Beyond Curry And Naan: 11 Indian Food Facts Unveiled!
Uncover the enigmatic world of Indian cuisine as we embark on a delightful journey through 11 fascinating Indian food facts that will open your eyes to the rich tapestry of flavors, traditions, and cultural significance woven into every dish.
In this exploration beyond the familiar realms of curry and naan, we’ll savor the stories behind the sumptuous dishes, and gain insights into the traditions that have shaped the Indian culinary landscape.
But first, I have a bold statement to make:
Indian restaurants have misled you!
They’ve made you believe that Indian food is all about curries. And naan.
How did this happen? Having analyzed this for several years, there’s a conclusion I’ve drawn.
One is that menu items like Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken are hugely popular and people go to Indian restaurants seeking those out. Second, when asked for recommendations, Indian restaurants guide guests to “safe” menu items for obvious reasons.
Even though Indian food is popular all over the world, it is widely misunderstood.
Here’s the lowdown: Indian cuisine is rich and varied but it’s not as complicated or exotic as it may appear.
There are many Indian food and culture facts, that are not common knowledge but, that I’m sure you’ll find interesting. Read on.
Deciphering the Indian Restaurant Menu: Understanding the Why Behind the What
Chicken Tikka Masala. Naan. Samosas. Ring a bell? It might, or maybe you’re quite familiar with these via your ubereats order history. Either way, why are these certain few dishes the poster children of Indian food? Is there more to Indian cuisine?
I’ve come to a conclusion about the first question. They’re..well.. not too “exotic”.
The safe option a server at an Indian restaurant might suggest to you, not wanting to risk the possibility of offering something that your taste buds aren’t primed to enjoy yet.
But the truth is there’s so much more to Indian food. And those dishes don’t bite.!
Indian food is varied and nuanced, but that doesn’t necessarily mean wildly exotic and something you definitely won’t have the palette for. Read on to learn more about some interesting Indian food facts and traditions!
Not all Indian food is spicy
Yes, India is a land of spices, and a variety of spices are used in Indian cooking, but not all spices make food hot.
The purpose of spices is to add flavor. Think mixology. Sophisticated cocktails have a variety of ingredients to create the perfect blend of flavor, and each ingredient is crucial. Its the same with the blend of spices in Indian food. Spices in Indian food are used to add flavor.
Some spices, such as cinnamon and cardamom, provide sweetness to the dish. Red chilies, and red chili powder add heat to the dishes, but are fully optional and can be adjusted based on your spice tolerance.
Fun Indian food fact: chilies are not indigenous to India. It was a contribution of Spanish colonists, and they introduced chili peppers to Indian cuisine. Before the introduction of chili peppers, black pepper was used to add heat to Indian food.
Bottom line: the spiciness of spicy Indian dishes can be toned down to mild without sacrificing taste. And there are chili powders, like the Kashmiri red chili powder, that add a lot of color without the heat to Indian dishes making them look vibrant.
Indian food fact: Indian food does not equal only curry
It’s true a lot of Indian food is curry. But it’s not all curry.
Indian food has wraps, barbecues, stir-fried, street food, patties and cutlets, one-pot meals savory crepes, and soups to name a few varieties.
Indian food is vast, regional, and extremely diverse! So, feel free to try some of the other dishes on the Indian restaurant menu, maybe a street food or a wrap or a savory crepe! You’ll be delighted.
For instance, Chicken Kathi Roll is a wrap stuffed with pulled barbecued chicken, onions, some delicious sauces and flavorful spices. It’s considered street food and is absolutely delicious! Many Indian restaurants worldwide serve it or the vegetarian option Paneer Kathi Roll (flatbread stuffed with grilled paneer, Indian cottage cheese and other flavorful ingredients).
Indians are not mostly vegetarians
I’ve been asked plenty of times throughout the years if I am vegetarian and have politely said no. I didn’t mind because it is nice to be asked but it certainly gave me an idea of the misconception floating around the world that Indians are probably vegetarians.
It’s not surprising though! A lot of info that people gather is from life experiences (aside from media). Maybe someone at work is Indian and usually eats vegetarian food, or someone at soccer brought an Indian snack and said they only eat vegetarian food at home or you’re seeing a lot of YouTube Indian cooking shows and they usually cook vegetarian food. Truth is, although a LOT of Indians are vegetarian, there’s an equal amount of people who are not vegetarian and are fish and meat lovers.
