Indian cuisine is as varied and pluralistic as the subcontinent itself, but is generally characterized by the extensive use of spices and herbs, as well as the pervasive use of vegetables due to the widespread practice of vegetarianism in Indian society. Hinduism and Hindu culture, spice trade with Europe, as well as the influence of foreign cultures have played a role in the evolution of food in India. The flexibility and diversity of Indian cuisine has made it popular around the world; flavors of India can especially be detected in Southeast Asian and Caribbean food. And while the British colonial period left its mark on Indian cuisine, according to Britain’s Food Standards Agency, Indian food accounts for two-thirds of all dining out in Britain itself.
Indian cuisine relies heavily on the staples of atta (whole wheat flour), rice, and a variety of legumes. These legumes (or pulses) include channa (chickpea), masoor (most often red lentil), toor dal (yellow gram), urad (black gram), and mung (mung bean). Some of these legumes, like chickpeas and mung beans, are also used as flours.
Within the diverse cultural regions of India there exist food specialties at both the regional level and at the provincial level. Many of the culinary differences arise from local heritage, economy and religion, but are also heavily dependent on local geography. Indian cuisine places a high priority on fresh produce, thus whether a region is close to the sea, desert, or mountains has a great effect on local fare, as does the season.
As an example of regional diversity, the type of vegetable oil (translating into underlying flavor) used to cook curries differs greatly depending on location. Peanut oil is popular in northern and western India, as is sesame oil in the south, while in the east and west respectively, mustard oil and coconut oil are most common. Recently, sunflower and soybean oils have gained popularity across the country, due in part to widespread availability and affordability. Ghee, clarified butter, is used extensively throughout India. Cow’s milk derived ghee has a sacred role in both Hindu and Vedic anointment rituals. It is also used in marriages and funerals, for bathing religous idols, is burnt in the Hindu religious ritual of Ārati, and as the principal fuel for diyā, the Hindu votive lamp. Ghee can be stored for extended periods without refrigeration in an airtight container, and was mentioned in one of the earliest known literary works, The Epic of Gilgamesh. It is thought to be Akkadian in origin.
The most common spices in Indian cuisine are lehsun (garlic), adrak (ginger), chili pepper, rai (black mustard seed), haldi (tumeric), jeera (cumin), methi (fenugreek), dhania (coriander), and mint. Each region, and often each chef, has their own sepcial spice mix, referred to as garam masala. Though proportions and other ingredients vary, garam masala generally includes cardamom, cinnamon, and clove. In the southern regions, curry leaves and curry roots are used extensively. Desserts typically include prominent flavors of rose essence, cardamom, saffron, and nutmeg.
Though culinary traditions vary nearly as much as cuisine, most Indians consider a healthy breakfast important, and accompany it with milky chai (tea) or coffee.
Lunch is traditionally considered the main meal of the day, and is a time when the whole family gathers to eat. Lunch consists of several courses, after which paan (betel leaves), thought to aid digestion, are eaten in parts of India.
Indian families also gather for “evening breakfast” to snack, drink tea, and chat about their day. Dinner is a lesser meal than lunch, but is often followed by some type of sweet, which ranges from fresh fruit to traditional desserts like kheer, gulab jamun, gajraila, qulfi or ras malai.