When it comes to Indian food the one thing that daunts people is the array of spices used in Indian cooking. I have heard it so many times when I mention Indian Food is ‘ooohh thats spicy’! And each time I give my standard answer that there’s a difference between spicy and hot.
Yes, traditional Indian food is spicy because spices such as black pepper, cumin powder, coriander powder and many others are added to traditional Indian food like any other cuisine. Its the chili which makes a dish hot, just like you would add in a chili con carne or Arabiata sauce . So ‘hot’ and being ‘spicy’ are two separate things.
Difference Between Spicy and Hot
India is rightly called the’ Land of Spices’.
No other country produces as much variety of spice in the world. However its a little known fact that the use of spices was actually introduced into the Indian subcontinent by the Persian, Greek , Roman and Arab traders.
So when we say its ‘spicy’ its the use of spices in the food which enhances flavour of the dish and its the use of chili, in powder or whole form which renders heat or hotness to the dish. So there is a difference between the two and hence I always say that spicy is not necessarily hot!
A Country of Flavours
Traditional Indian food is Influenced by regional, religious and agricultural traditions. However, interestingly when it comes to food tastes even Indians divide the subcontinent in two regions namely the Northern flavours and the Southern flavours.
It is these dishes that have primarily gained popularity in the Western parts of the world or shall we say countries outside India. But there is far more to Indian cuisine than just the two divides. There are 29 states and 22 official languages spoken in India. Each state and the regions within those states, has its own traditional food, usage of spices, ingredients and cooking styles.
So one can truly say that traditional Indian Food is a world in itself!!
However given the differences there are similarities too which unites the nation in food habits. The foremost of course is the use of spices and stable diet which is whole wheat flour, rice and pulses. These three grains is cooked in every household regardless of differences. Over the years the use of spices and food habits has taken a regional distinction which is what makes the Indian cuisine so varied and mystical.
The Regional Food Map of India
Below is a glimpse of Indian regional cuisine as per the spice usage and food habits. Starting from the top that is the Northern tip of India to the Southern region. Hope this takes you to a short culinary journey through India.
Kashmiri food is highly influenced from the Persian, Middle Eastern cooking style. The gravies are flavored with spices like cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, saffron. Kashmiri Mirch (Chili) known for its fiery red colour but mild heat, imparts the vibrant red colour to most Indian dishes. There is also an extensive use of yogurt,cream and dry fruits. The dishes tends to be mild and the cooking method involves marination as a must especially for non veg dishes.
Its the Punjabi cuisine which has to be given credit to bring Indian food to the world! It is here that the Tandoori style of cooking originated from. Known for its rich, buttery and spicy food, its a taste which symbolises Indian food all over. The use of spices is very liberal and varied although home cooked food is quite different to the restaurant style.
Primarily a dessert area, Rajasthani cuisine is influenced by shortage of water and lack of fresh produce. The staple food are corn, lentils ,gram flour, dry red chilies, buttermilk, and yogurt. Mostly vegetarian but Rajasthani meat dishes are known for its fiery spicy flavours. Mostly cooked in ghee with lots of chilies makes Rajasthani cuisine rich and spicy hot.
Gujrat lies in the Western part of India where food is primarily vegetarian. The food is usually simple with the use of minimal spices. Whole spices like cumin seeds, asafoetida and mustard seeds are extensively used in the dishes. One distinctive feature of Gujrati cuisine is the range of long lasting heavy snack type dishes like khakara, Bhakri, Thepla along with an array of fresh dishes which is made. Many Gujrati dishes beautifully balance salty,sweet,spicy and hot flavours all together in one dish.
Laying in the south western tip of India, Maharashtra where the famous Bollywood hails from is blessed with natures bounties and hence the cuisine too is well balanced with vegetarian, non vegetarian and seafood dishes. Goanese food which has been influenced by the Portuguese forms a part of the Maharashtrian cuisine. Fresh vegetables and fruits are used in abundance along with whole grains such as rice, wheat, millet and lentils. The gravies range from middle to spicy hot and there is a significant use of coconut, cashew and peanuts.
Lucknowi or Awadhi Food
One of the most ancient and traditional cuisines of Central India influenced by the Mughal empire. The dishes have royalty to it, so although rich most dishes are delicately and mildy flavoured. Cooked in ‘Dum’ style that is covered and very slowly stewed for long period with a handful of whole spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, makes the dishes delectable. Know for its kebabs,kormas and biriyanis its a very sophisticated and flavourful cuisine.
Bengali cuisine is known for its sweets and fish dishes. Usage of spices are kept to minimum while ginger,mustard paste, mustard oil, fresh green chilies and a special blend of 5 whole spices called ‘Panch poron’ is predominant in most dishes. Adding sugar to savoury dishes to balance the salt and spicy flavours is also unique to its food culture.
North Eastern Food
One of the most naturally gifted region of India, however the least talked about known as ‘The land of the Seven Sisters’ comprising of 7 North Eastern states. Food is simple and for the most part non-vegetarian. Their close proximity to China and Burma have played their part in influencing the cuisine and so the taste is unlike regular Indian dishes. Mostly bland, fish, rice and pork forms their staple diet. Some regions however use fiery hot red chilies called ‘Naga chilies’ world’s hottest chili.
South Indian Food
Its the southern part of India which has been exporting spices to the world for centuries. The cuisine is extensive and divided by many regions. However the common use of coconut, rice, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, lentils and curry leaves binds the region into one. Food is mainly healthy , light and low in calories. The dishes range from mildy spiced to very spicy depending on the cultural influence. Dosas , idlis and sambhar are the regional specialty.
As you can see there is more to Indian food than Butter Chicken and Tikka Masala. Its a a culinary world like no other and an adventure that excites your taste buds. I found this map on the internet from an unknown source which I think summaries the regional cuisine and its specialties beautifully.