Indian Cuisine

The visitor who imagines that Indian food consists of rice and curry is in for a few surprises. For rice, which is the staple diet in only a part of the country, forms but a fraction of a meal in any restaurant, and as for the word 'curry', it is largely unintelligible to most Indians, being a term coined in the West.

Certainly, gravy based dishes are prominent throughout India but they are far from being similar to one another. And, of the score or so of commonly used spices in an Indian kitchen, only fresh green and dried red chillies are pungent. Request a restaurant to omit this ingredient, and you have authentic Indian food without the pungence.

And that's the way many Indians like their food-with no chillies. Just as there is no single style of Indian cooking, there is no one national dish. Styles of cooking and commonly used ingredients differ not only from region to region, but from one household to another. Indian curry is pieces of mutton, chicken or fish in a sauce based variously on onions, tomatoes, yogurt or coconut milk into which as few as three or as many as 12 condiments have been added.

Some of the more celebrated culinary traditions of India originated in the royal courts of the Mughals, in Oudh and Hyderabad. Distinguished by a succession of braised meats, rich sauces and flavorsome rice dishes steamed with meat, all three cuisines can be sampled at specialty restaurants as well as at regional food festivals that deluxe hotels hold periodically. While mutton, chicken and fish are served throughout the country, the frequency with which they make their appearance differs. In Kashmir, mutton is the chief attraction in the 24 course banquet, wazwan, each dish being cooked in a different way from each of the others.

Of all the coastal states in the country, Goa, Kerala and Bengal have culinary traditions with a preponderance of fish, those of Goa and Kerala making profuse use of coconuts. Go an seafood delights include crab, lobsters, tiger prawns and shellfish, all accompanied by rice and washed down with excellent wine and vermouth of local manufacture. Kerala, in common with the other southern states, is noted for its variety of crisp pancakes and steamed rice cakes made from pounded rice.

Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have important vegetarian traditions, meat eaten only by a fraction of the population in these two states. However, because of the seemingly endless array of imaginatively cooked vegetables, lentils and the succession of enticing accompaniments, the cuisine is relished even by confirmed non-vegetarians. In many parts of the country, thali meals are the norm. These large platters contain upto a dozen dishes in individual servings, consisting of meat, chicken, vegetables -: gravied and dry, pulses and accompaniments.

Thali meals are a sort of crash course in the cuisine of the region, widely served in Indian restaurants attached to deluxe hotels as well as at more modest eateries. Some of India's best loved culinarv traditions are the despair of the weight watcher. Tandoori cooking is the best known, and loved, exception. The tan- Above: A rich array of Western deserts offered on a hotel buffet; Inset: An Indian thali meal must be eaten leisurely. Opposite page: An example of the 'dum pukht' school of cooking, a popular favourite. Door is the Indian oven. a homely clay lined cylinder filled with sizzling coals.

Restaurants that serve tandoori food often have a glassed-in section where chefs bake whole marinated chickens, spiced pieces of lamb and a variety of unleavened wheat breads by the simple expedient of wielding a metal stick. As the heat of the oven reaches 600°C, cooking time is counted not in hours but in minutes and seconds! Tandoori meats use no oil. and are normally accompanied by yogurt dips. making them ideal for the gourmet weight watcher!

Some of India's best loved dishes are homely favorites: Punjabi sarson ka saag, mustard greens simmered all night long on a coal fire, is a seasonal favourite. being available only for a month or so in winter. Accompanied by thick unleavened bread made from cornmeal, its full-bodied flavour delights the peasant and the urban sophisticate alike.

Pau bhaji is a passion in Mumbai and Gujarat, where roadside stalls have a cauldron of simmering vegetables which 57 are served with a bun. Bhelpuri in Mumbai and chaat in Delhi are roadside snacks of crunchy morsels tempered with piquant seasonings. It is possible for the tourist to savour these delights in the confines of an upmarket hotel.

To describe Indian sweets as being made of milk, reduced milk or cottage cheese and sugar syrup is an oversimplification of a highly specialized branch of cooking. One reflection of this is that most Indian cookbooks state in no uncertain terms that Indian confections are best left to professionals!

To western tastes, the range of Indian sweets are normally found too sweet, but it is precisely because of this quality that they make marvelous digestives after a heavy Indian meal. Sweet traditions in Bengal, Bikaner and Delhi are famed throughout the country, but obscure railway stations all over India are quite likely to have a delectable specialty well-known only in the neighborhood. Non alcoholic beverages include the country-wide favourite in nimbu-pani: a squeeze of sour lime over sugar or salt served in water or soda. Yogurt and water are vigorously churned to make buttermilk, a delicious accompaniment to Indian meals.

Bottled fizzy drinks include various brands of indigenous lime, orange and cola. Other fruit based drinks - apple, guava, mango, tomato - are available in tetrapacks and tins. Soda and mineral water are widely available.

India's alcoholic beverages include gin and rum which are comparable to the finest internationally, as well as whisky. Out of the numerous brands of wine, good choices are the dry white and rose ones; sparkling wine is being made in the country available in limited quantities for the domestic market. India's dozens of brands of beer encompass very good pilsners and lagers available in bottles of 650 ml. All major hotels throughout the country have bars as well as restaurants which serve alcoholic beverages. Out of the restaurants not attached to hotels, a few are licensed to serve spirits. Most towns have liquor shops where popular brands can be bought over the counter.

There are no equivalents of pubs in India, the only exception being in Goa, where the unlicensed restaurant is the exception rather than the rule. Few visitors leave Goa without at least sampling the local drink, feni. An immensely potent brew made either with cashew or palm, feni provokes varied reactions to its strong taste. Indian cuisine is very far from being the only food available in the country.

Every major hotel offers, at the very least, a choice between Indian, Continental and Chinese food, and even street side cafes in small towns offer a sprinkling of popular western fare. Continental food encompasses classic Italian and French highlights served in specialty restaurants in the metropolitan cities, to pizzas, salads and hamburgers available at popular western style snack bars.

Many cities offer Chinese food, major metropolitan cities offering a surprising range of dining that includes Polynesian-and Lebanese fare. In addition, deluxe hotels arrange food festivals periodically.

These may be regional Indian - to a resident of Delhi, Hyderabad! food is indeed exotic! -or international: German, Hungarian or Brazilian. Western style confectionary - choco-ate cakes, fudge, cookies and marzipan for instance - are available in pastry shops of major hotels as well as at con-fectionaries in all metro cities.

World class chocolates are sold at fine stores; and ice creams, sold in every corner of the country, come in a plethora of brands. And finally, a word about tea, sold everywhere from railway stations to deluxe hotels: this is something of a national beverage except in the south of India when it gives up its place to fresh ground coffee.

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