India is gifted with a rich range of exotic and tongue-tingling cuisines which have developed over the centuries. About 75% of the second most populous country with a population of over 1.3 billion, living in the world’s seventh largest country occupying more than 32 lakh sq km of land area, are inhabitants of rural India.
A majority of this population is dependent on agriculture for its livelihood. The fruits of the farmers’ labours are mostly intended for consumption by residents of urban areas. Common elements in the cuisine of both urban and rural India are the ingredients that go into the preparation of food, which is basically meant to enrich the gravy, enhancing the taste of the dish under preparation.
This gravy, or thickened sauce, be it for a vegetarian or non-vegetarian dish, is a part and parcel of food preparation, and each region in the sub-continent has its own specific concepts of the ingredients that go into the preparation of the gravy.
In other parts of the globe, the base used for making sauces could be a vegetable or meat broth, drippings, flour, cheese, tomato, mustard, soya or any other option available. In Indian cuisine, especially in the northern and central regions, the gravy is prepared using onion, ginger and garlic, chopped, grated or ground, and in some cases tomato or curd to impart a tangy flavour to the dish.
Button onions, also known as pearl onions, and coconut milk are used in south India to give the gravy texture and taste. Mustard seeds or a grounded paste of the seeds is the preferred base in the eastern region’s cuisine while onions or coconut milk, depending on the location, are the choice in the west.
Coconuts are easily available in the coastal regions while onion, ginger and garlic are grown in the hinterlands. That is the basic reason for the usage and popularity of particular gravies in different parts of the country.
India’s food packaging industry has cashed in on the opportunity by marketing gravy in paste or powder form for a variety of dishes, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, belonging to different regions. These ready-to-mix gravies are popular among the urban diaspora looking for shortcuts and time-saving methods applicable in the kitchen.
The onion, a root vegetable, gets the pride of place in Indian cuisine. Apart from the pungency in taste that the bulk that a dish obtains is by the use of onions, not many know of all its benefits to the human body. The onion is the richest dietary source of quercetin, an antioxidant flavonoid which acts as a blood thinner, raises good-type HDL cholesterol, wards off blood clots, fights asthma, chronic bronchitis, hay fever, diabetes, bronchitis and infections. Flavonoids are pigments which give vegetables their colour, act as antioxidants, have antitumour effect and immunity-enhancing properties. The outer layers of an onion’s skin have maximum flavonoid. You don’t need to eat lots of onions to benefit from its effects. Eating one medium-sized onion, raw or cooked, a day is sufficient.
Ayurveda confers on ginger the status of a medicine chest. In India, ginger is liberally used in daily life. Adrak ki chai (ginger-infused tea) is a favourite to fight coughs and colds. For centuries, ginger has been used as an effective cure for sore throats and blocked nasal passages. Chopped fresh ginger soaked in lemon juice is used as an accompaniment to a meal as an aid to digestion. People with stomach ailments or with a feeling of nausea use ginger as a remedy. Ginger helps prevent heart disease as it is a good source of vitamin B6, magnesium and potassium which helps lower blood pressure.
Used in the preparation of curries, vegetables, pickles and chutneys, the garlic bulb has allicin, an oil which gives it its characteristic smell due to which it is avoided by some people. Sweet, salt, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent are the six tastes according to Ayurveda. Garlic is one of those rare herbs with five tastes except sour. The use of garlic renews tissues, enriches the blood, improves digestion, removes parasites from the intestines and provides relief to those suffering from hypertension, asthma, rheumatic pain, constipation, worms and dyspepsia. The antioxidants in garlic are good for the skin and the flavonoids are excellent for a healthy heart and body.
Sweet, tangy and tasty, this bright red vegetable adds a delicious flavour to any cuisine. Tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant which fights cancer, reduces cholesterol and protects the heart. Consumption of tomatoes reduces urinary tract infections and prevents gallstones. They are good for the skin as they contain vitamin C, A, B6 as well as vitamin K which is good for strengthening and repairing bones. Other benefits of tomatoes include improved eye health, low hypertension, prevention of skin problems and urinary tract infections. They contain a number of antioxidants which can be effective against many forms of cancer. Low in sodium, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories, tomatoes are fibre-enriched. Tomatoes also have a relatively high water content, which makes them a filling food.
Containing millions of living lactic acid bacteria makes curd the healthiest of all dairy products. Those allergic to the lactose content in milk can tolerate, absorb and assimilate curd better because it is a product of the fermentation of milk, leading to the conversion of lactose into lactic acid bacteria. Its composition is similar to that of milk and is a source of a variety of vitamins, minerals, protein as well as calcium. Curd is recommended in cases of digestive disorders, intestinal infections and malnutrition. It increases resistance against infections of the digestive tract. Studies have shown that curd inhibits the mutation of cancer-causing cells. Called probiotic, a term of Greek origin meaning ‘pro-life,’ it showers benefits during infancy, pregnancy and old age.
The juice squeezed out of the grated kernel of a mature coconut is called coconut milk. This milk has a high content of saturated fatty acids which makes it easily digestible and is recommended for pancreatic and intestinal diseases. A high level of Omega-3, 6 and 9 along with high levels of amino acids makes the milk a complete food in itself. Coconut milk is rich in minerals such as magnesium which helps in the relaxation of nerves and muscles, manganese which maintains balanced blood sugar levels, phosphorus which helps build strong bones, potassium for lowering blood pressure levels and zinc which promotes prostate health and inhibits the growth of cancer cells. The high fibre level of the milk creates fullness in the stomach and helps in weight management. Coconut milk also has Vitamin C which combined with copper promotes the elasticity of blood vessels and skin and Vitamin E’s combination with the high-fat level benefits the hair.
There are three principal types of mustard seeds that are commonly used: white, brown and black. The white variety, actually yellow in colour, is used to make the commonly-used yellow mustard sauce. The brown seeds, dark yellow in colour, are a bit stronger and are used to make Dijon mustard. Black mustard seeds are the most pungent in taste. These tiny little seeds with a punch also have many health benefits. The seeds are like miniature multi-vitamin pills. They contain calcium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, niacin, and dietary fibre. They are full of Omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower cholesterol levels and help prevent heart disease. The seeds also have selenium and magnesium which possess anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis or asthma. Mustard seeds are also known their anticancer effects due to the isothiocyanates in them and are an excellent source of antioxidants.