I once met a man of Indian heritage when I was visiting Australia.
Born in Singapore, he didn’t know which part of India his family was from. I delved into what his family had eaten when he was growing up and the conclusion was that they must have been from the south or south west of India. As an Indian, I feel I can often guess which region someone comes from by what they eat at home. In reality, the truth is more complex…
The early roots of Indian foods were deeply influenced by the Ayurveda advocates of ancient times, who recommended mostly vegetarian diets, meals that were healthy and easy to digest, with vegetables, pulses and added healing and digestive spices. After that, the food was defined by what grew locally and seasonally, but was later influenced by the colonisers, traders and settlers from different countries.
The Moghuls of Central Asia were among the first to arrive. They were used to cooler climates, few spices, a meat-heavy diet, breads, and lots of grilling and roasting. They brought these preferences with them and, over the years, their dishes were Indianized. The result is fusion food which we now call Mughlai food. This might not be strictly regional, but it is one of India’s best-loved cuisines.
The food of Kerala is known for its abundance of coconuts, seafood and spices. In addition, Kerala was a key trading port and attracted a variety of settlers over the years. Arab traders came for the spices but ended up staying and marrying local women. The result is a fusion of Arab, Muslim and Southern Indian cooking, known as Moplah food. The Syrian Christians arrived as missionaries and converted many locals; now almost one-third of the population of Kerala is Christian. Their own dishes tend to be milder, and include roasts, which – in ovenfree India – are usually pot-roasted. The food of Kerala is often known as Malayali food.
This Malayali egg roast, a breakfast dish from Kerala, is one of the most famous of India's many egg curries.
The Portuguese colonisers of Goa insisted that the Goans convert to Catholicism and embrace their culture, including their love of pork. They also brought chillies, pineapples, cashew nuts, tomatoes and pumpkins as well as a baking tradition that still exists today…
Another group of influential immigrants were the Chinese, and the streets of Kolkota are filled with momos: steamed Nepalese-Chinese dumplings served with a chutney or broth. A lot of Indo-Chinese fare has made it into the mainstream, such as sweet-and-sour sauces that coat everything from chicken to paneer.
The Parsis were exiled from their home in Persia and came to Gujarat. Their food is a combination of Persian and Gujarati, but, while Gujarati food is known for its vegetarian thali, Parsis are almost exclusively meat-eaters; even their vegetable dishes contain meat, or at the very least, eggs.
Such is the multi-layered nature of India and its cuisine: a collection of regional cuisines that has been influenced by people from across the globe, as they spice up the dishes they love.
This is an edited extract from I Love India by Anjum Anand, photography by Martin Pool (Hardie Grant Books, hb, $39.99)
Cook the book
This Gujarati favourite has crispy edges and a soft, vegetable-laden interior. It is normally made from lentils and rice, ground into a paste and fermented overnight, but this is a quick version. It is packed full of vegetables, as well as protein from the chickpea our, flax and pumpkin seeds. You can change the vegetables, and leave out one or both of the seeds if you don’t have them at home. Eat it as a snack, for lunch or even as breakfast.
I have always loved egg curry with rice, which is so much tastier than it sounds. There are many versions in India, but perhaps the most famous is this Malayali breakfast dish from Kerala, a tangle of browned onions, curry leaves, green chillies and tomatoes. Try it with rice dosa, or some buttered toast!
These little dumplings (gatta) based on my mother-in-law’s version of this curry are cooked in a simple but incredibly tasty yogurt and tomato sauce which is based on the one my mother made. It is fun to make, easy, cooks in 20 minutes and is exquisite. I crave it if I haven’t eaten it for a while. I eat this with simple plain rice; any other dish just distracts me from my pleasure.
Chickpea curry is the north-west Indian city of Amritsari's iconic dish, finished with a knob of local white butter, red onions and julienned ginger and served with their famous stuffed bread. It is a fabulous combination… but I can tell you from experience that this curry is equally delightful with lightly buttered brown toast.
Amritsar has a particular flaky, tandoor-cooked bread stuffed with potatoes or paneer, onions and spices and when you eat the real version, you understand why they are eaten there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They are crisp outside and soft within with lots of distinct flavours and textures. Eating them fresh on a bustling street with a cup of masala tea was one of my most memorable Indian breakfast experiences. This is as close to the original as I could get without a tandoor oven; it is also amazing cooked on a barbecue.
“The Aussie meat pie is as iconic as a curry is in India or fish and chips in England. These little Goan meat pies are my twist on this Australian favourite and they’re absolutely delicious. You can make the pastry and the filling the night before making them a perfect for entertaining.” Anjum Anand, Anjum's Australian Spice Stories
“For me this chicken curry is soul food, it is the curry we had every week and is light and almost broth like. The chicken is important here as it really rounds the flavours of the dish. Please do use chicken on the bone here, it really makes a difference. If you have a friendly butcher, ask him to joint and skin it for you, if not you can find packets of thighs or drumsticks in the supermarkets. Also, buy slightly under-ripe tomatoes as you want them to add tartness and the sweetness of ripe tomatoes will ruin the curry. The secret to any well-cooked curry is the cooking of the masala, slowly and over time is the best way, so be a little patient- it is worth the effort.” Anjum Anand, Anjum's Australian Spice Stories
"These are really delicious and one of India’s favourite little desserts. They are traditionally made with reduced milk but as that takes a lot of time and effort, many of us make them with dried milk powder instead. They are easy to make and the only two tricks to getting them right is a soft dough and frying them over a very low heat so they cook all the way to the centre.” Anjum Anand