Familiarising Indian Food

Indian buffet food

So, as a non-Indian what are your thoughts on Indian food? If you, like most others out there, say I love Naan, Butter chicken masala, Chicken Tikka, Tandoori Chicken et al, then you have just managed to touch upon north-west India.

As you had rightly sensed, these are all the most popular Punjabi dishes and their popularity in the west is understandable,  as most restaurants are run by Punjabis. That does not define the whole Indian Cuisine in any way.

In my opinion, Indian Cuisine is hugely underestimated and underrated. Most of the people who talk about Indian food, have formed their opinions, based  on what they had been served at the restaurants close to their place of living. Indian Cuisine is not  signified by one or a few popular dishes.

From starters to main course and desserts to street foods you will be spoilt for choice, as there is a humongous variety of dishes, varying  from region to region. It will be an understatement if I state that an entire lifetime will not be enough to taste everyone of those.

Most Non-Indians feel Indian food is very hot and spicy. But that is only a fraction of the truth. Certain foods need to be spicy for the flavour to be distinct and pronounced. Still there are plenty of dishes that are subtle yet flavourful.

Spices are the essence of Indian food. The use of spices also varies from region to region. Spices enhance the flavour, as well as the health content of the food. Almost all Indian spices are used in the form of powders and can be easily made at home. This limits exposure to processed foods.

Though the society is fast developing, very limited processed foods are used in Indian kitchens. Most people still do not use tinned foods. Preparation time also depends on the dish. Not every dish is time consuming, there are dishes that can be made in jiffy.

Here in Qatar, there are a lot of Indian restaurants, doing brisk business. But I get to see only Indians frequenting them, though there are a lot of other nationalities living in Qatar. Once I saw three Europeans having food at a vegetarian Indian restaurant. They had obviously gathered some info about the stuff available in Indian restaurants and placed an order.

When the dosa arrived with a few chutneys and sambar, they did not know how to eat it. Finally “they used their hands” to  pinch off a piece, dipped in chutney, ate it and wiped their hand with a tissue. They continued to do this, every time they had a bite. At first it was amusing, but when the tissue pile kept growing, it was shocking. No one knew how to react.

Indian food is best had with hands. In fact ayurveda recommends eating food with hands rather than using cutlery.

I feel, people do not wish to try out Indian food, either due to lack of awareness or the misconceptions that have been created. So that explains the purpose of this post. I am here to acquaint you with all of the Indian food that I have enjoyed to this day, as well as teach you to make them yourself with the equipments that you already have.

You may have to purchase a few ingredients though 🙂 . Most of my emphasis will be on South Indian food, not because I belong there,  but because it is touted as the one of the healthiest food by experts on the planet.

I assure that if you follow me along, you can whip up an Indian meal pretty much like any Indian. If you are not a cooking person, then atleast after following this post you can understand Indian menu at restaurants and order food confidently, knowing fully well what to expect 😀 .

I call upon the people of the world, to try out Indian food. Its so so yummy and mostly healthy, especially South Indian food. Rice eating people from other parts of the world can easily whip up the South Indian fare, while for the wheat consuming people there are a whole lot of North Indian recipes. Be with me as I take you through a culinary journey of Indian food.

North and South Indian foods

The north-south divide is pretty much explicit from the food consumed. The North staple is wheat and wheat based products, whereas the south staple is based on rice and rice products. Coconuts are used to a large extent in the south, whereas in the north it is occasional and most of their gravies/curries  have onions, ginger-garlic paste and tomatoes as base.

Cottage cheese or paneer and cream are also used regularly. In the south paneer is being used these days but cream is still occasionally used. The use of spices and condiments also varies in the two regions. North Indians use mustard oil for their everyday cooking whereas South Indians use Coconut oil, Peanut oil and Seasame oil to a great extent.

In my opinion most North Indian food is very heavy on the tummy and maybe it suits them coz the climatic conditions in the north are such. Most south Indian food is very light.

When you visit a restaurant  and order South Indian food, it comes out complete with  dips and side dishes. Of course you can order specific curries separately for a price. But none of the North Indian food comes with a side dish. You have to order the gravy or curry separately. Keep that in mind when you go to an Indian restaurant 🙂 .

A special mention about South Indian foods

South Indian food, has got so much to it that the world needs to know.  Every  traditional South Indian food has some health benefit to offer, and care was taken to cater to every need. Special foods are given when a girl child attains puberty, during pregnancy and lactation.

Similarily the new born child’s food needs are taken care of at every stage of its growth. There are foods for every festival, every event and there was some significance  in everything. And there wasn’t any written rule, but everyone seems to know when what has to be done.

