1. The Inventive Use of Spices
The primary distinction between the cuisine of India and other world cuisines is the inventive use of spices, or masalas, which gives Indian cooking its unique flavor.
Cumin, coriander, turmeric, black pepper, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, asafetida (pungent dried resin from a perennial herb), cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nigella (black onion seed), nutmeg, and saffron are the spices most frequently used.
To get the most flavors from them, spices are typically fried or toasted as part of the cooking process. Spices are used in either whole or ground form; ground spices are often mixed with water or vinegar to make a seasoning paste.
2. Many of Special Premixed Spice Blends
In addition to individual spices, Indian cooking is known for a number of special premixed spice blends. Though there is no set formula, curry powder is primarily coriander seed toasted and ground with cumin, fenugreek, fennel, yellow mustard, white and red pepper, cloves, and turmeric.
Garam masala, the most aromatic of Indian spice blends, typically consists of toasted and ground cumin, coriander, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. Panch phoron, a whole-spice blend used to flavor fish, vegetables, chutneys, and occasionally legumes, consists of whole cumin, fennel, black mustard, fenugreek, and nigella seeds.
3. Frequent Use of Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs, such as cilantro (coriander leaves), bay leaf, kari leaf (reminiscent of juniper berries and lime), and mint are also frequently used to flavor foods. Onion, garlic, and ginger are popular flavorings as well. Puréed and fried to a rich brown color, these aromatic ingredients are often used to thicken sauces (Indian cooks rarely use flour to thicken sauces, as many European cooks do).
Many Indian dishes are spicy hot. Prior to the discovery of the Americas, the heat in Indian food came from mustard seeds and black peppercorns. In the 16th century, Portuguese traders introduced native American chili peppers to Asia, and since that time chiles have been the primary source of heat in Indian cooking.
The main cooking fats in India are vegetable oil and ghee, highly clarified butter made by cooking whole butter until the water and milk solids separate and can be strained out, leaving pure butterfat.
4. Home to More Than 700 Million Practicing Vegetarians
Due mainly to religious dietary laws forbidding the eating of meat, India is home to more than 700 million practicing vegetarians. As a result, Indian cuisine includes an enormous repertoire of vegetable dishes.
Cauliflower, eggplant, potato, squash, green beans, tomatoes, and greens such as spinach are the most popular vegetables. Carrots, beets, okra, mushrooms, and turnips are also important. Indian vegetable dishes are sometimes described as either "wet" or "dry," depending on how they are prepared.
Wet dishes, such as shorvedar chukander (beets with onions), are generally root vegetables cooked in a thick ginger-garlic sauce or with tomatoes; they are called wet because they have a fair amount of sauce. In dry dishes, such as adrak gobhi (cauliflower with nigella in ginger oil), vegetables are shredded or cut into slices and quickly stir-fried with spices; they do not have a sauce.
4. The Important Staple in Indian Cuisine
Pulses -dried beans, split peas, and lentils- are an important staple in Indian cuisine. For families that are vegetarian or eat meat infrequently, they provide a significant amount of protein in the diet. There are numerous varieties of pulses in India, and they are available whole, split (to speed cooking time), and sometimes skinned. Split pulses are known as dals. Pulses are almost always cooked with ginger, asafetida, turmeric, or a combination of these spices.
5. Bread and Dairy Product
In order to provide a complete source of protein, bean dishes are usually eaten with a grain (rice or bread) and a dairy product (yogurt or cheese). Basmati rice, grown in the foothills of the Himalayas, is delicate, aromatic rice with a nutty flavor.
Kecheree is a popular dish of rice and lentils that resembles Italian risotto. Most Indian breads are unleavened and made with a very finely ground whole wheat flour called ata or chapati flour. Poori is deep-fried puffy bread, chapati is flat bread, and naan is leavened bread baked on the sides of a wood-fired, clay oven known as a tandoor.
Yogurt is used frequently in marinades and in yogurt salads, or raitas, which are meant to contrast the spiciness of Indian food. The best-known raita is kheera raita, a combination of yogurt, mint, cucumbers, and cumin.
6. The Popular Meat
For those Indians who eat meat, lamb and goat are the most popular. Beef and pork are eaten but less frequently, due to religious taboos. Meat is usually cooked on the bone with vegetables such as potatoes and turnips that will absorb the flavor of the meat.
Rogan josh is a red lamb or beef stew flavored with ground red chiles and other spices. Chicken is typically prepared without skin, cut into small pieces. Tandoori murghi is chicken marinated in yogurt and spices, then baked in a tandoor. India has a long coastline and numerous lakes and rivers, so fish and shellfish, such as tuna, sea bass, trout, sole, lobster, shrimp, giant prawns, and squid, are eaten often.
7. A Typical Indian Meal
A typical Indian meal consists of a meat, chicken, or fish dish (for those who are not vegetarian); a vegetable dish; bread and/or rice; a pulse dish; a raita; and a fresh chutney (a sweet, sour, spicy condiment of fruit, vinegar, sugar, and spices), or small relishlike salad.
Though some Indians use knives, forks, and spoons, many prefer to eat with their hands, using pieces of bread to scoop up foods. Meals usually end with fresh fruit, but on special occasions sweet desserts are served.
Indian desserts tend to be mellow milk- and fruit-based puddings to contrast the spiciness of the preceding meal. Popular beverages in India include lassi (a frothy drink of yogurt, fruit, and herbs of flower essences), limeade, lemonade, fruit shakes, and beer.