Where I come from, fish, poultry and meat are consumed daily. A good deal of vegetarian food as well.
People in India, even if they eat fish, meat, and poultry, also like to balance their meals with vegetarian dishes (within the same meal). A well-balanced “non-vegetarian” meal as they are classified, will have a lentil soup, some vegetable stir-fry and/or vegetable curries, and then the chicken, fish, or mutton dish.
Indian Food Fact: Indian Vegetarian is Different
Did you know Indian vegetarians do not eat eggs? That’s right! Eggs are not considered vegetarian food in India. Neither are garlic and onions. True vegetarians in India (there is such a thing as vegetarians and true vegetarians in Indian culture), do not eat onions or garlic. The other kind of vegetarians do not eat eggs but eat onions and garlic.
It’s very fascinating. If you ever visit an Indian grocery store, you will see callouts like “Pure vegetarian, no onions, no garlic.” in products (say ketchup or packaged noodle meals).
You don’t need exotic spices to cook Indian food.
Everyday Indian food is actually really basic and doesn’t need exotic spices.
In the world of matcha, moringa, ashwagadha and so forth, that are becoming common lingo, Indian food usually needs basic spices like turmeric, cumin, coriander, chili powder and a spice blend called ‘garam masala.’
These are quite commonly available in neighborhood grocery stores, as are herbs like cilantro, commonly used in Indian cooking.
One of the reasons I wrote my cookbook Indian Kitchen Secrets-52 Easy-to-Make Indian Recipes for Beginners, was to show people who like Indian food, (but are a bit afraid to cook it at home), that you can cook many wholesome Indian meals with basic pantry ingredients. A trip to an Indian grocery store could be a fun experience but is not always necessary.
Curry powder is not an integral part of Indian cooking
You may have bought curry powder from your local grocery store and used it to make an Indian dish. It turned out pretty good, and you felt joyful! That’s awesome adn I have nothing against curry powder, I use it myself.
However, curry powder is a creation of the western world. It is not original to India. In Indian cooking, individual spices are used to create layers of flavors. Some spice blends are used, like garam masala, but for the most part each spice is chosen to complement the ingredients of the dish.
Curry powder is an innovation created in the west to make Indian cooking easy! This spice blend combines some of the basic Indian spices so people don’t have to go out and buy individual spices that they may not end up using.
I like it as it helps keep the overwhelm down when foraying into an unknown culinary territory.
Breakfast is usually savory
A super interesting fact of Indian food is that Indian breakfasts are not sweet-they’re usually savory.
And mostly vegetarian. Perhaps a flatbread with a vegetable stir-fry, or some kind of savory stuffed pastry or savory crepes with chutney, or rice cakes with lentil soup and chutney.
Of course, some people do choose to have eggs so it’s not strictly vegetarian, but a lot of people choose vegetarian options when it comes to breakfast. And those flatbreads and pastries are made fresh. Not something that can be replicated easily outside of India as in Indian households help is easily afforded because in India, labor is cheap.
Ayurvedic rules are sometimes applied to how food is eaten
Ayurveda, an alias for Ayurvedic medicine is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems. It was developed more than 3,000 years ago in India. It’s based on the belief that health and wellness depends on an optimal balance between mind and body and that food can get help you get there.
Food in ayurveda is revered for its medicinal qualities and is used to achieve optimal health. Some families that are more in touch with this natural and holistic way of life follow Ayurvedic food rules quite strictly. For instance, making sure that all 6 tastes are present in all meals of the day. Meaning, sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent, and pungent tastes in all meals.
Sweet taste for strengthening, sour taste for purifying, salty for balancing, bitter for detoxifying, astringent for cooling, and pungent for warming.
Now I know why gramma used to force us to eat neem leaves (bitter) to start off the meal or another bitter vegetable called karela (bitter gourd). We would always complain but it’s really a teaspoon’s worth that is needed to be had.
Meals always had yogurt on the side, lemons to squeeze, dessert at the end and spices like ginger and turmeric that are anti-inflammatory and gut friendly. Cucumbers were often included as part of a fresh salad or grated in yogurt.