No where in the world will you find such a huge collection of greens, as in South India. The Country vegetables available here have so many health benefits. All the so called super healthy foods like coconut oil, seasame oil, turmeric to name a few are being used here from time immemorial.

There are also quite a few varieties of millets that form part of the routine food. The advent of foods from other cuisines have made our own people move away from these goodnesses of life.  Hence the need for a separate detailed post on South Indian food.

                                                                                                                                          Get to know more….

Indian breakfast

A typical Indian breakfast provides a good amount of carbohydrates as well as proteins in some form. The most common north Indian breakfast is Paratha /Roti with vegetables  whereas Idli and dosa with chutneys and sambar are common in the South.

A normal South Indian breakfast is usually light and mostly comprises of  Rice cakes (idlis), crepes (dosas), pancakes (oothapams), Hoppers, (Idiappam & Aapam), flatbreads (Chapatis) or dumplings(Kozhakattai). Though restaurants serve each variety with an array of dips, called chutneys or Sambar which is a liquidy dip, at home its usually limited to one side dish.

Similarly when you attend some function like a marriage or house warming ceremony, a combination of the above mentioned varieties are served.

A normal north Indian breakfast comprises of parathas, pooris or kachoris, all made out of wheat flour. It can even be a simple wheat flatbread like Roti. Poha  or flattened rice is also commonly had for breakfast as also the bhaturas or kulchas, which are made from all purpose flour. Apart from this we have the region specific recipes like the theplas, thalipeeth etc..for which also I shall be posting recipes.

Coming up is a detailed list of Indian breakfast recipes which you will mostly come across in restaurants. I have also listed out the all the other varieties which you may not  find in the restaurants, but can be easily made at home. This will give you an idea of Indian food, which you can try out yourself as and when I upload recipes.

So lets get started….

1)Idli-The South Indian rice cake

Restaurant Idli

Image credit-Murugan Idli kadai

Idlis are soft, savoury, pillowy rice cakes usually made from a batter of rice , urad dhal and fenugreek seeds. The grains are generally soaked for a few hours , ground in a wet grinder and   fermented, after which they are steamed in special moulds called idli plates.

Idlis can also be steamed in mini idli plates and are called mini idli. Idli is the ultimate comfort food for most  people.  Doctors recommend idlis when you are ill as it is easily digestible.

Though rice is predominantly used, these days due to awareness, millets are also used to make idlis.  Monotony  has also brought forth a lot of variations of idlis,  which are lip-smacking.

Here are a few of them that you would find in Indian restaurants. In all these recipes either mini idlis are used or normal idlis (sometimes left over idlis)  are cut into bite sized cubes.

  • Idli Manchurian – The idlis are cut into bite sized cubes, fried and sauteed in Chinese style with sauces and garnished with spring onion.
  • Kaima Idli – Bite sized idli cubes are sauteed in a sauce made of onion, tomatoes and spices.
  • Pepper Idli – Pieces of idli are tempered in a spice mix of pepper and onions.
  • Sambar Idli – Idlis are dunked in sambar and garnished with a bit of ghee and corriander leaves.
  • Podi Idli – The Idli pieces are tossed in a mixture of gun powder/idli podi and oil.
  • Idli upma – The idlis are broken up like bread crumbs and then sauteed with onions and spices. This is done in most South Indian homes to use up left over idli.
  • Stuffed idli – is apparently stuffing idli with some vegetarian or non- vegetarian semi dry gravies. This is not usually found in the restaurants but a nice variation that we make at home.

Other popular Idli Varieties

  • Ragi/Finger millet idli – is made by grinding finger millets with lentils and fermenting it  or mixing up finger millet flour with the regular idli batter. Idlis are also made using other millets like kodo millet, pearl millet, little millet etc.
  • Rava Idli – is made using semolina and curd. This does not need to be fermented and can be made instantly.
  • Kanchipuram idli – is made by mixing tempered spices into the fermented batter and steaming them. These idlis are traditionally made in tumblers or cups.
  • Wheat Idli – is made by mixing fine broken wheat with lentils.
  • Tuar dal idli is made by replacing the urad dal with tuar dal.
  • Horsegram idli – is made by replacing the urad dal  with horsegram or kollu.

So many varieties for one dish  called idli 🙂 . There are a few more which I shall update in due course.  In later posts, I shall give you recipes for each of the above mentioned varieties. Stay tuned.

