Indian food is not a spice monolith. We break down the cuisine’s most common misconceptions.

As a child, I spent many evenings in our blue-tiled kitchen watching my mother cook dinner. She would have at least five different pots going on the stove, chopping a bunch of vegetables while stirring a simmering pot of curry, simultaneously spluttering mustard seeds and an army of other flavors and spices in hot ghee.

Conjuring the image of her cooking an Indian dish reminds me how labor-intensive the cuisine is, and how incredibly diverse its ingredients are. Yet Indian food is so often nonchalantly disregarded, stereotyped and oversimplified.

I like to believe I’m not overly sensitive to impertinent remarks about my culture or cuisine, especially the ignorant and poorly researched ones. Reductive, dismissive takes on Indian food make headlines with reliable regularity—most recently and infamously in the Washington Post—and make me want to take on the myths and misnomers, once and for all.

The Indian state of Kerala is home to the highest tea plantation in the world.

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Tackling the topic of Indian food is akin to teasing a thread out of a complicated tapestry. Colleen Taylor Sen, an Indian food expert who has contributed to several culinary encyclopedias, observed that in every respect, India is much more diverse than Europe, yet no one talks about “European cuisine,” a term that would lump Italian, Finnish, Hungarian and Irish food in a single category.

India is more of a continent than a country, with myriad religions, languages and landscapes.

Let’s talk about spice

The belief that Indian food is and has always been laden with spices is a common misconception. Red chiles were only introduced to India by the Portuguese 450 years ago.

Indian food is spicy, but not spicy as that word is widely understood. Spices are in fact not hot, it’s the chile that imparts heat, but that can be adjusted without altering the essence of Indian dishes.
“Peppers like dried kashmiri and deggi mirch are like guajillo chiles and cascabel peppers used in Mexican cooking,” said Kaiser Lashkari, owner and chef of Himalaya, a celebrated Indian restaurant in Houston. “They are only used to give a deep red hue to gravy, not to provide heat.”

Another myth is that Indian food is “based entirely on one spice,” a Washington Post columnist once incorrectly wrote. A wide range of spices have actually lent flavors to Indian fare since time immemorial, according to food historian K.T Achaya in his book, “The Illustrated Foods of India.”

India has close to 30 states, each with its own distinct ingredients and flavors.

India has close to 30 states, each with its own distinct ingredients and flavors.

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Regional differences

Every corner of India is each recognizable by its infinite usage of spices. The Malabar Coast of Kerala and the lush hills of Tamil Nadu are the main spice growing regions, which attracted Arab and Portuguese traders from the 7th to 15th centuries. They took these treasured spices, at that time considered more precious than gold, and sold them in Europe and elsewhere.

Sardine fish fry or mathi fry is a specialty in Kerala.

Sardine fish fry or mathi fry is a specialty in Kerala.

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Tamil Nadu and Kerala, along with Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, are often collectively referred to as South India. The four states share geographic proximity and certain characteristics, such as the widespread use of black pepper, and mustard seeds in tempering. But their cuisines couldn’t be more different from one another.

Within Tamil Nadu itself there’s a spectrum of cuisines, ranging from the meat-heavy Chettinad region, where fennel and cumin lend a distinctive flavor and dark hue to the food, to the pure vegetarian fare of Tamil Brahmins.

In Kerala, you’re more likely to see sardines seasoned with ginger, garlic, shallots, black pepper, turmeric and chile powder, then deep fried to make mathi or chala fry.

The western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat are two other coastal neighbors that barely have anything in common when it comes to cuisine. Turmeric (known as haldi) is the dominant spice in Gujarat. 

In Maharashtra, on the other hand, generous amounts of solid agents such as kokum and tamarind are employed. The cuisine is also unique for its use of a species of lichen called black stone flower, or dagad phool, as a spice, as well as mace, the delicate red coating around the nutmeg seed.

Dagad phool, or black stone flower, is used in some Indian regions' food.

Dagad phool, or black stone flower, is used in some Indian regions’ food.

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The coastal Konkan region situated between Maharashtra and Goa uses a spice called a triphal or teppal, which closely resembles Sichuan peppercorn. Saffron, one of the most costly spices in the world, is cooked with generously by communities across Rajasthan. Farther north, the state of Punjab—whose curries are all the rage in Europe—utilizes a paste or masala of ginger, garlic, onion and tomatoes tempered with cumin to flavor its food.

It’s not always all about spice

“Even spicing is not a consistent feature in the cuisine,” said Sen. “In Northeast India, for example, some dishes are made without any spices.”

Sandwiched between Bangladesh and Burma, the northeast Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam remain underrepresented in their cuisine, both nationally and abroad. Owing to topography and inaccessibility, these regions don’t rely heavily on spices, but rather on a variety of techniques that produce a combination of textures. Foods here are often fermented or dried to elongate their shelf life. Sesame seeds are a favorite ingredient in the region.

Til pitha, a traditional food of Assam in India, is a rice flour roll stuffed with grind black sesame seeds.

Til pitha, a traditional food of Assam in India, is a rice flour roll stuffed with grind black sesame seeds.

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Recipe developer Rani Gurnaney of Rani’s Kitchen, who has traveled to far-flung areas of India, discovered that people in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam often season their dishes with the burnt ash of banana stems instead of salt.

“The more you discover the cuisine, the more you are stunned by its uniqueness,” said Gurnaney, adding that an attempt to categorize Indian dishes based on predominant spices can be a futile exercise given the complexity of the cuisine.

Even garam masala, a common spice mix, is different from region to region. The magical finishing spice of Indian food is rarely store-bought in the country, and its flavor profile changes based on geography and people’s taste. The spices in garam masala and their proportions are a secret every Indian family guards like a treasure.

Some of my fondest memories involve sinking my teeth in freckled whole-wheat breads with delectable lamb rogan josh, tender meat blanketed with thick spiced cream alongside “10-ingredient” pulaos, and riots of Basmati rice tingled with spices and bejeweled with golden raisins.

These dishes make me feel grateful for India’s rich culinary repertoire, which owes to generations who have worked tirelessly to preserve its living culinary history. One distasteful op-ed piece cannot sum up a cuisine as multifaceted as India’s.

And in that lies its beauty.

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