Classic Indian Cuisine Revealed With Personal and Cultural Stories

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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Indian cuisines are famous all over the world. Butter chicken, Tikka Masala, Naan and Samosa are all foods that we love to eat. What's not so well known is that Indian Cuisines are carefully woven into the country's culture. Every recipe has an exciting story behind it.

India has always drawn many foreign visitors as well as invaders due to its varied and attractive resources. Arabs, Mughals, Turks, Portuguese, French, British have all left their marks on Indian culture, making the land multicultural. To this day there are people following cultural practices that these colonies and empires established. Most certainly has this also affected Indian cuisines. Hence Indian cuisines vary from one region to another. It is a mix of multiple cultures and yet is authentic.

banana leaf
South Indian festive meal served on a banana leaf. Photo: Phalguni Nagaraj

Earlier, the kind of herbs, vegetables, and spices used in the making of Indian cuisines were dependent on region and climate. Ancestors practiced a rigid culture and embedded all health benefits in the food recipes they cooked. They grouped ingredients that offered the right amount of nutrition required for consumption. And thus, recipes were formed.

After understanding the body physiology and digestive process well, those recipes were classified suitable for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Thus, making it right for an intake that would lead to a healthy lifestyle. This also holds true for treatment of illness i.e, Indian Ayurvedic practices that believe in curing any form of sickness and disease from natural remedies and appropriate food intake.

A few of these Indian cuisines were particular to festivals and occasions while the rest became routine food which Indians cook even today.

Cultural Wisdom of Grandparents Preserves Heritage of Indian Cuisines

Over time, such rationale and stories fade away. We are left wondering why people do certain things the way they do. Modernisation and Indian affinity towards western practices has resulted in dwindling of a few authentic food practices that was once swirled into its traditions.

Indian Cuisines Grandparents

Bringing back this intangible heritage is a concern for many. For a generation that has been ignorant about the strengths of its culture, grandparents are the perfect cure. Them bending our ears and telling us why we have to eat mangoes only after food, jackfruit before the food and many more words of wisdom is one reason why all of us are in good shape. Grandmother’s food and her recipes are always special as they are most of the time uncommon, rare and filled with love.

Grandmothers Share Traditional Indian Cuisine Recipes

Five Grandmothers from Karnataka agreed to share the recipe and backstory of a few fading Indian cuisine recipes. They have been cooking Indian cuisines for more than 50 years. As they explain the making of these tasty dishes, they reveal interesting memories and emotions associated with it. They view cooking not merely as a regular activity but as a tradition which outshines while they speak.

Grandmother Seethalakshmi 's Favourite | Mushti Kadubu

80 year old Seethalakshmi talks to me about a Festive cuisine called Mushti kadubu. She lives in Bangalore and usually hosts me and my family for lunch during festivals. Any celebration is incomplete without her food especially the desserts.

It is pronounced as Mu-sh-ti  Ka-du-bu and translated as Fist dumplings. ‘Mushti’ refers to fists. The dumplings made have an impression of fists on them. This dish is popular in South Indian states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It is specially made on ‘Ganesh Chaturthi’.

Indian Cuisines Mutta Savouries
Photo: MAHESH MUTTACC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Ganesh is a  popular Hindu deity. Ganesh Chaturthi is a festival celebrating his birthday, around August-September every year. Lord Ganesh liked sweet dumplings or Kadubu/Modak. Different types and shapes of kadubu are made every year. They are first offered to the God and then served to the family.

Seethalakshmi shares with me the days when she used to make these dumplings with devotion filled in her, to offer it to Lord Ganesha. "There are both sweet and spicy versions of Mushti Kadubu, which one do you want to hear about?” she asked.

I had no knowledge about both. So I asked her to tell me about her favourite version. “Both are very easy to make”, she says. “I’ll start with the sweet version”. We take jaggery (cane sugar) and slowly melt it on low heat with little water. Add  coconut and ghee (clarified butter) and cook it on heat until it combines well to form a uniform mixture.”

