Every region of India has its individual style of cuisine. Delighting the palate with its masterful use of spices and herbs, India’s varied cooking styles are acclaimed throughout the world, not only for their often opulent tastes, but also for the therapeutic and nutritional value of the spices used in their preparation. Turmeric and a combination of twelve or more different healing spices give curry its distinctive, delicious and unique flavor. The magic of curry is in the blending and sautéing of spices.
From Kashmir on the North to the Deccan in central India, the Mughals exerted their political influence and creative genius. Nowhere is the mystery of these great connoisseurs more evident than in the presence of the timeless wonder of the Taj Mahal and in their remarkable cuisine. The Mughal-influenced cuisine of northern India is distinguished by its nonvegetarian Arab, Persian, and Mughal influences, which include an emphasis on lamb and chicken. Northern Indian cuisine overwhelms one with the delicacy and seductive flavors and textures of its luxurious sauces of yogurt (dahi), cream, and crushed nuts, and with its succulent lamb and poultry dishes. Today this legacy is widely admired throughout India and the rest of the world.
Ancient Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra, Karnataka, and the Deccan, edified by the discovery of gold and precious stones and also by a lucrative foreign trade of spices and silks, were indeed an acclaimed land of prosperity and beautiful banquets. Sangam era (academy of college) poets sang of “succulent chops of meat” and triple “triple water” (probably coconut milk, palm fruit juice, and sugarcane juice) drunk with burning “toddy” (the intoxicating fermented beverage of the palmyra palm) at the royal feasts that lasted for weeks.
The cuisine of the South is much simpler than that of the North, primarily because South India has remained relatively free from foreign influences and foreign cuisines. Vegetarian dishes are a mainstay here. In no other part of the world are curry and rice inseparable as they are in South India. Rice is the staple food of this region and is the basis of every meal. The largely nongreasy roasted and steamed food of the south is very light, and rice is eaten for breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner. Mixed with ghee, rice is served with sambar (lentils), rasam (a thin peppery soup), vegetables, and pachadi (chutney). Coconut is also extravagantly used, in fish, meat, and vegetable curries as well as chutneys.
To the people of India’s Southwest coast, seafood is daily fare. Fishing is a way of life on the Kerala coast, where the best seafood in India is available delicately flavored with fresh coconut, Malabar pepper, turmeric, and coriander.
The cuisine of this region is simple and often highly seasoned. Fresh river fish from the Ganges delta is used to create an amazing variety of tempting dishes – fried crispy, cooked in yogurt sauce, or prepared in a masala (spice paste). Pomfret, or betki fish is famous in Bengal. There are ample rice dishes cooked in aromatic herbs, delicately flavored with legumes and pieces of mutton or seafood. The curries of eastern India are delightfully pungent and highly spiced. The array of traditional Bengali sweets such as rasagollas (a cream cheese dessert in a rich sweet syrup) and Sandesh (a yogurt or concentrated milk confection sprinkled with pistachios, cashews, and other nuts) are smooth, rich, and soothing.
Traditional western Indian cuisine is light. In this part of India the cuisine changes with the season, each having its own specialty. Dhansak, a specialty of the Parsi community in western India is lamb or chicken cooked with curried legumes and served with steaming white rice. Goan seafood is plentiful and delicious – shrimp, crab, lobster, oyster, and pomfret. Pork vindaloo, marinated in vinegar and mustard, is well known all over the world. Goa is also famous for its brew, feni. Made from either cashew fruit or coconut, it makes a robust drink.
Learn how to make authentic and unforgettable curries, kebabs, curried pasta, lentils, vegetable and seafood dishes seasoned with turmeric and other healthy spices from my cookbooks Feast of India: A Legacy of Recipes and Fables (1991, 2015 $19.95) and India’s Unsurpassed Cuisine (Editor’s Choice, 2016 $22.95) for your family and friends.