There is one country in the world that fascinates me, both culturally and culinarily. Its people are intelligent and good-looking, and live their lives with great humor. They are hard-working and unafraid of labor or dirt. There is also a large segment of the same population that is beyond poor, sometimes enslaved, mistreated, ill or homeless. They live their lives with great hope and great faith that things will one day (perhaps in the next lifetime, but eventually) improve. All these people (well over a billion) live in a country full of smells both wonderful (spices, flowers and temple incense) and awful (raw sewage and body odor mingled with diesel fuel). The colors of this country are riotous and inspiring and the craftspeople create amazing masterpieces, especially when working with metals. The wildlife of this country is both revered and feared, and the faith of her people puts the rest of the world to shame.
I speak, of course, of India. The beautiful, complex, fascinating subcontinent of India. There’s something about it that resonates deep within me. Perhaps I was Indian in a previous life…
The food of India is incredibly complex and varies widely in the different parts of the country, depending on the faith of the people and their buying or growing abilities. From simple vegetarian food of monks to incredibly complex stewed meats, the food of India is phenomenally interesting. It’s full-speed-ahead, in-your-face kind of cooking that uses incredibly sensuous combinations of spices. There is nothing quite like the smell of toasting whole spices, except perhaps the ground masalas (spice blends) that result from them. Indian cooking cannot be pigeonholed into “curry” or “rice dishes” or “fish”. It is beyond that – it is legendary in its ability to take mundane ingredients and turn them into the most sublime dishes.
Indian cooking today is a culmination of thousands of years of history, and includes the influences of countries that invaded and occupied India, many religions and a climate that suffers both drought and monsoon rains. Grains, legumes, meats, vegetables, nuts, spices; all play a part in the cooking of India.
I have to state for the record that I ADORE Indian food. I adore Northern Indian food, with it’s cream and nut-sauces, breads and incredible vegetarian cooking, mutter paneer (homemade cheese and peas in a moderately spiced gravy), rogan josh (a spicy, complex curried meat dish), chole (chickpeas), kheer (cardamom scented rice pudding).
I adore Southern Indian cooking – spicy and fresh, with lots of rice, fresh produce and seafood. Sambaar and dals, both made from lentils or other legumes, combine with rice cakes (idlii) or plain rice. Fish curries, Chettinad chicken, Kerala beef, mutton stew, chutneys – all make my mouth water (and sometimes my eyes as well!).
East India is where a lot of rice is grown. It’s warm, wet and wonderful! The food is simpler here – steamed food is found here, as is fried food (in zippy mustard oil, please!). Also, SWEET things are found in abundance in East India. Sandesh mishti (a sweet cheese-like molded dessert with nuts) and Rasgulla (cheese balls in a sweet syrup with rose water) are Bengali desserts EVERYONE should try.
West India has incredibly diverse cooking. From the vegetarian cooking of Gujarat (one of my favorite recipes EVER is a baked cabbage dish) to the fiery fish and meat dishes of Goa (think vindaloo!), western Indian cooking is influenced by the Portuguese (who were there until the 1960s) and the Hindu religion. Some incredible vegetarian cooking comes out of western India.
Next week I’m making lamb vindaloo for a luncheon. I’ll make some basmati rice to go with it, perhaps some chapati to scoop up the sauces. Since I have chapati, I should make a good pot of dal as well.
I’m salivating already…
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