Indian Cuisine – beyond oil, spice and tikka masala

One of the many ways in which India is different from the rest of the world is its food. There are many ways in which the Indian cuisine differs from the Western World cuisines (European and American regions). Not just the ingredients and how the food gets prepared, but also how it’s consumed.

After dining at numerous Indian Restaurants outside India, I realized how the popular perception is so different from what the cuisine has to offer.

Outside India, I usually find curry and naan (Indian bread) at restaurants that serve Indian food, but that’s just a part of the North Indian Cuisine. India is a big country, and there are many regional cuisines that have their own specialties such as dosa and idli (South Indian dishes that have become popular throughout India).

 Poha - a savoury dish made with flattened rice flakes. A popular breakfast choice across West, North and Central India. Each make their own little variations to this dish. It uses minimal oil and is considered light and healthy. Poha – a savoury dish made with flattened rice flakes. A popular breakfast choice across West, North and Central India. Each makes their own little variations to this dish. It uses minimal oil and is considered light and healthy.

First, let’s tackle the two big myths about Indian Cuisine that show only a part of the complete picture.

Big Myth #1: Indian Food is Spicy

Talk of Indian Cuisine, and most people think it’s spicy. It’s true, even home-cooked Indian food does contain a lot of spices, but all the spices don’t necessarily contribute to the heat of the dish.

Most of the spices are used to add flavours to the dish (only some add to the spiciness). Some spices (such as cinnamon sticks, cloves) add depth to the flavour, some spices like turmeric are used for its subtle taste and antiseptic properties.

Most Indians do have a high tolerance for spicy foods, but many dishes and some regional cuisines such As an example, Gujarati (West Indian) cuisine is a little towards a sweeter side (even the savoury main meals).

Big Myth #2: Indian Food is drenched in oil

Some dishes are deep-fried, and we do add a tempering in oil to some dishes that contribute to that amazing flavour; but excess oil is not integral to Indian cuisine. I confess, I seldom use more than a few teaspoons (yes, not tablespoons) of oil when preparing everyday meals.

Foods high in fat are loved worldwide (think french-fries), so does the deep fried Indian food. But it’s the preparation style and the spices that make the food get their characteristic taste, and making it oily is a choice. Many dishes also use steaming and sautéing of dishes with minimal oil just enough to infuse the spices.

 This is Dhokla - a steamed savoury snack with a slight hint of sweetness, tempered with coriander leaves/ cilantro and mustard seeds. A speciality of Gujarat (Western India), available and popular across the country. This is Dhokla – a steamed savoury snack with a slight hint of sweetness, tempered with coriander leaves/ cilantro and mustard seeds. A specialty of Gujarat (Western India), available and popular across the country.

Here are some things you can expect to experience when it comes to the Indian Cuisine, and a lot of these things are common across most regional cuisines.

Vegetarian options galore

The definition of ‘Vegetarianism’ differs from the popular notion as understood in other parts of the world. A vegetarian would not consume eggs, but wouldn’t mind the inclusion of dairy products (a vegetarian who eats eggs is an ‘eggitarian’). With Hinduism being followed by a majority of the population, a huge variety of dishes in Indian cuisine can be made without including meat.

In fact, even the signature dishes of India like Chicken Tikka Masala have vegetarian counterparts – Paneer Tikka Masala and the likes with similar gravy (through the blend of spices). One doesn’t miss out much being a vegetarian when it comes to Indian cuisines. When in doubt, order the local regional cuisine (if in India) or anything vegetarian and you wouldn’t be disappointed.

Street Foods

Experiencing Indian Cuisine would be incomplete without trying out its street-foods. We Indians love it too, and it’s difficult to replicate the same taste in home-cooked ‘street-food’. Deep-fried street-food has an unlikely benefit – while they add to the calories, the high temperatures get rid of any doubts that may arise from the sometimes not-so-hygienic surroundings of the street-food vendors. Thankfully, now there are enough food outlets that are quite at-par with what the street-vendors provide, though personally, I would still rate the street-vendors higher!

Accompaniments

A full Indian meal has a lot of accompaniments – pickle, namkeen or papad (a parallel to crisps), chutney, raita (thinly whisked yogurt with spices). Salad is just a side, it’s never classified as a dish (unless one is on a strict diet). A hearty meal should end with something sweet.

The food should be cooked through

A salad is just a side dish. Main meals are cooked on the stove, most of them on high heat and at high temperatures. Some specialty Indian Restaurants take pride in serving dishes cooked overnight (for up to 12 hours) on low heat; that brings out the flavours of the spices that overwise can’t be replicated at home.

