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The Cuisine of India is characterized by its sophisticated and subtle use of many spices and herbs. Considered by some to be one of the world's most diverse cuisines, each family of this cuisine is characterized by a wide assortment of dishes and cooking techniques. Though a significant portion of Indian food is vegetarian, many traditional Indian dishes also include chicken, goat, lamb, fish, and other meats. Beef is not eaten by most Hindus, while ham and pork are not consumed by Muslims.
Most Indian cuisines are related by similar usage of spices. Often, Indian cooking is distinguished by the use of a larger variety of vegetables than many other well-known cuisines. Within these recognizable similarities, there is an enormous variety of local styles which is expected as Diversity is a defining feature of India's geography, culture, and food. Indian cuisine varies from region to region, reflecting the varied demographics of the ethnically diverse subcontinent.
Generally, Indian cuisine can be split into four categories: North Indian, South Indian, East Indian, and West Indian. Despite this diversity, some unifying threads emerge in the art of Indian cuisine. Varied uses of spices are an integral part of food preparation, and are used to enhance the flavor of a dish and create unique flavors and aromas. Cuisine across India has also been influenced by various cultural groups that entered India throughout history, from regions as diverse as West Asia, Central Asia and Europe.
In the northern and the western part of India, Kashmiri and Mughlai cuisines show strong central Asian influences. Through the medium of Mughlai food, this influence has propagated into many regional kitchens. To the east, the Bengali and Assamese styles shade off into the cuisines of East Asia.
Food is an important part of Indian culture, playing a role in everyday life as well as in festivals. In many families, everyday meals are usually sit-down affairs consisting of two to three main course dishes, varied accompaniments such as chutneys and pickles, carbohydrate staples such as rice and roti (bread), as well as desserts.
The staples of Indian cuisine are rice, atta (whole wheat flour), and a variety of pulses, the most important of which are masoor (most often red lentil), chana (bengal gram), toor (pigeon pea or yellow gram), urad (black gram) and mung (green gram). Pulses may be used whole, dehusked, for example dhuli moong or dhuli urad, or split. Pulses are used extensively in the form of dal (split). Some of the pulses like chana and "Mung" are also processed into flour (besan).
Most Indian curries are fried in vegetable oil. In North and West India, groundnut oil is traditionally been most popular for frying, while in Eastern India, Mustard oil is more commonly used. In South India, coconut oil and Gingelly Oil is common. In recent decades, sunflower oil and soybean oil have gained popularity all over India. Hydrogenated vegetable oil, known as Vanaspati ghee, is also a popular cooking medium that replaces Desi ghee (clarified butter).
All coastal kitchens make strong use of fish and coconuts. The desert cuisines of Rajasthan and Gujarat (Indian States) use an immense variety of dals (pulses) and achars (pickles) to substitute for the relative lack of fresh vegetables. The use of tamarind to impart sourness distinguishes Tamil food. The Andhra kitchen is accused, sometimes unfairly, of using excessive amounts of chilies.
The most important/frequently used spices in Indian cuisine are chilli pepper, black mustard seed (rai), cumin (jeera), turmeric (haldi), fenugreek (methi), asafoetida (hing), ginger (adrak), and garlic (lassan). Popular spice mixes are garam masala which is usually a powder of five or more dried spices, commonly comprised of cardamom, cinnamon and clove; and Goda Masala, a popular spice mix in Maharashtra. Some leaves are commonly used like tejpat (cassia leaf), coriander leaf, fenugreek leaf and mint leaf. The common use of curry leaves is typical of all Indian cuisine. In sweet dishes, cardamom, nutmeg, saffron, and rose petal essence are used.
Modern India is going through a period of rapid culinary evolution. With urbanization and the consequent evolution of patterns of living, home-cooked food has become simpler. Old recipes are recalled more often than used. A small number of influential cookbooks have served the purpose of preserving some of this culinary heritage at the cost of homogenising palates. Meanwhile restaurants, increasingly popular, encourage mixing of styles. Tandoori fish, mutton dosas and Jain pizzas are immediately recognizable by many Indians in cities.
The term "curry" is usually understood to mean "gravy" in India, rather than "spices."
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