Photo by Ash Daniel
India possesses a cultural history unrivaled by many of the world's other civilizations, and its cuisine is as diverse as the country from which it originates. Veteran chef Mel Oza, owner of Curry Craft Indian Restaurant and Bar in Carytown, lent us his expertise in order to help better understand the nuances of one of the world's most popular styles of food.
Oza calls it a "great misunderstanding" to think of Indian food as a predictable combination of rice, meat, vegetables and spicy curry powder. "Indian food is highly seasonal, very fresh and healthy. I know no one who eats food that is as spicy as the food you find in typical [Indian-American] restaurants."
Indian cuisine falls into rough geographical categories that originate from northern, southeastern or western India. Several staples are common throughout the entire subcontinent, including rice, potatoes, chili peppers and lentils. However, preparation can vary greatly, depending on the types of ingredients available, and the cultural and religious traditions in the area.
Unlike in the United States, meat rarely serves as the centerpiece of an Indian meal, and Oza says it can appear on the table as little as once a week. "I have heard 70 percent of India's population is not vegetarian, but they aren't sitting around a big plate of meat every day," he says. "People usually just stick to vegetables, lentils and rice."
Like other ingredients in Indian dishes, the meat in Indian cuisine varies according to region. Oza says the most popular type of meat in India is goat.
"Even though it's a red meat, goat meat is extremely lean — it's even leaner than chicken. And if you go to a McDonald's in India and order a Big Mac, it will be served with goat meat, not beef," says Oza. In some areas, people eat insects and ants as their main source of protein.
"You definitely wouldn't find that in an Indian restaurant here," he says with a laugh. "People here aren't very adventurous."
The varieties and mixtures of spices also change regionally. Southern Indian cuisine, for example, is usually thought of as being the spiciest. Curry leaves, mustard and peppercorn are preferred. Northern India, on the other hand, frequently uses spices such as cloves, cinnamon, cumin seeds and rose petals, ingredients that blend differently than in the southern regions.
Often, Oza says, two ingredients that originate from different areas are used for the same purpose in a dish. For example, black lemons (small, dried limes with a blackened peel) and kachri powder (a spice made of ground wild cucumbers) add sour overtones to a dish, but they come from different culinary traditions.
Cooking oil also varies by region — the south prefers coconut oil, the west uses mustard-seed oil, and the rest of the country relies on peanut oil.
In India, Oza says, "It all depends on what grows well in the area, and how they've developed their food over time.