Of late I came across avial idli, mor kuzhambu idli & sodhi idli in a restaurant. Avial, mor kuzhambu and sodhi are all side dishes, usually made for rice, and idli cubed and mixed up with this will give a new variation. This seemed to me as a nice innovation to use up any left over gravy, including non-vegetarian gravies. South Indian friends can give that a try.

Though the traditional method of preparing batter,  is by using wet grinders, the batter can also be prepared in a mixer or blender. Get recipe here.

Accompaniments

At the restaurants you will definitely find the white chutney, red chutney, green chutney, and sambar being served with idlis. Some restaurants even serve idli podi, as you can see in the image above.

All these pair very well with idlis and  dosas. Though there are a lot more dips that we make at home, for the sake of this post, I shall limit it to the ones served in the restaurants. Of course, I shall link up my recipes as and when I add them.

  • Sambar – is the best side dish for idlis. It is a broth made with vegetables, (usually drumstick in the restaurants, though you can add a whole lot of vegetables) simmered in tamarind water, cooked dal (pigeon peas) and spices.
  • White Chutney/Coconut chutney – is the next best accompaniment for idlis. It is made by grinding coconuts with chillies and roasted gram dal and tempering.
  • Red chutney/Onion chutney – is made by grinding onions with red chillies and tempering. This one is usually spicy.
  • Green chutney/Coriander or mint chutney – Usually this chutney is made by grinding coriander leaves/ mint leaves together or separately with chillies and grated coconut. Some restaurants serve chutneys made out of curry leaves too.
  • Orange chutney/Tomato chutney– In this the onions and tomatoes are first sauteed with red chillies  and then ground. This is usually a tangy chutney.
  • Idli podi/ Gun powder – This is always available in every South Indian home. Usually made by dry roasting lentils like urad dal & chana dal with salt red chillies and asafoetida. 

Other than these you may also find chutneys of different colours, made by combining onions and tomatoes with green leaves or vegetables.

At home we also make ishtu, brinjal kosumalli and  kothsu apart from the countless number of chutneys, by adding or reducing something to the chutneys mentioned above.

Non- veg chicken and mutton gravies make a wonderful combo to idlis and dosas. In fact, at my place Tamilnadu, the breakfast on diwali day  is always idli and chicken or mutton curry. This is the only time that we Hindus prepare non-vegetarian dish  for a festival.

2)Dosa -The South Indian crepe

dosa

      Image credit – Hotel Annapurna

Dosa is the most loved South Indian food in all its forms. You can call it, the healthy version of the French Crepe. Its a staple in our house, and a family favourite. Generally for our daily needs we use the “All in one” batter or idli batter to make dosa. But dosa batter can be made separately also.

Dosa is made by thinly spreading a ladle ful of batter, on a hot greased tawa/skillet. At restaurants you will get big sized dosas as they have large sized skillets, that you cannot have more than one or two. But when made at home, you will lose count and find it very difficult to stop. Served with the right accompaniment they are so addictive.

Sesame oil/gingelly oil/til oil is the most preferred oil for drizzling on dosas and uthapams, though some people use peanut oil too. The sesame oil gives a very nice flavour to the dosas, as they cook that makes you drool.

There are umpteen varieties of dosa, as much as we can    imagine. In the restaurants, plain dosa, ghee dosa, masala dosa, onion dosa and rava dosa are the most popular. Though there are also other dosa varieties like the cauliflower dosa, mushroom dosa, kheema dosa etc.

And then there are some restaurants which offer fusion dosas too like the spring roll dosa, schezwan dosa, pizza dosa etc. All these can be easily made by anyone, using the regular idli batter. Or you can opt to buy the readymade batter available at the stores, which work very well for dosas.

At homes, we make  lots of other healthier varieties , and these can be instant or fermented ones. I shall come  up with recipes for all the varieties of dosas I have made till date in my ‘Dosa corner‘.

Here I shall give details of the dosa varieties you will come across in the restaurants.

No special mention about Sada dosa or Plain dosa and Ghee dosa as they are easily understandable. Paper Roast, Rocket dosa, Cap dosa are all other names for these dosa, albeit with variations in size and shape.

For people who are new to Indian Cuisine,  ghee can also be called clarified butter and is made by heating butter till all the water in it evaporates and it becomes oil. It is very flavourful and is used quite a lot in Indian Cuisine.

