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The South Asian Misnomer

Words by Harnoor Channi-Tiwary

Incredibly diverse and varied than most know, Indian food is far more intriguing than butter chicken or thosai. Here is a crash course on the extensive cuisine from region to region, recognisable for the seemingly infinite ways of using spices.

*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Wine & Dine’s 2021 ‘Spice & Aromatics’ issue

Spices and India are interwoven through centuries of shared history, akin to a long relationship with its trials and tribulations but in the end, the two partners are imprinted on each other’s soul. But how did this romance begin? To answer that seemingly simple question, one has to peer back into the ancient history of the Indian subcontinent.

India and the borders within which it is now confined to is less than a century old. Yet, this ancient land traces its history back to tens of thousands of years, when cavemen inhabited the earth. More recently, one of the world’s three earliest civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization left behind traces of well-planned cities that flourished around 2500BC. The journey from then until now was fraught with wars and occupied by different rulers, some homegrown, others coming from lands as far as Mongol, Persia and even Britain and France.

With a history as colourful as that, the cuisines of India inevitably underwent numerous transformations, adapting and evolving with each era. The very belief that ‘Indian food’ is (and has always been) hot and laden with chillies is a common misconception, given that red chillies were only introduced to India 450 years ago by the Portuguese.

An unknown flavour profile to the inhabitants of the country, red chillies found their way to Indian shores presumably from Brazil thanks to the Portuguese fleets of Vasco da Gama.

Chilli doesn’t find mention in ancient Indian texts, and the first one hears of it is in the poems of South Indian composer Purandaradasa (1480-1564 AD), according to food historian K. T. Achaya as mentioned in his book The Illustrated Foods of India A-Z. Spices, however, have flavoured Indian fare since time immemorial. If you visit any Indian household, you will invariably find two things — a round, steel spice box called masala dabba and a grinder (be it a stone tablet or a mortar and pestle).

Indian food is ‘spicy’, but not in the linear manner of heat as it is widely understood. Any dish originating from India will use an array of spices to give it a distinct flavour, not merely the mouthnumbing heat afforded by red chillies. But before one ventures into the history, usage and prominence of different spices in the country, it is important to note that there is nothing called ‘Indian food’. Better identified as foods of India, the cuisine is far more varied than the butter chicken, dosa and naan that people associate with the cuisine.

Methi leaves or fenugreek leaves in India (Image courtesy of iStock)

Cuisines of India

It is said that the cuisine changes every 20 kilometres as you traverse the country. Modestly, one may divide the country into north, south, east and west, but the regional cuisines within each section are further divided by state, and then by community. Secular India is home to communities ranging from Jains, a vegetarian sect that does not add onion and garlic to the food for their supposed aphrodisiac properties, to the Parsis who love meat so much that they add it to their lentils as well, flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg. Religion, colonial occupation, geographic location and soil all play a large part in defining the cuisine.

Steamed chickpea cake, dhokla (Image courtesy of iStock)

North India

On a macro level, one may be able to distinguish between the regions of India based on the predominant spices found in the food. Kashmir on the very northern tip of the country has a variety of cuisines but asafoetida (heeng), fennel seeds (saunf) and dried ginger powder (sonth) find prominence in most dishes from the region, both in Muslim homes and the kitchens of the Kashmiri Pundits.

Punjab, where a lot of the curries popular in Europe come from, flavours its food with a paste or masala of ginger, garlic, onion and tomatoes tempered with cumin, choosing to add a spice mix loosely called garam masala right at the end. Literally translated as ‘hot spice mix’, garam masala is rarely store-bought. Its composition changes across the country, and it may include any number of spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cumin amongst others. The spices used and in what proportion, is a secret every family guards with zeal. There are few similarities to be found between the garam masala of different households, except for the fact that it is probably homemade, ground in reasonably large quantities by the matriarch and then distributed amongst the extended family.

West India

The western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat barely have commonalities when it comes to cuisines despite being neighbours along the coast. The one spice that finds prominence in Gujarat is turmeric (haldi), one of the few spices indigenous to India. Similar in colour but meteorically more expensive is saffron — one of the costliest spices in the world, which is used generously by the very wealthy Vaish and the Marwari communities across Gujarat and Rajasthan. Gujarati fare has a common misconception of always being sweet, even though vegetarianism may be a more fitting generalisation. The cuisine uses cumin seeds quite liberally, with mustard seeds seen in one-off dishes such as the steamed chickpea cake called dhokla. On the other hand, fenugreek seeds are liberally used in Rajasthan, helped by the fact that the state accounts for 75 per cent of the country’s production.

Maharashtra finds itself using ample amounts of souring agents such as kokum and tamarind, shares Singapore-based chef Milind Sovani whose new restaurant Masalaa Bar serves up regional Maharashtrian favourites such as vada pao and Konkani thali. Kolhapuri fare within the state is an example of India’s new-found love for red chillies. This fiery cuisine is also unique in that it uses a species of lichen named black stone flower or dagad phool as spice as well as mace, the delicate red coating around the nutmeg seed.

The coastal Konkan region that hugs both Maharashtra and Goa uses a spice that closely resembles the Sichuan peppercorn called teppal or triphal. Distinct for their mouth-numbing sensation, the berries are added towards the end of preparation and served sans seeds. Without this tiny spice, Konkani food cannot be replicated anywhere in the world.

*Read the full article in Wine & Dine’s 2021 ‘Spice & Aromatics’ issue. Available at newsstands and Magzter 

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