Indian cuisine is as diverse as India's diverse population. It is a blend of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian elements and normally uses significant amount of spices as well as a large variety of vegetables than most other culinary traditions. Over the centuries Indian cuisine has been influenced by the Arab and Chinese traders and invaders and occupiers such as the Persians, Mongols, Turks, British and Portuguese. It has also been influenced by environmental, social and religious factors from within. A large percentage of people are vegetarian, either because they were brought up as vegetarian or have some spiritual inclination to turn to vegetarianism.
Staple ingredients and spices
The staple ingredients of Indian cuisine are atta (whole wheat flour), rice and a variety of pulses, the most important of which are arhar, urad, mung and chana (chick peas). Poultry is also an important part of cuisine in India in general. Most Indian curries are fried in vegetable or refined oil. In Western India, groundnut oil is more commonly used. In South India, coconut oil is common. In recent decades, sunflower oil and soybean oil have gained popularity all over India.
The most important spices in Indian cuisine are chilli pepper, cumin, turmeric, fenugreek, ginger, coriander, mustard seed and asafoetida (hing). Another very important spice is garam masala which is usually a powder of five or more dried spices, commonly comprising cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Some leaves are commonly used like bay leaf, coriander leaf and mint leaf. Typically, in South Indian cuisine curry leaves are used commonly. In sweet dishes, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron and rose petal essence are used.
Wheat is the staple part of North and West Indian foods. Here meals consist of chapatis or rotis made of whole wheat flour as well as rice eaten with a wide variety of side dishes like vegetables, dals, curries, yogurt, chutney, papad and achars. Food from North India is characterised by its thick gravies. Chillies, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, ghee (clarified butter) are common ingredients. Milk based sweets are a huge favourite too. Islamic rule resulted in a blending of the non-vegetarian fare of the Middle East and the rich gravies that became indigenous to India, creating what is known as Mughlai cuisine. Baking meat in a clay oven or tandoor is also extremely popular which is how tandoori chicken gets its name. Naan bread made of maida (refined wheat flour) is baked in tandoor and is very popular.
Rice is the primary constituent of Southern and Eastern foods. South Indian dishes are mostly rice-based, sambhar, rasam, curries and papadam being important side dishes. Coconut is an important ingredient in most South Indian food. Fish is very popular in the coastal state of West Bengal in the Eastern part of India.
Besides the main dishes, various snacks are widely popular in Indian cuisine, such as samosa, pakora, vada and idly. Among drinks, tea enjoys heavy popularity, while coffee is mostly popular in South India. Nimbu pani (lemonade), lassi, and coconut milk are also popular.
Several customs are associated with the way in which food is consumed. Traditionally, meals are eaten while sitting on the floor or on very low stools, eating with the fingers of right hand.