India is a vast and ancient land, its recorded history dating back over three thousand years. Yet India today, despite its deeply rooted traditions, is the product of centuries of change, of new ideas, new faiths and new products arriving with traders and invaders, with colonizers and with immigrants fleeing repression elsewhere. The result is a rich tapestry of contradictions and contrasts that never ceases to fascinate.
The astonishing variety of India is reflected in its cuisine, which is regarded by those who have enjoyed genuine Indian food as being among the world’s greatest. Like the overall fabric of he land itself, the cuisine of India is the result of countless historical, religious and regional influences.
The Indian Food Ethos
Splendid pageantry and colorful ceremonies are still common through out India. In India, philosophy and food are inseparable. The Vedas, ancient historical and religious texts set the framework for Hindu culture. They record the civilization of the Aryans. The Aryans did not treat food simply as a means to physical sustenance but saw it as a part of a cosmic circle.
The Aryans introduced many practices which made food both a physical and spiritual activity in human lives. According to Hindu tradition, food was systematically arranged on the banana leaf. Eating with the fingers is the norm. Even abstinence from food or fasting is a critical Hindu ritual. Finally, colonial India left its marks on both the food and eating practices.
The Great Spice Bazaar
Masalas and medicines: India’s amazingly versatile spices. Any combination of spices is referred to as a masala. Walk into an Indian home at meal time, or into a good Indian restaurant, and you will be engulfed by a wave of heavenly aromas. Without doubt, the most distinctive feature of Indian food is its creative combination of spices which give an inimitable flavor and aroma. The medicinal properties of spices are always taken into account when food is prepared, as well as the interaction of each spice with the natural properties of a particular vegetable or dal. Turmeric is an antiseptic and drunk mixed with hot milk to check internal hemorrhages. Its regular use in everyday foods helps prevent internal wounds and infections.
At Home and Abroad
The search for authentic regional cuisines is not always easy. It is undisputed among gourmets that Indian food ranks as one of the world’s greatest cuisines. However, like many other fine cuisines, it does not travel well. During the 1970’s, however, a genuine interest and awareness of food developed and Indian restaurants started becoming aware of authenticity, freshness and attractive decor. There were Indian cooking on television; ingredients like Basmati rice, whole spices, fresh ginger, fresh cilantro and curry pastes began to appear on supermarket shelves and authentic Indian food became trendy. And with the world wide trend of “fusion cuisine,” where the elements of one style are blended with another, one can expect the use of Indian spice blends or masalas and Indian vegetables to creep in everywhere.