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Indian Cuisine Use 'Ghee' or Clarified Butter

homemade ghee
Homemade Ghee or clarified butter. Photo: Mahima Gopal

Ghee originated in India and is popularly used in all Indian cuisine. Adding it brings a wonderful aroma to the food. I believe that the amount of Ghee you add to the food is directly proportional to the love that you have towards the people who eat it. May or may not be true! I am always finding reasons to eat more ghee with my food.

She continues “Then add rice flour and mix it well. Bring it to a thick paste consistency which you then roll onto your fist. Press them proportionately so that they bind well. This will lead to the formation of fist like impressions on these dumplings. The way they look also makes them different from other forms of dumplings usually made.”

indian cuisines
Making the dumplings. Photo: Mahima Gopal

No Wonder Lord Ganesh Liked Kadubu!

She continued “The procedure is the same for the spicy dumplings but we use ginger, green chillies, curry leaves with rice flour, coconut and ghee instead of jaggery. It usually takes 30 minutes to make it. Why don’t you try making it today?” she asked me. ‘I’d eat them if someone makes it for me’, I murmured.

indian cuisines
Sweet Kadubu (left) Spicy Kadubu (right) Photo: Mahima Gopal

I remember every time we celebrated Ganesh Chaturthi, my grandmother used to prepare kadubu and offer it to the god. Meanwhile, me and my cousins used to plot to steal and eat them without drawing any attention towards us. It was wrong to eat until the elder’s finished reciting all mantras, but we were too impatient. They were so tasty! No wonder Lord Ganesh liked them.

Grandmother Uma's Favourite | Ottu Shavige

How could I write about grandmother's recipes and not talk about my grandmother who is solely responsible for all the delicious traditional food that I've had a chance to eat. She has been cooking great food for me since my childhood and like all other grandmothers, she never understands when I say that I am full.

Indian Cuisines Uma Mani
Uma Mani, 76

Uma Mani, 76 years old shares  the story of one specific cuisine that she enjoyed making. I sometimes used to hear her talk about ‘Ottu Shavige’ for which my reaction always used to be ‘What does that mean? I’ve never heard of it.

It is pronounced as Ot-tu Sha-vi-ge and translated as Hand pressed noodles. I recently learned that ottu shavige is the popular ‘India noodles’ or Indian version of pasta. It is cooked across neighbouring states in slightly different ways. Rice stays common while other ingredients such as seasonings vary according to the taste preferences of the locals.

Homemade Noodles Taste Better Than Packed Noodles

Women who make these claim that the process is laborious. This is one such unique food that reminds many of their childhood. Everyone who has tasted these homemade fresh noodles opine that they are better than the instant noodles from the market.

Indian Cuisines Homemade Noodles
Homemade Noodles

"Rice is the main ingredient of these noodles. We usually wash the rice grains first and powder them. The rice powder is mixed with a little water to make a paste. We then add a pinch of salt and steam it once. The steamed rice paste is then shaped into balls and is streamed again. These double steamed rice balls are transferred to a pasta maker to press them into noodles,” she says.

“ It is very healthy and easy to digest as it is steamed twice. It is usually consumed the same day and hence fresh noodles. Unlike the ones that you eat, they are unhealthy!”, she taunts.

Eat these noodles the way you want

I asked, "How do you make these noodles traditional? She replied, "Since it already contains a bit of salt in it, you can eat it as it is.  You can make them either sweet or spicy. We add preferred seasonings, mustard seeds, grated coconut and lemon juice to make it spicy and flavourful. Or eat it with milk, poppy and sesame seeds, if we want to make it sweet.”

Indian Cuisines Nuchinunde
Photo: Savithri Manjunath / Facebook

She promised to cook it for me no matter how laborious it is. Grandmothers are amazing! Can’t wait to taste it.

