Of all the cuisines in the world, India has one of the most aromatic and colorful. Varieties of Indian food are countless and identifiable by caste (we'll discuss these in more detail later), region or tribe, and many Indians eat a diet very similar to that of ancestors from many years past. With a blend of Arab, Turkish and even European influences from a history of invasions and conquests, India boasts thousands of variations in its repertoire of national foods.
Hefty volumes have been written on the treasure of Indian recipes and seasonings, and a tour of India makes for vastly different food experiences from north to south. With all of this regional variety, though, some staples or everyday foods make up the traditional diet for many across India including these:
- Basmati rice -- is typically steamed, formed in molds and served in wraps, and seasoned with spices like cardamom, cumin, cloves, or mustard, and often mixed with nuts and onions.
- Bread -- naan and luchi (made from flour) and chapati (made with chickpeas), soft and crispy flatbreads
- Dal -- innumerable combinations of legumes and vegetables, including lentil, chickpeas, potatoes and onions often made with a browned butter called ghee
- Curries and spices -- delectable combinations of ginger, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, cinnamon, dried hot peppers, and dozens of others
- Paan -- leaves of a betal plant that are chewed to cleanse the palate between courses or after a meal; served washed and fresh and wrapped around fragrant spices, anise seeds, katha, choona (lime paste) and different nuts [source: Food-India].
- Tea -- a national beverage since at least the 4th century, tea and socializing while enjoying tea are part of the Indian lifestyle. Darjeeling and Assam are just two of the countless varieties. Coffee and yogurt drinks are also popular [source: Tea Board of India].
- Chutneys -- thick condiments and spreads made from herbs like mint and cilantro and from assorted fruits and vegetables like tamarind and tomatoes
- Coconut -- used to simmer rice, seafood and other ingredients and to sweeten or mellow sauces
- Meat and seafood – fish, chicken and others; many do not eat beef because cows are considered sacred within the Hindu religion, as pork is forbidden within Muslim law.
How does all of this food come together from kitchen to table? Women are the main cooks in Indian families, with the eldest female often delegating tasks to other women in the household, and preparing a meal can be a day-long affair that consists of pounding spices, preparing breads from scratch and making multiple sauces [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Recipes can be handed down within families or communities for generations. Men are food purveyors of carts and restaurants in many cities and might help prepare festival feasts, and cooking for friends is increasingly popular among young men in the larger cities, too [source: Tivedi].
Sitting down to a meal in India might leave a Westerner noticing that something's missing: silverware or cutlery. Traditionally, fingers and bread are the "utensils" used to pick up portions of meals from large serving platters. Dining is mostly what those in the United States would call "family style" and large trays and small bowls might crowd the table as everyone pinches up finger-fulls of rice and breads for scooping up dals and other dishes. Thorough hand washing before and after the meal -- often done right at the table with bowls -- is an important part of each meal.