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September 13, 2017

Travel by Taste: Discovering India

Travel by Taste: Discovering India

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Voyage through a land of vibrant spices and mystifying aromas; it may just surprise you how culturally diverse this country’s cuisines really are

Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t just one single Indian cuisine; cooking practices and ingredient usage differ from region to region depending on religion and specific societal practices of the area.

Indian food serving customs generally revolve around the balancing act of the six flavour groups: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy. Various states in the country use this premise to manipulate flavour in ways that are exclusive to them. While some meals like thali—a tray of multiple small dishes with rice and roti—are relatively universal, each district has their own interpretation. A commonality that each province does share is the vibrancy of their traditions and passionate attitude towards their cooking. Follow us on a journey of discovery through some of the most gastronomically forward-thinking states in India, unearthing their distinctive appetites and trends.

India demonstrates diversity in its people, geography and especially in its food. There are over 200 core Indian spices—and that doesn’t begin to express the enormous variety of flavour that makes up the cuisine. Indian cookery takes its roots in Ayurveda; emphasising the harmony of body, mind and soul. These teachings have influenced cooking practices and ingredient pairings across the subcontinent, forming a common thread in the vast heterogeneity. However, how these rules apply differ from region to region, influenced by geographical realities, trade partners and local cultures—resulting in varied dishes and distinctive sub-cuisines. 

One of the most prominent characteristics of Indian cookery is the use of spices; each region of India uses spice pairings uniquely. The largely desert, arid lands of western India favour simpler ingredients with longer shelf lives like gram flour, lentils, chillies and pickles. In contrast, people in the eastern region prefer mustard seeds, poppy seeds and mustard oil to flavour their vegetable and seafood delicacies. South Indian food relies strongly on black pepper, coconut, tamarind, lentils, curry leaves, peanuts and rice. The more popular north Indian food makes the most use of dairy, dried fruits, garam masala, cumin and coriander. 

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Gujarati

This state in western India has a fantastic variety of flavours. While the area boasts of a long coastline, local Jainism philosophy dictates that people be strictly vegetarian. However, there are still some fish-based meals available for those who desire them. 

Gujarati food is adored for its high nutritional value and flavour combinations. ‘Gujarati cuisine is a complex interplay of flavours and texture: sweet, sour, salty and spicy at the same time,’ says Jyoti Patel, director of  the largest online Indian grocery store Red Rickshaw. Packed with fragrant produce, Gujaratis use seasonal vegetables that are available in the hot climate. Methods of stir-frying and steam cooking are rooted here, with common ingredients consisting of lemon, tomatoes, turmeric, cumin, coriander, mint, cayenne pepper, okra and peas. 

Try these delicacies

Bharela Bhinda—this stuffed, dry okra dish is punchy and flavourful.

Dhokla—made from fermented batter and eaten for breakfast, these bread-like snacks are pure heaven.

Bengali

While this district isn’t situated by the coast, it is synonymous with exquisite fish dishes. Its bountiful rivers and lakes are filled with countless species of fresh water fish such as rohu, koi, magur (catfish) and hilsa. Bengali food also includes a number of tempting vegetarian options too, using a number of delicate herbs and spices for a well-rounded result. Steaming fish and vegetables is a popular method of cooking here, infusing extra flavour into the ingredients. Some of the essential spices used in Bengali tradition are mustard, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds and aniseed. 

Try these delicacies

Tangra Macher Jhol—a hot and fiery catfish curry, best served with rice.

Malpua—an Indian pancake flavoured with cardamom and drizzled with sweet saffron syrup.

Kashmiri 

The Kashmir Valley rests in a picturesque spot, nestled in the lap of the Himalayas. Kashmir is the leading producer of saffron in the country, meaning the ingredient is used in many of the region’s recipes. One of the most notable Kashmiri Muslim traditions is the Wazwan, a celebratory function that consists of approximately 36 courses. Serving pulses at this feast is considered sacrilege so the dishes are mostly meat-based. Common ingredients to appear in the Kashmiri cooking cupboard include turmeric, saffron, yoghurt, asafoetida, fennel and cloves.

Try these delicacies

Shab Deg—is a turnip and meat dish which is left to cook overnight to produce an intense taste.

Lamb Rogan Josh—with Persian influences, this decadent dish is a dark curry combined with soft lamb pieces.

