To appreciate this rich and varied cuisine one must understand the philosophy that dictates Indian food. The strongest influence on Indian food is of Ayurveda an ancient body of knowledge on health and life. It covers the whole subject of life in it’s various ramifications. It discusses the purpose of life, the importance of mental as well as physical well being. The aim is salvation-the wellness of the mind, body and soul. Ayurveda understands the properties and actions of various ingredients in terms of their effects on the body and mind and along with yoga it helps us attain the balance we seek in our lives. This understanding of ingredients and different cooking styles culminates in what is one of the most balanced and healthy cuisines available today.
The other notable influence on Indian cuisine was that of the Mughals that ruled northern India for centuries. Emperor Akbar was a connoisseur of fine food and in the era that he ruled northern India different culinary techniques were combined and with their vast knowledge and understanding of spices and ingredients his chefs took Indian food to the heights of gourmet cuisine.
The adjectives used to describe it – princely, sublime, majestic, illustrious – leaves no doubt about its royal status. It is food for kings and queens, courtiers and nobility, and also for modern-day enthusiasts.
With more than 400 cooks in Moghul Emperor Akbar’s kitchen, there was great potential for experimenting to produce perfect blends of marinades and sauces combining meats and fruits. Many different spices were used for their aromatic and pungent attributes as well as for their medicinal qualities. Royal banquets became a focus of entertainment at the Moghul courts.
There were dishes that were aromatically marinated in masalas of ginger and onion, tinged with nutmeg, mace, cloves and cinnamon. Dishes of rich sauces combined a perfect balance of many spices, yoghurt, cream, almonds and pistachios. This created a base to receive morsels of chicken or meat cooked in ghee. Delicious vegetable dishes were flavoured with the nutty essence of poppy seeds and sweetened with honey.
Extravagant Basmati rice dishes – biryanis and pilaus – each rice grain flavourful, garnished with cardamom and strands of saffron with a silky-smooth texture. Mouth watering ice-cold desserts were flavoured with essence of roses, decked with tissue-thin sheets of real gold or silver and decorated with a scattering of rose petals. All were prepared to please the eye as well as the palate.