• Indian cuisine is a glorious array of vegetables, meat, grains and spices. (Andrew Dorn)Source: Andrew Dorn
India is a melting pot of cuisines, influenced by a variety of climates and cultures.
By
Melissa Woodley

26 Nov 2021 - 11:55 AM  UPDATED 16 Nov 2021 - 11:30 AM

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India is blessed with an expansive and magnificent diversity of cultures, climates and crops that have influenced the cuisines from the north to the south.

Food in the north is characterised by wheat-based staples, rich dairy products and milder spice blends. Whereas typical meals in the south are rice-based, incorporate more seafood and have an extra layer of heat. 

Protein

Indian cuisine welcomes meat and fish but focuses on vegetarianism, which is a principle of its primary religion, Hinduism.  

"It isn't a 'dietary requirement,' as we think of it in Australia. It is more like a way of life," says Shashank Achuta, co-owner of Sydney Tiffin Room and sous chef at Lana Dining.

INDIAN SEAFOOD
Chingri malai

Large king prawns marinated in rich coconut cream, plenty of spices and chilli powder, served with a squeeze of fresh lime.

Lentils are popular throughout the country, but are closely associated with southern cuisine. With greater access to the coast, people in the south also have more seafood options.

Inderpreet Singh Minhas, Punjabi chef and owner of Kesar Hospitality Group, a group of restaurants based in Sydney, tells SBS Food, "Our choice of protein is affected by the geography.

"North India is more landlocked and has less access to the ocean, so it's more about meat and chicken. Whereas a lot of...protein in south India comes from seafood."

Grains

The staple crop in north India is wheat, which is transformed into a variety of breads, such as naan or paratha.

NORTH INDIAN BREAD
Laccha paratha with carrot raita

Laccha paratha are flatbreads from northern India, made with wheat flour and ghee and they go with a whole array of Indian dishes.

Although eaten daily in northern Indian households, these breads are considered a specialty in the south.

"There's a lot more rice dependence," says Minhas. "Even when you make breads in south Indian culture, you find that those breads are made from rice."

The tropical climate of southern India makes it ideal for growing rice crops, which are transformed into innumerable rice-based delicacies, such as dosa, idli and appam.

Spices

Minhas explains, "The spices you find all over India are very similar, but are proportioned differently."

Being close to the equator means that southern India has a more stable climate and thus, heat largely influences eating patterns.

"We love the heat in terms of spice and the actual weather," Bangalore-born chef Achuta tells SBS Food. "There's a lot of focus on preservation by drying or fermenting."

This contrasts with the north where milder masala blends are preferred. 

Minhas says, "When you kick off a dish, the first couple of things you put into it have a big influence on the type of flavour. When we start off a north Indian dish, the base of it would be oil; something like sunflower oil or mustard oil." After that come spices like cumin, cardamom, turmeric and fennel seed.

"Whereas, if we do the exact same process for southern Indian, the base of the cooking changes. The first thing they might use is coconut oil… but then you've got curry leaves, mustard seeds, dried red chillies and coconut. The two results in very different flavours."

People in the north tend to use more dairy products, such as ghee, cream and milk, to further flavour and thicken their curries and sauces.

Shashank Achuta says, "As you move towards the north, it is a lot fresher with more local produce. It is also more dependent on heavy things like meat, or cream and milk…the things that keep you going in the cold months."

Southern Indian curries use coconut milk or water, which is a runnier consistency than dairy and ideal for pouring over rice.

Through his food business, Sydney Tiffin Room, Achuta hopes to shine a light on the hyper-regionality of Indian cuisine. He changes his menu every few weeks to tackle a different subculture or region of India. 

"I've explored just a handful of southern Indian cuisines and it's amazing to me how the ingredients, techniques and spices that you use are polar opposites of each other but geographically so close together," he says.

The seasonal menus that can be found at Minhas' restaurant, Lavendra, also draw attention to India's diverse cuisine.

"Every state, or every second state you go to, you will find something new and something special," Minhas says. "I explore specific cultures in detail. People come into the restaurant and walk out with a greater understanding of the complexity of Indian food, and the complexity of the history."

Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries.

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