  • Onion Dosa –   is a stuffed dosa in which finely chopped onions are spread on the dosa, before folding over .
  • Masala Dosa –  is the most popular of all dosa varieties. Cooked potatoes made into a masala with onions and seasonings is stuffed inside this dosa .
  • Mysore masala dosa is very similar to the masala dosa, except that before spreading the masala, a thin layer of red  chutney is spread over the dosa.
  • Cauliflower Dosa – is made by stuffing the dosa with a semi dry gravy of cauliflower cooked with onions and tomatoes. 
  • Mushroom dosa – is made by stuffing any semi dry mushroom gravy inside the dosa. 
  • Set dosa – This is a thicker version of the dosa and can be categorised as an oothapam, though its known as dosa. It is served in sets of two or three, rather than singly. 
  • Podi Dosa – Gun powder/ Idli podi is spread on the inside of the dosa before folding.
  • Rava Dosa – is made using semolina/rava and rice flour . This does not need to be fermented and can be made instantly.
  • Neer  Dosa – is made out of a thin batter of rice and coconut ground together. This dosa does not need fermentation
  • Chocolate Dosa – This is simply layering the dosa with chocolate sauce and drizzling the sauce over the dosa.
  • Schezwan  Dosa – is dosa stuffed with veggies sauteed in schezwan sauce.
  • Spring roll  Dosa – Vegetables sauteed in chinese style with sauces is spread on a sauce layered dosa, rolled up and cut into pieces. 
  • Noodles  dosa This one seemed too heavy for a dosa as noodles cooked with vegetables were stuffed inside the dosa, cut up and served.
  • Cheese  dosa – In this apparently grated cheese is spread on the dosa, folded/rolled  over, cut up and served.
  • Non-veg dosa Mutton keema/mince or chicken is made into a semi dry gravy and stuffed inside the dosa.
  • Egg dosa – Egg is broken over the dosa and allowed to cook. Cheese can also be added which makes it the egg cheese dosa.

Rice can be replaced by other grains or millets and this opens up a whole new option to endless possibilities. Looking forward to share all the dosa recipes with you in the near future.

Accompaniments

All accompaniments mentioned under idli are served with dosa too.

3)Uthapam/ Oothapam -The South Indian pancake

oothappam

                  Image credit Murugan Idli kadai

Uthapam is another popular breakfast food, which can also be made with the ‘All in one batter‘ . These are generally made thick like pancakes, and so tend to remain soft compared the crispy dosas. The size of the plain uthapam is normally around 3.5 inches in diameter, though it can be made big or smaller. I    usually make  mini uthapams  for kids lunch box.

At restaurants you will come across the following uthapams.

  • Onion Uthapam –  In this, which finely chopped onions are spread on the uthapam, before flipping over .
  • Tomato Uthapam – In this, finely sliced  tomatoes are spread over the uthapam before flipping over.
  • Vegetable Uthapam -In this grated vegetables like carrot, cabbage etc are spread over the uthapam before flipping over.
  • Vendhaiya Uthapam – This is made out of a different batter, ground with fenugreek seeds and rice. It is a plain uthapam characterised by lots of holes on the surface and is very soft.
  • 3 taste/5 taste Uthapam  These are normally served in sets of 3 or 5, with each containing a different spread varying from onions, grated carrots, tomatoes, idli podi, coriander leaves etc. 
  • Pizza Uthapam  – In this, the uthapam serves as the pizza base on which sauce, toppings and cheese are spread after partially cooking the uthapam

The most commonly made uthapam at home is the plain uthapam or onion uthapam. But apart from speading the onions over,  we also  mix it up in the batter, along with few other ingredients like chillies, curry leaves etc. Some people even prefer to temper and saute the onions.

Accompaniments

All accompaniments mentioned under idli are served with uthapam  too. But in our house we prefer to have it with rose chutney, made with grated coconut which in my opinion is the best combo for uthapam. Other than that we even have it with mor milagai or curd chillies.

4)Kuzhi Paniyaram / The South Indian Takoyaki or Aebleskiver

Paniyaram

Image credit- Murugan Idli shop

Kuzhi paniyarams are  also called paddu, guliappa, ponganalu, appe in different parts of India. Kuzhi means hole in Tamil, and they are so called as they are cooked in a special pan called Paniyara kal very similar to the takoyaki pan used in Japan. Though paniyaram batter can be separately made, we usually make it  when our idli batter becomes too sour for idlis or dosas.

Small ladle fuls of batter are poured into the greased dents and cooked. It puffs up well and attains the shape of a ball. It can be made just plain or finely sliced onions and chillies can be added to balance the tanginess of the batter. Served with coconut chutney, these are delish.

Another popular one is the sweet paniyaram also called appam, unni appam or sometimes neiappam. This one is sweetened with jaggery and is usually made in South India as offering to gods.

