Cuisine Facts

Spices used in Indian Cuisine: Cumin, coriander, cardamom; mustard, mango powder, ginger; asafetida, fenugreek and chilies. And then there's turmeric, tamarind, saffron, curry leaf, coconut milk and kewara water, almonds, cashews and pistachios -- and those are just the seasonings! Click here to view a map of India.

Biryani | Dhansak | Dopiaza | Jalfrezi | Korma | Madras | Mughlai Cuisine Pasanda | Punjabi Cuisine | Rogan Josh | Saag | Tikka Masala | Vindaloo
What is Curry?
Curry is not originally Indian. Colonial rulers have never been known for their linguistic accuracy and no one knows for sure where the British got this one. "Kari" is a South Indian word for sauce and "tarkari" is a North Indian dish -- which may or may not be relevant. Clearly the sahibs and memsahibs fell in love with the flavors of India. When they returned to the homeland, they had their cooks grind up a mix of spices to sprinkle on their staid British staples. The world now knows this as "curry powder" and whatever is cooked with it is called "curry." As if the same stodgy old combination in dish after dish could begin to reflect the wonders of India!

The finest of India's cuisines is as rich and diverse as it's civilization. It is an art form that has been passed on through generations purely by word of mouth, from guru (teacher) to vidhyarthi (pupil) or from mother to daughter. The range assumes astonishing proportions when one takes into account regional variations. Very often the taste, colour, texture and appearance of the same delicacy changes from state to state.

Indian restaurant food barely skims the surface of Indian cuisine. The beehive-shaped tandoori ovens which heat up to 1000 degrees cooks meat, fish and bread lightning-fast and remains one of Punjab's gifts to the culinary world. A mix of Punjabi and Mughal cuisine has become standard restaurant fare both across India and the rest of the world.

Balti is more a style of cooking than one particular curry. The word balti can be translated as "bucket" (i.e. a cooking pan) and some say the style of cooking is indigenous to an area of northern Pakistan known as Baltistan. A balti pan is basically a karahi which has the shape of a Chinese wok but with 2 small round handles on either side of the pan instead of one long handle. In specialist "Balti Houses" the balti is a meal in itself which contains both meat and vegetables and is eaten straight from the karahi using curled up pieces of nan bread. In standard Indian restaurants the balti is more of a stir-fried curry containing plenty of fried green peppers and fresh coriander (cilantro). Medium hot.
Bhuna is first and foremost a cooking process where spices are gently fried in plenty of oil to bring out their flavor. The dish "bhuna" is an extension of that process where meat is added to the spices and then cooked in its own juices which results in deep strong flavors but very little sauce. The restaurant bhuna is a well spiced curry with a thick sauce. It is often garnished with fried green bell peppers and shredded onions. Usually medium hot.
Biryani is not a curry at all but the curry connection comes from the mixed vegetable curry with which it is served in most Indian restaurants.

Biryani originated in Persia and, at its simplest, was rice and meat baked together in the oven. The cooks to the Moghul emperors took the biryani and transformed it into a courtly delicacy by adding aromatic spices and other exotic ingredients. Traditionally, biryanis are baked in the oven for some time so the aromatic spices and juices from the meat permeate the rice. In the Indian restaurant, the biryani is often pilau rice stir fried with chicken or lamb which has been cooked as an extra dry bhuna. The biryani is usually garnished with almonds and golden raisins and is accompanied by a mixed vegetable curry to add a little juiciness to the rice. Ususally mild.
A famous Parsee dish. Interestingly the dhan part of the name means rice and a dhansak is traditionally served with a pulao of fried and spiced rice. An authentic dhansak will be made with lamb and contain vegetables and many different types of dhal (the sak in the name). The curry house dhansak is often referred to as "hot, sweet and sour with lentils". The "hot" is chilli powder, the "sweet" is sugar and the "sour" is lemon juice. Curry houses commonly use masoor dhal (split red lentils) but some restaurants now use chana dhal to good effect. If it is done well the dhansak is an excellent curry with contrasting flavours and textures.
The dopiaza is a classic Indian dish dating back at least to Moghul times. The name dopiaza broadly translates as "2 onions" or "double onions". Some traditional versions of the dopiaza use twice the weight of onions compared to the weight of meat but a classic Indian dopiaza is more likely to use the onions in 2 different ways, fried and boiled, at different stages of the cooking. The restaurant version has small fried pieces of onion in the sauce and then larger chunks of lightly cooked onion are added towards the end of the cooking. Medium hot.
Jalfrezi is not a traditional Indian dish as such but, like the bhuna, is actually a method of cooking. It literally means "hot-fry" but is probably better translated as "stir-fry". The term jalfrezi entered the English language at the time of the British Raj in India. Colonial households employed Indian cooks who would use the jalfrezi method of cooking to heat up cold roasted meat and potatoes.
A traditional korma will have a long slow cooking. In fact, korma is not one particular dish but rather a method of cooking similar to braising. Because korma is a cooking method there are a wide variety of dishes that could be described as "korma". Many kormas call for the meat to be marinated in yoghurt and then the meat plus marinade are braised on a very low heat until all the juices condense down into a thick sauce. The dish usually contains ground almonds, coconut and thick cream. It is often described as being "very mild".
Madras can be hot or very hot, red or brown, a hotter version of a plain curry or quite rich in tomatoes. Mostly though it comes with plenty of sauce and is strongly spiced.
Mughlai Cuisine
Having reigned over India for so long, the Moghuls left a deep and long lasting influence on Delhi's cuisine. The Mughlai cuisine is literally 'fit for royalty'. With it's rich sauces, butter-based curries, ginger flavoured roast meats, and mind-blowing sweets, it has captured the fancy of food lovers all over the world. From a tangy shorba or soup to the rose petal strewn kulfi, Mughlai food offers a rich fare that is irresistible. Although available throughout the country, the best place to try this royal cuisine is in the region of Delhi.
Derived from a court dish of the Moghul emperors the pasanda is traditionally made with thinly sliced and marinated lamb fillets. It is sometimes called lamb badam pasanda because the dish contains ground almonds, the "badam" of the title. The dish is usually quite mild and contains ground almonds, cardamon pods, puréed tomatoes and cream.
Punjabi Cuisine

