India, the land of festivals, spices, and some of the world's most diverse dishes is a federal republic consisting of 29 states and it's second only to China regarding the size of its population. Some states in India are larger than most countries and have distinctive cultures, ethnicities, and cuisines. Dominant religion is Hindu, followed by Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis. Due to religious reasons and the fact that meat is expensive, most people are vegetarians who rarely eat meat and fish.
India is mostly rural, and many foods and ingredients are produced regionally or locally. Known as 'the breadbasket of India', the states of Punjab and Haryana are best known for wheat production. Bengal and Assam produce crops of rice, while most parts of western India are made up of deserts where only sorghum, millets, and similar coarse grains grow. In northern India, the staple is wheat, while in the south and east, the staple is rice - with basmati being the most famous variety.
Another staple are legumes and lentils - peas, beans, and chickpeas. Vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, corn, okra, and green peppers were brought by the Portuguese in the late 15th century, while the British brought cauliflower, lettuce, green and navy beans, carrots, and cabbages to the country. Some of the indigenous Indian vegetables include numerous squash and gourds, bitter melons, eggplants, white radishes, and various leafy greens called saag. Milk, yogurt, and ghee are well known and often used as important sources of protein and they're an indispensable part of the Indian diet.
India is also a great country for fruit lovers, including plums, apricots, peaches, strawberries, apples, and a variety of tropical and semitropical fruits such as pineapples, mangoes, bananas, and jackfruit. The most popular meats include mutton and chicken, since cow slaughter is banned in most of the country, and the Muslim population cannot eat pork. Fish is a staple in many regions – Bengalis enjoy freshwater fish such as carp, catfish, pomfret, and kingfish, while in Kerala, locals eat varieties of sardines, squid, prawns, mackerel, and seer.
The Land of Spices
A distinctive part of Indian cuisine is the usage of spices and seasonings such as fenugreek, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, cloves, turmeric, cumin, poppy seeds, chili peppers, and mustard seeds. In South Indian vegetarian dishes, mustard seeds and fenugreek are staples, while aromatic spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom are used in North Indian rice and meat dishes. The spices are dry-roasted, ground into a paste, or ground into a powder, famously known as garam masala.
Indian Food Techniques
The preparation of Indian food is labor-intensive. Most dishes are prepared in a wok-shaped pot called a kadhai or in a heavy, flat iron griddle called a tawa. There's also a number of Indian food preparation methods, such as bhuna, a unique Indian technique of frying spices, onions, garlic, ginger, and sometimes tomatoes in oil, then adding pieces of fish, meat, or vegetables along with liquids such as water or yogurt.
Other typical techniques include deep-frying and sautéeing. The old Indian technique of pickling is also very important - it's an essential way of preserving vegetables, fruit, meat or fish in a country with a hot climate.
Although it's hard to describe a typical Indian meal, there are some commonalities – most people who can afford the food regularly eat lunch, dinner, and two additional meals – breakfast and an afternoon snack. The meals are traditionally eaten with the fingers of the right hand or with a flatbread that's used to scoop up the food. Everything is usually served at once and there is no sequence of courses.
A typical meal revolves around rice, wheat, or other grains, and the second main component are lentils, served in a soupy dish called dal. Small amounts of fish, meat, and vegetables are added to enhance the flavors, while additional flavors come from chutneys, pickles, salads, and yogurt. Seasonal fruit is sometimes served at the end of a meal, while milk, water, buttermilk, or lassi are typical food accompaniments. However, there are variations regarding typical meals depending on social class, region, affluence, and religion.
India is well known as the land of feasts and festivals – on festival days, Hindu temples prepare lavish vegetarian feasts including a huge number of different dishes. Sweets are usually offered to Hindu deities, and they're later distributed to worshippers.
On the day of Lord Krishna, people eat shrikand, a thick pudding based on strained yogurt, cardamom, and sugar. During Ganesh Chaturthi, the birthday celebration of god Ganesh, people eat modaka – a steamed rice dumpling filled with nuts, coconut, sugar, and milk solids. For Holi, the most colorful festival in the world, special foods include snacks, sweets, and thandai, a milk-based beverage.
On Diwali, the festival of lights, people typically exchange lantern-shaped sweets. Another important celebration is Pongal, the South Indian harvest festival, when people eat the eponymous dish made by boiling rice in milk with ghee, coconut, cashews, and jaggery.
Over the years, Indian customs and bold and robust Indian flavors have inspired people all over the world, most notably in the United Kingdom, creating a new Anglo-Indian cuisine along the way.