One of my favourite things about Indian food is its diversity. There are around 30 regional cuisines in India, each with a history up to 5,000 years old. The food eaten in different parts of India is shaped by geography and climate: providing a varying array of ingredients for people to eat at different times of the year; and history: of trade and migration, evidence of the many cultures and peoples who brought new foods to India which have since been incorporated into local cuisines (like chillies for example, now ubiquitous in Indian cooking but only introduced to India by the Portuguese in the 1500’s).
In the cities and urban centres of India, people have come together to combine individual food influences into new ones. The coastal seafood eaters have mixed with those from meat eating backgrounds, plant-based eaters, rice eaters and lentil eaters. They have introduced their food into a wide, rich mix. In my own family, we are a mix of Goan, Gujerati and Parsi, and our food traditions reflect this rich culinary heritage in our unique combinations of spices and ingredients - Gujerati dal often shares the table with a hot Goan fish curry in our house.
In 2015, researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology conducted a study of over 2,500 Indian recipes containing nearly 200 discrete ingredients, to find out what it is that makes our food so rich, so distinct. They concluded that when Indians cooked, they combined flavours that tended not to overlap or obviously pair with each other, like in other and mostly western cuisines. When they looked at the flavour profiles of various ingredients at the molecular level, they found that the more the flavour profiles matched, the less likely they were to be used together in a recipe.
I find this easy to believe: the average Indian recipe has numerous ingredients, my spice blends alone have up to 20, and a weeknight curry easily reaches double figures. So many spices, herbs, ginger, garlic, chilli, onions, tomatoes, vegetables… your average Indian meal is a magical explosion of contrasting flavours and foods.
Taste sensation aside, the diversity in Indian food serves as another confirmation of the enduring value of a “culinary system (with) a long history of health-centric dietary practices focused on disease prevention and promotion of health”
Diversity of diet was one of the key messages from the Food as Medicine course I recently completed, run by Monash University. Eat lots of natural, minimally or unprocessed whole foods, aim for around 20 different foods a day. And as scientists are learning more about the impact of different foods on our health and wellbeing, this advice is only becoming stronger. The best way get the macronutrients, micronutrients and phytonutrients you need is by eating a richly varied, natural, colourful diet. Lots of plants, lots of grains, high quality meat and dairy, nuts, seeds, spices.
I easily eat 20 different foods a day, thanks to my love of cooking and eating Indian food. I try to buy food fresh, in season and whole, and put it together in interesting, unexpected and tasty ways. I think this is the key to a healthy and happy diet.
'Spices form the basis of food pairing in Indian cuisine’, by Anupan Jain, Rakhi NK and Ganesh Bagler, http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1502/1502.03815.pdf