India. If we were to ask about the first association with this country, for the majority of respondents, the top three would probably look as follows: yoga, Bollywood, and chicken curry.
India is a huge country where there are more than one billion people. On one hand, the cold Himalayas, and on the other the warm ocean. A mixture of countless cultures, religions and languages. A hereditary caste system, amplified and perpetuated by religious taboos, it builds impassable divisions, which are strange and incomprehensible to Europeans. This melting pot had to create one of the most eclectic cuisines of the world. And it did. In fact, more than one, because talking about Indian cuisine we mean the main cuisines that exist in this country. All are derived from a single tree, but differ from each other, sometimes substantially. Their common features are Indian products and special spices. They are so characteristic that we can recognize the smells coming from restaurants serving Indian dishes with our eyes closed. I was unpacking my suitcase after returning from India and I swear that even the contents were soaked with the smell of curry.
I’m not a fan of Indian cuisine, or at least not to the extent that its ingredients would make up my daily menu. This does not change the fact that I can acknowledge its nutritional qualities. Indian cuisine is, in fact, one of the healthiest in the world. Research shows that Indians, despite the fact that they smoke excessively, are much more resistant to cancer and lifestyle diseases than people in most highly developed countries. Part of the secret lies in a diet rich in rice, vegetables and spices.
North vs South
Traveling for the first time in India, we can be surprised that leaving the cooler north, we encounter on our culinary trail less and less meat. This is because the most general breakdown is precisely on the north-south line. In all of India we will not eat cow because it is of course a sacred animal. Additionally, in the central and southern regions, one third of the population does not eat meat at all for religious reasons. The poorest cannot afford meat, and it turns out that only 30% of people in India consume meat regularly. India itself occupies the last place in the world in terms of the amount of its consumption. In addition, in a hot climate, its quality deteriorates fast because storage is very difficult without electricity. That is why in the south, a vegetarian diet dominates, with protein provided by legumes and eggs. There is probably no other cuisine in the world where we would find such a large amount of recipes for dishes made with lentils, peas, beans and chickpeas. As well as a lot of other vegetables. Sauces with yogurt or coconut milk. And of course, rice, rice, and once again rice, which is an essential addition to the food, and which Indians can prepare a few dozen ways, which never ceases to culinarily amaze me.
In Sitaram Beach Retreat, the diet was imposed from the top down and totally adapted to the needs of the body, which were revealed by earlier studies. The only component, which I could reach for myself in unlimited amounts was – to my great joy – coconut, mainly in liquid form. Other than that, I had to settle for drinks (though the term is somewhat exaggerated) served at the resort. There were all kinds of concoctions based on herbs and other health potions. Every morning, the staff of the resort left at my cabin door a thermos filled with boiled water. Why in a thermos? So that the hot water would not cool down during the day. It was with this that I had to quench my thirst in the 35-degree heat.
In the north, in turn, more meat is eaten, especially poultry, lamb, mutton and goat meat. We will not find pork here because the area is dominated by Muslims. If we want to order a steak in India, we have to reckon with the fact that it will be a steak from an ox, so I suggest you give up this dish. It will not be tasty. Meats are served with thick, viscous sauces and a wide selection of thin wheat cakes. It is the cuisine of the north that we associate most with Hindu cuisine because this is the variant known in Polish restaurants.
What connects the cuisines of both regions is of course the spices that are added to everything, starting from meat dishes, and ending with desserts and beverages. And is not that the chef pours in whatever he can get his hands on. In India, spices play a role not only in the composition of taste, but also in giving the dish its respective properties. This is closely connected with the principles of Ayurveda, the form of Indian natural medicine, which you can read about here.
Turmeric, which is included in most curry blends and is added to almost every dish, has a strong anti-cancerous effect. Cumin, cardamom, black cumin, fennel, coriander, cinnamon and ginger have beneficial effects on the stomach, they regulate metabolism, aid digestion and help with stomach problems. The last two are also antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic. Chili, in turn, is an antidepressant, as the capsaicin which it contains, stimulates the secretion of endorphins. These, in turn, act as a natural anesthetic and cause bliss. That is why some people think of chili as a natural psychoactive. Who would think that you can become addicted to hot peppers?
Healthy and natural
The last reason why Indian cuisine is so healthy is that it is based on natural, virtually unprocessed ingredients. This is undoubtedly the biggest advantage that makes even me reach for Hindu cuisine sometimes.
