Many people are mystified by traditional Indian cooking and cuisines and a little somewhat confused with the varieties of curries and spices used. Some may even think the traditional Indian cooking is mostly about vegetarian dishes and curries.
India has one of the finest and richest culinary histories. Contrary to popular belief, Indian cuisines are not complex or too confusing to cook. It can also be as elaborate as you want it to be. If you understand the diversity of the country, which is divided into four regions, north, south, east and west, you will appreciate the varieties of dishes, exotic spices, cooking methods, etc.
Two distinctions in many Indian recipes is the absence of beef and pork due to religious factors, as cows are sacred to the Hindus and pork is prohibited in the Muslim diet.
Indian cuisines are however generally characterized by exact combination of spices and flavours and the cooking method generally is to saute and simmer the dishes or curries over low heat. Tandoori cooking has popularised the oven-clay oven method which has produced tandoori chicken or naan bread.
Regardless of region, spices are key ingredients in Indian cooking. The Indians are also mindful of the healing properties of spices in their cooking. These are derived from plants's roots, buds, seeds, fruits and dried bark which produce the exotic aroma. It is released when the spices are heated up. All these spices are all readily available in supermarkets.
Spices can be grouped into five basic categories: sweet, pungent, tangy, hot, and amalgamating. The way these are used and the amounts used in cooking are governed by these characteristics. Examples of the different types of spices are:
Amalgamating: Coriander seed, fennel seed
Sweet: Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, vanilla
Pungent: Cloves, star anise, cardamom
Tangy: Ginger, tamarind, sumach, kokam
Hot: pepper, chilli, mustard, horseradish
Most of the herbs such as thyme, sage, marjoram, oregano, bay leaves, mint and rosemary are considered as savoury. The herbs do have varying degrees of flavour intensity, however not as dramatic as with spices.
Northern Indian cooking is influenced by the weather which can range from extreme heat to freezing cold. The dishes are traditionally rich and heavy with cream and ghee, using breads, meats and tend to be less spicy. Yoghurt is widely used instead of coconut milk which is widely used in the south. They also tend to be drier as soupy sauces do not mix well as dippings for breads. Naan and chapati breads come from the north.
In the south where the weather is mostly hot, rice is widely grown and this makes the diet of south Indians rice-based that goes well with soupy curries. Spices are used heavily and the southern cusines tend to be spicier than the north. The roti-prata or dosai are typical southern breads.
Indian desserts are basically different forms of rice puddings, milk puddings, vegetables and fruits dipped in sweet syrup. Indian sweets or fudges are usually decorated or garnished with raisins, almonds, pistachios. Mostly made by boiling down milk to remove the moisture and then adding butter, flavour and sugar. The Indian sweets usually have high sugar content so use sugar in moderation when trying out Indian dessert recipes.