Unlike French food with its mother sauces and codified recipes, Indian cuisines are not a product of a set of recipes. We all know how different communities and micro regions and even homes follow their own recipes, each vying with the other for a stamp of superiority.
What knits this kind of culinary diversity, however, is the idea of certain dishes that exist throughout the country with minor variations but essentially the same concept. So while Indian cuisine is a melange of many different cuisines, it is also true that within this diversity exists a sort of unity; ideas of dishes whose recipes may vary from region to region and home to home, but which are, really, the same.
That we have a range of such dishes that unite India means our cuisine is instantly recognisable as Indian and distinct from other cuisines of the world, even while comprising of a wide culinary diversity.
Pakoris of Old Delhi
This unity in diversity can be all too apparent even within the same micro region. A summer side dish of the Kayastha community of old Delhi is moong dal pakori served in mango panna. This is still eaten in some traditional families as part of lunch, with rice, to cool off on hot summer afternoons and is a variant of a more popular dish where moong dal pakori is simmered in a thin onion gravy mildly soured with amchoor (dried mango) powder.
A similar heritage dish in traditional Baniya community homes of old Delhi is mangochi — moong dal pakoris dipped in a thin yoghurt-based kadhi.
A third dish of the same genre that used to be cooked in the homes of Khatri community lenders and trading community of old Delhi is moong dal pakori in a thin watery gravy soured by tamarind.
This is an example of three distinct heritage dishes of three different communities within the same geographical area — except that the dish is really the same, made distinct by changes in the souring agents used.
Vada Across Centuries
The dal pakori is a cousin of the vada, one of the ancient Indian dishes that exists in different parts of the country as vada, bada, bora and more even today. According to food historian KT Achaya, the vada (termed “vataka”) is fully described as a dish as far back as 500 BC when it finds mention in the Dharmasutras as a dish of soaked, slightly fermented and coarsely ground pulses, deep fried in ghee.
By the time of the Manasollasa treatise was composed in the 12th century, the vada/vataka had found multiple uses in dishes where it was soaked in milk or in sour rice water (kanjika; kanji-vade exists as a dish in northern and western India till today).
The vada today is all pervasive from the Assamese boras to dahi bada to medu vada and more. While historically the vada seemed to have been made with urad/ masha dal, ingredients changed; pulses like moong or chana came into use, as also others as Achaya mentions.
We can see these now in as varied a diversity as horsegram, rice-banana, potato, or even chilli-peppers.
One of the most obvious categories of dishes that bind us despite our culinary diversity is dal. The way dal is cooked in water (with turmeric and sometimes other ingredients) and tempered (baghar or chownk) with ghee and spices to impart flavour is quite unique to the subcontinent.
Similar dishes exist in other parts of the world — like spelt or masoor dal equivalent cooked with sausage in parts of northern Italy, but not many cultures have this as a mainstay of most meals.
The technique of tempering seems unique to Indian subcultures too and while the spices may differ, the idea of ghee being used to impart flavour is unique and binds disparate dishes together.
The Indian mithai is diverse too — but recognisable as a unique and single category.
Of these, the ladoo is one of the most ancient mithais that continues to exist in many different forms throughout the country. The beauty of Indian cuisine is the constant inventiveness that we see through history and geography, leading to many different expressions of the same idea. Thus you have not just besan laddoos but sesame and jaggery ones (in colder seasons), those made with coconut (in areas where that is an abundant local ingredient) and even those dubbed “nuqti ke laddoo” in Lucknow, made with fried besan boondi (soaked in saffron), so fine that it resembles the dot of the urdu alphabet (nuqta/nuqti), a refinement brought about by the courtly culture of Avadh.
From how meats are marinated (according to Achaya, there are references to curd being used as a marinade as far back as the later epic age) to how vegetables are braised and cooked in spices are all common threads in Indian cooking, quite distinct from how the rest of the world treats ingredients. However, even when we go to much finer details, there are startling similarities between subcultures.
Chitua, made from govindbhog rice, in the food of Murshidabad in Bengal is a dying delicacy. The batter is fermented overnight sans yeast and the dish topped with fresh, molten jaggery.
It reminds you of an unlikely cousin— the appam! The more you delve into the history of Indian cuisines the more you begin to see how our culinary cultures are all inter-linked, sometimes surprisingly.