Most Indians even prefer an Italian pasta to be cooked through well. The al-dante pasta is a taste Indians have acquired by dining at the many authentic Italian restaurants (amongst many others) that have mushroomed in India.

Carbohydrates are a major part of the meal

A major part of main meals always have carbohydrates in some form (wheat, rice, semolina). That’s the bread with which the curry is served, or the dosa or the rice. These carbohydrates are accompanied with vegetables, proteins and other accompaniments of choice.

It’s not a meal you can have on-the-go

With so many accompaniments, a lot of which are gravy, it’s almost impossible to have the meals as a takeaway (unlike sandwiches or even burgers that can be done as a take-away. The only things you can carry-and-eat are the snacks or the street-foods. Don’t get carried away by the term ‘Street-foods’; these treats are available in shops as well.

Eating with hands

Indians usually eat with hands. After the introduction of cutlery, a lot of people (including myself) like to have rice dishes with a spoon, since it can get pretty messy when eaten with hands; but breaking the Indian breads or dosa (like a thin, crispy savoury crepe) with cutlery can be a nightmare. So it’s a good idea to keep hands clean before and after having an Indian meal. One need not struggle with tissues on the table; going to the sink to wash hands after a meal is completely acceptable.

 This is a street-food vendor serving Bhel-Puri. Savoury, crispy and spices tailored to one's liking. It contains puffed rice, namkeen (crisp bits to snack on) and salad vegetables for that extra crunch with chaat masala - the spice mixture which add a punch to every street food. This is a street-food vendor serving Bhel-Puri. Savoury, crispy and spices tailored to one’s liking. It contains puffed rice, namkeen (crisp bits to snack on) and salad vegetables for that extra crunch with chaat masala – the spice mixture which add a punch to every street food.

Must try in Indian Cuisine

There’s no one national dish of India. Being a large country, various regions having their own ways of food preparation. Here are some of dishes I would recommend to anyone who’d like to get a feel of what Indian Cusine tastes like.

  • North Indian Cuisine – try vegetable curries and daal (pulses) with breads of different types (roti, naan) or different varieties of rice (biryani, pulao)
  • South Indian Cuisine – Dosa (stuffed or plain) served with chutneys and sambar (pulses); idli (soft discs of rice or semolina); South Indian variety of rice dishes (biryani, bhaat)
  • West Indian – Poha (flattened rice dish), Pao Bhaji (spicy gravy of mashed mixed vegetables served with buns)
  • Street Food – Also called ‘Chaat’, meaning ‘finger-licking-good’ and it does live up to its name. Each region has their own versions and my favourite is gol-gappa or pani puri, sometimes known as water-balls. You’re sure to spill off some water while having it! I’m yet to meet an Indian who’s not fond of this one dish!
  • Indian Sweets – They’re available in a wide variety, with varying textures and sweetness. My personal favourites are gulab jamun and laddoo.

Points to note

If ordering at a restaurant, get an idea of the serving size and place the order accordingly. Many main dishes and even starters are good for sharing – serve from the main bowl to your individual plates.

And a word of caution for those with allergies – a variety of seeds, nuts, gluten and dairy products are used for the preparation of Indian Cusine. Be mindful of these when ordering Indian food.

Go ahead. Try it.

There are numerous regional cuisines that together form the Indian Cuisine. Even After years of staying in India, I still keep discovering new dishes and flavours. Food is an important way to experience the culture of a country; this couldn’t be truer when it comes to experiencing the Indian Culture.

Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to try out Indian Cuisine. Find a restaurant, dine with an Indian family or just go to a food expedition trip while you explore India. It’ll be an experience you’d want to go back to again.

Indian Recipe Books to get started

An Indian Housewife’s Recipe Book

Indian Cookery Course

2 Comments

  1. Sunita Rajwade
    May 23, 2018 / 9:42 AM

    I completely agree with you. Most people are scared to try Indian food and those who’ve been introduced to it via the restaurants that pass of as authentic are truly scarred for life. Honestly eating Indian food abroad is a disaster and I’d rather avoid it unless I’m eating at someone’s home.

    • Aditi Chawla
      May 23, 2018 / 9:48 AM

      I so agree with you. Only select restaurants get the cuisine right. Having home-cooked food is one of the best ways to experience Indian cuisine outside of India. 🙂

Leave a Reply