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Staples and Spices of Various Indian States – Part 1

Indian cuisine is by far the most diverse one in the world. A beautiful amalgamation of 28 states and 8 union territories, Indian cuisine is not just a handful of traditional cooking. The world looks at Indian cuisine as one of the most delicious and lip-smacking ones. The fact that it is vast and diverse is conveniently missed out as few dishes stand out, or should I say, are well marketed.  

Each state has its own recipes passed down through generations. The pantry of each kitchen in different states is unique and has a wide range of unique staples. The distinct flavours of a simple sambar differ from state to state. The mouth-watering taste of yummy bombs of pani-puri or golgappas changes with every state.  

Let’s know a little more about the essentials in terms of spices and ingredients of a few states. In this culinary journey let’s explore 3 states in Part 1 of our story.  

Gujarat, the state that has a vast shoreline, has an equally flamboyant cuisine. The food is predominantly vegetarian, but the Muslim and the Parsi communities love their meats. Though one always considers Gujarati food as sweet and mild tasting, it is not so in reality. The cuisine can be divided into four parts namely kathiawadi, surti, amdavadi and kutchi 

Kathiawadi food is comparatively spicier than the other three. The food in this region is packed with fragrant spices and white butter.  

Surti food is more cosmopolitan in nature because of its proximity to Maharashtra. The Oondhiyon, made of winter veggies and spices, is the region’s speciality. Amdavadi cuisine offers a perfect blend of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. With a huge presence, the Parsis and Muslims have contributed delectable foods to this region.  

Kutchi food is relatively rustic and a result of harsh desert climatic conditions. 

The main spices in the Gujarati pantry are coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds and green chillies that are not too spicy. Since it is a dry state, wheat is not grown much. Flat breads/rotlis are made out of jowar and bajra. Chickpea flour/besan is widely used to make theplas – a spiced flat-bread, sweets, snacks and gravies. For protein toor or arhar dal and moong dal rule the pantry. Jaggery is preferred over sugar. A pinch of jaggery is added to enhance the taste of dal or shaak. White butter and ghee are generally had with much relish. Rice is generally had in the form of khichadi.  

Sikkim food has caught on to the palates of Indians, especially the Gen X crowd. Healthy and with a clean taste, Sikkim cuisine has been influenced by Nepalese, Tibetan and Bhutanese cuisine. Dumplings, soups, stew and fermented bamboo shoots find their way to the table. Rice flour, finger millet and refined flour are the staple flours that are used. Dishes like “sel roti,” “kodo ko roti” and “momos” are relished not just in the state but throughout India. A wide variety of greens and vegetables like stinging nettles, spinach, mustard greens, butter beans, squash and cherry tomatoes are a must in any Sikkimese kitchen. Thukpa and curries are made with greens, fresh veggies and noodles. Yam, tapioca and other tubers are also relished in the form of curries or fries. Fermented bamboo shoots and soya beans are made, stored and had all 365 days. Cheese made of Yak milk called Churpi is another pantry staple. Churpi – Ningro is a delicacy that is enjoyed. The cuisine is mild yet flavourful. One of the hottest chillies called the “dalle” is added to nearly all the dishes. It also forms the base of the chutney that accompanies momos. Butter is widely used, even in tea. Tea, widely grown, is a favourite beverage.    

Tamil Nadu, the land of temples, offers cuisine that tingles all palates and makes you reach for more. From soft and melt-in-the-mouth idlis to tangy sambar, Tamil Nadu food is a major player in the world cuisine. Primarily a rice-eating zone, small grain varieties like ponni rice, hand-pounded brown rice and samba rice is used for daily consumption and for special-occasion biryanis. Pulses like toor or arhar dal, white urad dal, moong dal and chana dal are the main ingredients in the pantry. Coconut is another staple that is used as grated, shavings or as coconut milk and coconut oil. It is a key component that brings any dish together. Coconut is added in almost everything – in sweet, savoury, main course and snacks. The fruity and tangy tamarind, the spicy and beneficial black pepper and the aromatic curry leaves are an integral part of the cuisine. The umami factor is added with neem flowers. Cumin, green cardamom, fennel seeds and cinnamon which are grown in abundance are used in cooking Chettinad delicacies. Since it is a coastal state, fish, crabs, shrimps and other aquatic animals are liked more than chicken. The cuisine’s flavour and taste are starkly marked by the caste and region. A Brahmin kitchen would be dominated by vegetable stews like “aviyal” or “vatral kuzhambu” and the smell of “meen kuzhambu” or “crab fry” would be welcoming in non-vegetarian households. The aroma and taste of sambar powder and rasam powder differ from house to house. The Tamilian-version of garam masala is packed with black pepper, fennel, red chillies and a myriad of other spices. Curd is another staple that Tamilians cannot survive without. Filter coffee aka kaapi is a part and parcel of Tamilian food culture. 

Indian cuisine is influenced by Mughals, British, Portuguese, French and Nepalese. In spite of so many invasions, Indian food has managed to create a huge impact in the culinary arena and above all, tingles the palates of people worldwide. Indian cuisine has given the world many signature dishes. One can conveniently say that Indian food is a perfect culinary repertoire.

Click here to read Staples and Spices of Various Indian States – Part 2.

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