Asian Traditional Food Diary: India

“But in my husband’s province”, says our friend Mandakini Dass, “the housewife prepares an average of seven different curries for lunch alone!”

Journey with this mother-daughter team each week as they explore various vegetarian diets from all over the planet. By looking at the nutritional habits of cultures from Sri Lanka to Nepal to India, we can learn as much from various attitudes as we can from the recipes. This week’s focus is on:

INDIA

In the village of Lasargaon, in the province of Maharashtra, India, the typical housewife normally prepares two or three different curries for lunch. “But in my husband’s province”, says our friend Mandakini Dass, “the housewife prepares an average of seven different curries for lunch alone!” The husband then comes home to a delicious, hearty meal and the wife serves him very nicely as he takes his afternoon rest.

Mandakini obviously comes from a culture far, far removed from today’s modern feminists’ world. In her very mild manners she explains, “It is the nature of the Indian women to be very submissive. We were born and raised to love and serve the husband.” India is ninety percent Hindu and is an extremely conservative society. Mandakini continues, “First, the women worship God, then second, they worship the husband. We actually enjoy cooking for and serving the husband, taking care of the children and the home. In return, we are very much protected by our men. They are very loving.” Is it any wonder that divorce in this society is hardly ever heard of? “If a woman is separated from her husband, she is looked down upon by the society, even when she goes back to live in her father’s house,” Mandakini says .

At 36, Mandakini now works as a nurse in Pune, a city near Bombay. She describes her birthplace as “just plains, only a few mountains, but the climate is quite pleasant. There is a railway station and plenty of horse-drawn rickshaws.” Near her parents’ home where she grew up, there are lots of trees and there is a river flowing nearby. As a child she remembers running around the mango, nim, banyan, asoka, mayflower and guava trees. Grapes and onions are the main products of her place. Now that Mandakini has three small children of her own to take care of, she prepares for her family basically the same nutritious vegetarian food that she grew up on.

India is a vegetarian country, being composed largely of Hindus. It used to be one big country whose culture was entirely Vedic culture. Then it was divided into what is now known as the countries of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The Muslims got together and formed the country Pakistan. Then out of a bloody war of secession from Pakistan in 1971, a country named Bangladesh was born. The Sinhalese got together and formed Sri Lanka. The Hindus got together and remained as the country India. India has been a British colony for many years and yet the Indians’ zeal at preserving its culture and diet has remained very strong even up to the present day. The general population are vehemently opposed to anything British, including drinking tea and eating beef.

“In India, beef is poor people’s food”, explains Mandakini. “ It is considered low class food because Hindus consider the cow sacred. The traditional vegetarian food, however, is considered the rich man’s and middle class man’s food because India’s rich culture automatically dictates knowledge of the complete nutritional value of vegetable food. Just as India’s history is replete with tales of colorful adventure and struggle, so is the traditional food as colorful, wholesome and healthy. On ordinary days as well as feast days, there are many wonderful delicious food items served. And every little town and village has its own specialty.

Most Western people have an ambivalent feeling about taking a heavy breakfast. In traditional Indian food, however, breakfast is the heaviest. And rightfully so! A heavy breakfast gives the body the necessary energy for the whole day’s work. To start off, there is wheat flour made into chapatis (flat bread). Or sometimes other highly nutritious grains, namely jawar and bajra (also milled into flour), are made into bhakar (flat bread like chapatis). Then there is samia, wheat noodles fried in ghee (clarified butter), milk, sugar and salt. For the babies and children, sugi is served. Sugi is cracked bulgur, fried in ghee, then cooked in sugar, water, raisins and cashew. “We don’t believe in Cerelac,” says Mandakini, “we prefer sugi for babies.” Also included for breakfast are puris (deep fried flat bread) and some kind of curry made with potatoes cooked in chilis, onions, and mustard seeds. Sometimes there are samosas (potatoes and peas cooked in spices, wrapped in dough and fried), although samosas may also be served as an afternoon snack. Always, there is milk – cow’s milk or buffalo milk, yogurt, and fruits, usually bananas.

Lunch is the next best meal in any Indian household in terms of variety of taste, color and food value. For lunch, there is always rich and fragrant rice, mung dahl or some other kind of dahl such as tur dahl-the richest among the dahls, as well as chapatis or bhakars. Then a variety of vegetable curries are served such as okra, eggplant, potatoes, peas, or palak . Sometimes panir (cheese) is also made into curry. Curries are cooked in either peanut oil, karadi oil or mustard oil. Also served for lunch are two or three different kinds of fries like string beans, cabbage, or some other vegetable. Lunch is always accentuated by some kind of pickled vegetable. “We love pickled vegetables and we also love to eat plenty of greens”, says Mandakini. “And in India there are many different kinds of green leafy vegetables like palak, metih, karadi and shapu.” Yogurt is also regularly served at lunch, together with a variety of fruits such as mangoes, papayas, pomegranades, chicos, jackfruits, grapes, figs, oranges, lychees, custard apples, watermelons and guavas.

Dinner is relatively light, compared to breakfast and lunch — perhaps a little dahl and chapati, pakora (potatoes or cauliflower fried in chana dahl or besan flour), one curry and milk. Then the evenings are usually spent with families sitting around together with the elders telling stories of long ago.

India is a vast and ancient land, packed with history, culture, art and spectacle – sometimes disturbing, but always fascinating. And as far as its traditional food is concerned, the richness could fill a lifetime of craving! Therefore we agree with our friend Mandakini when she says, “My country is truly a country of scenic beauty as well as a country of unique ancient culinary tradition.”

What you have in your mind?