the surprising truth about Indian food

(This year, we published many inspiring and amazing stories that made us fall crazy with the planet – and this is often one of our favorites. Click here for the complete list).

I was during a narrow kitchen in Mumbai, one among India’s most strikingly modern cities, watching ancient cornmeal being cooked on vessels of baked clay. Utensils made up of leaves, wood, and metal were scattered across the kitchen. The food was being prepared using only ingredients native to the subcontinent, which meant that the sharpness of chilies (native to Mexico) and therefore the starch of the potatoes (imported from South America) were missing.

“No cabbages, cauliflower, peas or carrots, either,” said Kasturirangan Ramanujam, one among the cooks preparing the meal. But that won’t stop him from making an elaborate feast for my family which will include rice, the mulligatawny-like saatramudu, protein-rich kuzhambu gravy, and an astonishing array of vegetables and snacks.

This is the shraadha meal that's eaten by many Hindu families in southern India on the death anniversaries of close relations – during this case, the anniversary of my father-in-law’s passing. While the feast is believed to feed families’ departed ancestors, it's inadvertently created a living memory of the region’s culinary history, because it's made entirely from recipes and ingredients that have existed on the subcontinent for a minimum of a millennium.
In a country famous for its rich red curries made up of tomatoes (introduced by the Portuguese) and therefore the texture of its naan (from Central Asia), many of the foremost famous ingredients that enter typical ‘Indian’ food aren’t native to India.

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Potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, carrots, and peas, which are now staples in contemporary Indian cooking, arrived within the subcontinent relatively recently. Accounts from the late-18th Century report that the Dutch brought potatoes to India primarily to feed other Europeans. Now, however, potatoes are boiled, baked, roasted, stuffed, and fried in nearly every kitchen in India.

The late Indian food historian KT Achaya believed that chilies probably arrived from Mexico via Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and answered a deeply felt need for a pungent spice that would be grown in every a part of the country without having the maximum amount rain as pepper.
And consistent with Ruchi Srivastava, producer for the Indian television program The Curries of India, “All cuisines in India have adopted the tomato.” The plant arrived in India through a circuitous route – from South America to southern Europe, then to England and eventually to India within the 16th Century courtesy of British. Srivastava argues that restaurants and hotels have popularised red sauce as ‘Indian’ within the last 100 years. “This has now started changing the palate of individuals,” she said. “For anyone who doesn’t know much about Indian food, the onion-tomato gravy has become a classic.”

However, the food eaten after the religious shraddha rite showcases the indigenous biodiversity of the Indian subcontinent. It’s an upscale medley of unripe mangoes, raw bananas, cluster, and broad beans, sweet potatoes, banana stems, taro roots, and a succulent called pirandai (veld grape). These ingredients are flavored with pepper, cumin, and salt, while soft yellow mung dal provides much of the protein.
Throughout southern India, shraadhas are intensely private affairs involving only the immediate family. Before the feast, a codified ritual of prayers and offerings takes place. The meal is one of the foremost important events on the family’s calendar, and there might be a couple of shraddha meals annually performed by the family’s eldest male on the death anniversaries of immediate relations. It brings together a huge sort of delicacies designed to please the palates of their deceased ancestors.

“The traditional understanding is that when members of your family expire, they become pitru devata [divine beings],” said Pazhaveri Chakravarti Raghavan, a senior Hindu priest in Mumbai. “It is believed that an entire year on Earth equals one day for pitru devata, therefore the annual shraadha is their daily meal.”

Certain dishes – like stir-fried bananas, saatramudu, or kuzhambu – are often made the reception. However, since the feast involves an elaborate preparation of vegetables, desserts, and snacks, professional chefs are usually employed by those that can afford them. The cooks who prepare these meals often spend years in training. They also learn to customize the menu to reflect the local produce that was available when the family’s ancestor was alive.

“For example, if the family traces its roots to the Tondaimandalam [a historical region on India’s east coast], the lady’s finger [okra, commonly grown within the region] is ready,” Raghavan said.

