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While thinking about Suvir's thread, 'why you don't cook/eat Indian food,' I wondered if there is really such a thing as Indian food at all.

Can there be such a thing as 'Indian food'? It seems to me that India may be the most geographically and culturally diverse country on the planet. Russia may also lay claim to the title, but here, we're concerned with India.

If someone from Mumbai were to eat at the house of someone from Calcutta, would they say, "Yes, this is Indian food?" How about if they ate in Delhi, or Amritsar? Certainly, it was prepared in India, but the food would be very different. Is it 'Indian'?

I think that the concept of 'Indian food' is one that has been created by people outside of India. 'Indian food' outside of India appears to be a mixture of different foods from many different areas, all put into into a single category.

By analogy, consider Italy. Italy has geographic diversity, but not nearly as much cultural diversity as India, and the cooking in various areas of Italy is very different. But in the US, there's a thing called 'Italian food' that again is a mixture. It's starting to be distinguished by regions, but this isn't common yet in the popular culture.

'Indian food' in the US also seems to be a very strange mixture of regional foods from different areas. I'd welcome some distinction between regional Indian cuisines, but I don't see it happening yet. Is this likely in the US? When will it happen?

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All good points, yet not quite correct - The thing that ties Italy together is religion and language. While in India there are multiple languages, many religions, there is a underlying cultural commonality that brings together diverse elements of day-to-day life - Which are also manifest in the regional cuisines

anil

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Anil, correct me if I understood you wrong, you are agreeing with the great post Human Bean has posted, but you are adding to the comparison, right?

Yes we do have many diverse religions in India as well. And for the most part, they have remained in harmony. The numbers (populations) of even these minorities is HUGE.

And so, yes in the context of India, one could not ignore the importance that religion has played in the lay of the land.

Thanks Anil, for pointing this out.

Human Bean, that is a great post, it certainly deserves many and very thoughtful answers. I will try my best to be here for all that take part in what promises to be a great debate on what really Indian food is.

PS: While Anil correctly added religion into the realm of this discussion, I must also add the foreign invasions and their uniqueness as well. Those played a very important role as well.

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What is Indian food?

In general terms, Indian food could simply be understood as the food eaten by the people living in India. These could also be those foods that are identified to the people of Indian origin living outside of India.

What makes a food item Indian?

Any item could be Indian for just as many reasons as dishes served in American homes and restaurants under the name “American” are considered American. What makes something “American”? If you can answer, that, you can use a similar answer to understand what could make something Indian.

Also, it is interesting to note that India is one of the worlds most diverse regions. It has an amazing array of languages, cultures, religions, tribes, artifacts, cuisines and peoples. Within the confines of one geographic area, you find more diversity than in many continents. There are more languages and dialects found in India that one could find in larger continents. There are more people living in all of India than many continents grouped together. There are more religions finding a happy home in Indian soil than in many countries and continents. There are foods eaten in Indian homes that could easily find roots to many different cuisines and countries, such is the rich history of India.

Thus, it is even more difficult to really understand what could be classified as Indian food. Cutlets (patties made with meats or vegetables or both) that were first introduced to India by the British have become a dish cooked across India and hardly any Indian would consider it anything but Indian. But, if you were to trace the roots back many centuries, you will certainly not consider it Indian. But those roots have to be traced back to a time older than the existence of many nations. Most of the dishes that would classify as “new foods” are older than the US. And then you have other “new foods” that trace back to the invasion of India by dynasties from the Middle East. These invasions began a thousand years ago. And so, in India, you have a fusion cuisine that is more than thousand years old. And then there are those foods and dishes that are as old as India. Some of them are mentioned in the many books that form the pool of texts one would study when studying Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and some other religions that come from India.

Foods eaten by people living in India or calling themselves as people of Indian origin could be considered as foods of the Indian people. Just as would be the case with most any countries people, these foods are Indian for either they came with these people to their new places of residence, or have become Indian after a long time of acceptance and entry into the kitchens of these Indian people.

It is just as easy or difficult to define Indian food, as it is to define American cuisine. I remember speaking with food writers and critics no more than 5 years ago, and no one could understand what American food was. They wondered if it should be called American French or American Italian or American German or American English or American Latin. But today, we have accepted the place of a cuisine in our midst that many call American cuisine. And it is one that has taken from many and given these cuisines an identity that is at once connected to the many cuisines of the world and yet with enough of its own uniqueness that it could hardly be confused as one of the older cuisines that it has some roots in common with.

Indian cuisine could easily be considered one of the most organic cuisines the world has known. It has had a life that has been enriched by a past as ancient as time and as young as the ambitions of its people. It is this diversity and richness that make Indian cuisine both a treasure unlike any other and also an anthropological enigma for a research scholar.

What makes Indian cuisine organic?

