While waiting for a taxi to pick me up at the Chhatrapathi Shivaji Maharaj Terminus,I stood marvelling at the mix of architectural styles of the Grand Old Dame of Mumbai : a mix of Victorian, Italianate, Gothic, Revivalist AND Mughal styles. I was surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the vibrant crowd milling around me: synthetic saris, colourful salwar-kameez and precariously low rise jeans vied with one and other for attention. Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, English and Hinglish (Indian English) conversations and exclamations flew fast and furious.
“This,” I said to myself happily “is India!”
India is a vast and colourful patchwork of different cultures, languages and religions. What was really indigenous to this region of Asia? It is difficult to tell. Invasions, occupations and colonialism have all left their mark on every facet of Indian life.The ancient mixes freely with the modern. And here we stand now in all the glory of a rich mixture of cultures which have influenced how we speak, dress and eat, the very “roti, kapada and makaan” of our lives.
It would be difficult to describe any one culinary style as being “Indian”. Boiled beef and greens and Shepherd’s Pie might be illustrative of English cooking, but Indian cuisine is too vast and varied to be slotted in any single way.
Why is this so?
Differing climate means different cuisines
India is a land of varied climates and soil types. This affects the crops grown in different areas which in turn influence culinary practices and preferences. For instance, in the northern colder Punjab region wheat is the staple and sarson ka tel (mustard oil) a popular cooking medium because the soil and climate are suitable to these crops. But, in the peninsular south, rice, fish and coconut abound in many kitchens: this is because of the plentiful monsoon rains, the hot climate and the long coastline.
The religion of food
Indian cuisine is also heavily influenced by religious choices. Religion plays a big part in influencing all cultural aspects of ethnic groups and this includes the food that is cooked. There is no other country in the world where vegetarianism is a way of life to such a large extent; no other culture which offers such a vast and varied vegetarian platter. The traditional caste system also dictates what is to be put on the plate.
In their turn, the Mongol and Mughal invasions brought Islam to India and new ways of eating were thus introduced.
Congregation of cultures
Middle Eastern and Central Asian culinary influences are more evident in North Indian cuisine from the Mughal rule which was mainly quartered in this region of India. The British brought with them their own culinary expertise and the “Brown sahibs” took these practices further into Indian cuisine. Can you imagine going for 3 consecutive days without cooking a potato? This all pervasive tuber was brought to India by the Portuguese who also introduced chillies. Can you imagine Indian cooking without these two “foreign particles”?
Spice, Spice, Baby!
The Spice trade between India and Europe opened the doors to further cultures and, thus, cuisines. Kerala was referred to as “The Spice Garden of India” and was the light that beckoned the likes of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. The spice route not only introduced new culinary experiences to Indian palettes but spread Indian culinary influences to different countries along the Spice Route.
The “warming spice”
Translation: Garam Masala. This ubiquitous powder actually originated in Northern India where winters are cold. It is a blend of ground spices, sometimes roasted before grinding to release their bouquet – peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and cumin. Before I hear protesting voices and cries of “that’s not all!”, let me clarify that this is the very basic avatar. Some people add star anise, mace or bay leaf, some or all of these. There are yet others who enhance the masala with dagadphool (stone flower) and kababchini (tailed pepper). The spices could be blended carefully to achieve a balanced effect or maybe a single flavour could rule the taste buds.
Hot or not?
The “garam” in the masala is hot in the Ayurvedic sense. In the Ayurvedic system of medicine, there are foods which are “hot” in that they are believed to elevate body heat or “pitta”. Pitta is what enables the normal metabolic functions of the body in the Ayurvedic tradition. Garam Masala is actually more pungent than “hot” in the sense of red chilli powder.
North , South, East, West…
Garam Masala might have its origins in the North of India, but it is a popular and essential ingredient in Indian cuisine throughout the length and breadth of this diverse land. Its wonderful aroma and spicy flavour add the correct amount of zest to many a dish. The smell of Garam Masala wafting from the kitchen is comforting and mouth watering at the same time.
Not just taste
Whatever be the additions to the basic recipe for Garam Masala, cloves and cumin are irreplaceable ingredients. Cloves give Garam Masala the punch it carries and cumin adds to the tantalising aroma. But this duo is not all about just taste and flavour.
Cumin stimulates digestion, is good for lactating mothers, boosts the immune system, eases respiratory problems, protects kidneys and fights anaemia.
Cloves don’t lag far behind in boosting health. They too are good for the immune system. They aid heart health, help fight against cancer and keep the liver fighting fit – among other benefits.
How to store
Keep your Garam Masala in an airtight container away from heat and sunlight. If you are an infrequent user, you could store the masala powder in the refrigerator, tightly sealed to protect from moisture.
I have read somewhere that Indian cuisine has shaped the history of international relations via the Spice Trade. Well, Garam Masala is no less. In a country which has so many different culinary practices and boasts of such a variety of tantalising cuisines, Garam Masala is a big binding factor, the common thread that runs through the fabric of Indian culinary art.
Here’s a toast to taste!