Indian Diets and Dietary Habits
Guide to Regional Indian Diets and Cuisine
Each region of India has its own dietary customs and food menu, according to its climate and geography.
Eating Habits of Northern India
The diet of Northern India (basically the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir) is largely meat-based and characterized by tandoori-style cooking methods, with koftas (spicy meatballs), kormas (meats slowly cooked in cream sauces of yogurt and fruit), along with naan. Garam masala is a popular spice blend used here, warming rather than hot. Breads are the primary starch in this wheat-growing region. Dishes are often accompanied by breads like parantha (unleavened flat bread). The main meal is often followed by fresh fruit such as apples, cherries, plums and strawberries which are unique to this region due to its cooler climate.
Eating Habits of Southern India
The diet of Southern India (basically the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Goa, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala) is characterized by hot spicy foods, such as vindaloo, and uses legumes like lentils and chickpeas. Although the southern diet is primarily vegetarian, the people here sometimes eat meat during special occasions. Lamb is the most widely used meat in the non-vegetarian dishes. Rice is abundant and appears in almost every dish during a meal.
Eating Habits of Eastern India
The diet of Eastern India, (basically the states of Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Manipur Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh) is characterized by a variety of different types of rice, and is rich in fish along coastal areas. A variety of styles are adopted to cook fish. In particular, they can be marinated in spices, or cooked in curd. Coconuts and bananas are common in the diet, and coconut milk often substitutes for cow's or goat's milk.
Eating Habits of Western India
The diet of Western India (basically the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra) is rich in dairy products, including yogurt, buttermilk, cow's milk, and goat's milk, and - along the Arabian Sea - includes "Bombay Duck," which is a small fish. Rice is the staple food grain. Peanuts and cashew nuts are widely used in vegetables, with peanut oil being a popular cooking oil.
Gujaratis are famous for their vegetarian cuisine (lacto-ovo), which features potatoes, lentils, rice and a wide range of green vegetables in winter. The Rajasthani diet also uses a lot of dried lentils and beans, as wheat and rice do not grow very well in this drier area. Gram flour is a staple cooking ingredient while bajra and corn are used all over the state for making rotis and other varieties of bread.
Indian Food Types and Importance of Religion
Traditionally, Indians group food into two main categories: pukka (good), meaning certain foods cooked in pure ghee or in curd; and kutcha (poor), meaning the meat of most animals and the birds of the jungle. Certain sects and castes (social groups) will not eat food that is kutcha. Also, Hindus and Sikhs do not eat beef, as for them the cow is a sacred animal, while other religious groups abstain from eating pork.
Balance in Indian Diet
Not unlike the Chinese philosophical principles of Yin and Yang, Indian meals maintain a balance between so-called "wet" dishes (eg. curries) and "dry" dishes (eg. rice). Indian cooks also balance hot fiery dishes with cooling raita (yogurt with cucumber) and chutneys.
Basic Indian Meal
As a rule of thumb, a traditional Indian meal should consist of starch (eg. rice and/or Indian bread), one or more main dishes (eg. meat or fish, or a lentil and vegetable dish like daal) plus add-ons like chutney. Typically at least two vegetables and/or a lentil dish will be served with the meal.
Typical Vegetarian Indian Meal
The majority of Indians eat a vegetarian diet, commonly including milk and occasionally fish - regarded by some as the "fruit of the sea". For dietary protein, most Indian vegetarians rely on beans, legumes, pulses (dals or beans), milk, and nuts. A typical vegetarian meal in India might include dal (lentils), 1-2 cooked vegetables, a raw salad mixture of cucumbers, radishes, plus yogurt, roti (bread), rice, chutney, pickles, and papad (seasoned wafer-thin bread made from lentils or moong beans and rice flour paste). The traditional way to serve and eat Indian meals is to use a thali (a large rimmed plate) lined with katories (small bowls). The function of the katories is to stop the food and flavors from intermingling with each other. A traditional alternative to using a thali is to serve the food in banana leaves.
Sweets are popular throughout India, and can be relatively high in fat. Common desserts include kulfi, an Indian ice cream, and rice-based kheer or payasam which are types of rice pudding.
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