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Into The Wonderland of Indian Cuisine

Age cannot wither… nor custom stale the infinite variety....

That is how Shakespeare would have undoubtedly put it…..talking about Indian Cuisine, which, with its immense variety, has carved a niche for itself internationally. People from other parts of the world, especially in the West, simply adore Indian cuisine, despite the fact that a majority of its dishes are spicy, tangy and hot ! Indeed Continental as well as American cuisine (save Mexican) is rather bland when compared to their Indian counterpart. Down the centuries, Indian spices have always lured the adventurous, sea-farers and explorers to come to India and carry away bulk quantities to their native lands. All that is a part of our history now.

Spices

The list of spices used is virtually endless: Cardamoms, green and black, Cinnamon Sticks, Cloves, Fennel/Aniseed, Sesame, Bishop’s Weed (Ajwain), Cumin, Coriander and Melon seeds, ordinary Peppercorns, Nigella (Kalonji, onion seeds), Nutmeg, Mace, Bay / Cassia leaves, dried Ginger (Saunth), crushed Pomegranate seeds(anaaardana powder), Mustard and Fenugreek seeds, Turmeric ( tubers or powder), not forgetting the highly aromatic Asafoetida and the priceless Saffron, (literally worth its weight in gold !) used mainly in either pilafs or desserts. Fresh Ginger, Tamarind (pulp, minus the seeds), Amchoor (dried mango pieces or powder) provide a tang wherever necessary.

Several herbs too figure in this listCoriander leaves (akin to Cilantro), Mint (leaves / powder), Kasuri Methi (dried Fenugreek leaves) as also the ubiquitous Curry leaves a sine qua non for all South Indian dishes (except sweets). There is also an entire range of chillies from the slender, finger-like ones to the Jalapenoes (commonly known as achar wali mirch) which are stuffed with spices and used as pickles.

Out of this list, there have evolved several interesting permutations and combinations of spices. For instance, the paanch phoran (five spices) used by the Bengalis comprises fenugreek, nigella, bishop’s weed, aniseed and cumin seeds. The North Indian garam masala (literally = hot, strong spices) has many more components (apart from two kinds of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves and bay leaves) than its counterpart in Eastern India. (The latter combination leaves out peppercorns).

Before modern appliances had made their appearance, activities like grinding, crushing and mashing of different spices were often carried out with the help of a Himam Dasta, a large bowl shaped stone mortar and pestle. The mortar and pestle were sometimes made out of metals too. To make a smooth wet paste of spices, the Sil-Batta was extensively used. The Sil is a flat granite or sandstone tablet 12-18 inches long, 1.5-2 inches thick, patterned with shallow ridges, which was placed on the kitchen floor. The Batta is a hand-held roller which is worked back and forth across the surface of the Sil. Although sticklers for perfection still prefer to use this traditional method, packed spice powders are more commonly used nowadays.

The harder and larger grains like rice, wheat, corn and pulses were ground with the help of the Chakkia twin-stone contraption which ground the grains poured between them through a hole in the upper stone.

Cooking Utensils, Crockery and Cutlery

Indian gastronomy has its own distinctive range of kitchenware: The round Kadhai (wok though not so broad) is used for sauté-ing, stir-frying, besides cooking dishes with plenty of gravy. The Deghchi is a round deep, broad-rimmed pan used for cooking daals (pulses/lentils), kheer (rice pudding) and so forth. The Haandi (a round bottomed vessel with a broad-rimmed mouth) was traditionally used to cook pilafs and a variety of meats under pressure (dum pukht). In this method of cooking, the mouth of the haandi is covered with a plate and the edges sealed with a thick layer of dough. This prevents the steam from escaping. The Ghara and Kalash (round-bottomed, broad vessels were used for storing water and grains. The Lota was a miniature kalash used as a tumbler for drinking, besides washing the hands and face.

The traditional Karchhi, a ladle /spoon with a long handle was (and still is) used for doling out soups, curd, pulses, curries and gravies, while the Palta or Khunti (a metal spatula comprising a square or triangular headpiece with a long handle), comes in handy for turning pieces of meat, fish and vegetables, being fried in an open pan. In the coastal areas as well as the eastern part of the country, the common kitchen tool, Bonti (a sharp-edged, crescent shaped blade, screwed firmly onto a solid, rectangular piece of wood) is used for peeling and chopping of vegetables, making fillets of whole fish, deveining prawns, and many similar chores.

The traditional Thaalis (platters) were much larger than their modern counterparts, the plates used today; they conveniently accommodated an array of Katoris (bowls) containing various items, condiments etc. If you order a thaali meal in an Indian restaurant, you will be served in this olden style.

The materials used for making cooking utensils and kitchen accessories ranged from earthenware to metals like iron and alloys like bronze and brass (enamelled from the inside). The thaalis and katoris were silver for the rich and brass and earthenware for the general populace. Leaves of the banana plant and Saal trees also served as hygienic, disposable, bio-degradable plates, used till date for community meals. However, stainless steel, bone china and melamine hold sway in the kitchens of today. The Indians of yore always ate with their fingers; knives forks and spoons came to be used only after colonisation by various by European powers.

Cooking Methods

The traditional Indian cooking style comprises frying, tempering (heating oil /ghee or clarified butter / butter, roasting spices in it and pouring it over the entire quantity of lentils, vegetable, meats etc). This method is colloquially known as tadka or chonki. Indian cooking also involves a certain degree of boiling and steaming; plantain (banana) leaves, available plentifully, have been used to steam the vegetables, meats, and fish for ages, just as you use aluminum foil for steaming foodstuffs these days. The cooking processes of Dum Pukht and Tandoori were ushered in the by the various Islamic dynasties and groups that made India their home,during various periods in history. Surprisingly, Barbecues and Baking which have become a fashion statement in India now, and steadily gaining in popularity, were completely unknown, till a few centuries ago. Microwave Cooking is also catching on in a big way.


Come, pamper your taste buds, experience the mind blowing range ... and discover many, many more aspects of Indian culinary arts, for yourself .....

 
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