Indian cuisines: Heritage, evolution, influences, its killers, preservation and more


Indian cuisines are considered to have the widest variety of foods, colours, spices in the world. How the typical Indian cuisine is evolving?

The world has grown manifold in every arena and so has man’s hunger for more – literally and otherwise. It has seen amazing growth in this century and I intend to drive down this path. I have tried to analyze this evolutionary culinary journey analyzing its pros and cons vis-a-vis Indian Cuisine and where it stands today. This narrative has been written in association with star chefs who have spent decades dishing out magic onto our tables.

Is Indian cuisine a national heritage?

The Indian government is into preservation and conservation of art, craft, culture, books, monuments and more but has anyone wondered why “Indian Cuisine” didn’t make it to that list? What have we done to preserve our culinary heritage and its authenticity? How do we work towards “documenting, preserving and conserving” our authentic cuisines?

For a nation with 1.4 billion people, 28 states, 8 union territories and 718 districts, it would be a herculean task. Indian cuisine that most know is the populist one, but this massive nation has many hidden local gems in its regional and sectoral cuisines. You travel into the interiors of any region in India and you will find a delicacy that was unheard of. The fact is we haven’t even documented the known ones in an organized way; leave alone the lesser-known or the unknown ones!!!! Imagine the wealth of culinary knowledge and heritage around us, waiting to be captured.

Evolution of Cuisines

Evolution is inheritance &improvement over the past and present. It is simplifying the processes &about cost reduction. It is passing the good to the next generation. However, when it came to cuisines, convenience and cost-effectiveness took the better of the authenticity thereby marginalizing the “cuisine” to just “food”.

Food is the basic necessity of life and basis of survival, but cuisine in its broader sense is something that binds together geography of the region, population dynamics, weather conditions and availability.

~ Harkirat Uberoi, Chef

Chef Harkirat Uberoi says “Food is the basic necessity of life and basis of survival, but cuisine in its broader sense is something that binds together geography of the region, population dynamics, weather conditions and availability. It also incorporates religious beliefs from scriptures and history along with the caste system, where who and why were allowed to touch or cook food (especially in the Indian context). So the social weave of the community also played a major role which was a cultural influence on the cuisine.

Coming to globalization in the last 30-40 years, and cuisine having to travel far and wide, a lot of changes were made keeping the convenience of availability of material, men, methods and money in mind more than authentic recipes and processes. Local tastes and fusion took over drastically to create food that only sounded authentic but had the least similarity to the original. Historical invasions and their aftermath had its share of contributions like the Moghul or Portuguese or British influences.”

Chef Nisar Ahmed says “With the advancement in experimentation on food, slowly the age-old original recipes got a lot of changes in their character and composition. Once we start playing with the ingredients, it sometimes results in a different preparation altogether. As chefs, we too see the necessity so start inventing, but while doing so we should ensure that actual character of the dish should not get jeopardized.”

The new avatars of conventional eat-outs

Chef Sunil Srivastava says “There are certain places where it’s difficult to find good eateries like we use to have during our college days, Bun Butter, Dosa, Lassi Wala, Chole Kulche, Tandoori, most of these things are taken by huge Fusion Food chains, Fast food Chains, etc. These guys have outpriced the older models of Paratha Gali, Chaat Houses. Those “Dhabas” have gone and have been taken over by modern days “Bistros” and drive in Restaurants”, “Chai Ki Dukaan” has become “Coffee Baristas”.”

Artists in uniform and the experts

In the past, we had “Bawarchis”, “Halwais” and “Khansamas” as cooks with skills but they remained in the backend; today we have “Chefs” with exemplary skills and are the face of the eatery. “Restaurants” became “Quick Service Restaurants” and “Coffee Shops” and “Cooking” which was an art, became – just a “Job”.“Gourmet & Epicure” have given way to “Foodies & Food Experts” and the “Connoisseurs” are at the risk of moving into the “endangered species” list.

Changing eating habits

Chef Harkirat Opines “IT boom and Millennials who with their fat salary packages were able to eat out not because they could not afford, but because they were “DINK – Double Income, No Kids”. Ordering out became a norm for them after work. The new-gen and experts in social media gave “food for thought” and saw an opportunity. The new genre of “Bloggers” and “Vloggers” have taken over thanks to the digital revolution, leaving the masses spoilt for the choices and authenticity in reviews.”

Chef Sunil says “Common thing in the US with desi parents is no they don’t eat Indian outside, we go to TEX-MEX taco place or Sushi. Check the traditional Indian Cuisine places Pani Poori with Avocado, Tuna kulcha, Caper Raita, Asparagus Kofta, Tom yum Soup with idly, Avocado Spring Roll, Samosa with Chilly Chicken.”

