While Indian cuisine is undoubtedly known for its spices and curries, India also has a varied range of food selections depending on the region. The southern parts of the country use rice and coconut milk heavily and grind their spices to make pastes while the Northern parts of the country is known to use wheat and other grains more.
What is common among Indian cuisine in general is its use of spices like saffron, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, which are popularly used in almost every Indian dish. Even dried fruits like cashews, almonds and pistachios are used as finishing touches in Indian cuisine. Also common is the widespread use of dairy products like milk, sour cream, yogurt, cream, buttermilk and cheese.
While most Indian cuisine is linked by these ingredients, differences do occur mainly due to geography, religious and caste restrictions and weather.
For example, while the members of the highest orders of caste (Brahmins) are traditionally strict vegetarians, those living in the coastal states of West Bengal and Kerala use a lot of fish in their cooking while those in the North who face harsh weather and temperature changes generally have much more rich and heavy meals usually containing meat.
India also takes pride in its fish recipes cooked in various sweet and sour sauces, ducks cooked in vinegar and spices and in its sweets. Bengal in particular prides itself in a special soft sweet called Rasgullas. India is also known for its unleavened breads like chapatis, rotis, phulkas, puris and naans.
In the extremely dry areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat where fresh vegetables are hard to come by, the locals have adapted by using a variety of dals or preserves (achars) as substitutes.
In the same way that good Japanese sushi relies on the freshness of the meat and Chinese food relies on the sauces to give the food flavor and taste, Indian food relies heavily on the spices in which it is cooked.
Use of a “thali” or a metal plate or banana leaf is quite common in most parts of India. Whether from the North or South, thalis generally contain small bowls arranged inside the rim of the plate or leaf, each filled with several spicy vegetarian fare, curd and sweets. Rice would generally be placed at the center of the thali along with some deep fried wheat bread rolled into small circular shapes (puris) or large circular shaped wheat bread (chapatis) which are shallow fried.
After a meal, it is customary for locals to serve Paan, a tea like drink, which is supposed to have some digestive benefit. It is made from the dark-green leaf of the betel-pepper plant which is then mixed with a bit of lime and a mixture of spices like cardamom, crushed betel nuts, aniseed, sugar and grated coconut.
For those in the rural areas, a typical meal would be centered around bread, corn bread, greens and buttermilk (lassi). Buttermilk is made out of whipped yogurt, and can be had sweetened or with salt and is usually very thick. Wheat is also the staple food of rural folk. Finely chopped vegetables are at times mixed with spices and stuffed into the dough, before roasting to produce the delicious stuffed parathas.