A Passage to India
Poised to become the next big ethnic trend in North America, the flavors of India are about to make the big leap from restaurants to your supermarket shelves.
Indian cuisine, like other cuisines hailing from
predominantly agricultural regions, is a tapestry
of a wide variety of regional cuisines.By Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., Contributing Editor
Indian cuisine spent decades in the shadows of one cultural food craze after another. When the sleeping tiger finally woke up, the long-term familiarity paid off. Today, Indian restaurants are nearly as numerous as the Thai and Vietnamese eateries of the last great food trend. Across the U.S., restaurant chefs are boldly incorporating the sensuous flavors of Indian cuisine into contemporary American menus. Saffron, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves are employed to add new dimensions to mainstream fare and replace calorie-rich cream sauces.
But with a 5,000-year association with health, exotic-yet-familiar flavorings plus a ready audience, the fare of the subcontinent is poised to be one of the strongest players in a generation to enter the packaged foods arena.Ancient Myths
Indian cuisine, like other cuisines hailing from predominantly agricultural regions, is a tapestry of a wide variety of regional cuisines, each with characteristic ingredients produced and consumed locally. Inter-regional differences, subtle yet important, are beginning to merge as a result of modernization of agriculture and distribution.
Indian cuisine is about diversity of flavors, textures and ingredients, not just spices. “It is futile to explain Indian cuisines without including the influence of various regions and implications of the numerous religions from the subcontinent,” observes Colleen Taylor Sen, author of Food Culture in India
(Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn.). This inability to be pinned down left fertile ground for misinterpretation and myth.
There is no one national cuisine in India, much less a single typical dish. There are, however, certain ingredients, dishes and styles of preparation associated with Indian fare. Curry, the archetype of Indian food, does not contain curry powder â an invention of British merchants. Curry (from the Tamil word for sauce, “kari”) refers to the spicy broth or gravy served with rice. In India, the word curry describes any meat, vegetable or fish cooked in sauce.
Another common myth is that all Indian food is fiery hot. As in other parts of the world, the food in the south is hot and fiery while food in the north leans more toward aromatic. Chili peppers, although common in Indian cooking, are not even native to the country.
Cooking the Indian Way
|Restaurant-quality Indian dishes may be prepared at home even by neophytes to foreign cuisine, thanks to products like dipping sauces and simmer sauces from Naturally India.|
In traditional Indian cooking, spices may be added individually or in combination with other spices as whole, crushed, ground, mixed with water as a paste, dry-roasted or sautÃ©ed for unique and characteristic flavors. They may be added once or at different times throughout the cooking process. Many vegetable and meat dishes are begun by sautÃ©ing whole spices in ghee or oil as a way to coax the release of their essential oils into the cooking medium for more even permeation throughout the dish.
There are particular advantages processed Indian meals have over their individual ingredients. Commercially produced curry powders are a contribution of the United Kingdom and a poor substitute for freshly ground spices in Indian cooking. Most curry powders contain turmeric, which must be cooked to fairly high temperature to release its flavor; the other components require less cooking. Consequently, cooking with commercial curry powders either burns the coriander and cumin or leaves the turmeric raw and bitter.
Indian food preparation techniques, like other Asian styles of cooking, are difficult to automate. Besides the involvement of time, the cuisine also requires an extensive pantry of ingredients, many of which are in turn made from other ingredients.
Additionally, food processors, blenders and graters do not translate as easily to produce the complex textures and shapes created by the various manual operations dedicated to Indian cooking preparation. Western kitchens armed with smoke detectors and flammable dÃ©cor also are not conducive to cooking at high temperatures and often on open flames. Creating ready-to-eat food mixes and spice blends is particularly well-suited to consumer needs.The Essence of Indian
The clever use of intensely flavored spices and unique ways of combining and integrating seasonings is probably what the world has come to appreciate most as the essence of Indian cuisine. No other cuisine uses as many spices in so many ways. In accordance with ancient Ayurvedic principles, six basic tastes form the foundation of Indian cooking: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, pungency, bitterness and astringency.
Four of these tastes are well established in Western cooking; pungency and astringency are lesser-known tastes. The former refers to the sharpness of ginger and radishes, and the latter to the fresh, cleansing taste, such as that of cilantro. A well-balanced Indian meal typically contains all six elements, with regional preferences accentuating one taste more than the others.
Spices are used for many reasons beyond mere flavor. They can create body. The addition of ground onions, garlic, poppy seeds and sesame seeds make a paste that thickens the sauce or gravy. Spices also add texture to a preparation. Small seeds like mustard, cumin and lentils are roasted or fried to add an extra flavorful crunch to cooked vegetables, lentils and rice. But while non-culinary reasons abound for the intensive use of spices in India, spices are added primarily for flavor and health.