India is a large and diverse country with hundreds of cuisines. Still due to cultural affinities many of the cuisines and food practices share many common traits. Knowledge of Indian food habits and dietary practices is an important part of cultural etiquette which one needs to learn before understanding Indian culture.
Indian food habit is mainly cereal and vegetable based and non-vegetarian foods are eaten less often. Many households eat meat or seafood only once or twice a week. Common meats eaten are chicken and mutton. Indian Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains revere cows as sacred and do not consume beef. However, beef is consumed by Indian Muslims and Christians. Pork is generally regarded as unclean and not consumed by most of the Indians, regardless of the religion. Offals are frowned upon and are often discarded. Dairy products are a regular affair in Indian households and many dishes are prepared from milk, cheese, butter and yogurt. Seafood is usually eaten widely by the Indian population living in the coastal states. In land-locked states of India, seafood generally does not enjoy much popularity.
Many Indian Hindus (around 35%) are lacto-vegetarians due to religious and moral reasons. Also most of them participate in religious fasts during which they only consume milk and fruits. Hindu dietary laws also dictate the time, amount and constituent of food consumed. The dietary habits of Indian Muslims and Christians is however much more flexible and varied. In many Hindu and Jain households, certain foods of vegetarian origin such as ginger, onion, garlic, root vegetables, eggplant and mushrooms are not consumed. Meat and dairy products are usually not mixed while cooking or consuming though many exceptions exist. The texture and nature of Indian foods makes use of cutleries impractical. Hence, most of the Indian foods are eaten with fingers. Indians do not like the concept of frozen or packaged food and tend to prepare their food from fresh ingredients. Indians are also less likely to visit restaurants often and like having food at home. The family and social bond is very strong for Indians and they like to have food together with family members.
Vegetables and Fruits
Many of the spices known to mankind have their origin in the Indian subcontinent. Hence, most of the Indian foods regularly use different spices and herbs. Vegetables and lentils are usually cooked in oil and spice based gravy and called as curry. However, many vegetables are also fried and eaten without any accompanying gravy. Chili pepper is usually added to most of the curries. Potatoes, eggplant and okra are popular vegetables eaten throughout India. Fruits commonly eaten in India are banana, jackfruit, mango, orange, apple and pomegranate. Indian salads are usually vegetable-based and do not use creams, condiments or meat. Coconut is specially prized for its cool water and refreshing sweet pulp. It is also considered sacred by Hindus and plays an important role in Hindu religious ceremonies. Some of the unusual plant parts eaten in India are tubers of yam and tapioca, flower and pith of banana plant, green raw or cooked plant leaves, seeds of jackfruit and mango etc.
Rice and wheat are the most eaten cereals in India. Rice is usually boiled and eaten along with boiled lentils, vegetable curries, salad and plain yogurt. Rice could also be fried along with other vegetables, lentils or meat to prepare different types of dishes. In eastern parts of India, rice is mixed with water, yogurt and spices to prepare watered rice. Pressed rice and puffed rice are two other popular snack items prepared from rice. Wheat flour is kneaded into dough and small portions are flattened to make the Indian flat bread. The flat breads are called roti or chapatti and they are baked directly over fire rather than in an oven. Sometimes oil or butter is smeared over the chapatti before baking. The resulting bread is called Parantha or Parota. Rice and corn based breads are also eaten in parts of India. Breads could also have vegetable or meat fillings inside them. In Southern parts of India, rice and legumes are fermented and blended together to produce a kind of batter which is used to prepare Dosa and Idly. The widespread popularity of Dosa and Idly in throughout India have earned them the informal tag of national food of India. A rice and milk based dessert called kheer or payas or payasam is often a part of Indian meals. Many dry fruits are also added to the dish while preparing.
Pickles are an indispensable part of any Indian meal and are prepared from an array of vegetables, fruits, spices, chicken or seafood. Pickling is usually done by mixing the ingredients with spices, vinegar, lime juice, salt and oil.
Papads are another well-known food eaten along with the main dish. Mainly made from cereal or legume powder, a papad can be bland or spicy. The raw papad is usually roasted or fried before serving and is consumed hot.
Chutneys are an important part of Indian cuisine. Usually regarded as a condiment, chutneys can accompany a meal or breakfast or even a snack. Chutneys are prepared from a number of vegetables, leaves, spices or even seafood.
Sweets and Desserts
Sweet dishes play a very important part of Indian festivals and are also frequently used as gift items. Sweets dishes are usually prepared from milk and cheese, cereals and fruits. Indian sweets are laden with calorie as sugar and clarified butter are liberally used. Sugar-based syrups often accompany many Indian sweets. Palm sugar is also used in some parts of India. Vegetables such as pumpkins, bottle guards and carrots are often part of sweet desserts. Gulkand is a unique dessert prepared from petals of rose flower.
Tea and coffee are the most popular beverages consumed by Indians. Fruit-based juices and milkshakes are very popular during summer season. Lassi is a popular Indian drink prepared from chilled yogurt, sugar and spices. Many traditional herb-based drinks are also widely consumed in many parts of India. Alcoholic beverages are usually not favored by Indians and a small proportion of Indians consume alcohol. Indian Muslims generally refrain from taking alcohols for religious prohibitions. The juice collected from the stem of palm, coconut and date plants are often fermented to produce a kind of sweet alcoholic beverage. Flowers of Mahuli plant are fermented to produce a kind of indigenous alcoholic drink. Rice and milk based alcoholic beverages are also consumed in parts of India. Other unusual sources of alcoholic beverages are tapioca tubers and ripe fruits of banana.