WHY INDIAN FOOD IS MORE THAN CURRY!
By Shreya Sofat
Indian cuisine is probably the most diverse cuisine in the world but sadly the perception is that Indian food is just “curry”. The antiquated heritage of Indian cuisine goes back thousands of years and boasts of an assorted menu of cuisines and not just one cuisine. This includes a whopping 300 ways of cooking a potato. While Indian food is synonymous with ‘curry, naan bread and pappadoms’, there is certainly more to it. Today’s era of cultural understanding requires a better awareness of authentic Indian food.
The ‘curry-muncher’ tag for Indians is just too stereotypical. It’s like saying the Japanese are sushi-munchers and Italians are pasta-munchers. It is unfortunate that the image of Indian food has got pigeon-holed into a masala dabba. This perception is so engrained that every time the Indian opens a lunch box, he/she gets asked ‘Is it curry?’
Ask an Indian in India where you can have curry and in all likelihood, he or she would give you a blank look as this strange word ‘curry’ is not found in Indian vocabulary. In fact only NRIs are familiar with this stereotyped word. The closest word is ‘kari’ in Tamil. The general perception of Indian food comes from the takeaway curry in Indian restaurants or food courts. But what is not known is that these popular takeaway foods are generally the ones reserved for special occasions.
Anyway, here is a diversity test on Indian food. How many of us know about the ‘Idiappam’ and ‘Puttu’ from South India or the Maharashtrian ‘Bhaakhar vadi’, ‘Ussal Vadaa’ and ‘Pitla’ or the Bengali ‘Macher Jol’ or ‘Bangla Kichudi’. Tried the Gujarati ‘Ponk’ or ‘Jowar Kichu’? How about a Kashmiri ‘Kahwa’ or the Garhwali ‘Fanna’? What about the Kumouni ‘Mandua ki Roti’, the Konkani ‘Garadudde Paayas’, the Odiya ‘Jahni Posta’ or the Himachali ‘Channa Madra’? Because India is such a diverse country, even we Indians might not know some of these recipes. “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are” once said the renowned French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Not sure how Brillat-Savarin would have fared in this test.
Indian cuisine is plausibly the most varied food culture in the world that even within a state, there are different cuisines and food combinations.This is so complex that it’s difficult to define Indian cuisine. In fact, Indian cuisine is a misnomer as there is no such thing as one Indian cuisine.
While the popular Chicken tikka masalas and the Nana breads have traveled far and wide into the food courts around the world, the authentic Indian and regional cuisine is still unexplored by the masses. Just take the aloo (potato) recipes from India. Though it is well known that India has some 300 different ways to cook a potato, how many aloo recipes could one think of?
Given this depth and diversity, the menu cards in Indian restaurants hardly reflect the variety in India’s cuisine. Indian restaurant food for some reason gets restricted to North Western Indian food (the Punjabi/Mughlai type) and that too cooked to suit the local taste. Obviously there’s more to Indian cuisine than just Punjabi cooking.
What an overseas Indian family eats at home is rarely the same flavour and taste to what is available in Indian restaurants. The locals’ only exposure to Indian food is through Indian restaurants and most people don’t have enough interaction with Indian families to see what is eaten on a daily basis.
Moreover, when one goes to these Indian food joints, one gets asked a surprising question ‘How would you like it – Mild, Medium or Hot?’ Some even give a fourth option i.e. the ‘Extreme! Bring it on.’ option. Go to a regular dhaaba in Punjab or a restaurant in Chennai and ask for “mild” food, the guy will respond with a ‘whaaat?’ and a strange look reserved specially for a desi NRI.
The art of cookery has been so perfected in the 10,000 year old continuous Indian civilisation that besides the flavour they also have excellent health value. Many recipes that are based on Ayurvedic principles not only satisfy the taste buds but also take care of the physical well-being. The goodness in the masalas used widely in Indian cooking is well-documented and the subject of regular research.
So, Indian food is not just one type of food. Served authentically in the right portion size, it can be the right food for the right climate and for the right body type.