Watching the chefs work quickly and efficiently, I realized that it might be hard to recognize these ancient dishes in India’s modern culinary climate. As foreign powers and traders have come and gone, Indian cooking has changed within the past 1,000 years. In many homes across the country, older dishes made with local ingredients that represent distinct subcultures now co-exist with imported influences from halfway across the world. as an example, South cornmeal may include rice with a light-weight rasam (thin soup) made entirely from local ingredients like cumin, pepper, and coriander seeds, but also include spicy stir-fried potatoes.

For this shraddha meal, Ramanujam was busy preparing five different vegetable-based dishes, using raw bananas, sweet potatoes, taro, cluster beans, and bitter gourd procured from local markets. He seasoned them with a mix of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves, and black gram beans, all lightly tossed in vegetable oil.

“I also will prepare five bakshanam,” he said, about the fried snacks which will decorate the banana leaves on which the meal is going to be served. The desserts were sweetened with jaggery (a soft blend of processed and unbleached sugarcane juice) and made with coconut, black sesame seeds, and coarsely ground wheat. Other snacks were salty and spicy, made up of lentil paste and pepper. one among the meal’s centerpieces was the thirukannamudu: a milky sweet made with lentils and jaggery.
Because of the intimacy of the event, the shraddha meal isn't something that the majority of travelers ever see and taste themselves, but certain dishes served at the feast are available throughout southern India. as an example, adhirasam, an Indian-style doughnut that’s crunchy on the surface and soft and sweet on the within, and the Kushal, a crispy and savory snack made up of rice and white lentil flour, are often available in snack shops. Many homes, temples, and traditional South Indian restaurants also serve a minimum of a couple of heirloom dishes which also appear privately shraddha meals.

Srivastava said that religious rituals just like the shraddha meal are helping to take care of true Indian cuisine. “Home is that the only place where food traditions are preserved,” she said. While Indian food served at many restaurants rarely resembles what people erode home, most home kitchens in India retain several traditional recipes passed down for generations. Even with newer ingredients, they maintain a balance of older spices and reflect the nuances of their family’s traditional culinary subculture.

It has inadvertently created a living memory of the region’s culinary history

Because shraddhas are typically much smaller and more intimate family affairs than other religious rituals, they need preserved culinary traditions far more effectively than larger family celebrations. “Weddings, as an example, are social occasions,” Raghavan said. “You need to cook a cosmopolitan meal, make it palatable to an outsized number of guests from different backgrounds. Shraadhas are more private. we will stick with tradition.”

Ramanujam worked alongside a colleague, their fingers deftly mixing dollops of jaggery with rice flour and patting them down on a little piece of banana leaf. The flat discs were then skilfully deep-fried to become adhirasam doughnuts. Ramanujam added the adhirasam to an outsized bamboo basket lined with leaves, which was already crammed with four other bakshanam.

“Traditionally, this meal was cooked on a wood fire,” Raghavan said. “Serving utensils were made from brass or silver. Nowadays, however, it's common to ascertain chrome steel. A gas range is additionally more convenient than a wood fire.”

The cooks sandwiched a thick dough of rice and black gram flour between a brass instrument made from two cylindrical units, and intricately shaped the fried the Kushal. Ramanujam turned his attention to the skinny slivers of bitter gourd that were cooking with mung dal in a clay pot. Another stove held a frypan where taro discs were being deep-fried.
Elaborate because it was, the meal only incorporated a really small slice of India’s food diversity. Two thousand-year-old texts, just like the Indian medicinal tome Charaka-Samhita, have described a bewildering sort of oils, fruits, local grains, vegetables, and animal products – many of which still be utilized in the country.

After the ritual was complete, the cooks placed an outsized serving of rice and a couple of spoonfuls of salted, boiled mung beans on a banana leaf for every person before adding the remainder of the dishes. I checked out the rich delicacies on my leaf and felt grateful for this bounty, knowing that it had been the work of generations of chefs who are preserving India’s living culinary history.


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