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Factors that have shaped Indian cuisine

What is Indian cuisine?

It is a wonderful diverse range of food, with very clear regional differences, which thus makes Indian cuisine a multidimensional colourful cuisine, full of richness and depth, and with a repertoire of recipes that is virtually unmatched anywhere else in the world. Indian cuisine is a reflection of the heritage of the people of its land, and the influences of historical and cultural developments and religious beliefs.

The 5 major factors that I think have shaped Indian cuisine are:-

1. Indian’s geography
India has long been known as the spice bowl of the world, and other countries in south- east Asia (Malaysia and Thailand) also occupy an important place in the history of the spice trade. The use of premium quality spices like black peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamoms, nutmeg, and saffron was a normal long established way of life, in these sun drenched and monsoon fed lands. It was the value of these exotic spices that lured traders and merchants, among them Arabs, English, Dutch, Portuguese, French, and Spanish to the area.

2. Foreign Influences
The influences of many foreign settlers, traders, pilgrims and invaders over the years have given rise to new cooking styles, methods and ingredients in Indian cuisine, which are still in practise and used today.

The most important is probably the Moguls who invaded India in 1526. They brought their favourite dishes and cooking methods to the north Indian states, and the fusion of these with Indian staples and local foods led to the evolution of Mughlai cuisine. Meat was introduced and transformed into delicate kormas and fragrant biryanis. They also introduced the tandoor, a clay oven, originally from Egypt to India. This helped produce a variety of meat dishes and breads like spicy kebabs, tandoori chicken, chicken tikka, and tandoori rotis. The Moguls also introduced a selection of exotic fruit and nuts to the established cooking traditions of Kashmir and Punjab.

The first Europeans to arrive in Indian were the Portuguese in 1498, they colonised three western costal areas, Goa being the most famous. They introduced ingredients such as chillies, peppers, tomatoes and cashew nuts. They have certainly left their mark on the cuisine of Goa, with a variety of fish and pork dishes. Vindaloo is Goa’s most famous export, but its origins are in fact Portuguese. In the 16th century, when the Portuguese traders embarked on their long voyage to India, they carried pork, preserved in vinegar, garlic and black pepper. The word vin comes from vinegar and aloo is derived from alho, the Portuguese word for garlic.

The British colonialists of the Raj arrived in India in 1599, initially for a share of the wealth from the trade in spice. By 1850 they established the East India Company in Calcutta (Kolkata), which became an important trading post for the British. The British left dishes in their wake, the most popular chicken jhalfrazi which originated in Calcutta, where Indian chefs during the British Raj used leftover cold meat, generally from the Sunday roast and stir fried it with spices. They also introduced cabbages and runner and broad beans into Indian cooking.

The Parsis arrived in India in the seventh century after fleeing religious persecution in Iran, and settled on the west coast in Gujarat and Bombay (Mumbai). They are a small community but have nonetheless contributed significantly to Indian culture. Parsee food tends to be hot, sweet and sour, and the lamb dhansak is a famous Parsee dish traditionally served on special occasions.

The French came to India in 1769, and by 1851 they set up a trading post in Pondicherry a costal town south of Madras (Chennai). They introduced a fusion of eastern and western ingredients and spices into the local style of cooking.

The Syrian Jews were the first traders to arrive in India almost 2500 years ago in 562BC. They settled in Cochin the capital of Kerala, and became known as the Cochin Jews. They brought with them their Middle Eastern style of cooking.

3. Landscape and climate
India is nearly 1.3million square miles in size, a vast subcontinent. It is a federal union of states, comprising of 28 states and 7 union territories, all with their own unique cooking traditions and tastes.

The landscape varies from city to city. The regionality of the cuisine is also affected by the vastly differing landscape which influences what can be grown. The north is mountainous flat and fertile, while the south is lush green and tropical.

The climate is also a factor, in the colder northern states warming, aromatically spiced dishes are eaten, which would include meat, wheat, chillies, and ghee. Whereas in the intense heat of southern India, the food is lighter and uses more vegetables, rice, coconut, and black pepper. Fish and rice is an important part of the diet in the East, while west Indian food tends to use fresh vegetables, dairy products and lentils and peas, and will be hot and spicy.

4. Religion and faiths
India has a population of nearly 1.2 billion. Within this population there are five major faiths, Hindus forming the majority of 80%, followed by 10% Muslims, the other 10% is made up of Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jain and other.

Half of the Hindu population of India are vegetarians, whilst the other religions are a mixture of meat eaters and vegetarians.

5. Religious beliefs
Ayurveda is the traditional system of healing practised in India. It is a Sanskrit word derived from two roots, ayu and vid, meaning ‘life’ and ‘knowledge’.

For centuries Indians have believed that food should be eaten not only for the taste but also to help cure emotional, physical and mental ailments.

Ayurveda is the science of diet, health and healing, it is a complete system, with a variety of different components, ayurvedic medicine is one and many Indian cooks have an instinct for what ingredients to add to a dish to help alleviate certain problems.

As food plays an important part in all our lives, this way of diet and healing has now become popular all over the world, because the chemical balance provided by what we eat aids healing and promotes good health and well being.

Ayurvedic healers believe there are six basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent, and each of these tastes helps in healing specific problems.

Other components of ayurveda include astronomy, meditation, yoga, colour therapy, massage, aromatherapy, breathing exercises, and a lot more.

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