Why India now? After so long, I decided to travel to India for two reasons; one to meet old friends, and two to taste and test the cuisine of India to understand it better.
It all started when a guest challenged me late last summer (after a few drinks) who claimed that technically Indian cuisine is as complex, and as difficult in preparation as French cuisine. I was patient up and until a point when I pulled out Alain Ducasse’s book on classical French cuisine and showed it to him.
The books’ title is the ‘Grand Livre de Cuisine’ and the focus is on many recipes that require professional training. I tried explaining the differences between a homemade curry dish, and a Ducasse recipe, but he still insisted it was the same.
I was pissed off about it, and decided that until I visit India, I wouldn’t consider posting anything about Indian cuisine, or about the level of sophistication. So a trip was imminent and until I had first hand knowledge of Indian cuisine, I had to sit back and wait.
After our recent trip to India, I wouldn’t dare to have such an argument again. I cannot imagine how anyone educated can argue that a curry preparation is similar, or as complex. It would be like comparing a sword to a pocket-knife, while they are both blades the differences are huge.
This isn’t to say, all Indian foods are as simple as a curry, or that preparations in Indian cuisine aren’t intricate, or lack a depth of field, on the contrary.
Indian food is incredible, complete and complex. What makes it so interesting is the combination of spices, the intensity of taste, and in Indian cuisine I wouldn’t say it has the subtleness in comparison to European foods.
Many of the tastes comes from marinating and by using pastes, intense spices ground, powder or whole, seeds, chopped chilies, nuts, flours, leaves, coconut, oil, butter, ghee, etc. The layering of tastes is what makes cooking so interesting there, the idea of using an important variety of spices and colors in a single dish. I would compare Indian cooking to painting. You have the ability to add color, or flavour as you are cooking, and the palate is immeasurable.
The extraction of flavors, and the freedom in Indian cuisine to add a little more by sight. From that stand point, Indian cuisine is a matter of taste, and adjusting the tastes as you go along is common. While in most western recipes, you wouldn’t arbitrarily add ingredients to a recipe ignoring the specific amounts and ratio, or you stand to spoil the broth.
Indian cuisine has no starters really and the meal isn’t served in courses and deserts are necessarily served at the end, and a meal will appear in thali (small bowls) offering you the choice and combination.
While in India I also realized that many of the foods I would like to eat aren’t possible without taking the risk of getting ill. In the kitchens I visited it was all men, and they seem to cook out of necessity.
I did ask myself after our trip if Indian chefs would agree that there are only 5 taste receptors we identify. My guess is the Indian chef’s would add a seventh, which is a spice receptor. In India, spices are the core of all Indian cuisine and without masala you would be hard pressed to cook in most regions in India.
In Ayurveda they have their own division of foods into what is called Shadrasa, or six basic flavours and in order to appreciate Indian cuisine, you are required to identify these tastes, separate and re-combine them in a way where your body and mind reflects, relaxes end benefits – ritual.
1.sweet, /sugar and honey/
2.sour, /citrus fruits sour cream, yogurt, vinegar and fermented food/
3.pungent, /chili pepper, mustard, ginger, garlic and onion/
4.bitter, /bitter gourd and bitter melon and some herbs/
5.astringent /unripe banana, chickpeas, okra.
So what makes it so interesting when it comes to the kitchen in India? Is it the bitter, or sour, or umami, a taste that in Asia is common. I found out in India that it is believed that sour revives the palate during summer’s very intensive heat.
The tandoor, which is an open mouth oven, made from clay and fired by charcoal, is the most practical way to cook. We would think of it as a BBQ in the west or more like a green egg. The temperatures are extreme (450°C) and cooking takes minutes or less under the fire of radiant heat mixed with convection.
In the Americas there isn’t much separation between classes by foods and mostly kids who eat chemical candy appreciate the idea of bitter in the west or sour. What intrigues me the most about Indian ingredients is how they were divided into social classes; the sour tastes it was said once reflected the social status of a person and family. The poor used tamarind leaves, lower-middle class tamarind fruit and lemon, the middle class raw mango and the upper middle class used under ripe grapes, and the affluent pomegranate.
Traveling in India opens anyone’s eyes, and gives you the impression that in the west our taste receptors are still and live in a very different range of thought and taste. Spices are the heart of Indian culture and almost all spices are believed to have therapeutic properties.
You cannot move in India without having a nose orgasm and for some that’s a pleasure while for others a horrible pain. I found the market in Delhi to a cross between incredible and scary. My nose didn’t stop working and it was running out of space. But the idea of hygiene in India isn’t a primary concern for most; it is just a way of life.
The story of life in India and Indian cuisine dates back to the ancient Greeks envoy who described sugar cane and Indian bamboo filled with honey. Later Vasco de Gama thrived on the spice trade coming out of India which was as valuable as gold. You can imagine the significance of Indian trade for centuries and today we are left with a country that has 1.3 billion, mostly poor who seem to know how to live an active life with very little.
There is no continent that has the diversity of culture and change as India has experienced and much their cuisine isn’t sophisticated in the sense of the word, or would it apply to modern day kitchen techniques used globally. But that doesn’t take much away from what they are trying to do. Indian foods have the range of taste, intense flavour and the layering of tastes needed to make it fascinating for any cook. It can be so simple yet so flavorful.
It was a great pleasure to cook in India, the exposure to so many spices, colors and to begin to understand the foo vibrancy possible when using so many spices.
Indian foods and culture are filled with so many peculiarities that can make it difficult for westerners to understand. It is a deep and mystical culture with a magnificent respect for animals and especially the cow. The ancient way of thinking is a way of life today, and India has still preserved a certain authenticity, which will likely be preceded by the modern ways we find on planet earth.