India is the home to over one billion citizens, 550,000 villages, 18 official languages and dozens of different religions. Its exotic cuisine is just as diverse. Religion in the nation has influenced the khana (Hindi for food) moreso than any other foreign stimulus. While the British were known for starting the commercial cultivation of tea in India, the Hindu and Muslim cultures have shaped the diet of its citizens into what it is today. The vegetarian tradition, which is widespread, is a result of Hindu beliefs, whereas Muslim customs are the basis in the cooking of meats.
As one travels through this eastern country, the variety of its food is as obvious as the diversity in its terrain and climate. In the temperate Northern parts of the country, nestled amongst the Himalayan Mountains, several different schools of cooking are prevalent. Punjabi, Kashmiri, Mughlai, Bengali and others add diversity to the highly Muslim influenced dishes. A typical northern meal would include Kababs, Nargisi Koftas (meatballs) and the ever popular Biryani (a layered meat and rice preparation). Unleavened breads, such as Chapatis, Naan, Rotus and Parathas, are common accompaniments for any Northern Indian feast. An ordinary desert would perhaps be a sweet meat from Bengal such as Rasagulla or Sandesh, Kheer, a rice pudding, or Kulfi, a nut-flavored ice cream.
In the southern plains of India, the Hindu influence is abundant. Karnataka, Andhra, Hyderabadi, Tamil, Chettinad and Kerala are its main styles of cooking and as in the North, are classified according to their state or region. Much of the dishes are vegetarian and are lighter than their Northern counterparts. Prepared by roasting or steaming, rice and lentils are the staples of a southern diet. A typical meal is served on a freshly cut plantain leaf and consists of Sambhar or Rasam (lentil soups) with rice. Dosa (rice pancakes), Idli (steamed rice cakes) and Veda, which is also made from fermented rice, are all popular throughout the country, but are more prevalent in the south. For finishing touches, rice yet again is found as a main ingredient in Mysore Pak and Payasum, close relatives of the North’s rice pudding, Kheer.
Other commonalities found in Indian cuisine include the use of spices. The trademark of an authentic Indian kitchen is its aroma. Curry, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and many other fragrant spices are used not only to flavor main dishes, deserts and the like, but also are utilized for their aromatic value. In addition to their flavorful qualities, spices are combined with Indian food for medicinal purposes. Cumin and ginger are ingested for their digestive qualities, turmeric as an antibiotic, tamarind as an antioxidant and black pepper as an anti-depressant. Paan, the ideal conclusion to any meal whether Indian or not, is a betel leaf rolled with other digestive spices such as aniseed, cloves, arecanut and cardamom.
Although the customs of sitting on the floor while dining or eating with one’s hands are not readily found in the Chicago area, Indian restaurants are bountiful. In order to satisfy the more than 15,000 Indian born Americans living in the area and in order to showcase the abundance of Indian dishes available in the native country, The Windy City brags of at least seventy Indian restaurants. Annapurna Vegetarian Fast Foods, obvious with the Hindu flare and Arya Bhavan, based moreso in northern dishes, are both located on Devon Avenue and are considered authentic by natives living or visiting the city.
Raj Dabar, comfortably situated on Halsted, attempts to deliver the massive variety of dishes to its customers and features forty entrees on their menu. The venue also offers diners the opportunity to sample a multitude of Indian dishes in a buffet format during the weekends for an incredibly reasonable price.