Between food and aesthetic, modern-looking bars, restaurants are pretty attractive to our people who think of themselves as trendy. To some extent Modernisation is good, Fusion is good, trendy look of the restaurant is good. But it shouldn’t be at the cost of changing the authenticity like making Idly Florentine, Butter Chicken Pie, Palak Paneer lasagne, Fried Sushi, Vegetarian Sushi, Chicken Tikka Taco – these are cuisine killers.

Ever-evolving diverse culinary exercise is good and experimentation is something that should be a continuous process. But it should not be at the cost of killing a cuisine or creating confusion which can be really annoying and intimidating. Creativity is required in every field and we need that too; however, it should be sanctity and should come with sanity.

Fusion food is good if it’s handled well.

~ Amit Wadhwan

Confusion over Fusion

Chef Amit Wadhawan says “Fusion is good if it’s handled well.“ It has to be a perfect blend of authentic cuisine with a tinge of creativeness that adds appeal to the dishes without maligning the originality of the recipe. There are many chefs who are doing a fabulous job in this arena, but fusion cuisine won’t last long as masses have understood and are falling back to authentic cuisines.

As man travels far and wide, he gains exposure and culinary wisdom to differentiate between what’s authentic and what’s not. Understanding and using this knowledge is the key to his personal growth as an individual and creating a gourmet culture. A seasoned traveller will know what a “Kashmiri Rogan Josh” is when he is in Kashmir and he will also know what to expect when is not in Kashmir. The key lies in Chef’s sending out the right feelers and the customers having the right expectations”.

Authentic cuisine

Indian Cuisine, known for its versatility is based on fresh ingredients, hand Pounded spices in “Hamam Dasta”,  Fresh ground masala on “Sil Batta”; yes it was laborious but flavours that will linger in your mouth and the present scenario is Refined Spices blend in Packets Absolutely no flavours, use of mixers to grind takes way the flavours and aromas, which our cuisine is known for. Our Cuisine is more Philosophical than just mere recipes( Chef Marco Pierre White words). No one can use Spices the way we do and if people are shy in using spices, and create bland Indian Food, then they are not doing justice to it, it’s again killing the cuisine”.

The dishes which have created their own identity for ages and are favourite to everyone irrespective of their geographical consideration and should be left untouched. It does not mean we should be averse to new experimentation but not at the cost of originality of dishes by combining contrasting culinary traditions.

The effect of Modernization

Culinary influences are like a harmonious melange of spices, flavours, colours, taste and more. You mix it right and you get a delicacy and you mix it wrong and the outcome is a disaster

Laal Maans, for one, was created in desserts of Rann with Mathania chillies, but what happened to it was Kashmiri Mirch powder came into the play, then food colour was introduced and later a ready-made Mutton curry was just cooked and made to look like Laal Maans with nothing original about it.

Momos which are claimed to have come from Tibet with the refugees and were a healthy and belly-filling option for labour class were steamed dumplings served with a soup.

Momos which are claimed to have come from Tibet with the refugees and were a healthy and belly-filling option for labour class were steamed dumplings served with a soup. What actually happens now is Momos in sauce on sizzlers; Tandoori Momos draped in layers of marination; deep-fried Momos in greasy much-used oil has killed the very essence of this delicious and simple food item.

The famed Kadhai cooking from Lahore – the hub of north cuisine which used to be a simple delicious Mutton cooked in Kadhais on order while businessmen and traders sat and talked about the days business and strategy for the next day, is now a readymade gravy item with onion, tomato, capsicum, chillies and ginger thrown in and served in under 10 minutes at your table.

Killing of cuisines

Chef Harkirat says “Worst was to follow with the QSR model, which works on low staff and engage in third party basic materials to convert some ingredient as a line production to call it FOOD!! The dastardly act of disrobing the original recipe to dish out a genetically engineered disaster in the name of convenience and speed is Killing the cuisines.

Eggless Mayo, is one that has become a household name and is used in almost everything in fast food and express food formats, but If someone is to ever compare the real Mayo taste with this Fabricated Mayo and they may puke, but it’s become a way of life now.

Ready to Heat gravies, another way to martyr genuine cuisine where Frozen meats are incorporated and small cloud kitchens can dole out menu featuring 250-300 items listed. They all almost taste the same except that they are looking different due to the use of food colouring.

