What is Indian food?
Um, well, it’s curry and spicy things...
Like so many foods that we eat far from the country of origin, Indian food suffers from sweeping generalisations – a rich and diverse cuisine reduced to a single dish: curry.
Imagine if we were to say Italian food was pasta. Is that a spaghetti bolognaise or a tortellini stuffed with ricotta? How about fettucine or tagliatelle? Rigatoni or lasagne? Even the term ‘pasta’ can’t encompass the varieties, flavours, textures and vast array of ingredients that constitute a pasta dish, and the same is true of Indian food and ‘curry’.
India is a vast and multi-faceted country, with different regions boasting different cultures, dialects, social norms and styles of cooking that are hugely distinct to the people who live there. When it comes to food, the term ‘curry’ would mean nothing to an Indian in India, just as an Italian would look bemused if you ordered ‘pasta’!
Of course it would take years to fully understand the multitude of regional varieties in Indian cooking, but let’s go on a whistle-stop tour of the country so you can at least begin to appreciate just how much more there is to curry than you may realise.
Western India is a good place to start: here, the curries of the coastal areas celebrate seafood and the interior areas look instead to pulses and grains for their protein intake. Curries are a staple of the diet, but the style and flavour of the curry depends on which part of the area is making them:
You may have heard of Goa? This area in western India is home of the vindaloo but also known for its seafood-based curries that usually use a masala spice blend (chillies, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and coriander). Goan curries are also known to be fiery, so be warned!
Another distinctive flavour from the west is Gujarat, where the cuisine adds salt and sugar more generously than other places, and vegetables are king. There is a large variety of vegetarian curries in Gujarat, most of which are eaten with dhal and have a combination of salty, sweet and spicy flavours.
Moving clockwise, let’s move to the south; southern Indian curries use a lot of chillies and lentils, with spices that often appear including saffron, coriander, lemon, curry leaf, tamarind and turmeric, to name a few.
Keralan cuisine is from this part of the country and known as one of the most diverse in the region! In the Keralan curries, coconut oil, milk or grated flesh is often added to balance the fiery heat and keep the spice levels at a comfortable medium.
If you like it a little hotter, seek out the Andhra curries, also from the south of the country. Chilli powder is abundant in this style of food, which is mostly vegetarian. The region is also known for its use of the sour gongura leaf within the curries or accompanying pickles.
Eastern India is known for the more subtle approach to spices and flavours, with curries appearing either as a fried (bhaja) curry or curry paste (bata curry), and mild curries (chochchoree) appearing alongside the hot ones (jhol curry).
When trying to identify eastern Indian food, look out for panch puran, a blend of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, mustard seed and nigella seed that appears often in the vegetarian curries of Bengal and Orissa. In these areas, meat dishes tend to be flavoured with turmeric and garam masala, but the regions’ dishes do differ in their spice levels: Oriya is cooler, Bengal is hotter.
We can’t move north without squeezing in the northeastern area of India, where food is influenced by the flavours of Nepal, Tibet and Myanmar. Spices are used in moderation here, with curries relying more on onions for flavour, although turmeric, fenugreek and cardamom make an appearance. It is from this area that proteins get far more interesting: frog, turtle, yak, pigeon, duck and pork can be found in the regional curries, but also beef, chicken and fish.
From this region, try the Assam tenga curry, usually made with fish and lentils and known for a sour flavour courtesy of lemons. Tripuri curries are the spicier ones, and almost all dishes will contain berma, which is made from dried and fermented puthi fish. It is the only area to do so!
And now to the north, where the curries we are most familiar with tend to hail from, usually accompanied by the much-loved naan bread that has also become an international celebrity. Expect curries from the north to contain a wide variety of ingredients: meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, dairy products and the Indian paneer, or cheese.
The popular rogan josh comes from the north, in Kashmir. This area is also known for the sweeter and milder flavours, often produced by the addition of fruit (e.g. bananas and lychees) to curries. Delhi offers up curry that feature meatballs, while the pakora comes courtesy of Rajasthan, an area also known for creamy, yoghurt-based sauces.
While not all the different regional varieties can be found here in Australia, it’s worth being aware of where your favourite curries come from, and making an effort to dabble in the different regions’ flavours to get a better appreciation of the diversity and depth of Indian food.
The catch-all term ‘curry’ just doesn’t seem so useful anymore, does it? Go on, eat your way around the country!