Grandmother Nirmala's Favourite | NuchinUnde

Nirmala tells me that this is a very old cuisine of Karnataka. In the regional language that I speak (Kannada), Ajji stands for grandmother. Using this suffix repeatedly in our conversations, I asked Nirmala Ajji who turned 65 this year, to tell me more about ‘NuchinUnde’. I’d love to learn how to make them because these lentils are delicious. It is pronounced as Nu-chin-unn-de and translated as Steamed Lentil.

She lives in Bangalore and is known to be quite a unique cook in our family. She is famous for experimenting with ingredients. I've observed that she is exceptionally skilled at making a fusion of traditional and contemporary food styles. The contemporary food she cooks always has a slight traditional touch to it.

Ingredients for Indian Cuisine Come From Their Gardens

“My mother and grandmother made these for us”, she began while we stood in the middle of her garden. Nirmala ajji has been growing most of the vegetables she needs right at her home garden. “It’s one of the activities I love to do. I like collecting seeds and saplings of vegetables. Learning how to grow them and watering them everyday gives me a sense of pleasure. I constantly keep looking into what else I can grow. Anything that I’ll need when I cook, I will come to my garden to pick it up". It was so inspiring to see plants all around me. I could see a few plants that had tiny okra growing and a creeper that had french beans.

Okra and French beans growing in the garden. Photo: Nirmala Dikshit

This is something that I would also want to do. Build my own garden with fruits and vegetables that I’d love to eat.

“These steamed lentils are very delicious, have you tried them?” she asked. This was one cuisine that I was familiar with, thanks to my grandmother and mother who frequently cooked it. “Most houses don't cook it the way I make it. It’s traditionally a breakfast recipe but it can be served anytime during the day. It is cooked using different lentils. Traditionally, my grandmother has been cooking it with a combination of  black gram, split bengal gram and green gram.”

Lentils and Legumes are Widely Used in Indian Cuisine

She assumed I knew what all these meant. But embarrassingly I had to ask what all these were. “These are legumes and lentils that are usually used in Indian cuisine. All rich in protein”, she replied.

Lentils Nuchinunde Indian Cuisines
Three types of lentils are used in the making of Nuchinunde.

“First the lentils are washed and are soaked in water for a while until the water gradually reduces in quantity. They usually suck the water. Then we add green chillies, about 15 of them,” she said. I stared at her to which she said, “They are needed since lentils when cooked become tasteless. It’s then mixed with ginger, salt, pepper and cumin. This mixture is further grinded without adding water and the prepared lentil dough is steamed once. After it cools down, it’s crushed back into a mixture.

Steaming Twice Makes Food Easy To Digest

To this fresh coriander, lemon and coconut is added. Adding turmeric and asafetida makes it more authentic. They are pressed into oval shaped pieces and steamed again". By now I had learnt the benefits of steaming the food twice. “This makes it easy to digest, especially for elders. It is really soft when you break it. Most people steam it only once but this is how I have been taught to cook it,” she says.

indian cuisines
Ready to eat. Photo: Mahima Gopal

“It goes well with rice but is usually preferred with a green curry called' ‘Majjige Huli’. Majjige stands for buttermilk and huli meaning curry,” she finished.  I did not realise that we were done talking about the recipe. I wanted to stand in the garden for a little longer.

Grandmother Savitri's Favourite | Bellagojju Hurittu

Savitri, 70 year old lives in Bangalore. Whenever I am in Bangalore, I spend most of my time at my friend's place and it is Savitri who cooks for both of us. She always comes up with deep thoughts and observations behind every meal she cooks. She instigates us to think more about the food we consume as she believes, 'We are what we eat'. Conversations with her always makes us health conscious.

It is pronounced as Bel-la-go-ju Hu-ri-it-tu and translated as Jaggery finger millet drink. “I remember drinking Bellagojju Hurittu when I was a kid. It brings back so many memories,” Savitri smiles. She invites me to sit next to her while narrating a few of her childhood memories. “They tasted so good. My mouth waters as I talk to you about it”, she says while all these were making me curious to know what this cuisine was all about.

