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Hilde Lee: Indian cuisine reflects love of place, tradition and faith

Hilde Lee: Indian cuisine reflects love of place, tradition and faith

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It does not look as if there will be much travel in this country or abroad in the next few months until a vaccine has been perfected. We will just have to continue our armchair culinary explorations. Shall we go north or east from the Arab countries of the previous columns? How about east to India? Let’s explore the foods of that vast country.

I was planning to go to India several years ago and got talked out of it by someone who had emigrated here from India. “You won’t like it, and it’s hot and dirty,” he said. I have been sorry ever since that I did not go.

Let’s at least take a culinary trip to India, starting with some history and a “taste of India.” India is a big subject.

The earliest civilizations in India were settled around the Indus River Valley in northwestern India from around 2500 to 1800 B. C. They built cities, like those in Egypt, that were well populated and wealthy. The surrounding area had agriculture and animal domestication. Eventually, kingdoms arose in these cities.

When Aryans arrived in the region, they were not farmers like the older inhabitants. They were warriors who used horses, drove chariots and wrought havoc on the local population. The Aryans raised cattle for their sustenance and sacrificed them to their gods. They ate beef, milked their cattle and made butter.

How these people went from being cow eaters to cow worshippers is one of the mysteries of history. They were not always strict avoiders of beef. However, the religion of these people forms the basis for what eventually became Hinduism. These people believed that everything is made of a divine substance. And, since all creation is equal, man should not kill anything.

In 600 B.C. there was a period of great unrest, famine, drought and wars throughout India. Thus, in order to survive, the people decided to “reinvent themselves.” They began to add new sacred writings that explained food prohibitions in detail — particularly to denote who could eat what and with whom. The priests decided that cows are the highest creature you can come back as, in terms of reincarnation. This resulted in cows becoming a forbidden food.

At the same time as the codifying of food regulations, a young man, Siddhartha Gautama (later known as Buddha), decided to do something about all of the suffering in the world.

In order to become enlightened, Buddhists became strict vegetarians. Another vegetarian religion that appeared at the same time as Buddhism is Janinism. These people even avoided the killing of bugs.

If you look at a map, you will see that India is a vast country. Thus, food varies from region to region. It is strongly influenced by religion and custom, as well as geography. When the Mongols invaded India in the 16th century, they brought with them their central Asian Muslim cuisine, which is based on meat. Their influence was strongest in North and central India, where today meat cooking is at its best.

Further south, where Mogul influence was slight, the cooking is mainly vegetarian, except in those central pockets where Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish and Muslim influence has predominated.

India’s regional cooking is also influenced by the staple foods of the area. In the north, where wheat grows, the food is more dry and the sauces are thicker than in the south, where rice is the staple of the diet. This is because people eat with their fingers and with the help of chapatti — a flat, unleavened whole-wheat bread. Thus, it is easier to pick up dry food. The more liquid curries are better eaten with rice, which is more absorbent. Climate, too, plays a part, with its heavy rainfall. It helps produce a varied, exciting vegetable cuisine.

Most of India’s large population is Hindu. These diners never eat beef because they regard the cow as sacred. Although the majority of the population is vegetarian, especially those who are members of the highest castes, there are exceptions. Influenced by long years of Muslim rule, the Brahmans of Kashmir eat mutton. The Brahmans of Bengal and of Mangalore eat fish because it is plentiful, cheap and delicious. Other minorities, of which there are several, adhere to their own distinctive cuisines.

India is the land of home cooking because restaurants, even with modern equipment, cannot compete with the quality of ingredients and care taken in food preparation by the home cook. Therefore, Indians rarely eat out, but when they do, it is food that is rarely made at home.

In years past, it was customary for men of social standing to cook for guests on important occasions. The Soopa Shastra, a cookbook created in the early 16th century in the tiny southern kingdom of Kallagalli, is still being used today. The book was commissioned by Mangarasa III, the local ruler of the area.

The Soopa Shastra was written on palm-leaf paper in metrical verse of 358 stanzas in the classical Kannada language. It was an actual cookbook with very workable recipes. The book has a wide range of recipes using various ingredients and techniques. It is not filled with exotic imports, but uses local ingredients. This may be due to the fact that the use of this cookbook was limited to an area far afield from East-West trade routes. Eggplant, mango, plantain, rice, wheat and beans were the basis of many recipes.

Even today, modern Indian cuisine is still based on tradition. The heart of Indian cooking is masala, a combination of spices and herbs. It may be a mixture that is very mild and delicate, or it may be so strong and sharp that the dish brings tears to your eyes. The combination of spices is endless, and each cook follows his or her own taste. There is only one rule that the end product — the curry — must be a perfect blend of all the spices. No one spice can be so strong that it dominates the dish.

More than a hundred spices are known in Indian cooking. Fortunately most of the important ones are readily available either in the supermarket or specialty shops (both in India and in Charlottesville).

Chilies are essential to most Indian cooking. Green and red when fresh, or a brownish red when dried, they must be used rather sparingly. The seeds are the most pungent part of the chili, which must be handled carefully.

The most commonly used flavorings in India cooking are garlic and onions, which give body to a dish. Fresh herbs, such as coriander leaves, mint and basil, are used in many dishes and sauces.

We have got to have something to spice up our stay at home. Next week, we’ll talk more about curry and other Indian foods. Once the countries are open again, I still want to go to India.

Satisfy your cravings

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