The South Asian Misnomer
WINE&DINE|April - June 2021
Incredibly diverse and varied than most know, Indian food is far more intriguing than butter chicken or thosai. Here is a crash course on the extensive cuisine from region to region, recognisable for the seemingly infinite ways of using spices.
Harnoor Channi-Tiwary

“The very belief that ‘Indian food’ is (and has always been) hot and laden with chillies is a common misconception, given that red chillies were only introduced to India 450 years ago by the Portuguese.”

Spices and India are interwoven through centuries of shared history, akin to a long relationship with its trials and tribulations but in the end, the two partners are imprinted on each other’s soul. But how did this romance begin? To answer that seemingly simple question, one has to peer back into the ancient history of the Indian subcontinent.

India and the borders within which it is now confined to is less than a century old. Yet, this ancient land traces its history back to tens of thousands of years, when cavemen inhabited the earth. More recently, one of the world’s three earliest civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization left behind traces of well-planned cities that flourished around 2500BC. The journey from then until now was fraught with wars and occupied by different rulers, some homegrown, others coming from lands as far as Mongol, Persia and even Britain and France.

With a history as colourful as that, the cuisines of India inevitably underwent numerous transformations, adapting and evolving with each era. The very belief that ‘Indian food’ is (and has always been) hot and laden with chillies is a common misconception, given that red chillies were only introduced to India 450 years ago by the Portuguese.

An unknown flavour profile to the inhabitants of the country, red chillies found their way to Indian shores presumably from Brazil thanks to the Portuguese fleets of Vasco da Gama.

Chilli doesn’t find mention in ancient Indian texts, and the first one hears of it is in the poems of South Indian composer Purandaradasa (1480-1564 AD), according to food historian K. T. Achaya as mentioned in his book The Illustrated Foods of India A-Z. Spices, however, have flavoured Indian fare since time immemorial. If you visit any Indian household, you will invariably find two things—a round, steel spice box called masala dabba and a grinder (be it a stone tablet or a mortar and pestle).

Indian food is ‘spicy’, but not in the linear manner of heat as it is widely understood. Any dish originating from India will use an array of spices to give it a distinct flavour, not merely the mouth-numbing heat afforded by red chillies. But before one ventures into the history, usage and prominence of different spices in the country, it is important to note that there is nothing called ‘Indian food’. Better identified as foods of India, the cuisine is far more varied than the butter chicken, dosa and naan that people associate with the cuisine.

Cuisines of India

It is said that the cuisine changes every 20 kilometre as you traverse the country. Modestly, one may divide the country into north, south, east and west, but the regional cuisines within each section are further divided by state, and then by community. Secular India is home to communities ranging from Jains, a vegetarian sect that does not add onion and garlic to the food for their supposed aphrodisiac properties, to the Parsis who love meat so much that they add it to their lentils as well, flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg. Religion, colonial occupation, geographic location and soil all play a large part in defining the cuisine.

“ Religion, colonial occupation, geographic location and soil all play a large part in defining the cuisine.”

North India

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