The Great “Indian” Cuisine

January 1, 2012

I have been wondering for the past few years; so what is Indian cuisine?

When I first moved to South India to take up my campus job, I had gone there “knowing” that I will need to live with the “Madrasi” cuisine. Hyderabad was my base city and I had to travel across Andhra Pradesh. I was bewildered with the cuisine variety. The stuff in Hyderabad (biryani, haleem, khubani ka meetha etc.) and that in coastal Andhra (the Andhra Meals, Chicken 65, Babai Idli in Vijayawada). And, by the way, you were lucky to get some edible stuff in the remote corners of Telengana (think towns like Belampalli, Mancherial etc)! Often I had to report to the company HQ in Chennai. The MADRAS! Here too the choices were amazing! Food made Iyengar style, Iyer style. “Military hotels” were diagonally opposite the preceding two cuisines. Then Chettinad stuff as well. What is “Madrasi” cuisine?

A large part of my recent life I have lived in Bangalore. I thought I knew all about the variety of state-wise cuisines till I discovered the food served in Bangalore is different from that in Mysore and totally different from the stuff in Mangalore. The Bijapur/ Gulbarga khana is something else. Not to speak of the Coorgi stuff (the meat of wild boar is a coveted delicacy here). I am sure Chikmagalur, Belgaum, Karwar etc would have their own distinctive flavours.

Take Rajasthan for example, a state I worked extensively in. There is the “saatwic” Marwari cuisine, the laal maas favoured by the Rajputs and then the fafdaas served in areas bordering MP.

I could go on-and-on showing-off my knowledge of India’s geography. But I will stop here. Just two more points.

Bihar is where I was born and raised in. Once, I tried a few months ago on my blog to champion the cause of the unheard “Bihari cuisine”. I was (am still) toying with the idea of starting a Bihari speciality restaurant chain. I have, since, realized that there is no such thing as Bihari cuisine. What I was discussing in my blog was Bhojpuri cuisine. Bhojpur is the region in Bihar where my parents hail from. The neighbouring geographies of Bihar; Bengal, Orissa, Nepal and Uttar Pradesh have their own distinct cuisines.

I now live away from India. When I talk to folks here in Hong Kong, or see people ordering food in the restaurants, I hear that they “loooooove” Indian food. And what is that lovely Indian food in their opinion? Naan, tandoori chicken and prawn vindaloo! (Some evolved ones may even mention samosa and “poppadums“.) I would love to know how many Indian households cook and serve naan/ tandoori chicken/ prawn vindaloo! And, pray, what is a vindaloo???

Now I am sticking my neck out here, please bear with me. For most Indians food is like religion. If you were to ask a Hindu to describe what “being-a-Hindu” means, will you get a uniform and cogent answer? If you do, let me know. I am still struggling with my thoughts on this subject. Similarly, if you ask Indians what cuisine they like, most are likely to mention Indian food. Now ask them to describe the cuisine. If you get a uniform and cogent answer out of a diversified sample, please let me know.