I was familiar with Huri Hittu or Roasted Finger millet powder. On that note, there exists a very special and historical relationship between finger millet and the culture of Karnataka that the world should know.

Finger Millet Is A Magical Crop!

It’s not widely known around the world except for parts of India and Africa. The state of Karnataka stands first in the production of Ragi in India. It forms the main ingredient of the staple food of Karnataka, very dear to the locals. Ragi or finger millet is often called a farmer's meal. All the energy that the farmer needs while working in the field comes from his Ragi diet.

Indian Cuisines Sai Benaka Healthy Drink
Photo: Benaka's Foods

Ragi is used to prepare “Ragi balls” (Ragi mudde), a native recipe very rich in nutrients like calcium, iron and fiber. It is a great substitute for rice especially for people suffering diabetes and also for weight loss purposes. The best and recommended method to eat Ragi balls is to swallow them without chewing them in the mouth. It is  easily digested and does not require mastication. I’ve witnessed many people who are just fit and fine in their 80’s, in fact fitter than me in my 20’s. Thanks to Ragi!

Savitri continues, “There’s a saying in Kannada, ‘The one who eats Ragi is free of all diseases’. I’ll tell you how to make the powder first. Ragi is washed and roasted. When roasted, it pops like popcorn which is then powdered to make the roasted finger millet powder or the Huri Hittu. It's high in Vitamin A, C and Iron. This powder is often mixed with milk and cane sugar or Jaggery which is a great meal per se.” she says.

“To make the drink that I love, first tamarind is soaked in water. To that ingredients like cumin powder, jaggery (cane sugar) and the previously prepared roasted finger millet powder is added while constantly mixing it. Once it combines well, it is ready to drink,” so easy I thought to myself.

Tamarind Adds A Sour Taste To Indian Cuisine

“This drink is both sweet and sour. Sweet due to cane sugar and sour because of tamarind. It is usually a summer drink  and can be stored in refrigerators for a long time. I wonder why people don't make it these days. Packed drinks with preservatives have become more popular than such homemade nutritious ones,” she complains. I felt guilty.

“I hope many people learn about this drink and teach their kids about it. Everyone should benefit from the gift that our land and our elders have given us.” I couldn’t agree more. She believes that the food that we are blessed to eat is something very sacred. The land gives us everything we need. It not only supports our survival but also provides nutritions so that we survive healthily. Our ancestors had great respect and devotion towards the crops that the land gifted us with. They have carefully wrapped all the knowledge that we will need and passed it to us. It’s rather disappointing when we hear that what they worshipped is slowly fading.

Grandmother Shakuntala's Favourite | Oralu Chitranna

I thought to myself, who else cooks great traditional food and that's when it occurred to me,  "How can I possibly miss my neighbour?." Shakuntala is 78 year old and is from Bangalore.  She used to hand me with a box filled with tasty food every time she tried making something new. I was always on her food sharing list and I loved everything she cooked.

Indian Cuisines Lemon Rice
Photo: PaakaShringar

It was now time for a rice recipe. I asked Shakuntala if there are any cuisines involving rice that she thinks is not cooked often these days. “Yes! Rice is our staple food here in South India. There are many types of vegetable curries which are not often cooked these days. But Oralu Chitranna is one cuisine that should be revived,” she says. It is pronounced as Or-ra-lu Chi-tra-anna and translated as  Mixed rice.

