This article is a continuation of my previous post on cuisines around the world which had France, China and Germany in focus. Today we are focusing on the cuisines of India, Indonesia and Italy.
Throughout the centuries India has been subjected to invasions and control by many
nations. The Moguls, who took control in the sixteenth century, made a serious and
somewhat successful effort to unite the country. Mogul rulers married Hindu princesses, art and crafts were encouraged and many dishes such as basmati rice pullao, do piaza and pan-fried kebabs, which were served in the royal palaces, were gradually integrated into the everyday cuisine.
Another nation that had a pronounced effect on Indian food was Portugal, which ruled on the west coast for four centuries. The Portuguese not only introduced their own style of cooking but also introduced the chilli, which they brought back from the New World. Nowadays, chillies feature prominently in Indian cooking, but until the Portuguese arrived, black peppercorns and mustard seeds were the pungent ingredients used.
Before India gained independence, it was ruled by semi-independent kingdoms, some of
which were ruled by Hindu Maharajas and some by Muslim Nawabs. It had major languages as well as hundreds of minor language dialects, and five major faiths. When independence came, government divided the land into states so each area had their own major language and culture. This also applied to food, and each region retained and developed its specialities.
Each state reflects its own religious beliefs and locally grown produce in the food they eat. For example, people in the south are predominantly Hindu and most Hindus are vegetarians.
Eggs, which are considered to be an embryo form of life, are avoided and in some areas,
blood-colour vegetables such as tomatoes and beets are refused. Rice, which grows
abundantly in the humid, well-irrigated fields, is eaten as the staple food and locally grown sesame seeds and coconut are ground for use as cooking oil. Coconuts, which are widely available, are well utilised in southern cooking, their milk is added to sauces, the flesh is chopped or ground for some dishes and the shells are used as containers.
Cooking in the south is done largely by steam and a steaming pot is considered essential
equipment in all kitchens. This technique is not used much in the north, however, where
ingredients are often cooked in a pot sealed with dough and baked slowly over smouldering ashes.
Ghee or clarified butter, which is used in preference to oil, is used for cooking all meat
dishes. Traditionally this was prepared by boiling down large quantities of butter for hours at a time to burn out all impurities. The remaining waxy mass was then strained and could be stored indefinitely without refrigeration. Oil is used to cook vegetables.
Due to the harsh winter climate, much of the produce that is so cheap and plentiful during the summer months is dried and stored for winter.
Three thousand islands seemingly flung like their famed spiceberries across the Equator
over some two thousand miles of sea. Rugged mountains, steaming jungles, peaceful
cultivated terraces of rice, swaying coconut palms, and sun-drenched beaches: the diversity of Indonesia is immediately apparent. Nonetheless, there is a character that is distinctively Indonesian, reflected in its cuisine, its customs and its culture.
The influences that have helped to form the present day Republic of Indonesia are almost as numerous as the ethnic groups that make up its population. The largest group is Malay, although there are thirteen other major groups and many minorities as well.
Arab traders had been purchasing exotic spices and fragrant woods for centuries in
Indonesia before the birth of the Islamic religion in the seventh century. The Arabs probably brought other foreign spices and plants to Indonesia. Perhaps ginger and chilli were originally imported by this means. As a matter of course, Islam was brought to Indonesia on the same winds as the traders. Muslims are forbidden to eat pork and although Indonesians of other faiths can purchase it readily, recipes for other meats are usually more common.
The Chinese have always been a strong contingent in Indonesia. In Chinese cuisine most foods maintain their recognisable taste and quality and this, too, may have influenced the style of Indonesian cooking. With the arrival of European traders from the fifteenth century onwards, Indonesian life underwent another, largely economic change. The vast majority of native Indonesians continued to work the land while the Chinese became the retailers and traders. As European interest in the spice trade and plantation crops, such as sugar and palm oil, became stronger and more competitive, the control of the East Indies, as they were called, became more important.
Rice is the basis of all meals. Rice is to Indonesians what bread and other cereals are to
Europeans. There are even four Indonesian words to denote rice: padi, Ahich is rice on its stalks; gabah, un-hulled rice separated from its stalks; beras, hulled rice; and nasi, cooked rice.
The previous evening’s rice may be served for breakfast topped by a fried egg or an
omelette cut into strips. Or rice may be served with coconut milk (santan) and tropical fruit.
Lunch, which is usually eaten at home, again features rice with meat and vegetables.
Between-meal snacks may be rice cakes or fried bananas. At dinner a platter of rice
occupies the centre of the table and the other side dishes of meat, seafood, poultry, sambals (spicy relishes), vegetables and fresh salads are arranged around it. Dinner is usually finished with fresh fruit (there being an abundant supply in this tropical country).
The influences of India, Arabia and China produce a cuisine which uses as its flavours chilli, curry leaves, lemon grass, turmeric, coriander, cumin, garlic, scallions, coconut milk, tamarind and ginger. Nonetheless, the availability of local ingredients influences the flavor of regional cookery as well. In Java, fresh spices and sugar (grown locally) may be
dominant flavours, whereas in Sumatra, which was a great centre of trade in early times, the original foreign spices of chilli and ginger are more common.
