One thing is clear about food and individual ingredients in India: they play a wide role in the country’s culture. A surprise? No, but the extent to which they do was to me, given their lack of importance in the West, beyond being required for sustenance and their role in economics and driving restaurant culture, not to mention their limited religious impact.
And there’s not just a variation in cooking styles throughout the regions of India – there are wide variations in cooking based on economic power in a way not seen in the UK. The differences in cooking fuels are an apt example of this. Most people, including those at the upper end of the social scale, use gas via gas canisters and portable tabletop hobs. However, at the poorer end in the villages, while some use coal or wood, many use dried cow and other animal dung that is collected and fashioned into discs the size of a plate and an inch or so thick.
In the countryside, one finds a very basic diet; none of the meats and vast variety of vegetables found in the towns and cities. Instead, poverty means they mostly eat just porridge and other maize and corn-based dishes; these crops are what they grow for a living. For many, it’s still a hand to mouth life based on subsistence farming. Vegetarian food is the predominant diet, with restaurants advertising that they have either just a vegetarian menu or both. Of course vegetarianism is often a religious undertaking in India but, like many religious teachings, I don’t think it takes a leap of the imagination to see this has roots in real world practicalities.
In a country where most are poor, meat is beyond the means of the vast majority, while the heat of India causes meat to go off very quickly if not kept cold, something that was very difficult to achieve in the days before refrigeration. So by being vegetarian, you were less likely to get food poisoning. Indeed, I believe that one of the reasons for the use of such strong spices in Indian cuisine is that they disguise the taste of rancid meat.
Food plays a role in religion in other ways. Nuts in particular are used and ceremonies can require as many as sixty different ingredients, so people go to special dedicated shops in the market to buy them. Shoppers tell these shopkeepers their faith, sub sect and the ceremony for which the food is required and the shopkeeper will know exactly what they need. The whole setup saves writing a long list of what is required; the shopkeeper usually in fact knows more about the various religious requisites than the shoppers. Even during periods of fasting food is consumed by some, namely light puffed up potato chips. They’re not crisps but have a texture closer to Chinese prawn crackers, and are flavoured with salt or chilli.
The practical uses of food are also wide and seem to have a regional aspect to them. For instance, an onion rub is used for heat stroke in Jodhpur, while Rajasthan as a whole eats a lot of paneer, as they say it helps to keep the blood pressure down, which is important in this particularly hot Indian state. Wood apple and aniseed are used to make drinks that are good for the digestive system as well as being cooling. In fact, aniseed and sugar are used as a mouth cleanser after a meal, and most effective it is too. Additionally, mustard oil is used to make pickles and also as a hair lotion by many.
The practical aspect of food is reflected in the Indian approach to saffron. Indian saffron is considered the best in the world but you wont find it used in India (except by the very rich) as it is mostly exported. Instead, Indians mainly use saffron from Afghanistan. Indians seek to sell wherever profit is greatest, so they forgo their own saffron in order to sell abroad where it makes more money, while the Afghan supply can keep up with the Indian domestic demand. They do much the same with the best Darjeeling tea which is largely exported rather than drunk at home.
As mentioned, food is regional, so Lucknow has its own special style of kebab, Peshawar its lamb, and the residents of Jodhpur like spicier food than in many other regions. They make a spicy base of onions, garlic and chillies roasted together with a bit of ginger, which they particularly like on bread; they even claim to have invented pizza because of this concoction. And, while many Indian foods are eaten across the country, there are regional variations in their preparation, as explained in my previous articles. Thus, in Rajasthan chapattis are made mostly from wheat due to its abundance in the state while, in the south, they tend to use rice flour as it is plentiful there. One thing common throughout India is that spices tend to be bought monthly, with people coming to the towns and cities from the countryside to buy them along with other necessary supplies.
Street food is a feature of every populace in India. Thankfully, while fast food chains like McDonalds are spreading like wildfire through the subcontinent, the traditional Indian street carts and restaurants selling variations of just one food are still everywhere, intermingled with the fruit and vegetable sellers. One of the most common street food cart stalls is the pani puri seller. Pani puris are little discs made of wheat flower that puff up when cooked and are then sold stuffed with aloo (potato), coriander water, gram seeds and other such ingredients.
Some street stalls can be so popular that they have introduced a pay in advance system whereby you buy a token for the particular product, and then hand it over at the counter to obtain the food. I came across this system while on a walking tour of the bazaar in Jaipur in the pouring rain, when our guide took us to a kulfi store to try the pistachio kulfi. This Indian version of ice cream was made simply from condensed milk mixed with sugar (the base of all kulfi) and pistachio; more details I can’t give as the recipe was an old family secret.
I have to say, though, that the best street food I had was in Delhi. On my walking tour of the city, I ate lunch at a small open-front shop that served only parathas. Frankly, it was one of the best meals I ate on the whole trip. These stuffed flat breads are made from wheat flour and usually folded, rolled and brushed with ghee multiple times to create a layered triangle shape which is then fried in a little ghee. The parathas served by the Delhi stall were actually round and stuffed with various vegetables. They came with different sauces, or chutneys, all of which were so hot they burnt off the roof of your mouth. So I ate just the parathas, and wolfed down six of the things. Some were stuffed with potato, others cauliflower and others a mixture of all the vegetables they offered. Best by far, however, was the one I asked them to make that wasn’t on their menu: a mix of cauliflower and potato. It is hard to describe how good they were, but suffice to say my mouth is watering just thinking about them, with the crisp slightly oily outside and the just cooked vegetables inside, all enhanced to perfection by the chilli powder and salt mixed in. Heaven!
There are few places like India where food is so omnipresent. Everywhere you look, food is being used for something or being sold as it has been for centuries. For a food lover it is, in many ways, pure nirvana