Written by Krishna Panikar
If you’re not native to India, your idea of Indian food would probably revolve around hot spicy gravies and flavoured rice; but there’s a whole lot more to it than the general stereotype! The India that you see today is a result of dramatic invasions and influences from the past.
India can be extremely complex to understand fully. You can differentiate the general population on the basis of language/ religion/ culture/ tradition/ ethnic roots/ castes/ sub-castes (yes, no kidding)/ geography etc. the list is endless. However, if there’s anything that would override all these differences and bring people together, it would be A. Bollywood and B. Cricket. Most Indians can be extremely passionate about these two topics. So, imagine a Bollywood movie based on cricket. Or, a cricket match featuring Bollywood players! Well, let’s just say- been there, done that.
Among all the other millions of categories that differentiate the people of India, there lies, yet another category, namely, Food. Breaking it down, let’s go geographically. Now obviously we know Indian food. Let’s zoom in on the map and look at a state in India, say, Kerala (down south). Food in Kerala can be different based on the communities within the state. Zooming in further, it could also vary between sub-communities! Now, this is just ONE state; and India has 29 states. So you can only IMAGINE the immense ocean of varied cuisines!
Going through history, broadly speaking, the Indian subcontinent can be divided into two dominant halves, one being, North India and other, the South. If you’re Indian, then you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you’re not, well, then, the next time you meet an Indian, ask him/her if they identify themselves with Shah Rukh Khan or Rajinikanth (Psst! The latter represents the South!)
What creates this difference you ask? Well, it can be explained to be due to the various invasions and cultural exposures the country experienced over time, thus reflected on the kind of food found today. You will find that the food around Northern India features several Persian / Arabic textures and combinations, given the significant influence, the Mughal dynasty (native to present day Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan) had on the Northern half of India. Think tandoori kebabs, chicken tikkas, and biryanis! You know these sound familiar because you’ve seen them under the “Middle Eastern” section at your Friday brunch buffets.
Meanwhile, the South, which was pretty much just chilling at the time, in their princely states, was untouched by the Mughals, since they were ruled by local kings and queens, who, although controlled by other Western forces like the Portuguese, the French and the Dutch, did not have too much influence on the South Indian culture. Thus, it remained mostly the same over time. Here you’ll find traditional dosas (rice flour crepe), idlis (rice cake), and sambar (lentil veg stew) which date back to the 1st century AD!
So, with all this intricate background of a country just SO diverse, here’s a futile attempt to pick 5 Indian Dishes (from a hub of more than a thousand subcultures) you probably didn’t know existed:
1. Salli Murghi
Salli Murghi originates from the Parsi community, tracing their roots back to Iran. This dish consists of chicken in gravy served with fried potato juliennes over the top (salli: potato, murghi: chicken). The dark brown gravy is thick and richly infused with spices. It has the perfect balance between tangy, spicy and a tinge of sweetness. Paired along with the beautifully salted crunchy potato juliennes, this dish is a winner! This dish is always had with warm fluffy rotis, and is eaten by dipping the roti in the hot and spicy chicken gravy, along with a bit of the succulent meat, leading to a medley of flavors in your mouth as you bite into it. This is an intense meeting between the delicious, hot and spicy meat-gravy and the soft and fluffy roti.
2. Kori Rotti
Another classic, must-have, local favorite, is the Kori Rotti dish, which literally translates to “chicken-bread” and originates from the state of Karnataka. This dish consists of two main components, one, the chicken meat gravy, and other, the rotti. The rotti is made up of rice flour, fried into thin crispy wafers, which would be best compared to, an extremely thin crispy crepe, broken into large pieces. What makes this dish work is that zesty, tangy gravy, which is super thick in texture, served by pouring over the crispy rotti. This allows the gravy to soak into the rotti, which is the best way to have this delicacy.
3. Kappa Meen Curry
This dish is a lesser known, favorite of the South, the kappa-meen (tapioca-fish) curry, from the coastal state of Kerala. What makes this dish click, is the subtle taste of the boiled tapioca paired along with the tangy, spicy gravy of the fish curry. This dish is always prepared using sardines. The fish curry is so tangy and spicy that it actually does tingle your taste buds! It is almost like the fish curry is made to be over the top dramatic to compensate for the dull (in comparison) tapioca. However, the tapioca, once boiled and brought to a mash, is cooked with grated coconut and a few spices to bring in its own personality to form. The tapioca is not entirely pureed, most times it is prepared leaving a few chunks, without really mashing it up, to retain the true taste of the tapioca. This dish makes it to the list due to its unusual combination. Like they say, you can never judge a dish by its ingredients!
4. Aloo Paratha
Aloo (potato) paratha is a popular North Indian dish which originates from the state of Punjab. It typically is a wheat flour based round roti (bread) that is stuffed with mashed potato. The roti is made by mixing wheat flour into a dough and rolling them into flat round disks. This dish, with its flakey crunchy exterior and soft flavour-packed stuffing, is a classic favorite. If you are a fan of mashed potatoes, then you will surely like this one. Alert! Consume this delicacy with a scoop of fresh yoghurt to enjoy it as the locals do.
5. Carrot Halwa
No meal is complete without dessert; similarly, this top 5 list has to feature an authentic Indian dessert! Ever heard of vegetables in dessert? This is probably a good way to get your kids eat their veggies, because this dessert features carrots! Carrot halwa is prepared by shredding carrots to bits and cooking the shredded heap with sugar and milk. This dish is served sometimes with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. What makes this a must try is the gorgeous blend of the hot carrot sweet pudding and cold ice cream! The carrot after cooking becomes a bright orange and also retains a slight crunch; however, it is predominately soft and has a mushy texture.
India is a country which represents diversity. Each of the 29 states has their own set of languages, cultures, rituals and religious beliefs, like a beautiful tapestry of different fabrics of varied colours, all knitted together to form a whole. It is probably due to this reason, the food produced by each of these states can be completely different from the other. Even for most Indians themselves, it would take a lifetime to taste every type of food produced by different parts of the country. The same meat, spices, and vegetables, cooked in different ways can change the way the entire dish tastes! All of these techniques are influenced by the interesting and varied periods the country has experienced over the years. A food developed from history, now isn’t that one exciting story?