In America, we tend to think of things abstractly.
This holds true especially in regard to other cultures, and perhaps nowhere more so than in relation to those cultures’ particular cuisines, the elaborate set of practices by which populations obtain raw materials, prepare them for eating, serve these preparations, and consume them.
Instead of thinking of a particular country as a large, loosely-connected collection of different communities, each with their own traditional practices, we lump these all together and say, simply, “Indian food.” But what is “Indian food”? This question’s absurdity becomes more apparent if we replace “India” with “America.” Is it appropriate to replace the difference between North Carolina-style pork barbecue and a seared tuna from the coast of California with the general category, “American food”? Of course, on one level, it’s true: both dishes are made in America. But by lumping the two together, we can’t hope to learn anything about either, other than their country of origin. What we lose are the concrete practices and experiences that go into, and are elicited by, American cuisine. It’s my belief that the phrases “American food” and “Indian food” don’t really mean anything at all. Their purpose is to see “from the air” something that should be considered “on the ground.”
With that being said, let’s ask the question again: “what is ‘Indian food’?” “Indian food” is any food made in India. But India is a big place, 1.27 million square miles in area (1/3 the US). As of 2011, India’s population was 1,189,172,906. That’s billion. The US? 313,232,044. That’s million. India’s population is nearly 4 times that of the US! That’s 4 times the amount of people who have to wake up every morning and figure out how to prepare a meal!
India is also a country that contains at least five different types of climate zone. Here’s a map so you can visualize this easily:
Which means that the raw materials for cooking (spices, vegetables, animals) that are readily available in one region of India, won’t be in another. So the traditional flavor profiles presented by, say, Southern Indian cooking, won’t even be possible in Northern India!
In addition to the variations in India’s regional cuisines introduced by the country’s geography and climate, many of Indian cooking’s inflections have been brought from outside the nation itself.
India is technically a peninsula, jutting out from mainland Eurasia into the Indian Ocean. It’s northern portion is bordered by Pakistan to the west, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar (Burma) to the east. As we would expect, the traditional cooking of Northern India has been far more influenced by South East Asian cuisine than has that of Southern India. The availability of non-native ingredients is also increased dramatically by Northern India’s proximity to other nations.
In part due to its rich natural resources, India has long been the object of colonialist regimes from Europe. India was directly controlled by Britain, in a period known as the “Raj,” from 1858 to 1947. Beets, now a staple vegetable in Indian cooking, were introduced to the continent by British colonizers.
From the early 15th century until 1961, Portugal controlled territories within India. Because of religious ideologies, India has an extremely large, and growing, vegetarian population. The main foodstuff used to replace meat in India’s vegetarian dishes? Potato, which was introduced to the country by the Portuguese, along with tomatoes, chili peppers, and an estimated 300 other ingredients. Today, India is the world’s largest producer of Cayenne Pepper.
To cover the entire range of regional Indian cuisines is beyond the scope of this article. In America, many restaurants serving Indian food are labelled either “Southern” or “Northern” Indian. While certain, general themes can be seen to delineate the two halves of the country (food in the south of India tends to be spicier than that in the North), to treat the two as discrete units would be a misleading over-simplification. A more thorough enumeration is in the works, so stay tuned!