The tropical climate of Indonesia and its rich volcanic soil produce a prolific variety of
vegetables and fruit. Many of these can only be cultivated in the tropics and are, seemingly,
particularly suitable eating in a tropical climate. Fresh lime juice with iced water and sugar is the perfect refreshment on a sultry afternoon!
Seafood, both fresh and dried, is also consumed in great quantities. Inland lakes, rivers and even rice fields are reliable sources of fish as well.
Meat tends to be an expensive item so it is almost always served thinly sliced or cubed.
Street vendors cook cubed meat, poultry or fish as sate – hot and spicy and barbecued on the spot.
Indonesian hospitality is a way of life. On a festive occasion, of which there are many, or if guests are present more food than can be eaten by those partaking of the meal will be
Selamat makan (good eating) is a traditional toast to begin the meal. On similar Europea occasions wine or other kin of alcohol are often consumed. However, alcohol is not
traditional addition to the Indonesian banquet. Not only are many Indonesians prohibited
from consuming it (being Muslim faith) but it is generally too expensive for most Indonesians.
Fruit juices, tea, coffee or just water are more commonly drunk at meal times.
Indonesians have a natural respect for the forces of nature, so that a small offering of food will often be made, to the appropriate deity or supernatural force at a festivity. Sometimes a little rice on a banana leaf may be found by a river, a tree or even a crossroads. Perhaps the Indonesians understand something about the sharing of food.
The food enjoyed by the Romans at the peak of the Roman Empire is legendary. Most of us have a Hollywood vision of exotic slaves bearing platters of whole roast peacocks decked in their former glory, wild boars stuffed with herbs and smaller game, pyramids of succulent fruit and honeyed cakes flavoured with oriental spices. Yet only the privileged were present at such banquets, which drew on all the produce of the Empire. The average Roman citizen ate foods that were available locally and prepared simply.
Many Italians today have a small “kitchen garden” in which they grow a few herbs and
vegetables. This may well be a practice dating back to the days of the Empire. Taverns
selling wine and snack foods such as sausages and olives were common and also within the means of the passers-by.
The Roman army, which had fought to establish the Empire, lived mainly on a diet of
pulmentum, a kind of grain similar to polenta. The Romans inherited pulmentum from the
Etruscans, a people who had inhabited Italy before the Latin’s, the forebears of the Romans.
The Etruscans are a mysterious group but their legacy to the Romans probably included
The Romans were quite scientific about the cultivation of grapes, olives and vegetables and the care of livestock. Some of the best writers of the time wrote treatises on farming. They may have adopted this concept from the Greeks, whose culture the Romans greatly admired, and whose agricultural methods were recorded by Hesiod. The importance of agriculture is evident in Italian cookery today, where excellence and freshness of ingredients, particularly herbs and vegetables, are essential.
The arrival of the Moslem Arabs in the eighth century brought a whole new range of foods to Italy, melons, fig spinach, rice and oranges, to name a few. Four hundred, years later the Crusades re-established contact with the Middle East and Italian cookery was revitalised by Arab spices.
In the sixteenth century Italians felt the impact of the discovery of the New World in much the same way as the European countries. Colourful new foods became available. The Italians received some of these enthusiastically and cultivated them to perfection. The supreme example is the tomato. Only tiny when it was first introduced, it became the plump, juicy, indispensable ingredient of hundreds of Italian dishes.
The Italian cuisine was one of the earliest of the Europe cuisine’s to develop a distinctive
style and flavour. It was this influence that Catherine de Medici, the Italian wife of Henry ll, introduced to France. However, French cooking evolved to become subtle and elaborate whereas Italian cooking remained basically simple and fresh.
Although today there are ingredients and flavours that are used throughout Italy, each region has its own specialities. So great is the number of these specialities that great books could be written simply listing the recipes! Each region also has its own wine industry.
Piedmontese truffles give much of its cookery a distinctive aroma. Truffles only grow wild
and can only be unearthed by an experienced truffle hunter, aided by a specially trained
dog. Piedmont produces a number of fine cheeses so it is not surprising that fonduta, a
cheese fondue, is a regional speciality.
Zuppa pavese, from Lombardy, was said to have been improvised for Francis 1 of France when he was passing through the region. Two other well-known products of Lombardy are panettone, a leavened Christmas cake made with raisins and candied peel, and Gorgonzola cheese, which is not for the fainthearted.
In Veneto, polenta and fish are popular staple foods. Its capital, Venice, developed a highly sophisticated cuisine when it was the centre of the spice trade in Europe.
From Liguria comes the sweetly aromatic sauce known pesto. Pesto is made of fresh basil, garlic Parmesan cheese and olive oil, ground patiently together with a mortar and pestle (or impatiently in a food processor). The city of Parma was the original producer of Parmesan cheese.
The south of Italy, particularly Campania, has some rich agricultural areas. Around Naples, the capital of Campania, are found all the ingredients of one of Italy’s great exports, the pizza. Especially unique to the area is the white buffalo, whose milk becomes mozzarella cheese. Although Naples is credited with the invention of the pizza, Calabria further south, consumes pita that is basically bread, “coloured” with tomatoes, sardines, peppers and herbs.
Featured image source : warosu.org