Indian cuisine has grown with every invasion of India by a foreign entity. While some cultures and cuisines and peoples have lost a critical sense of self after being invaded, India has found new vigor and vitality even after the blood soaked carnage that accompanies such dominance. It is this thirst for life and a desire to forgive, forget and move forward that has been both the bane and true gift of the Indian people. It is a gift for even after suffering great tragedy and losses, this is a land of people that found ways of seeing hope even as they found themselves deep in the darkness of ash and dust. It is a bane as people with such large hearts and forgiving selves, have been just as generous with politicians and governmental types as they have taken advantage of these peoples lot in life to further their own personal agendas. It is a very difficult aspect for a student of history and people to understand. One sees the double-edged sword that is India. As the worlds most vibrant and diverse democracy, India has achieved what countries much smaller and far less populated could not achieve. But this diversity, this great mass of people and this forgiving nature has also left India be somewhat behind as a nation in the divide between the haves and have-nots. India is a thriving nation, it has seen growth that is awe inspiring, but if you compare it with China, you realize how being a democracy does not always lend to growth and economic stimulus. India sees itself no more than a decade behind China in growth, but many argue that it is not worth it to aspire for growth in the same ratio if that means losing freedom and cultural richness that India arguably has endlessly more of than most nations.

All of these freedoms have also been a great stimulant in enriching the culinary traditions of India. India as we know today, sits on a land that was home to the great civilizations of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Great civilizations, they have found no interest in the West, as their language has been very difficult to understand by archaeologists and historians. What has further underplayed their importance is the teeming masses of millions that live over these lands in modern cities. It would be a nightmare to excavate correctly and completely. But not being able to decipher the language of these people has been the worst thing for these ancient civilizations. It has reduced the appeal for their study to people from the West, who find nothing marketable in selling replicas of ancient artifacts that cannot be explained. Great tiles, earthenware pots and cooking utensils and vessels have been excavated. A great amount of architectural genius of these people has been unearthed and city planning of these people has been documented as being far advanced than that of any other ancient civilization. But again, none of this has made great media in the West, for it has remained a silent art. A language that used symbols and natural elements in a unique juxtaposition has shown great depth and richness, has stood the test of time and history, but unfortunately has remained a puzzle to understand. That has kept this civilization from finding a welcome traveling art exhibition around the world. And with that, it has found little if any interest from the heritage foundations of the world for its preservation.

What remains at museums and galleries, which has not been plundered by foreign invaders and locals, gives great insight into a world that thrived with great respect for natural resources. Grains, legumes, animals, plants and vegetables all find places in their seals and artifacts. From what can be understood by studying these remains, is an India that was a very well planned civilization of people that had a well planned civic structure, a public granary, a city plan that would easily make it the most forward city of its time, a drainage system that illuminates the need for hygiene by its people and a very rich trading community. Grains and legumes and vegetables and spices were given great importance for they are found in drawings in seals. Spices are found in seals and one wonders if their importance and economic strength was well known even in those times. By seeing animals in these seals, one can understand the domestication of certain animals and use of some as food. It shows that ancient India was not vegetarian as became a later more widespread trend. This tells us that the Indian people were not always vegetarian.

Some suggest that Indians of Hindu faith became vegetarian only after the end of the Vedic times. The Vedas the most venerated texts of Hinduism were very secular and gave great importance to life being a very organic part of the larger universe that it shares with other elements. It was only with the coming of the Puranic era that Hinduism got strictly codified. This is believed to have been a downfall in the secular traditions of this great region. Hinduism as also the several other religions that found their birth in this region, are mostly all very peace loving and free religions. The Puranic times are believed to have introduced vegetarianism as a way of abstinence. The priests came into power and to show their control, this is understood to have been on way of gaining great leverage in the lives of the masses. It is fabled that human sacrifice and cow sacrifice were the highest forms of sacrifice to Indians of that era. After these sacrifices, one ate from what was offered to the Gods. So, cows were eaten for these great occasions, but were banned for consumption at other times. This is a great example in understanding how a culture that enjoyed meats became largely vegetarian.

Hindus believe that one can only achieve ultimate freedom from the vicious circle of life and death by reaching Nirvana. To that end, we meditate, pray and make offerings to the gods, amongst which an offering of sweets is very highly regarded. One such offering is a sweet milkshake-like concoction called Panchamrit. This heavenly drink is made up of the five sacred ingredients: Shahad (honey), Doodh (milk), Ghee (clarified butter), Cheenee (sugar) and Gangajal (water from the holy river Ganga). Many Indian desserts therefore, are intentionally made with some or all of these ingredients

Fire was worshipped as a God. It was thus also considered a way of purifying all ingredients. The Sun being a God was also considered a way of purifying all ingredients. Thus many foods would be considered cooked only by putting them in the scorching rays of the Sun. Milk, considered a gift from a Cow (also considered a Godly creature) was considered holy as well and so foods that came in contact with milk, were also considered purified and ready for consumption.

