How to Make — and Eat — an Authentic Indian Meal

Professor, food critic, and cookbook author Pushpesh Pant shares his thoughts on authentic Indian cooking

This is just one of the many delicious recipes in India: The Cookbook.

Pushpesh Pant, author of the definitive Indian cookbook, India: The Cookbook, shares the basics on cooking — and eating — an authentic Indian meal.

For many people, Indian cuisine is synonymous with the food of the Mughal shahs, the illustrious rulers of most of India from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. And while it is true that a wonderful gastronomic revival took place during their reign — bringing us famous dishes such as korma and biryani — it must be remembered that there is far, far more to Indian food than curries alone.

How to Eat an Indian Meal
A traditional Indian meal — whether eaten in the north, south, east, or west — follows a very different pattern from those of Europe, the Mediterranean, or the Far East. There are no starters, the meal is not served in courses, and desserts are not necessarily served at the end. Often, the meal will appear on the table pre-plated in small bowls arranged on a thali (a large round plate or a clean plantain leaf), along with the staples of bread and rice.

Crunchy snacks, such as samosas or onion bhajiya, are enjoyed alongside the main dishes, which, for non-vegetarians, would be chicken, fish or mutton kebabs, or curry. Vegetarians often eat a main dish of paneer, mushrooms, or seasonal vegetables. It is common to serve at least one dry dish and one dish with sauce. In addition, a dal, sambhar, or karhi (yogurt dumplings) is almost compulsory. Bread and rice are taken according to personal preference. Dairy is included in the form of plain yogurt or raita, and is indispensable in all but the most frugal fare. Chutneys, pickles, and preserves accompany daily meals at home, ensuring that all the basic flavors are on offer while also providing a variety of colors and textures. A sweet dish, such as rice pudding or a serving of halwa, is also offered. Beverages — mostly sherbets — made with fruit juice added to milk, cream, or egg whites are offered to guests before eating, although some drinks, such as buttermilk, are sipped during the meal.

The guiding principle of Indian meals is that they should be appropriate to the season and occasion. More elaborate celebratory banquets have much greater variety, including different kinds of fish, quail, and partridge, and use more complex and uncommon recipes.

It is not unusual to mix and match dishes from different culinary zones. For example, Punjabi tandoori tikka, Awadhi korma, and Hyderabadi biryani could easily share the center spread with Gujarati snacks, Kerala breads, and Bengali sweets. And in fact, except for ritual meals, most Indians mix and match at home. However, this should in no way inhibit an enthusiast from creating a regional menu that is deeply satisfying.

Finally, an Indian gourmet does not use knives, forks, and spoons: The fingers, assisted by a variety of breads, are best to fully enjoy the temperature and texture of the food.

How to Cook an Indian Meal: The Must-Know Tips
The recipes in India: The Cookbook  were gathered from all over India during the last 20 years. They reflect both the similarities and the differences across all the regions, and represent the best of traditional Indian cooking. Armed with the recipes in this book, you can look forward to cooking authentic Indian food and enjoying its kaleidoscope of flavors.

Authentic Indian recipes often use a generous amount of ghee or other cooking oil, but once you have followed the recipe the first time and cooked the traditional version of the dish, you may choose to reduce the amount of ghee you use in the future.

Similarly, the amount of spice in Indian recipes can be changed to suit your palate. Each recipe in the book contains a rating to let you know how hot the dish is in its traditional form, but feel free to experiment — adding more or less chile and other spices as you wish.

The guiding principle of Indian meals is that they should be appropriate to the season and occasion.In India, the most commonly used meat is goat, also known as “mutton.” The mutton recipes in this book have been adapted for lamb, which is much more readily available outside of India, but goat can also be used — although it will usually require a longer cooking time. The cheaper cuts of lamb — often sold in supermarkets as stewing or casserole lamb — such as shoulder, neck, breast or shank, need to be cooked for longer than more expensive cuts. Whichever cut you buy, simmer the meat until it is tender, checking it regularly to make sure the sauce does not reduce too much. Marinating the lamb, in raw papaya for example, will tenderize the meat and is one way to reduce the cooking time. Meat in India is often cooked on the bone, and all the recipes in this book can be cooked with meat either on or off the bone, unless otherwise stated.

To save time, an electric spice grinder and blender are handy tools in the kitchen. Ready-made extracts, such as coconut milk and tamarind extract, can also reduce the burden in the kitchen.

Lastly, many of the exotic-sounding ingredients in these recipes can be substituted for produce more commonly found outside of India, or simply omitted if unavailable. A complete list of Indian ingredients can be found in the glossary at the back of my book.

Interested in trying a recipe from the book?
Click here for Pushpesh’s Layered Paratha Recipe.

Excerpted with permission from India: The Cookbook (c) Pushpesh Pant, courtesy of Phaidon.