Oggarane or Tempering in Indian Cuisine

Chitranna is a popular cuisine in South India . There are various methods of making it and there are different types of chitranna depending on the flavour added to it. Most common is ‘Nimbehannu chitranna’ or lemon flavoured rice and 'Mavinkai Chitranna' or Raw mango flavoured rice. One common addition to all types of Chitranna and many other Indian cuisine is the age-old seasoning called ‘Oggarane’.

indian cuisines
Garnished with coriander. Photo: Mahima Gopal

Oggarane is a traditional practice of adding curry leaves, mustard seeds, groundnut seeds, dried chillies to either heated ghee or oil which is then added on top of the dishes prepared. This is done to ensure that ingredients such as mustard seeds, groundnut seeds liberate its own oils. Curry leaves and dried chillies are soaked well to bring an additional aroma and to enhance its flavours. I was today years old when I found out that this process is called ‘Tempering’ in english. The main intention is to blend all the ingredients since every ingredient has its own strong essence. As a result, all the flavours emerge as one.

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Traditional Stone Used For Grinding Food Manually

Oralu or Oralu kallu stands for a grinding stone which is found in almost every Kannada household. The modern effortless grinders have, to an extent, replaced these traditionally used stones. But there is a belief that any food that is crushed and prepared using these stones taste better. It consists of two parts, one is the bigger stone with a curve at the centre where the ingredients that need to be crushed are added. Another is a cylindrical stone with a handle using which the ingredients are ground manually.

“Since the paste of raw ingredients is made using this stone called oralu kallu, it is known as the Oralu chitranna,” she comments while showing me the grinding stone. I had a sudden realisation. Everything in India has a story or a hidden meaning behind it I thought. It sounded hidden to me and obvious to her. A strong evidence of the generation gap.

Grinding Stone Plays A Vital Role In South Indian Cuisine

Indian grinding stone
70+ year old Oralu Kallu or grinding stone. Photo: Mahima Gopal

I was curious to know how all the ingredients were crushed using the stone. “First we cook the rice and roast Fenugreek seeds. Then we add raw sesame, mustard seeds and the roasted fenugreek to the grinding stone. Fresh green chilli, coriander leaves and coconut are added. To make the paste thick, split black gram and Bengal gram are added. Tamarind and salt are the tastemakers here.

grinding indian food
Making a paste out of the ingredients using Oralu kallu, Photo: Mahima Gopal

The mixture results into a thick paste to which cooked rice is added. Usually all rice cuisines are mixed in utensils. But the specialty of this cuisine is that it’s mixed in the very grinding stone used to make the paste. “When you make a paste, most of it usually sticks to the grinding stone. Hence this method was adopted to avoid wasting the leftover paste on the stone. This way, the rice is even more tasty as it collects the flavour of every ingredient added,” she reckons.

"We add Oggarane or tempering of dried chillies, mustard seeds, cumin seeds and asafoetida shallow fried in hot oil or ghee to make it more flavorful. When mixed well, multiple flavours converge which makes it unique” she explained.

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Thoughts Behind These Indian Cuisines Are Equally Important

I believe that the thought behind properly making or eating food is equally a heritage that we must preserve. In our busy lives, we tend to miss minor details that makes the food we prepare taste better. We usually are ignorant of best practices or most efficient methods of cooking a meal. If there is a more effective way, why not learn and adapt?

I was astonished many times while talking to these women. So many cuisines that we think were adopted from other cultures already existed in ours for a very long time. The use of science moreover, logic in cooking Indian cuisine constantly amazes me.

However tedious and laborious the process of preparation might have been, being patient to bring great food to the table was the only goal of these women. It always tasted and will continue to taste delicious because of the love and care they pour into making it.

The tradition that my grandmother kept alive must continue to thrive. We must preserve the wisdom that older generations have imparted to us. It’s in my hands to keep it going in my family. What about you?

Mahima Gopal Profile ImageMahima is a business administration graduate currently completing her Masters in International Tourism from the University of Lugano (Switzerland). She is a determined simple dreamer. Belonging to a strong and fascinating culture like India, she is curious about practices of other cultures. She believes that a destination always stands out when it is viewed from a cultural perspective. She's fond of storytelling her travel experiences. Her mantra is "There is always more to learn and explore."



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