry roasting the spices whole and finely grinding them. Other spice mixes include tandoori masala for making tandoori meats, rasam powder (for making rasam, a tomato-based lentil soup popular in Tamil cuisine in the south–see my recipes here and here), sambar powder (for making sambar, a South Indian lentil soup), and chat masala (to sprinkle over particular dishes such as dahi vada, fruit salad, fried potato patties, and corn on the cob, or put in tamarind chutney).
The generic and basic formula for an Indian recipe is to heat oil or ghee. Add whole spices until they sizzle. Add powdered spices, onions, ginger garlic paste, and other ingredients like tomatoes or homemade coconut milk to make the gravy. Then add the vegetables, meat or fish.
A “typical” Indian meal
Indians tend to eat a lot more vegetables than those in the West. A typical meal would include white rice topped with lentil soup (called dal), one or two vegetable dishes, and meat or fish if they are “non-veg.” In the North and West, wheat flatbreads are eaten with the meal as well. The poorest in Indian can only afford potatoes and rice, and possibly watery lentils. A variation of yogurt called curd is eaten in small amounts not so much to cool down the heat of the chili in one’s mouth like I thought, but to add a coolness quality to the heat of the food. Pickles are preserves eaten in small amounts, such as unripe mango, lime or chili. They are preserved in oil, salt and lemon and tend to be packed with flavor and heat.
Raw vegetables are limited to a small side of cucumber and raw onion. You can find lettuce in the market in the winter, but this is not a traditional food.
Veg or non-veg?
Vegetarianism is incredibly common and accepted. According to the 2006 Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey, 31% of Indians are lacto-vegetarian and another 9% are lacto-ovo-vegetarian, totaling 40% of the population that doesn’t eat meat or fish (source). (Only about 2 to 5% of Americans are vegetarian). Many Indians eat eggs but it is less common than in the West. Muslims tend to eat more mutton and even beef. Pork is not eaten nearly as much as the other meats and is not found everywhere.
The most common vegetables include tomatoes, potatoes, ginger, garlic, onion and green chilies. Other commonly used vegetables include cauliflower, fresh peas, carrots, pumpkin, okra, spinach, cabbage, eggplant, green beans, bell pepper, button mushrooms, and daikon radish. Other common Indian vegetables you wouldn’t find at the regular grocery store in the West include bottle gourd, bitter gourd, fresh greens similar to spinach, drumstick, lotus root and other tubers.
Fruits include many varieties of raw mango available March to July and sweet mangos in May and June. Coconut, bananas, plantains, grapes, papayas, pineapples, custard apples, jackfruit and apples from the hill stations in cool weather. Unripe mango, coconut, plantains and jackfruit are cooked with like vegetables.
Whereas in the USA we can get most vegetables all year round, in India the vegetables are available seasonally.
Traditionally, Indians tend to make their food fresh every day and for every meal. They tend to not eat leftovers or freeze food for later.
The milk of cows and water buffalo is used to make butter, ghee, curd, and panir, fresh cottage cheese. Milk is always boiled before consumption and consuming raw milk is almost unheard of due to limitations of a hot climate and lack of refrigeration.
There are outdoor and indoor markets in every neighborhood. Markets are full of men selling a small number of different vegetables; someone will sell garlic and ginger, or onion and potato, for example. Produce is usually displayed on tarps spread on the ground.
You can find about five or more types of rice of varying quality, size and taste filled in large bins, other cheaper grains, and about eleven types of legumes. You can also find spices in bulk and packaged foods.
Meat and fish are sold very fresh and, to my knowledge, ice is not used to keep cold during the day. Live chickens can be hand-picked and butchered on the spot. Mutton can be found—but the goats are not butchered in the market! If located near a water source, very fresh seafood can be found.
In some neighborhoods, men on bicycles with carts will sell produce near your doorstep.
If the household has a refrigerator, produce and other foods are bought several times a week, on average. Without a refrigerator, families may shop every day for perishables.
Large grocery stores have appeared in the larger cities in India in the 21st century. Here you can buy higher-end products, including organic ghee and coconut oil, organic spices, some organic vegetables, and imported foods from the west. These “department stores” are largely patronized by wealthier customers. Thus the large majority of Indians buy their food in the traditional markets.
Today many Indians cook in skillets on a gas stove. However 64% of the population still cooks on traditional open fires (source). Cooking with electric or gas ovens is not a part of Indian cooking or baking. If a household can afford it, it has a blender with varying sizes of blender bases. The small size is used to make ginger garlic paste, which is just fresh ginger and garlic blended together. This is used in the gravies.