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Indian Cuisine

indian cuisineIndia, one of the most populated countries in the entire world, is a diverse nation comprised of 17 states, and therefore, much like France or Italy, is home to a large number variable regional cuisines. India, especially Northern India, has also been subject to a great deal of outside influence, the presence and rule of the British Raj being the most significant.

The presence of many religions and cultures within one nation, as well as geographic influences, has made it almost impossible for India to own a single national cuisine. Religious restrictions are particularly powerful forces in food, and dictate what many in the Indian population can eat; Buddhists are vegetarian, Muslims cannot eat pork, Jains cannot eat onions, etc. Religious restrictions have led to a dedicated vegetarian cuisine throughout parts of the country. Additionally, the caste system prevents people of different classes from eating with one another or from becoming chefs at all, making it difficult for certain cuisines and food trends to spread.

Staples of Indian Cuisine

Grains like lentils, pulses (a kind of legume), and of course rice (as in the rest of Asian cuisine) are the foundation of food in India, with Basmati rice being the most recognized. Basmati rice, native to the Himalayas, is long grain, and thinner than the rice used in Western cooking. It has a distinctive, nutty aroma which is released when cooked; aging the rice, which is commonly done for periods of time no more than one year, results in a stronger, more distinct fragrance. Rice is usually served as an accompaniment to stew-like dishes which Westerners would classify as curries, or in the equivalent of pilafs, which add vegetables, nuts, beans, and spices, and are served alongside meat or vegetarian dishes. Rice is also eaten plain.

India, unlike most other Asian cuisines, also utilizes breads in the daily diet. Bread is typically more prevalent in Northern India, but can be found throughout the country, and is generally made from atta (whole wheat flour). These breads are usually unleavened or flatbread (naam, roti, puri, etc.) varieties, which can be folded and used as both a meal item and an edible utensil (smaller pieces of bread are torn off, then used to scoop up rice, meat, vegetables, and sauces from the dish). Many breads are cooked in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven also used for cooking meat. Bread dough can also be made into small pockets and filled with rice, vegetables, meat, and/or spices, and baked or fried into small snacks (samosas, for example).

Produce is also vital to Indian cuisine as much of the population is vegetarian. Peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, squashes, root vegetables, and native vegetables are used daily. In areas where meat is eaten, goat, lamb, and poultry are preferred. Meat is often seasoned and roasted, stewed, or cooked in a tandoor.

In some regions dairy has a strong role, and is made into items like ghee (clarified butter), yoghurt, and sweets/dessert items.

Indian Spices

Indian food is celebrated for its use of spices, like garlic, ginger, chilies, cumin, turmeric, and fenugreek. It is famous outside the country for potent spice blends called curries, a name which is synonymous with both the spices and the stew-like dishes they season. The term curry is actually a bit of a miscommunication between the native Indian people and the foreigners who brought the dishes back to Britain and other parts of the world, where they have become quite popular in India, the spice blend is actually referred to as masala. Masala is a general term; mixes can be dry or wet, spicy or mild, and from fresh or dry ingredients. Northern India tends to favor dry spices, while Southern India turns dry mixes into pastes with lime juice, coconut milk, or water. One of the most famous Indian dishes is Garam Masala, a brown blend which can be different depending on region, but is typically black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin, and sometimes coriander. It is added, generally, to meat and poultry dishes, which are then served with rice or flatbread. Kashmiri masala, a milder blend, taaza masala, a green paste made with mint, and tikka masala are also well known.

Food in India

Despite many religion and caste influences restrictions on regional diet, food is recognized as an element in life that brings joy as well as nourishment. Even the more restrictive diets celebrate food and welcome its presence.

Food in India is known for the "family style" element of its meal composition. The centerpiece of the meal is typically on large serving pf rice or bread, which is shared and accompanied by many smaller savory or spicy dishes. The smaller dishes are folded in with flatbread or mixed with the rice, with all guests helping themselves to whichever items they desire.

Most meals are eaten while seated on low stools or on the floor, in front of a low table. Food is eaten with the fingers, or with the assistance of bread.
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