The basic onion gravy with tomato purée or ketchup or cream or butter or magaz paste and sometimes spinach purée defines the entire gamut of Indian cuisine in such outlets where the food is ordered through an App, delivered to you in 45 minutes and you never know who or where it’s being cooked and your review only goes to the App, to arm-twist the vendor for penalties but little is done beyond that to improve the food or create authentic as they may be listed on the menu.

Food and nomenclature have not yet gotten into the gamut of following the recipe fully and so deviations happen.

Food and nomenclature have not yet gotten into the gamut of following the recipe fully and so deviations happen, and this is what keeps happening and widening the gap further of authentic from actual.

Tandoori Chicken pieces cooked in a buttery tomato gravy was created as BUTTER CHICKEN, travel about 500 kilometres southwards to MP, Maharashtra, Gujarat etc and you will be laughed at if you expect that here. It’s shredded boiled or roasted chicken juliennes rolled in food colour and cooked in an onion-tomato gravy with some sugar, butter, cream (even ketchup) and of course some more colour to be served to you in almost all restaurants from Dhaba to next door to takeaways to sit into fine dining, even in Mumbai where Punjabi community thrives and also owns eateries.

Dal Makhani has criminally deviated as the real one would be too expensive to sell so pyaz tamatar masala makes a large portion of the final product, where veggies come at Rs 50/kg and dal costs Rs 150/kg so substitute more of the cheaper food in to get the portion size for customers. Biryani used to be created in Deghs and now a mix and match happen in the frying pan in a matter of minutes from the time you order to the moment it is served to you. Woah!!!

There are innumerable dishes that have been massacred at the alters of fly-by-night cooks and Mr Know All Business Men who invest and want a fast turnaround during business hours, making more money per cover in the least time, they are responsible to a great extent.

Culinary tourism

Chef Nisar says “In culinary tourism local produce plays an important role as the food lovers/travellers are always looking for unique experiences and so visit those places famous for their cuisine. Once those regional dishes reach other cities, we as chefs should not alter their composition and leave them untouched to preserve their originality. The cumulative effect will drive culinary tourism to scale up from the current niche segment to span across all budget groups.

India has a wealth of cuisines, religions, geography, eating habits, spices, influences and more which no other country can match, a fact very few understand and realize. India has all the ingredients to be a major hub in culinary tourism, all it requires is a few creative minds to put it together, season it well and present it to the world.

Are you doing enough to safeguard this national treasure?

Heritage is precious and it needs to be preserved. Unfortunately, our world-acclaimed “Indian Cuisine” has not been given the true recognition it deserves. For a nation like India which is so diverse, old and vast, where our sitting on a treasure trove of cuisine is unparalleled.

Preserving this goldmine will require a continuous dedicated effort by States & Union Territories to seek out and put together a culinary library regionally under a national body dedicated to the conservation of Indian Cuisine. This means embarking on a hunt to dig out forgotten, unknown, lesser-known, known cuisines and recipes from its birthplaces. It is possible if the State Tourism boards, Chefs Associations, Institutions, bloggers and vloggers jointly play a big role in making this research a reality, with the Centre playing the Head Chef.

Some chefs, culinary associations and some mavericks with purpose understand this; they are doing their bit towards this cause of “conservation of Indian, regional and local cuisines”. But for a unique nation like India, it requires intense planning, involvement and drives to actually assimilate and document the authentic cuisines of India. We need to create a master blueprint to develop a culinary database and pass on this National Heritage to our future generations.

Will it become a reality someday? Let’s wait and watch.

Also Read: Story of the White Revolution

(Shailesh Nair is an entrepreneur, tourism consultant, foodie, content writer and a YouTuber with tourism channels – Tour with Shailesh and Travel Influencer.)

This article has been co-authored by star chefs who have won many accolades in their careers. Here is a quick profile of each of our contributors.

  • Harkirat Uberoi, Celebrity Chef, A hospitality and catering professional with over 3 decades of sweating it out in the kitchens in India, Germany, Italy, Spain and Saudi Arabia, based in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India.
  • Chef Nisar Ahmed, A seasoned chef who has worked at the corporate level for over 3 decades with different multinational organisations across India.
  • Chef Amit Wadhawan, 25 yrs. of experience in India and Europe with Oberoi Hotels, Ista Hotels & Marriot Hotels. He has now embarked on his entrepreneurial journey with Anya Hospitality Solutions from Delhi, India.
  • Chef Sunil Kumar Srivastava, 25 yrs. of experience in India and the USA with ITC Hotels, Ista Hotels & Marriot Hotels. This Celebrity Chef is the owner &promoter at Verandah Restaurant & Wakana Café  in Huston Texas, USA.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.)


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