Indian cuisine is not a monolith of spices. We break down the most common cooking misconceptions.


As a child, I spent many evenings in our blue-tiled kitchen watching my mother cook dinner. She would have at least five different pots on the stove, chopping up a pile of vegetables while stirring a pot of simmering curry, simultaneously spitting mustard seeds and an army of other flavors and spices into hot ghee.

Conjuring up the image of her cooking an Indian dish reminds me how labor intensive cooking is and how incredibly diverse her ingredients are. Yet Indian cuisine is so often overlooked, stereotyped and oversimplified.

I like to think I’m not overly sensitive to cheeky remarks about my culture or cuisine, especially ones that are ignorant and poorly researched. Simplistic, dismissive takes on Indian food make headlines with reliable regularity — most recently and infamously in The Washington Post — and make me want to tackle the myths and misnomers, once and for all.

The Indian state of Kerala is home to the highest tea plantation in the world.

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Tackling the subject of Indian cuisine is like pulling a thread through a complicated tapestry. Colleen Taylor Sen, an Indian cuisine expert who has contributed to several culinary encyclopaedias, observed that in every way India is much more diverse than Europe, but no one talks about “European cuisine”, a term that would include Italian, Finnish and Hungarian. and Irish food in one category.

India is more a continent than a country, with a myriad of religions, languages ​​and landscapes.

Let’s talk spice

The belief that Indian cuisine is and always has been loaded with spices is a common misconception. Red chillies were only introduced to India by the Portuguese 450 years ago.

Indian cuisine is spicy, but not spicy as that word is widely understood. The spices are indeed not spicy, it is the pepper which gives heat, but which can be adjusted without altering the essence of Indian dishes.

“Peppers like dried kashmiri and deggi mirch are like guajillo peppers and cascabel peppers used in Mexican cuisine,” said Kaiser Lashkari, owner and chef of Himalaya, a famous Indian restaurant in Houston. “They are only used to impart a deep red tint to the sauce, not to provide heat.”

Another myth is that Indian cuisine is “entirely based on a single spice,” wrote a Washington Post columnist. According to food historian KT Achaya in his book “The Illustrated Foods of India”, a wide range of spices have imparted flavors to Indian dishes since time immemorial.

India has nearly 30 states, each with its own unique ingredients and flavors.

India has nearly 30 states, each with its own unique ingredients and flavors.

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Regional differences

Every corner of India is recognizable by its endless use of spices. The Malabar Coast of Kerala and the lush hills of Tamil Nadu are the main spice-producing regions, which attracted Arab and Portuguese traders from the 7th to the 15th centuries. They took these precious spices, considered more valuable than gold at the time, and sold them in Europe and elsewhere.

Sardine fingerlings or mathi fingerlings are a specialty of Kerala.

Sardine fingerlings or mathi fingerlings are a specialty of Kerala.

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Tamil Nadu and Kerala, along with Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, are often referred to collectively as South India. The four states share geographic proximity and certain characteristics, such as the widespread use of black pepper and mustard seed in tempering. But their kitchens couldn’t be more different from each other.

In Tamil Nadu itself, there is an array of cuisines, from the meat-rich Chettinad region, where fennel and cumin impart a distinctive flavor and dark tint to the food, to the purely vegetarian cuisine of the Tamil Brahmins.

In Kerala, you are more likely to see sardines seasoned with ginger, garlic, shallots, black pepper, turmeric and chilli powder, then fried to fry mathi or chala.

The western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat are two other coastal neighbors that have almost nothing in common when it comes to cuisine. Turmeric (known as haldi) is the dominant spice in Gujarat.

In Maharashtra, on the other hand, generous amounts of strong agents such as kokum and tamarind are employed. The cuisine is also unique for its use of a species of lichen called black stone flower, or dagad phool, as a spice, as well as mace, the delicate red coating around the nutmeg seed.

Dagad phool, or black stone flower, is used in the food of some Indian regions.

Dagad phool, or black stone flower, is used in the food of some Indian regions.

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The Konkan coastal region between Maharashtra and Goa uses a spice called triphal or teppal, which is very similar to Sichuan pepper. Saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world, is generously cooked by the communities of Rajasthan. Further north, the state of Punjab, whose curries are all the rage in Europe, uses a paste or masala of ginger, garlic, onion and tomatoes tempered with cumin to flavor its dishes.

It’s not always about the spices

“Even spices are not a constant feature of cooking,” Sen said. “In northeast India, for example, some dishes are prepared without any spices.”

Sandwiched between Bangladesh and Burma, the northeastern Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam remain underrepresented in their cuisine, both domestically and abroad. Due to topography and inaccessibility, these regions are not heavily dependent on spices, but rather on a variety of techniques that produce a combination of textures. Foods here are often fermented or dried to extend their shelf life. Sesame seeds are a favorite ingredient in the region.

Til pitha, a traditional food from Assam in India, is a rice flour bun stuffed with ground black sesame seeds.

Til pitha, a traditional food from Assam in India, is a rice flour bun stuffed with ground black sesame seeds.

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Rani’s Kitchen recipe developer Rani Gurnaney, who has traveled to remote parts of India, found that people in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam often season their dishes with the burnt ash from banana stalks in instead of salt.

“The more you learn about the cuisine, the more amazed you are at its uniqueness,” Gurnaney said, adding that attempting to categorize Indian dishes according to predominant spices can be an exercise in futility given the complexity of the cuisine.

Even garam masala, a common spice blend, is different from region to region. The magical finishing spice in Indian cooking is rarely store-bought in the country, and its flavor profile changes depending on geography and people’s tastes. The spices of garam masala and their proportions are a secret that every Indian family keeps as a treasure.

Some of my fondest memories involve sinking my teeth into freckled whole-wheat buns with delicious lamb rogan josh, tender meat smothered in a thick, spicy cream alongside pulaos at 10″. ingredients” and riots of Basmati rice pecked with spices and adorned with golden raisins.

These dishes make me grateful for India’s rich culinary repertoire, which owes to generations who have worked tirelessly to keep its culinary history alive. A nasty opinion piece cannot sum up a multi-faceted cuisine like India’s.

And therein lies its beauty.


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