Why Indian food is not just 'CURRY'

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Indian cuisine is probably the most diverse cuisine in the world but sadly the perception is that Indian food is just “curry”. The antiquated heritage of Indian cuisine goes back thousands of years and boasts of an assorted menu of cuisines and not just one cuisine. This includes a whopping 300 ways of cooking a potato. While “Indian food" is synonymous with ‘curry, naan bread and pappadoms’, there is certainly more to it. Today’s era of cultural understanding requires a better awareness of authentic Indian food which is more than just curry!!!

For many a folks, Indian food means just “curry & spices” as if all Indians just munch curry every day. The ‘curry-muncher‘tag for Indians is just too stereotypical.  It’s like saying the Japanese are sushi-munchers and Italians are pasta-munchers. It is unfortunate that the image of Indian food has got pigeon-holed into a masala dabba. This perception is so engrained that every time the Indian opens a lunch box, he/she gets asked ‘Is it curry?’

So what is Curry? Curry is generally referred as a spiced gravy-based side dish which is based on a standard curry powder. Go to a grocery store and you will find atleast 30 odd different types of the so-called ‘curry powder’. The assumption that all curries are made of a standard ‘curry powder’ is far from the truth.

Ask an Indian in India where you can have curry and in all likelihood, he/she would give you a blank look as this strange word ‘curry’ is not found in Indian vocabulary. In fact only NRIs are familiar with this stereotyped word. The closest word is ‘kari’ in Tamil. The general perception of Indian food comes from the takeaway curry in Indian restaurants or food courts. But what is not known is that these popular takeaway foods are generally the ones reserved for special occasions. 

Anyway, here is a diversity test on Indian food. How many of us know about the ‘Idiappam’ and ‘Puttu’ from South India or the Maharashtrian ‘Bhaakhar vadi’, ‘Ussal Vadaa’ and ‘Pitla’ or the Bengali ‘Macher Jol’ or ‘Bangla Kichudi’. Tried the Gujarati ‘Ponk’ or ‘Jowar Kichu’? How about a Kashmiri ‘Kahwa’ or the Garhwali ‘Fanna’? What about the Kumouni ‘Mandua ki Roti’, the Konkani ‘Garadudde Paayas’, the Odiya ‘Jahni Posta’ or the Himachali ‘Channa Madra’? Because India is such a diverse country, even we Indians might not know some of these recipes. “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are” once said the renowned French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Not sure how Brillat-Savarin would have fared in this test.

Indian cuisine is plausibly the most varied food­ culture in the world that even within a state, there are different cuisines and food combinations. For example: in the stage of Gujarat, we have different cuisines that of Kathiawād, Kutch and Saurashtra. This is so complex that it’s difficult to define Indian cuisine. In fact, Indian cuisine is a misnomer as there is no such thing as one Indian cuisine. Watch India’s culinary journey in Vinod Dua’s popular TV show “Zaika India ka” on NDTV India to get an idea of the complex regional Indian smorgasbord.

While the popular Chicken tikka masalas and the Nana breads have traveled far and wide into the food courts around the world, the authentic Indian and regional cuisine is still unexplored by the masses. Just take the āloo (potato) recipes from India. Though it is well known that India has some 300 different ways to cook a potato, how many āloo recipes could one think of?

The cookery website of India’s best selling cookery author and Chef Tarla Dalāl has some 4000+ Indian recipes. This website has 900+ āloo based recipes like Duma āloo, āloo bhajia, āloo bhaji, āloo bonda, āloo capsicum, āloo chaat, āloo chana chat, āloo gobi masala, āloo kachori, āloo ki puri, āloo ki sabzi, āloo ki tikki, āloo methi, āloo mutter, āloo pakora etc where āloo is either the ‘hero’ or the ‘supporting actor’. Add to that a few hundred complementary chutney recipes. The Indian menu card is actually a menu book with so many appetizers, breakfast items, main course meals, tiffin items, snacks, pickles, pāpads, salads, sweets, desserts, drinks that this food heritage is incomparable. Just a cursory look at any Indian sweets tells us that India has sweets that could be made of milk (rosogulla), wheat (halwa), rice (kheer) cereals & lentils (besan laddoo), vegetables (carrot halwa) or fruits etc.

Given this depth and diversity, the menu cards in Indian restaurants hardly reflect the variety in India’s cuisine. Indian restaurant food for some reason gets restricted to North Western Indian food (the Punjabi/Mughlai type) and that too cooked to suit the local taste. Obviously there's more to Indian cuisine than just Punjabi cooking.
 
What an overseas Indian family eats at home is rarely the same flavour and taste to what is available in Indian restaurants. The locals’ only exposure to Indian food is through Indian restaurants and most people don't have enough interaction with Indian families to see what is eaten on a daily basis.

Moreover, when one goes to these Indian food joints, one gets asked a surprising question “How would you like it – Mild, Medium or Hot? By the way some even give a fourth option i.e. the “Extreme! Bring it on” option. Go to a regular dhaaba in Punjab or a restaurant in Chennai and ask for “mild” food, the guy will respond with a ‘whaaat?’ and a strange look reserved specially for a desi NRI.

Moreover Indian Cuisine is not just about diverse food preparations but the serving traditions also play an important part. Remember the ‘shaadi ka khaana’ and the way each item is served sequentially in right portions. Traditionally served, every food item comes in one thāli (big plate). So we have a North Indian thāli, South Indian thāli, Rajasthani thāli, Punjabi thāli, Mārwāri thāli Gujarati thāli, Maharashtrian thāli etc.

The art of cookery has been so perfected in the 10,000 year old continuous Indian civilisation that besides the flavour they also have excellent health value. Many recipes that are based on Ayurvedic principles not only satisfy the taste buds but also take care of the physical well-being. The goodness in the masalas used widely in Indian cooking is well-documented and the subject of regular research.

So, Indian food is not just one type of food. Served authentically in the right portion size, it can be the right food for the right climate for the right body type.

The author is from Mumbai, India and has made New Zealand his home for more than a decade. He is a keen Indology enthusiast and has specific interest in the wisdom traditions and perennial philosophy of India.

Editor: For a number of people Indian food has become synonymous with Punjabi / Mughlai style of cooking. Even Punjabis do not eat such heavy food at home. Indian food has as much variety as India herself just like a tourist can enjoy desert, beaches, forests, backwaters, wildlife and Tibet like terrain.

For my late Mother, like many others, cooking was a form of meditation. She put her heart and soul into it. It was a way of expressing love for the family. Seeing us enjoy a meal made her happy. The glow on her face is something that I can never forget.