Growing up in a predominantly Jewish-Caucasian neighborhood, my parents emphasized to me the importance of my Indian culture. Hence the Hindi lessons, kathak classes, and even a stint at a religion camp. But even then, I felt the closest to my culture when I was engaging with the food.
As I got older and became exposed to more cuisines, others in my generation became exposed to the Indian cuisine. While they would rave about their favorite curry spots, I couldn't help but be confused at all the things people got wrong about the cuisine I was brought up with.
With this list, I hope you all can get a better understanding of Indian cuisine and fully understand just how kick ass it is.
False Restaurant Advertising
Indian restaurants just may be the cuisine's worst enemy because of the often incorrect portrayal of Indian food. The majority of restaurants serve the same menu of curries with a side of chappatis/rotis. Time for some heartbreak: that's not real Indian food. That chicken tikka masala you were raving about to your friends? Yeah, that's not even Indian.
Different Regions Mean Different Cuisines
In fact, there's no "true" Indian food because India's cuisine is as diverse as its population. With roughly 30-40 different regional cuisines, there are very few people who are able to say they have had all different types of Indian food. Exciting cuisines from places like East India and South India do exist but don't get their share of the appreciation since most of the foods in American restaurants are North Indian.
East Indian cuisine is heavily influenced by Chinese and Mongolian cuisines because of its location, allowing for meals to include rice as a staple, instead of the classic roti/chappati seen in North India. Additionally, it is more meat-friendly than other regional cuisines in India, with a prevalence of fish in coastal regions and pork when further inland.
Likewise, South Indian cuisine differs greatly from North Indian mainly due to the vast geographic differences. Pepper, tamarind, and coconuts are prevailing favorites in South India simply because they grow more there and the cuisine itself is based around rice, lentils, and stews. This differs greatly from North India's preference of chili, mango powder, and chappatis/rotis.
And hey, if you get the chance, pass up the usual North Indian chai for once and try kappi, a classic South Indian-style filter coffee. You just may switch up your Starbucks order after.
Food in India varies extensively based on the local produce to create specialties. In the state of Rajasthan, for example, the lack of water in the desert-like climate means most of the food is cooked in dairy, making it incredibly rich. This has created dishes like dal baati churma that the state is known for.
In comparison, regions like Lakshadweep that border the Indian Ocean base their dishes around fish, which results in a large seafood culture in that region.
Not All Desserts Are Equal
Even many of the desserts served in Indian restaurants are incredibly North-leaning, such as the kheer, kulfi, and gulab jamun that are often displayed on menus. All of these are delicious but once again, not representative of all that India has to offer. Bengali desserts like malai sandwich and chum chum originated in the region while it was still a part of India and are incredibly popular.
Like the entrees, many of the desserts vary based on region and the religious influence on that area. In Rajasthan, sattu is specially made during the months of August and September for the religious regional festival of Teej. It is so widely popular in the country that relatives from Rajasthan ship sattu to friends and family outside of the region.
The Myth of Curry
My favorite misconception is what I call the myth of curry, because of how confusing it is for everyone involved. I didn't even know what curry was until freshman year of high school because to me curry = kadhi, a liquid dish made with lentils. Curry, on the other hand, is really any gravy dish made with curry powder.
Sorry to break it to you folks, but curry is not a staple in the Indian diet. Instead, it was a concept created by British colonialists when they mistook a dish with gravy called "curry" to be the name of any dish with gravy. And that curry powder? It doesn't even really exist in India; it's just a blend of commonly used spices like turmeric, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, and chili peppers.
While many people hold certain misconceptions about Indian food, I am glad people are finding a way to relate to my culture beyond Bollywood music and saris (though all of these are amazing). It just goes to show that food offers more than just a sense of comfort.