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India was a steep learning curve for me. Due to the circumstances, I was the only foreigner in my office, home, and neighborhood (and for many Indians, I was the first foreigner they met). So I’ve gone through numerous clumsy & awkward situations you can imagine.
My Indian flatmates, colleagues, neighbors were friendly and tried so hard to be helpful (in their own way), but let’s talk about cultural gaps. Like me staring at the utensil section with no idea how to use many items there, a shop seller offering me some ghee over oil (as she says it’s healthier??) and how comes I don’t know which of the 10 types of flour I need…
Why there is a whole section for spices? There are the spices you need to precook, the ones you add at the end of cooking and after food ones? Isn’t there some universal seasonal pack I can add everywhere? When did this world become so complex?
Why noone told me this stuff before my trip to India? And by the way, I didn’t ask for chili peppers, don’t add this to the bill – …oh, they come for free?
My grocery shopping was enhancing my life skills on so many levels, not talking about my trials to make Indian dishes under the guidance of friends (I wouldn’t through a handful of spices in the cooker by my own initiative). These daily experiences might sound as routine, but they introduced me to a whole different side of the country.
Today, I’d like to invite you to visit a kitchen in an Indian home and look around over a cup of tea. What caught your attention?
Grains and pulses – tens of varieties of them
India was the first country for me where it felt so easy to become vegetarian. Without being a vegetarian myself, I lived the first year in India with 0 meat consumption. Disclaimer: that was rather a consequence of my office and home rules, than a choice. Both spaces didn’t allow non-veg food.
Nevertheless, it was not hard, because the vegetables are cheap, food is affordable, there are plenty of grains that provide you with the protein and food is tasty.
I promise to cover a separate topic on vegetarian and non-vegetarian food in India. Now, let’s come back to grains. Dal is one of the most common pulses in India. It comes in many colors – yellow, green, pink, brown. It comes in many tastes – from fried snacks (namkeen) to soups and gravies.
Among other popular grains are chick peas, red beans (rajma), black eyed peas (they call it Lobiya) and others. All these grains are rich in protein and healthy.
If you are invited to an Indian dinner (especially in the Northern part of the country), most probably one of the dishes served will be dal.
Achaar a.k.a. pickles but not really
Achar is more than a food, it’s a tradition. Despite you will see a separate section in the supermarket dedicated to achar, I haven’t found a local brand preparing it anywhere close to homemade pickles.
I’ve visited hundreds of Indian families and all of them had a closet in the kitchen with homemade achar varieties: lemon, mango, mix vegetarian, chili – you name it. Should I say that is always my favorite section in an Indian kitchen?
If you are a non-Indian, you might be wondering how to eat achar? My all-time favorite is a North Indian breakfast – paratha with achaar. Nevertheless, achar is usually served on the tables in every café or food joint in the sauces corner.
If you have a chance to stay in a family – go for it! That’s the best introduction to Indian food. Alternatively, you can visit one of the big food festivals in India an try multiple dishes in one place.
Indian spices – what do you mean “no spicy”?
Let me save your time if you are a foreigner. Indians fail to understand the concept of “no spicy”. If you ever try this “trick” with a waiter, he will look lost and that is a too complex request to be honest.
You have to understand which spice exactly you don’t want. Maybe you don’t like chili powder or cumin, not a fan of chaat masala or feel like excluding curry leaves? Just be more specific what you don’t like and the cook can exclude those spices for you.
Typically, in Indian homes, you will see that round box (image above) with the most used spices: cumin powder, red chili powder, coriander powder, turmeric, etc. But hey, here are only popular powders.
There is a whole separate shelf for spices itself. There you will find pre-cooked spices, dish specific masalas, rare used spice section and after food spices.
Pre-cooked spices – you usually cook them separately in oil or start frying them before adding other ingredients. Here you can find round pepper, cumin seeds, cloves, mustard seeds, ajwain and others.
Dish specific masalas are the ready mix for people who don’t want to bother about proportions. Here you will find packs for Biriyanis, sambar, curry and other popular Indian dishes.
So imagine, in every Indian kitchen, there are tens of small boxes with spices which are added on different stages of preparing a meal. That’s why it’s so confusing to understand the meaning of a non-spicy food.
Chilies – “some like it hot”
Continuing topic of spices, there are two products that come in India for free – green coriander and chilies. Whenever you buy vegetables at the market, the seller will drop you a few of these in the bag. So you don’t need to buy these.
Nevertheless, if you are interested to purchase chilies in bulk, I can’t think of a better place than Khari Baori – Asia’s largest spice market. Don’t forget your handkerchief and glasses, the smell of chilies provokes sneezing long before the market starts.
Desi Ghee – kind of butter, but not really
Now let’s look into the oil section. Here you will see, as a rule, mustard oil (for frying), olive oil (for salads), sunflower oil (which is rarely used as deemed to be not that healthy) and desi ghee (which is used for everything from parathas to vegetables and sweets).
I’m not a dietitian to claim some nutritive values of each oil, yet desi ghee is a base of many Indian dishes.
You will see in almost every Indian kitchen either a construction from a filtered water bottle or a tap at the table or automatic filter at the wall.
It is not safe to drink water from the tap, hence water is a big “business” in India. Nevertheless, there are many water refill points, where you can buy one liter for 5 INR (note you need to carry your bottle) as well as free water points in some cities.
Onions – maybe the most important vegetable (after chili)
Onions are one of the key elements in Indian food. If you take a meal in a dhaba (a roadside café), most of them serve onions and achar for free at each table.
It is a basic vegetable for so many dishes – from fried sabji to gravies, from achar to salads. Interesting fact: back in 2014, a rise of onion price by 5 INR per kilo raised debates all around India among common people.
Cultural fact: Jains (*Jainism is a religion in India) following their religion don’t eat onions, hence you will not find them in Jain food or kitchen.
List of special utensils in the Indian kitchen
Since we are clear about products more or less, let’s take a quick look into the common utensils. Beyond frying pans and boiling pots, there are some elements you will surely find in an Indian kitchen:
- Pressure cooker – this was a new concept for me after arrival in India. Though I agree that making food in the pressure cooker is at least twice faster, the nutrition value of it is debatable.
- “Chapati set” – my terminology for rolling pin, board, utensil for dough and flat pan for preparation. Note for foreigners: I’m terrible in English explanations. If you want to buy this set in India, you need to ask for belan, chakla, parat and tawa.
- Bowl for frying spices
- Special utensil for boiling masala tea. To be honest, I very rarely seen electric tea kettle in Indian homes. They are more into preparing tea types.
- Steel plates for eating. I was so used to pottery and earthenware dishes in Europe and all of a sudden everything became steel in India. It is practical for one point of you, especially plates divided into sections, but still feels unusual.
Eating culture in India
Despite ever-growing food apps like swiggy or zomato, India still has a prevalent home-cooked food culture. It is common to see office people carrying lunch boxes to the office and sharing food with each other.
An Indian meal is also a feast (for a westerner) since it includes several dishes. For example, a common dinner will include a gravy, fried vegetable, chapatti (if north) or rice (if south), maybe raita (sour milk based side dish) or chutney (sweet addition to the food).
Basically, you end up with a table filled with food and no, it’s not a holiday, just a normal Indian meal. Food cooked at home have a special flavor. They might not be made by a professional chef (mostly), yet these meals are memorable.
I feel you started getting bored with all these local Indian specifics. And, by the way, we were about to have some tea. Would you like masala chai, kahwa, black tea, kaada? Hold on here, I have a separate cupboard for tea, I’ll bring you more options…