To describe Indian food as ‘curries’ is as sweeping and uninformative as, say, describing Chinese food as ‘noodles’ and Italian food as ‘pasta’.
Yes, of course, curries are an integral part of Indian food, but there is so, so much more than just that.
First and foremost, what exactly is a curry?
Curry is the Anglicized form of the Tamil word kari meaning ‘sauce’, so a curry can be chicken, mutton, fish, prawns, vegetable, or a combination of these ingredients, in a tasty sauce – or curry.
Most people assume that all Indian food is hot, as in chili hot, but that is not necessarily always the case. Some regions do indeed like oodles of chilies in their food – the North-East springs to mind, home to the Naga Bhut Jolokia. In 2007, this chili from Nagaland was certified by the Guinness World Records as the world's hottest chili pepper, 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.
So, though chilies are often part of Indian food, ideally the ‘hotness’ and ‘spiciness’ should come from a judicious mix of aromatic spices, rather than just raw chili potency.
India is a huge, diverse country – geographically a sub-continent – and there is a matching huge diversity of food. Generalizing somewhat, the north of the country is more wheat-eating – in the form of chappatis, naans, rotis – whereas the south eats more rice-based food. But that is a very simplistic division, since you will find rice or roti on offer with most forms of Indian food.
Although meat and fish are widely eaten in urban India, much of the population is vegetarian: for many, this is borne of sheer economics, others out of religious conviction. As a visitor to India, and especially if you are traveling to remoter parts of the country, or if you are on a budget, it makes sense to stick mainly to vegetarian food. It’s what smaller places do best, and – being practical – you run less risk of an upset stomach with veg rather than a stringy old chicken that has been rustled up for you, the visitor.
The staple of most simple Indian meals – home-style food, basically – is rice or roti, a lentil dish (known as ‘dal’ in Hindi, the national language) and a vegetable, and as a balanced diet goes, this can’t be faulted.
In Rajasthan, you will be offered more meat dishes, though these are often in very rich, rather heavy sauces – even the vegetables, which often include berries and veggies only found in the state – are always served up in rich creamy curries. Delicious, but not great for the waistline… unless you want to expand it.
Kashmiri food is also often rather heavy on the rich sauces, and is one of the most meat-based cuisines in the country, a reflection of the state’s Muslim-majority community.
If you really want to eat good meat, try tandoori food – where the meat, be it chicken or a leg of mutton, is slow-cooked in a clay oven, known as a ‘tandoor’.
South Indian food, especially the food in Tamil Nadu, is famous, and rightly so, for its delicious dosas or rice batter pancakes. Served with lentils and the most fabulous coconut chutney, this South Indian staple is something you absolutely have to taste while in India. Luckily, it is so popular you will find it almost all over the country. Dosas and strong south Indian coffee make for an unforgettable breakfast.
Most Indian meals will include a range of pickles and chutneys and a yogurt based dish, almost like a dip, known as a ‘raita’.
Indian sweets are, well, sweet. Often very sweet. Jalebis, gulab jamuns, phirni are all deliciously dripping in sugar and syrup and cream. If you are at all worried about your waistline, it’s probably safest to stick to fruit, of which India has a huge range. From bananas to coconuts, that can now be found almost all over the country, and not just in the coastal regions – from lychees pre-monsoon to mangoes during the monsoons, there is no dearth of healthy and delicious fruit.
As you travel, experiment with regional cuisines, and a safe rule of thumb is to eat whatever the locals are eating. It will be fresh, in season, and authentic.