Punjabi

This northern state is known for its culinary excellence, with traditional cooking habits that resonate through family homes and restaurants. The tandoor clay oven is a core component to Punjabi tradition, imparting an incomparably delicious charcoaled flavour into food. Even in smaller villages, wood-fired and masonry ovens are still commonplace. Often referred to as the ‘granary of India’ for its prosperous cultivation of wheat, the assortment of breads here are vast. Punjabi chefs are also known to have invented the popular yoghurt drink, lassi, made with refreshing buttermilk. Other commonly used ingredients include paneer, butter, dried fenugreek leaves, asafoetida, garlic and ginger. 

Try these delicacies

Paratha—is a stable bread dish made with ghee and sometimes includes mixed vegetables folded in.

Paneer Tikka—chunks of fresh, creamy cheese are marinated in spices and roasted in a tandoor clay oven for a satisfying result. 

Rajasthani

Rajasthan is best known for its vast deserts, dry climates and opulent palaces—not to mention its indigenous edible delights. Scarcity of water means that the locals conjure recipes that last long without spoiling. Pickling is an everyday practice in Rajasthan, with the majority of the dishes being vegetarian. The spice content is high in this region compared with others, making a huge impression on the fare served here. Rajasthanis are also known for their sweet tooth, with sugary delicacies being served before, during and after meals. Core ingredients in this state comprise of ghee, dried fruits, yoghurt and various types of lentils. 

Try these delicacies

Gatte Ki Sabzi—gram flour is the key to this dish, making up the flour dumplings in its tangy gravy. 

Churma Ladoo—these sweet rolled balls are made with gram flour, ghee and jaggery—a wonderful treat.

Mughlai

Mughlai dishes date back as far as the Medieval era and the height of the Mughal Empire. Mughlai cooking is praised for its distinctive characteristics, with rich sauces and decadent flourishes. Ancient Persian influences meant that the heavy use of cream, nuts and butter were absorbed into the region’s dietary repertoire. A cuisine that was once prepared for Mughal emperors, Mughlai food is held in high esteem among Indian communities. Recipes are known to have long cooking processes and are prepared with a multitude of whole and ground spices. Components such as ghee, saffron, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves are used routinely in Mughlai custom. 

Try these delicacies 

Malai kofta—balls of potato and paneer are coated in a rich and creamy sauce. 

Kulfi—is a frozen dairy dessert that comes in mango, rose and pistachio flavours.

Sikkim

Revealing traits of Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian cuisine, Sikkim’s gastronomy is a melting pot of tastes and aromas. Situated high up in the Himalayas, this region is known for warming and wholesome food suited to banish the mountain chill. Hearty noodle soups are served with vegetables—like finger millet, buckwheat and soybean—that prosper in high altitudes. Fermenting is an important process in Sikkimese cooking traditions, giving some of its components a sour flavour. Fermented alcoholic beverages are also popular here—chaang being the most notable, which is sipped from a long bamboo receptacle. Core ingredients include bamboo shoots, chhurpi (a fermented dairy product), nettles, mushrooms and potatoes. 

Try these delicacies

Phagshapa—a dish consisting of dried pork fat cooked with turnips, radishes and chilli. 

Momos—originating from Nepal, these spicy-filled dumplings are steamed to perfection.

South Indian

The five southern states of India—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana—can be easily grouped together as they adhere to similar culinary techniques and recipes. The states differ in regards to spice levels, but otherwise, certain staples such as rice, lentils, dried red chillis and fresh green chillis are used throughout. Native fruits and vegetables take centre stage here, coconut being a particularly prominent one. Obtained from lofty palms that grow across the area, the coconut’s milk, cream and flesh are all used to flavour both sweet and savoury items. 

Blessed with a long-stretching coastline, these provinces deliver a plethora of seafood delicacies—from mussels, crab and lobster to tuna and ravi fish. The southern provinces are predominantly Christian; therefore, it’s not unusual to see locals eating beef or buffalo. The conditions in the south are perfect for growing tamarind, nutmeg, plantain, peppercorn and mustard seeds, which are the building blocks for most meals. 

Try these delicacies

Masala Dosa—a rice pancake stuffed with spiced onions and vegetables, accompanied with dips. It’s one of the most famous dishes of the south. 

Medu Vada—a savoury doughnut-shaped Indian fritter, best served with coconut chutney.