Indian food isn’t spicy, it’s spiced. It’s called Indian food, but the term really means the cuisine of the subcontinent, which is very diverse. However, the philosophy, guidelines and fundamentals throughout the region don’t change, so that’s why we can use the term.
The diversity of our dishes is the result of our varied flora and fauna and climate, and with that food habits are distinct, too. Ingredients are used differently according to the local climate, and the whole structure and texture of a dish depends on the cooking medium. Ghee is used all over India, but it isn’t always the cooking agent of choice — though it is in the north. In the south of the country, they use coconut oil or sesame oil and the cuisine changes dramatically. In the east, food is cooked in mustard oil and in the west, groundnut oil.
Then there’s the variety of spices. Whole spice, coarsely-ground and fine powders all behave differently. Region to region has a different spice mix, which is also dependent on the season.
Cooking methods vary too. In the north, it’s basically barbecue, sautéeing and stewing. Southern India is all about boiling and steaming. In the east, it’s frying and steaming, and in the west, steaming, boiling, frying. Most people from outside India think North Indian food is Indian food, but it isn’t. It’s always many different things from many different places.
Indians never think of food as a commodity. It’s very auspicious and we worship it. We emphasise that meals have to be tasty and must make you happy. We don’t define textures, like soft or hard, only the different ways in which you eat it.
Food has six tastes: sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent — which must all be balanced. When you mix two or three tastes, then the alchemy is marvellous. We believe that taste changes the body chemistry and how the body reacts. It’s nourishment for the mind, body and soul. If it’s only flavourful, then it’s for the body; if it’s tasty, then it’s for the mind.
The body craves different tastes according to the time of year, and there are six gastronomic seasons in India, with different produce being plentiful for about two months. All of this means our cuisine is constantly changing. It’s mouth music.
Manjit Singh Gill is the corporate chef at ITC Hotels and oversees some of country’s best restaurants, including Bukhara in Delhi and the Peshawri chain.
Read more of our India cover story in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)