Devour incredible India – embark on a culinary journey to surpass all others.
It is only relatively recently that people in the western world have begun to develop a serious interest in the healing properties of foods, spices and herbs. “New superfood discovered!” the papers may claim, but then you find out that in the tradition of Ayurvedic medicine this “new superfood” has been used for many hundreds of years in Indian kitchens. According to Ayurveda, we can achieve optimum health by aligning and nourishing all the major tissue groups in our body, while also getting rid of any toxins trapped due to poor digestion. Meals must contain all the elements that maintain the equilibrium between mind, body and spirit, and failure to do so will result in ill health. Though most Indian families do not eat a purely Ayurvedic diet, every kitchen prepares meals based on Ayurvedic traditions: daily food must be fresh, incorporate healing spices and herbs (such as turmeric, or garlic) and there must be a balance between carbohydrates, protein, vegetables, fruit and dairy. Ayurvedic wisdom is passed through the family from generation to generation and western kitchens would do well to incorporate some of this wisdom and take time to consider the prospect that we are what we eat.
One of the great joys of travelling around India is being able to tuck into a selection of the most varied and delicious foods in the world. Incredible aromas, exotic ingredients, thousands of spice combinations and unparalleled choice make India a dream destination for foodies. Every state, every village, takes full advantage of its local produce, which is determined by the climate, history, religion and geography of the area.
In the north, the rich tomato and onion-based sauces of the agricultural Punjab are served with bowls of delicate basmati rice. The cuisine of Kashmir has been dictated by the succession of Muslims that crossed into the subcontinent from central Asia and Persia. They brought with them elaborate, wheat-based breads, a voracious appetite for meat, pistachios and yoghurt-based curries that were then subtly spiced with Kashmiri saffron, fennel and warming ginger. You can still taste the royal influence of the Mughals in the food of Delhi, with its complex rose-scented creamy sauces, pomegranate-studded rice and buttery meat stews.
Because of Rajasthan’s marauding medieval warrior tribes and the lack of fresh ingredients in this arid region, the food of this princely state of northwestern India had to keep and had to travel. Lurid, red-hot dry curries used mango powder for flavouring and the spice asafoetida as a substitute for fresh onions and garlic. Due to water scarcity, food was rarely cooked in water, and today many Rajasthani meals are still cooked in a tandoor oven and its curries have a base of milk or ghee. India’s northern states are also home to lassi, the original smoothie. This silky blend of yoghurt and water, fruit, sugar and spices was served to combat the blistering heat of the summer months, tallying with Ayurvedic advice that yoghurt cools the stomach and disperses body heat as well as aiding digestion.
Two thousand kilometres to the east (about the distance from London to Ukraine), mango, coconut and rice grow in the rich, fertile soil. Mughal influences from the north have trickled southwards to give the state of Odisha a great tradition of succulent kebabs, bejewelled biryanis and slow-cooked creamy kormas. Unique blends of five-spice, using a base of mustard seeds and ginger, are famous here, as well as baked fish dishes and fragrant soups.
Bengal and Odisha are famous for their milk-based puddings and share a passionate love of sweet, cheese-based delicacies and cakes. They are known for the famous rasgulla, a small round dumpling made from cottage cheese and semolina. These are boiled in syrup to create an oozing, sugary sweet, traditionally offered to the goddess Lakshmi at the Jagannath temple in Puri. Love often walks hand in hand with propriety, and rasgulla is so beloved in the eastern states that there are fights over its origins. Wherever the dish was born, this pillowy titbit is so craved that the Indian Space Research Organisation has developed a dehydrated version for its astronauts to eat in orbit.
The food of southern India is a world away from that of the north. Rice is king here rather than bread-based carbohydrates, and the hot and humid climate means that a whole array of different spices are used in cooking. Think curry leaves, ginger and chilli, alongside the ubiquitous coconut, tamarind, aubergine and seafood that is caught off the coast. Food in the south is predominantly vegetarian, tangy and hot, with sharp, simple flavours that aim to cool you down in the high temperatures. If you’re after a true cultural icon of southern Indian, look no further than the crispy rice pancake (dosa) stuffed with spiced potato, served with coconut chutney and breathtakingly hot sambar, all washed down with a cup of coffee.