With the coming of the invaders from the Middle East, Islam came to India. With it came new types of foods. India saw itself in a new quandary. It had to now find a fine balance between being accepting of these new people and also accepting their own culinary habits. While the advent of Islam led crazed following of Hindu beliefs by some, it also saw the fusion of these two very different cuisines by many. There were Hindus that quickly adopted meat back into their diet (avoiding beef, that was by now taboo for the Hindus) and then there were Moslems that had found new meaning in vegetables. This led to enlightenment in the cuisine of India.

If this were not enough to enrich India’s own culinary heritage, it continued to attract people from lands afar. Dutch, English, Portuguese, French and others all have left their own influence in the foods of India.

India has also been a welcome home to many refugees from around the world. All these people have brought their own unique cultures and cuisines into India and found a new utterance in these after fitting them into the Indian mold.

I remember even as a child, I would see new foods get accepted into the kitchen of my grandmothers home (where my family and I lived, and Panditji, my favorite chef and human being also lived). Every time my cousins would visit from the US and different parts of the world, they brought with them recipes they were familiar with, and these very quickly found a way into Panditjis (a Brahman chef, who cooked vegetarian foods, as would have been ritually prepared for the most pious and chaste Hindus) repertoire. Cheese toasts, pizzas, macaroni and cheese, cakes, muffins, scones, sandwiches, omelets, French toasts, doughnuts, cookies, etc, all found a home in his kitchen, and soon got a truly Indian flavor and identity. In fact our families recipe for cheese toast and pizza has inspired in awe many a visiting foreigner in India. Small differences like adding chile into the tomato sauce, roasting chile in the olive oil can make all the difference. It adds a greater depth of flavor that Indians love. I also remember Abha Aunty (no relative, just a friend of the family), serving baked beans on toast for her annual New Years Eve party. It was my favorite dish as a child, and I can never enjoy baked beans ever again, for I crave her preparation of it. No Canadian recipe has moved me in the same way. Baked beans on toast, as prepared by Abha Aunty, are a part of Indian cooking for me.

What is Indian cooking after all?

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Heh.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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If someone from Mumbai were to eat at the house of someone from Calcutta, would they say, "Yes, this is Indian food?" How about if they ate in Delhi, or Amritsar? Certainly, it was prepared in India, but the food would be very different. Is it 'Indian'?

I suspect that as with Chinese eating Chinese food in China, they would likely just call it "food."

=Mark

Give a man a fish, he eats for a Day.

Teach a man to fish, he eats for Life.

Teach a man to sell fish, he eats Steak

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If someone from Mumbai were to eat at the house of someone from Calcutta, would they say, "Yes, this is Indian food?" How about if they ate in Delhi, or Amritsar? Certainly, it was prepared in India, but the food would be very different. Is it 'Indian'?

I suspect that as with Chinese eating Chinese food in China, they would likely just call it "food."

I suspect that it is not Mumbai or Delhi or Kolkatta, but rather If a Punj ate at someone's house, and that person was bengali, and they cooked traditional dinner - He'd say "I had bengali food", or "punjabi khana" or "konkani meal" etc etc.

anil

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Indian Food to me means

Sour fish curries on the beach in Goa eaten while sipping a salty lime soda

Dosa in Bangalore with a spicy filling of potato and green chilli

Fried Neem leaves on the Veranda of the family house in New Alipur while my pishi prepares tandoori fish rolls or Lao

Rich chicken korma on a house boat near Amritsar. Thickened with ground almonds and topped with gold leaf

Thin dhal on the Gitanjali express from Mumbai to Kolkutta followed by Gulab Jamun from the family sitting in the same compartment

Tea on the lawns of St Pauls Darjeeling with cucumber sandwiches and the sound of cricket in the background

Ice Cream from Nerula's or Snowmans

Thumbs Up Cola or Limca

Butter Chicken in the home of a family in Lucknow

Bono Kappee( sp?) Ghonto made by my mother in Yorkshire over Christmas

Jalibee from Southall while walking arond London

Indian food is truly as wide as the imagination. If Indian food is divine, it does, like God himself, take on many forms. Food for celebrations, for mourning, for nourishment ,for over indulgence, for comfort.

If A man from Mumbai ate at my house. He might recognise some of the things I prepared as being "Bengali" ( my Dhal would be very thin and watery for him ) but he would recognise the spirit in which it was prepared and that, above all, is what makes Indian food and what makes it unique

S

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Simon, I loved your post. What beautiful memories. You know, I was talking to my dear friend a few days ago, about how my "Indian inspiration" approach -- not purist Indian, is sometimes perceived. His words will stay with me forever, he said Indian food for you comes from your heart, it is a reflection of who you are, where you came from. If your Mom made Hummus each day, when you grew up, that to you will be as Indian as it would to someone local

True words.....

Monica

By the way, I am not saying that Hummus is an Indian dish, that would be stupid. I am saying my Mother's version of it, that she prepared for us, felt to me so much a fabric of my childhood, that I identified with it as home made indian food -- just an example

Monica Bhide

A Life of Spice

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