Arriving in The Netherlands 14 years ago, from a country rich in its culinary traditions and humongous edible biodiversity, the country I emigrated to seemed in contrast, to being a culinary desert. To be fair, I must clarify that this was my first impression. Being closely connected to food and its ingredients within my professional capacity and as a passionate foodie, this first impression gradually did change. Now I often say to people that a large proportion of the Dutch have not discovered their own old, traditional vegetables and fruits that are region-specific. This could be more so because the supermarkets are mostly their only exposure to fruits and vegetables. Adding to it is what I find, a lack of adventurous home cooking. Now 20 years later I see it changing.
In the past few years, we are seeing a growing trend of awareness of regional produce, “streekproducten”, which are consciously cultivated by organic farmers and heirloom cultivators. These could be vegetables that have been forgotten like Schorseneren (salsify), Euwige Moes- a brassica variety, bean varieties from Groningen and Friesland and so much more. It has become a fascinating journey discovering such heirloom varieties of my adopted land. My travels in India a few times a year keeps me in touch with the food ingredients and developments there. Besides the fruits and vegetables on offer in the markets, in India too we are seeing the current generation of urbanites losing touch with seasonal wild fruits and vegetables that are abundantly available in the countryside or the mountainous regions.
While most people here know Indian cuisine due to food programs on TV, they are often in the dark that India can be a gastronomic delight. The programs cover either recipes developed by restaurants and chefs, or what is well known such as Tandoori Chicken, Chicken tikka, Palak paneer, etc. Most “Indian” restaurants I have come across here are run by Bangladeshi or Pakistanis. So no wonder they stick to the run-of-the-mill recipes, which often are bastardized to suit local palates. Some Hindoestani food is recognized here which is specific to the Indian diaspora from Surinaam (most of them originating from Bihar). For the rest I think, one misses the plethora of recipes that pass from mother to daughter (and daughters-in-law) in Indian households. Not to mention the fragrant and refined authentic recipes from the royal heritage of Kashmir, North India, as also that of Hyderabad, Coorg, Thanjavur, and Chettinad in the South.
Traditional Indian cuisine has been developed over centuries and is often also based on the Ayurvedic principles of “you are what you eat”. Food as a daily cure and as a preventive medium. It takes into consideration the seasons that affect your body, mind, and soul as also your specific temperament. So one is taught from childhood to eat with the seasons and in moderation. Indian cuisine uses predominantly local ingredients, wherein spices are one of the few that come from afar. That being because various varieties of spices have their own climatically defined areas where they grow. To give a few examples cumin is predominantly grown in Gujarat and black pepper in the coastal areas and the South, saffron only in Kashmir. Climate and soil also defines that the heat of the chilli varies as per region, and suits the cuisine of that area. The warmer the climate, the hotter the chilli- one often hears that, but there are anomalies too, like the Sikkim chilli called Dalley, which is very fragrant and hot, despite being growing in the cooler climes of the Himalayan foothills. Cardamom grows in Kerala, Karnataka, and the black cardamom in Sikkim. So all these factors did have a role to play in the development of the food culture.
Home cooking in India is by far one of the most conducive to daily meals, as most of the restaurant versions are heavy with greasy and oily sauces. Home food is lighter, fresher on the palate, and comprises a balanced diet. Add to that a variety of salts used (sea, mountain, black salt) which along with the chilli bring in the trace minerals. Areas such as Gujarat and Maharashtra have a tradition of sprouted pulses in every meal. Spices are used in even balance to enhance vegetables and dals, not to overpower in most of our vegetarian dishes. As you travel the length and breadth of India, one does see variations slightly in coastal areas or mountainous areas. Summer brings in the possibility of fewer vegetables with a supplement of dried vegetables that are re-hydrated to cook in some of the hottest areas. Frugality at most times, feasting on festive occasions, strikes a balance.
As a tourist, most people miss this authentic cuisine, as they rarely get access to eating home-cooked meals with families. I made it a point to write down all the recipes in the year 2000, as I feared in the process of adapting to European food, I might forget the subtleties of a recipe over the years. Just the recipes I had cooked at home, from one province of Maharashtra, amounted to 350! Coming from a family made up of grandmothers originating from different states (Karnataka and Gujarat), and my mother growing up in another (Maharashtra), one can imagine the variety of recipes I wrote down. These were all handed down by the three women, besides many I had picked up on my travels in the interiors of these provinces during my work in the organic agriculture sector! It was then that it struck home what diversity each province can offer by way of home cuisine.
Although the Ayurvedic principle stresses Ghee (clarified butter/ Beurre noisette) as a cooking medium, regional choices differ based on what grows most abundantly in the area. North and East India use mustard oil, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra, and some other states use groundnut or sesame, or safflower and the South coconut oil. These too lend their flavor nuances. Then again the coastal regions and Bengal are fish eaters, and the rest fluctuate between mutton and chicken. Wild boar is a seasonal treat acceptable for a very small minority, and pork you get to eat in Goa or Assam. One can barely conceptualize the complex, diverse and multi-ingredient gastronomic journey India can offer.