Ayurvedic cuisine was quite a challenge for me. During my week-long stay in late January and early February, the following disappeared from my daily diet: meat, fish, dairy products, potatoes, soups prepared with meat stock (they were replaced by water), colored beverages or soda. On my plate as the main ingredient in almost all dishes reigned rice or cakes (nan or chapatis); they were served with the following additions: nuts, fruit, cooked vegetables, all forms of coconut and a whole wide range of sauces. The Ayurvedic diet was almost completely devoid of spices. On request, you could season a dish with salt and pepper, which were anyway only alternatives of their European counterparts.
Where to sit and what to actually eat?
You can eat everything, as long as you remember that in the South you will often not get cutlery. When this happens, eat only using the right hand, because it is used to perform clean actions. As for the place, I advise with great heartache against eating street food, especially containing meat, unless it is at your own risk. it is enough that the preparation of the dish will be a little bit questionable hygienically, and something that a Hindu stomach can endure without difficulty, will destroy our holiday because we will get sick. Likewise, I advise against drinking any water other than bottled. Our stomachs are not prepared for Indian tap water.
Besides that, you can eat everything, because everything in India is worth a try. What then is worth a chance?
Dosa pancakes (dosai, dosha) are a very popular snack, they take the form of paper-thin pancakes made of beans and rice flour. Everyone eats them in the south in the company of sambar (thick, viscous soup) and chutney (thick sauce). The pancake stuffed with vegetable curry is called masala dosa.
Dhal (dal, daal) is not a dish per se, because this name refers to both the legume products and dishes that are prepared using them. Dhal is given either in the form of an addition to spiced curry dishes but also as a main dish served with rice or bread. In each region you will see yet another variety of this dish, so you should try it everywhere.
Idli are, beside dosa pancakes, the basic breakfast dish in the south of the country. These fluffy pancakes are given, like dosa ,with coconut and tomato chutney and vegetable sambar. It’s a really tasty and nutritious vegetarian meal.
Appom are paper thin fritters made from fermented rice flour. They are an almost mandatory addition to most dishes in the south.
Korma (kurma, qorma), which we can see at any Indian restaurant, this dish is recognized worldwide. Again, this is not the name of a specific dish; it refers to slowly simmered curry with yogurt or sour cream. Braising meat at a low temperature gives it an extraordinary softness, while the aroma of the ingredients used permeates through it. Korma is a truly royal dish, because it comes from the cuisine of Muslim rulers from the Mughal dynasty. Try it wherever possible.
Another dish common in India during the reign of the Mughal dynasty, is the biryani. It is a dish consisting of aromatic rice baked with meat. And again, there are many varieties of biryani, using different types of meat (usually chicken or lamb) and various spices. Classic biryani comes in two varieties. Kachchi requires great artistry from the chef, as marinated meat, rice, and spices are arranged in one pot. Then the lid is sealed with dough made of flour and water and it is cooked slowly over low heat. Artistry is required of the chef in order to achieve perfectly cooked meat because you have to time it perfectly. The easier variant, in which the meat and rice are cooked separately and then arranged in a single vessel and baked, is called pukki (pakki).
Thoral is thinly shredded cabbage, cooked with shredded coconut, small pieces of vegetables, onion and chili. You can eat thoral instead of rice because it goes well with curry.
Sadya is a traditional Kerala feast, served on special occasions. A giant banana leaf acts as the plate, the cutlery is our right hand (definitely remember this). On the leaf we will find from 10 to 20 different dishes. I suggest you first try a bit of everything and then decide on what tastes the best. Additional helpings are free. We can find rice with curry, various salads, thoral, banana chips and at least one dessert. For example, payasam, or short pieces of rice noodles in coconut milk, with raisins and cashews. This is by far the most delicious dish that I ate during this stay in India. After the meal, we fold the leaf in half. But if we want to leave the table, we have to ask the two people sitting the closest for permission. Every country has its customs.
Thali is another popular dish in the south of India, referred to as the ‘dish on a tray’. It is a delicious, quick and inexpensive meal consisting of rice, ciapati cakes, puri, papadam or roti, surrounded by small katori cups containing various additives: dal, sauces, vegetables, yogurt, chutney. There are many regional variations of thali so you should try it everywhere. The cost of this meal varies from 10 to 30 rupees, or about … 1,50 zł. It is impossible to describe everything that is worth trying in India. Surely everyone will find something to suit their taste buds. This short list includes specialties that I myself had the opportunity to try, and that with a clear conscience I can recommend to you. Bon Appetit!