India is an ancient land full of rich, vibrant cultures blended together. The same could justifiably be said of its cuisine. Indian food is as diverse as the gods of that exotic land and each speaks in a different voice.
The Hundred Languages of Indian Cuisine
Preparing these dishes can be as spiritual an experience as eating them is a hedonistic one. In India, the two halves often intermingle. Pull out the tandoori, ready the karahi, and put the katori on the table. It's time for a feast for the body and the soul.
Even the simplest of dishes, like the common breads of roti or naan say something otherworldly to the diner. As a staple of every Indian table they are not just delicious and heartwarming but satisfying to the soul.
Of course, what they complement is no less so. That may be a splendid tandoori chicken or a chicken tikka on a bed of perfect rice. In either case, the colors of these dishes reflect the pungent aromas that speak to all the senses as they whisper to the mind.
For a lamb dish that is equalled nowhere else, consider the noble Mughlai. With side dishes of paneer - the Indian cottage cheese- or a stellar chaat -a potato treat- no one will walk away hungry in body or spirit.
The superb and distinctive spices of India are more than just a little responsible for that, of course. Cumin and coriander, cayenne and cinnamon, and a whole array of others open up the palate to new experiences. They generate the full spectrum of what the senses of taste and smell can experience, while they move us to explore how they weave their effects.
Many of those spices make their way into a fine chutney or an outstanding curry, naturally. These are what diners often mean when they speak of 'real' Indian food dishes. But the real and the imaginary blend together as easily in this Asiatic cuisine as they do in the country itself. When they do, the gourmet is the lucky beneficiary as he or she learns new ways to reach nirvana.
That heavenly experience might be topped off by a delightful dosa, the Indian version of the pancake, covered in jaggery syrup -a type of brown sugar. Or, the diner might indulge in a treat that is everywhere on the streets of Bombay: the vada. These unique donuts bear only a passing resemblance to their American cousins. But that is just one more reflection of the delightful difference that makes up India and its recipes.
Enter the world of Indian cuisine and be prepared for a never ending table of alternatives. A land thousands of years old, made of hundreds of tribes mixing over a vast continent could produce nothing less.
What Makes Indian Cuisine Indian?
In one sense, the answer to the question posed by the title is simple: that the dish originates from India. True, but trivial. The real answer is a little more complicated, and interesting.
India is an ancient land, formed from dozens of different cultures arising from migration and conquest, followed by tribal blending. This is reflected in its cuisine. Everyone can identify 'something' that is Indian about Indian food - the curry, the unique blend of a masala, the Hindi word for spice, the colorful chicken and lamb dishes. But every attempt to pin it down somehow slips into a fog.
Consider the humble chutney. This blend of pulpy fruit and spices could surely have come from nowhere else but India. What other land would have the ingenuity and courage to mix something sweet - ripe plums, firm peaches or any of a dozen other fruits - and mix in garam masala, a blend of hot spices? This is culinary genius.
To choose another example, chicken is a common component of dishes from around the world. Poultry meat is used in the cuisine of France, China and Finland. It can be found in South Africa or Northern Canada. But nowhere else but India gave birth to a worldwide favorite: tandoori chicken.
It isn't just the hot, hot clay oven. It isn't just the colorful results that make the dish as much a delight to the eye as to the tongue. It is the spices that are both Asian and yet a mix of other lands, such as what is now Afghanistan. It is the unique method of preparation that incorporates them. Yet, there is something more. It is sui generis, something in a category of its own.
Lamb or mutton is part of Greek, Italian and the dishes of many other culinary innovators. Those too, after all, are ancient peoples that have mixed with others and had century upon century to experiment. Yet, how different is an Achari dish from India than a Greek mutton stew.
Could it be the coriander? No, that is known in Greece, too. Tomatoes are an everyday component of Greek dishes, too. Perhaps it is the turmeric, fenugreek, or other spices? Not entirely. Greek sailors traveled the known world in ancient times and saw much, bringing it back to their native country. Yet, the difference remains. Achari is exotic, lively and pungent. Greek stew is delicious, but mild.
Even the humble donut is known as far and wide as both China and America. Yet, vada is nothing like its counterparts in other countries. The oil-fried dough in America is a purely sweet, fat-filled confection. In China, it may as often be part of the regular meal in the form of dim sum. In India, it is a venerable part of the street vendor culture.
For all you can point to that singles out Indian cuisine - the vigorous spices, the eye-catching presentation, the thin, hard bread - the answer to what makes Indian food Indian will still remain a mystery. Given the country in question, that seems wholly appropriate.