 

At restaurants you normally find the savoury and sweet paniyarams, though at certain places they serve millet paniyarams too. At homes lot more varieties like paniyarams with oats, moong dal, egg and even quinoa are made. Stuffed vegetable or minced meat paniyarams are also made.

  • Kara Paniyaram –  This is the savoury version usually made with the idli batter or with paniyaram batter .
  • Unniappam/Sweet Paniyaram – This is made with a batter of  ground rice, jaggery, cardamom and sometimes banana or jackfruit. 
  • Masala Paniyaram – Usually made by mixing finely sliced onions, chillies, and vegetables to the idli batter. 
  • Rava Paniyaram –  This is an instant version made by mixing semolina with curd and spices .
  • Rava Sweet Paniyaram – This is made with a batter of  semolina , jaggery, cardamom and sometimes banana. 
  • Paal Paniyaram/Milk Paniyaram – In this rice and urad dal are ground into a batter, deep fried as small balls,  and soaked in milk or coconut milk or a mixture of both, seasoned with sugar and cardamom powder. 
  • Ragi Paniyaram – This is made from finger millet flour . It can be savoury when mixed with onions and spices or sweet when mixed with jaggery.
  • Wheat Paniyaram – This is made from wheat flour mixed with onions and spices.
  • Wheat Appam – This is a sweet paniyaram made by mixing wheat flour with jaggery and  cardamom.

Accompaniments

By far the best combo for savoury paniyaram is coconut chutney, though restaurants serve a lot more varieties. Onion and tomato chutneys as well as idli podi too pair well with paniyarams.

Apart from this, you may come across a lot more varieties as restaurants keep on innovating. So whenever you visit a South Indian Restaurant look out for the names. Now you know, if something ends with idli then what stuff it is. So also with dosa, paniyaram/paddu/appe, uthappam etc. But if you are a cooking person like me, then you got to know the names of the food items, which you can look up and try for yourself.

My intention in dealing initially with these four foods is that, most of these, especially stuffed dosa/Uthapam varieties can be prepared using the same idli batter. So if you take the pain of preparing that batter, then you have a lot of new recipes to try out.

I understand that not all of you own a wet grinder, and for you people, I have a recipe for making the batter in the mixer. Look it up here. In fact, idlis made this way turn out to be softer than those made the traditional way. But for our huge requirement of the batter (I grind around 5kgs of batter every week), mixer batter is just not possible. So I usually stick to the traditional batter recipe.

I shall link up all these foods with recipes as I post mine, but by then, you can very well try out, looking up online. Now over to the rest of the breakfast foods.

5) Roti, Chapati, Phulka – The Indian wheat and plain flour flatbreads

Chapathi imageRotis are unleavened flatbreads made of wheat and are a North Indian staple. It is made out of a dough of  whole wheat, water and salt on a tawa or a griddle. It is generally served with some vegetable (subji) gravy or dal (lentil curry) thus providing an adequate amount of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals.

Rotis are generally made without using oil whereas in chapatis a bit of oil is used in making the dough. Chapatis are popular in South India and are served with vegetarian and non-vegetarian gravies.

Phulkas are rotis, one side of which is cooked on a tawa and the other side cooked directly over the flame. They fluff up like a balloon which is why they are called phulkas, which means to swell up.

Rumali Roti is a thin flatbread usually made with a combination of wheat flour and plain flour (all-purpose flour) or plain flour alone.  The word rumal means handkerchief in many north Indian languages, and this bread is called rumali roti as it is as thin as a handkerchief. It is usually cooked on the back or convex side of a frying pan.

Missi roti  is a popular Punjabi roti in which gram flour or chick pea flour is mixed with whole wheat flour and spices and made into flatbreads on a tandoor or tawa.

Tandoori roti is nothing but regular roti or chapathi made in a tandoor or clay pots. It is usually made with a combination of wholewheat flour and all-purpose flour.

Accompaniments

All wheat and wheat-based flatbreads go well with Indian curries both vegetarian and non- vegetarian.

Rotis are generally served with dal which is a curry made of lentils, usually the moong dal. Apart from this semi-dry curries or sabjis , made with in-season vegetables also goes well with rotis.

Chapatis in South India are generally served with vegetable/mushroom  kuruma or onion raitha, which is onions mixed with curd/yogurt and salt. Non-vegetarian gravies with egg, chicken, meat can be ordered separately.

At home, we consume chapatis with tomato gothsu, and chutneys made with coconuts as base.

……to be continued

 

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