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Indian Food: Eating in Technicolor

Consider curry: the happy intersection of pungent chili powder and fragrant spices, a kaleidoscope of shifting colors. Anyone who has seen Indian food being prepared has watched the blending of green and red chilies, black peppercorns and yellow turmeric into a particular curry.

Yet, Indian food is far more than curry.

India has five major religions, 15 languages, and more than 1,500 minor languages and dialects. Like individual European countries, each Indian state has its own history, culture, language -- and food.

Religious Hindus eat no beef, Muslims, no pork, and Jains, no onions. Southern India's tropical climate invites use of coconut milk in recipes, while near the snow-topped Himalayas, you're not likely to find coconuts in the cuisine. And colonialism -- British, Portuguese and French -- left a distinct imprint on the kitchen.

This week marks Indian independence from British rule and the partition that created the nations of India and Pakistan. Like everything else in Indian society, food was affected.

Before the partition, traditional culture frowned on eating out, and members of certain religious groups and castes weren't allowed to be professional cooks. After the partition, taboos began breaking down and restaurants became popular. Food in Indian restaurants, however, remains more homogeneous than home cooking.

In part, that's because many Punjabis displaced by the partition came to New Delhi and became restaurateurs. They brought their tandoors (clay ovens traditionally found in Punjabi villages) and their breads, among them parathas, rotis and nans.

Red tandoori chicken and Punjabi breads have become regular staples in Indian restaurants in the West. As a result, many people equate Punjabi dishes with Indian food in general, when Punjabi cooking is really just one example of India's diverse cuisines.

Despite the differences, spice is fundamental to all Indian cooking. But how spices are used, how they're mixed and the order in which individual spices are added to a given dish makes all the difference. (If you're in an Indian restaurant that offers dishes "mild, medium or hot," beware. Such flexibility hints that the food might not actually be cooked with spices, but rather with flavored sauces that are added later.)

Some of the most essential Indian spices, such as cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, pepper and nutmeg, have long been available in the United States. Others, such as fennel, cumin, coriander and turmeric, are also now on most supermarket shelves. More unusual ingredients, such as tamarind paste and aromatic curry leaves, can be found in Indian grocery stores or specialty shops.

Indian cooks approach spices in different ways. Some toast whole dry spices, such as cumin seed or mustard seed, in a pan for a minute until the seeds begin to pop. That's when their inner moisture will have vaporized. This cooking method mellows the spices' flavors while retaining their individual tastes.

Another preparation involves first heating powdered spices such as turmeric, cumin and coriander in oil so their different chemicals mix, then adding fresh ingredients, such as garlic, ginger and onions. The combination forms a sauce-like paste with a more integrated aroma and flavor.

Since the best Indian food is still found at home, here's one final tip: Make nice with your Indian friends.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from Kitchen Window.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Roseanne Pereira