Apart from this, another Ayurvedic principle that was encouraged, (we didn’t know it was Ayurveda but just gramma’s rules), was holding off drinking water for 45 minutes after the meal. We could drink a bit during meals but not right after completing a meal. I learned later it was to help the digestive juices do their thing and not get diluted with water and ruin the digestive process thereby adding stress to the system. There are lots more such Ayurvedic principles that are quite fascinating.
Spices have medicinal properties
Indian cooking is all about flavorful spices.
Did you know that these spices, apart from adding amazing flavors to Indian meals, also have medicinal and therapeutic properties?
Commonly used “Indian” spices, fennel, cumin, coriander, and cardamom help debloat. It’s common knowledge now that turmeric (heavily used in Indian cooking), has anti-inflammatory properties.
Did you know turmeric also has anti-bacterial properties? I remember how my mom and grandmom used to coat fish in a paste made of turmeric, salt, and water and that made it safe to leave the fish unrefrigerated till it was ready to be cooked. The belief was that the bacteria from raw fish would be “killed” by the turmeric paste and make it “safer” to eat. Although there are many supermarkets now, traditionally, groceries were bought every day from a fresh local market and there were no standardized food safety guidelines so natural food safety measures were used.
Moving on to another popular spice used in Indian cooking: ginger. Ginger is used as a gut cooling and immunity building spice. It not only adds great taste to a cooked meal but is very therapeutic.
Have you ever seen fenugreek seeds?
They are small, almost yellowish-beige-colored seeds of the fenugreek plant. The seeds and the plant are used for Indian cooking.
For medicinal purposes, fenugreek seeds are soaked in water overnight and it’s commonly touted that the water helps regulate blood sugar. Cloves are used to treat toothaches. I have chewed on a whole clove several times in my life to alleviate tooth pain.
And there are more examples. I actually created an eBook titled Beat Bloat with some recipes to help with gut health using spices. Of course, I’m not a doctor or in the medical field, but these recipes have been passed on for generations in the family so I feel confident in sharing them.
There’s a life beyond naan
I know naan is really popular in Indian restaurants but there are so many other types of flatbreads that are part of Indian cuisine and many of those are offered in Indian restaurants but not promoted.
My favorite flatbread is Roti (aka Chapati). It’s made of whole wheat flour, kneaded with water, a bit of salt and a few drops of oil and roasted on an iron pan. No frying or browning required using any fat. It’s full of whole grains and fiber. The reason it has two names (and a few regional variations) is because of the different languages that make up the sub-continent of India. In some regions it’s called Roti and in another it’s Chapati (highly confusing, I know).
Then there’s another flatbread called paratha (kind of like roti but definitely browned with ghee or oil). Quite delicious and much richer.
Then we have stuffed parathas. Flatbread stuffed with cheese, or cauliflower or a potato filling. Sometimes even stuffed with herbs like mint and fenugreek leaves. A specialty of the north-western part of India. These take a lot of practice to perfect as you’d need to roll out thinly a stuffed dough ball wielding a rolling pin just so! I’m still perfecting this skill.
Another type of bread is Poori (aka luchi), the name variation exactly for the same reason cited above, differences in language. This is a fried dough delicacy that puffs up when fried, -it’s another skill- based flatbread creation requiring excellent rolling skills. I sometimes cheat and use a tortilla maker when I make these, and they are perfectly round and rolled out this way. Cuts the labor in half! Why not use a hack if there’s one? I’m all for that!
People often eat with their hands
A real fact but before you have gross images swimming in front of your eyes, I must add that people also use cutlery.
Especially when they are dining outside of the home. But traditionally food was consumed on the floor, in a big round stainless steel plate with raised sides also called a thali, sitting on a mat, and using your hands. It’s not the whole hand, but more the fingers that are used and it’s a definite art! And the right hand is the only hand that can be used for eating as the left hand is considered “dirty” and reserved for bathroom hygiene.
The Rich and Varied World of Indian Cuisine
There you have it! 11 interesting facts from a culture and cuisine that is thousands and thousands of years old!
Influences from Spanish, British, French and Persian colonists are reflected in Indian cuisine. It’s quite fascinating actually and I’m still learning about the vastness of Indian food and culture.
Growing up I was exposed only to my own regional fare and some others especially where I have cousins and visited often! But now, through my readings and life experiences, I have been amazed at the complexity of the cuisine that is Indian cuisine and how so many “outside” influences shaped it.
Any questions? Or comments? Curious about anything I’ve written? Please don’t hold back.
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