“Nobody Can Be an Expert on Indian Food”
— Madhur Jaffrey
When it comes to Indian cuisine, it can be quite confusing. Many of us simply aren’t used to 5 different types of Masala, and a typical Indian menu can be quite overwhelming. However, many of us can understand the basics of Italian cuisine. We’ve heard that Italian food is marked by regional specialties, pasta is a big deal, dishes focus on a few key ingredients, and an Italian grandma guarantees you will be well-fed. Here are 6 similarities between Italian and Indian food traditions. You can use what you know about Italian food to understand some of the basics on Indian cuisine.
1) Regional Differences:
From the North to the South, cuisines vary widely based on geography
Italian is known for its regional differences. In the North, you’ll find more polenta and rice dishes, with a preference for using butter. The hot, coastal towns of the South feature fresh seafood and ditch the butter for olive oil. Even further, small towns will be known for their specific dishes. You’ll only find braised goat in Campi and salted gray mullet roe in Sardinia.
India is also known for strong regional differences. The north reflects the influence of Muslim neighbors, cooking Roti and Naan in hot tandoor ovens and using more hearty gravies and nut purees. Southern Indian, however, is known for its spicier heat level, its use of fresh seafood, and using more of the local coconuts.
1) Starch Staples:
Italy’s Pasta Meets India’s Rice
If there’s one dish is you’ll find anywhere in Italy, it’s pasta. Whether it’s a simple tortellini soup, an elegant Rigatoni, or a hearty lasagna, pasta is essential on the Italian table.
For India, the staple starch is rice. Simple steamed Basmati rice might be the base for a flavorful dal, or flavorful Vegetable Biryani might stand on its own. Rice flour and rice flakes even show up on the breakfast menu. Dosa is a rice crepe filled with spiced potatoes and onion. Steamed Idli is made from a fermented rice batter.
2) Simple Base:
Focus on one or two Main Ingredients
Italian cuisine is noted for its “ingredient-focused” cooking, using just a few ingredients and simple cooking techniques to highlight fresh, seasonal flavors. Think of Stuffed Artichokes, which pop up only when artichokes are in season, during spring and fall. Or how simple tomatoes can make a hearty, satisfying Marinara.
Indian dishes feature this same sort of focus on one or two main vegetables. If you’ve ever eaten at an Indian restaurant, I’m sure you’ve faced a huge menu that seems like endless options. When you look closer, though, you’ll notice that you’ll have the same seasoning and cooking technique applied, with the only variation being the featured ingredient. “Masala” refers to a blend of spices, what most of us would call “curry”. It can either a dry blend or made into a paste. On an Indian menu, you’ll see how “Masala” can be used on any number of ingredients. Aloo Masala features potato, Bhindi Masala is okra, Baingan Masala is eggplant, Chana Masala is chickpeas.
4) Melting Pot of Flavors:
Influenced by Trade, Invasions and Immigrants
Italy has been heavily influenced by its changing populations. Pasta, its signature dish, likely was imported during the Arab invasions of the 8th century. Marco Polo dropped off some new spices along his trade route to China. Other influences have come the New World, which introduced potatoes, squash, and even the quintessential tomato.
India, too, has also adopted many of the food traditions brought from other countries. As I mentioned, the north features stronger Muslim influence, using tandoor ovens and featuring hearty stewed meats as in Chicken Tikka Masala and Mutton Palau. Hindu is the dominate religion, which focuses on vegetarian cooking. However, in areas where other religions are more dominant, you see dishes featuring more meat and seafood. You’ll find Prawn Balchao, Fish Orly, and Chicken Chettinad. India also picked up some New World ingredients like the potato, tomato, and squash.
3) Females Rule:
Cooking is Learned at Home…and Mostly from the Women
If you want to learn traditional Italian cooking, you seek out a Nonna. If you’re in India, you should find a Daadee. In fact, you better find the oldest woman of the household. She is often the “head chef”, delegating other cooking tasks to the younger women in the household. While this tradition is quickly changing in the metropolitan areas as women begin to work outside the home, in rural towns, history stands firm. Recipes will be passed down from generation to generation, as mothers teach their daughters the dishes they’ve been making for centuries.
Healthy Focus on a Mostly Vegetarian Diet
Italian food centers around a healthy assortment of fresh vegetables. Sure, you might think of Italian sausages or a braised pork ragout, but the main bulk of Italian cooking uses loads of healthy vegetables, pastas, bread, and rice. Historically, meat was a rare commodity, reserved for special occasions and stretched to flavor the last bit of broth. In India, religion stipulates the vegetarian diet. About 80% of the population in India is Hindu, abstaining from meat. Hence, the focus of most dinner tables is a celebration of vegetables, lentils, and chickpeas.
Some of my favorite Indian dishes
More Resources, Listening, and Reading:
Italian Food Map: https://www.finedininglovers.com/blog/food-drinks/best-food-in-italy/
Regional Italian Cuisine: Rustico Cooking http://www.rusticocooking.com/regions.htm
How pasta became the world’s favourite food, by Caroline McClatchey, BBC News Magazine, published 15 June 2011: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-13760559
How Indian Traditions Work: http://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/national-traditions/indian-tradition1.htm
India Census Statistics: Religion: http://censusindia.gov.in/Census_And_You/religion.aspx
The Religious Influences on Indian Food and Cooking Methods, by S. Kumar Sinha, Published on LinkedIN on October 28, 2014: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141028113318-134500270-the-religious-influences-on-indian-food-and-cooking-methods