Monday, April 12, 2010

Cuisine and Culture by Ms. Shweta, 1½yr. CCCFPP

Cuisine and Culture

One of the oldest civilizations known to man, India, is many worlds within one. From the alpine mountains up North, to the sultry, spicy lands down South, each region is as diverse as it gets. India has been visited by many races in the past – each bringing with it, its unique culture, tradition, sometimes religion, and without a doubt – its food!


One of the first races recorded to have invaded India was of the Aryans. They brought with them sugar, turmeric and black pepper and introduced domestication of cattle to obtain milk. They classified all foods into Satvik (easily digestible), Rajasik (heavy to digest) and Tamasik (dark foods leading to an unhealthy life), thereby teaching the native Indian to emphasize on the development of mind, body and soul through food.

The northern region of the country was highly influenced by Mughal or Persian cooking style. The Persians introduced the Indians to rich relishes, meats with cream and butter sauces, dates, nuts, and sweets. The essence of their native place was incorporated in the India Cuisine with dishes like the Biryani, Kebabs, Breads and Pulao. These dishes are a vital part of Indian food as we know it today and one simply cant seem to get enough of them!

When the Portugese started trading in India, they brought with them an assortment of ‘New World’ vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, chillies, garlic and exotic fruits. They passed on their love for tangy and spicy delicacies with dishes such as Prawn Balchao and Pork Vindaloo which changed the face of Goan food as it was then known.

During the British invasion, Indians were introduced to Whisky and Tea. The British introduced salads, short eats and desserts to the Indian palate. By the time they left the country, dining tables had replaced kitchen floors as the place to eat and porcelain crockery had replaced the banana leaf as the utensil to eat out of.

In the midst of all these invasions and interventions, there were also the Chinese explorers who passed on the art of stir frying and the practice of adding a tinge of sweet to food items. Also, one cannot ignore the influence on the Mongolian invasion in Eastern India. They introduced rice production and Mustard to the East Indian populace. Their food preparation was simple, to suit their nomadic lifestyle, cooking meat to use in soups or in dumplings.

Once the invasions died down and life returned to normalcy, people in every region had the freedom to develop their own local cuisine. They began to be developed per climatic conditions of a particular region. At that time, the food distribution network wasn’t as speedy as today, and people had to make do with what they had. For instance, South Indian food is representative of its tropical climate – it is hot, spicy and not very greasy. Dishes such as chettinadu, etc. send many a heart racing with their spiciness!

Rajasthani food, on the other hand, has evolved with the complexity of life in a desert. The region faces a water and fresh vegetable scarcity and hence its food is tougher, i.e. it does not require heating before consumption and can last longer. For instance, Bhati (eaten with Dal – Churma) is known for its long shelf life as well as the minimal quantity of water required in preparation. Then there are the coastal states that extensively use coconut oil in their cooking – Kerala’s cuisine is full of coconut and it’s by – products and West Bengal makes good use of its fish supply!

Over time, the food people eat defines them as a culture. In many ways it affects their lifestyles and temperaments. For example, our Gujarati forefathers began adding sweet to their food to counter the saltiness of their water. Over time, this became a practice and today, Gujarati food is sweet and known to be so, even though the quality of water may have changed.

Although foods alone do not represent a cuisine - it is the meaning and myths surrounding the ingredients, the preparation, the cooking, the combination of flavors and practices of eating, that determine the makings of a cuisine. Cuisine is often what sets a culture apart and provides a common insight into what it means to "belong" to that community. What’s unique about Indian cuisine is that its recipes have been passed on over generations by word of mouth. Generations of grandmothers and mothers have spent hours toiling in the kitchen, passing their knowledge and wisdom to their daughters. This tradition has ensured some secrets stay with the community while defining the framework of a cuisine.

All in all, exploring India requires more than ample time, an over flowing appetite and most importantly, an open heart. Because if you are to experience the country, what better way than to do it through its food.