Punjabi people are robust people with robust appetites and their food is like the Punjabis themselves, simple, sizeable and hearty with no unnecessary frills or exotic accompaniments. The Punjabi tandoori cooking is celebrated as one of the most popular cuisines throughout the world. Huge earthen ovens are half buried in the ground and heated with a coal fire lit below it. Marinated meat, chicken, fish, paneer, rotis and naans of many types are cooked in this novel oven and the results are absolutely scrumptious!

Punjab has imbibed some aspects of its cuisine from external influences. Connoisseurs of the cuisine say that the gravy component of Punjabi cuisine came from the Mughals. The most popular example is the murg makhani. It served the state well to combine this influence in its cooking since it had a lot of pure ghee and butter. Murg makhani also provided a balance to tandoori chicken, which was dry because it was charcoal cooked.

Naans and parathas, rotis made of maize flour are typical Punjabi breads. Of course, over the years the roti has been modified to add more variety, so there is the rumali roti, the naan and the laccha parathas, all cooked in or on the mouth of the tandoor.

Rogan Josh
Rogan josh is another all time favourite on the curry house menu. It was originally a Kashmiri dish but is equally at home in the Punjab. An authentic rogan josh will be made with lamb and may, at its most elaborate, contain dozens of spices. The Kashmiri and Punjabi versions do differ (the Kashmiri does not traditionally contain onions or garlic) but they are both highly spiced and share a deep red colour derived from the liberal use of dried red Kashmiri chillies. The curry house rogan is also red but the colour comes from red peppers and tomatoes rather than Kashmiri chillies. The restaurant rogan is characterised by its garnish of tomato pieces and fresh coriander. It is usually medium hot.
Saag gosht is a classic curry traditionally made with spinach and lamb. Saag is, strictly speaking, a general term for tender green leaves such as spinach, mustard greens and fresh fenugreek leaves. If you were talking about spinach on its own it would be called palak. Many restaurants these days will offer a chicken or a prawn alternative to lamb and so the dish will show on the menu as just "saag" or "palak" omitting the gosht (lamb) from the name altogether. The saag is usually served medium hot and is made in the bhuna style.
Tikka Masala
To my mind it is fruitless to enter the debate on the origins of the famous chicken tikka masala. If you want to remind yourself of the contending arguments then take a look at the essay on the subject "Is it or isn't it? - the chicken tikka masala story" by food historians Peter and Colleen Grove. Chicken tikka masala is the all time most popular dish on the Indian restaurant menu and what the restaurant diner really needs to know is whether the restaurant is providing a good example of the dish. And what is a good example? Well, the chicken tikka pieces should be aromatic and slightly smoky from the tandoor. The masala sauce should be well spiced but not hot, rich and creamy and have a hint of coconut. Tikka masala usually has a deep red colour, gained from the use of artificial food colourings.
The vindaloo was originally a Portuguese dish which took its name from the 2 main ingredients which were "vinho", wine/wine vinegar, and "alhos", garlic. Over time it was spiced up, hotted up and otherwise changed by the indigenous peoples of the ex-Portuguese colony of Goa. Not many restaurants produce an authentic Goan vindaloo not least because the pork used by Christian Goans in their recipe would not be acceptable to Muslim chefs. In some restaurants the vindaloo is just a pumped-up Madras i.e. the same recipe but with lots more chilli powder. Other restaurants have interpreted the "aloo" part of the name as meaning potato and introduced diced potato to a hot standard curry with added lemon juice for tartness and black pepper for extra pungency. Very hot.

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