10 Common Myths about Indian Food and why they’re wrong

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Indian Thali of Jackfruit Biryani, Raita, Salad and Roasted Papad

Have you ever encountered these myths about Indian food? Or have you even thought them yourself?

1. All Indian Food is ‘Curry’.

In India, the word ‘Curry’ simply doesn’t exist. There are theories that the British adapted the Tamil word ‘Kari’ (meaning ‘gravy’) into ‘Curry’ and this is how the word gained popular usage. However, ‘Kari’ refers to a specific type of dish rather than being an umbrella word, unlike ‘curry’.

So now that we’ve established that, let’s think about the definition. A curry usually means a dish that has a thick gravy (sauce) and some kind of protein or vegetables. These dishes do exist in India, but they have their own distinct names rather than the blanket term ‘curry’. And they certainly aren’t the only dishes in India.

India has 22 recognised scheduled languages, around 500 regional languages, and up to 20,000 dialects and variations of those languages. Generally you can split Indian main dishes into two categories – those with gravy and those without. Each language has their own terminology to distinguish these dishes. For example, in Marathi, Bhaji is a dry dish, and Rassa is one with gravy. In Urdu, Salan is a gravy dish. In Hindi, Sabji is a dry dish, and in Gujarati it’s called Shaak.

However, Indian food is far from just main dishes. It also includes snacks – ranging from crispy fried items to fermented and steamed items like Idli; Chaat – a snack item topped with a range of different sauces; Desserts – from rice puddings to doughnuts, sweet breads and much more; Breads – flatbreads, fried breads and baked breads, all made from different grains; Rice dishes – from steamed rice to layered rice and one-pot rice, mildly spiced to highly spiced, with 1000s of different varieties of rice; plus Soups, Noodles, Salads and much much more.

In short, India is simply far too big for one word (or even twenty!) to accurately describe the range of food available. Each Indian state, city, and family has many different dishes and variations on those dishes. Many people feel that using the word ‘Curry’ is a disservice to Indian cuisine, and many others are fine with it.

2. All Indian Food is Rich, Oily and Unhealthy.

Is Indian Food unhealthy, fattening and rich? Well, it depends.

As with any other cuisine, Indian food is neither healthy nor unhealthy – it totally depends on what you eat and how you eat it. If you are used to eating an Indian takeaway which is swimming in oil with all the sides of Naan, Rice, Onion Bhajis etc – then it may be called an ‘unhealthy’ meal. Likewise the same can be said if you have 20 pakora in one sitting (I’m guilty as charged!)

Conversely, the food which Indian people eat at home is a balanced affair. It includes plenty of vegetable dishes, lentils and pulses, protein, bread and/or rice, pickles, salad, and sometimes a crispy starter like papad or pakora. This meal is called a Thali – and it’s designed to not only fulfil all the flavour profiles (spicy, sweet, sour, and salty) but also to be incredibly nutritious.

Most families in India won’t overload on oil when cooking and will use a selection of either ghee, coconut oil, groundnut oil, vegetable oil, mustard oil, rapeseed oil or sesame oil depending on the dish in question. Indian cuisine also regularly uses more varied grains like amaranth, sorghum, pearl millet, finger millet, barley, and cornmeal to make bread as opposed to using ordinary white flour. All of this variation contributes towards a more balanced diet.

Overall, moderation is key. Fried foods, sweets, and oily foods exist in every cuisine and it’s okay to indulge every once in awhile! If you want to eat healthily but enjoy Indian food, look beyond restaurant classics, fried foods and creamy dishes and you will find a wealth of amazingly healthy wholefoods. Many Indian dishes are light as opposed to stodgy. Consult with a nutritionist who understands your needs and eat what is ‘healthy’ for you – it varies for everyone.

3. All Indian Food is too Spicy.

Is Indian Food Spicy? Well yes – some of it. Once again, sweeping statements like this erase the fact that India is a huge country with thousands of dishes and huge variations of cuisine across states.

Generally speaking, food from the North-Western states will be less spicy, and the further South you go the food will get more fiery. However, even this varies between regions within those states, the climate, and personal preferences. What is true for all Indian food is that it is full of flavour, not just heat.

There is a common misconception that you can’t taste the main ingredients in Indian food (whether meat, vegetables or cheese) – just spices. I’m here to tell you now that it is simply not true. If this is ever the case, it’s due to inexperience when handling of spices. Correctly cooked, Indian food is a balanced affair in which the spices compliment and enrich the main ingredient, rather than overpowering it. Did you know that some Indian dishes have no spices?

