If it were possible to sum up the cuisine of India in one word, that word would probably be diversity. This vast country boasts so many variations in vegetation, climate, culture, religion, ethnicity, and influence that it’s difficult to classify its food in a specific way. And judging from the wide variety of innovative Indian fusions, including those with elements of China, Malaysia, Singapore, and England (from the time of the British Raj), that are now available here in Chicago and elsewhere, it’s clear that it is still evolving today.
With more than 30 distinct regions of India represented, it would be impossible in this space to outline the most popular dishes in each, but as in many other countries, what is eaten by the locals probably depends most upon ingredients that are readily available to them where they are. But there are some common elements you should expect to find, and here’s what they might look like in India or an Indian eatery:
Bread: Naan (a leavened, substantial flatbread, very popular), Paratha (flatbread), Dosa (thin, crispy flatbread made of rice batter), Vada (a deep-fried “donut” made from lentil or flour batter), Rumali roti (large and very thin…its name in Hindi means “handkerchief” and it is generally served folded like one). As you’ll see, bread is important not just as food but also as a utensil…
- Rice and Potatoes: There are more varieties of these than you might think, and Indian cuisine makes full use of them. Both are mixed into main dishes (as opposed to being served on the side) and rice can come in four colors – black (which turns to a dark purple after cooking), red, brown, and white. Locally grown is basmati rice, a long-grained variety distinctive for its nutty flavor, and the main ingredient in biryani, a rice, meat, and vegetable dish.
- Proteins: The most universally popular meats in Indian food are chicken and mutton, but depending upon where you are located in the country, beef (except in Hindi communities) and seafood are also common. For vegetarians (or not!) legumes (various kinds of lentils and beans) are a staple. Also, eggs, milk, and yogurt are used in many dishes.
- Spices: When you think of Indian food, what immediately comes to mind? Curry, right? Well, there are many kinds of that (and methods for cooking them), but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In a typical Indian restaurant, you might also find: chilies, saffron, cumin, coriander, cardamom, ginger, among many others (and curry can incorporate a combination of all of these and many more). There is also tandoori masala, the spice that is a main ingredient in (you guessed it!) tandoori dishes. You might recognize these dishes as the meats have a bright red color – this comes from its use of paprika, Cayenne pepper, or red chili powder in the mixture. Also, your food will likely be cooked in some sort of oil, ranging from vegetable, peanut, mustard, coconut, ginger, or soybean.
What to drink? Given that India is one of the biggest producers of tea in the world, it’s not surprising that this, and coffee, are ever-present. There are also several different varieties of beer (some made from rice) and wine (one is made from palm sap). There is also a popular yogurt-based drink called Lassi that is flavored with fruits, but sometimes with ground cumin or salt.
Like virtually everything else in this large and diverse country, serving styles and etiquette vary somewhat depending on the region. Generally, though, meals are traditionally enjoyed at low tables with diners seated either on short stools or on cushions on the floor. Silverware is generally not in use; food is eaten with the right hand and served up with the left, and the bread is utilized as a “scoop” to convey the food with its sauces and curries to the mouth.
Indian restaurants have been a favorite choice of Check, Please! reviewers over the years; featured eateries have included Chicago Curry House, Vermilion, Cumin, Pub Royale, Uru Swati, Hema's Kitchen, Chowpatti, Paprika, Udupi Palace, Standard India Restaurant, Himalayan Restaurant, and others. Try one, and get ready for an adventure!