Although most Indian food does usually use ample spices, it’s also important to recognise the fact that spices don’t make something ‘hot’. Some Indian dishes can have as few as 2 spices, while many others are built on layers of many spices – but there are only a few of these which contribute heat: Chilli Powder, Peppercorns, Mustard, Ginger and Cinnamon are the main culprits and all of these can be adjusted to personal taste without compromising too much on flavour.

Some mild and yet flavoursome recipes to check out are; Sabudana Khichdi, Palak Paneer, and Patta Gobi Sabji. You can also take any of my recipes and substitute the Chilli Powder for Kashmiri Chilli Powder (a milder variety) or simply use less.

4. Authentic Indian Food is the same as Indian Takeaways in the West (BIR).

Many people – especially British people – associate Indian food with Indian takeaways or restaurants. In reality the food served in the vast majority of these places is a far cry from what is known as ‘authentic’ Indian food. Both are completely separate styles of cooking and have their followers. The confusion between these two completely different genres of cooking is where a lot of the myths about Indian food on this list come from.

The dishes that you will find in takeaways and restaurants have their roots in authentic Indian food. However, these traditional recipes have been adapted to make it possible to fulfil a large amount of orders quickly. Additionally, many of the dishes have been changed to suit the Western palette, and some of them are actually non-existent in India!

Vindaloo, Dopyaza, Korma and Kadai are examples of common takeaway dishes which exist in India – but in a very different avatar. Dishes like Tikka Masala are modern day inventions by chefs in the UK, rather than traditional Indian food.

The main difference that you will find between the two styles is that Indian takeaways and restaurants more often than not will use a common ‘base sauce/gravy’ of pureed vegetables – in all of their dishes for speed of service. This gives body and thickness to the sauce, but can make all the dishes have very similar flavours and textures. When people complain about the texture of Indian food, they are most likely referring to this ‘base gravy’ which is actually not used in authentic style cooking. Authentic Indian food uses a separate set of ingredients for each recipe and no common base.

Even if you are a fan of this style, I advise everyone to explore beyond their local takeaway and experience the true joys of traditional Indian food. The dishes represented there are not even 0.01% of the culinary delights that India has to offer.

5. All Indian Food looks the same.

Unfortunately many people associate Indian food with the fluorescent red colour which is prevalent in Indian takeaways. This colour is achieved by food colouring and is totally unnecessary (and most often than not, undesirable) for the home cook.

Indian food is so varied – and that extends to the colours too. Dishes can vary in colour from White, Yellow, Orange, Red, Brown, Green or Rainbow depending on the gorgeous fresh ingredients and spices which are used.

Dishes which use ample amounts of Red Chilli Powder will be a vivid red, whereas using additional creamy ingredients will result in an end colour of orange. Those dishes which are rich with either turmeric or saffron will be stained yellow. A long caramelisation of onions and spices will deepen a dish to a rich dark brown, and the use of nuts, poppy seeds and black pepper will keep a gravy white. Pureed vegetables like spinach will result in a beautiful and vibrant green colour. Mixed vegetables will result in a beautiful rainbow plate.

Additionally, the use of the same ‘base gravy’ in British Indian Restaurant (BIR) style dishes that you find in takeaways can further the misconception that all Indian food looks the same. In reality, authentic Indian food comes in not just a variety of colours but also textures – thin, thick, dry, smooth, coarse, creamy, full of greens – there’s so much diversity! That’s not to mention all the various other dishes which are not ‘curries’.

6. Indian Food uses ‘Curry Powder’.

Authentic Indian food does not use curry powder. However, British Indian food – dishes which were popular in the 60s and 70s – uses a lot of ‘curry powder’. Some of these dishes are still popular in Britain today.

Curry Powder was introduced to the UK by British Soldiers returning home from the British occupation of India. They adapted the spices which were commonly used in Indian food and marketed it as a quick way to make what they called ‘curry’. Just as the word ‘curry’ is a massive oversimplification of Indian food, so is ‘curry powder’.

In India, there is no such thing as ‘curry powder’. There are many spice mixes across the continent which are used for various different dishes. Garam Masala is the most popular of these blends and is used in very small quantities near the end of cooking. Kashmiri Basaar along with Bengali Panch Poran and Maharashtra Goda Masala or Kala Masala are more examples of blends which are specific to their own regions. These can be added to any meal for a little extra oomph. The difference between these and ‘curry powder’ is that they are rarely singularly added to a dish. Indian food is built on many layers and unique spices are still added to every single dish along with the spice mix.

As well as the aforementioned spices, there are also mixes which are made for a specific dish. Examples of these include Sambar Powder, Chana Masala, Chaat Masala, Pav Bhaji Masala and Rasam Powder, along with many more. The first word will indicate the dish that it is used in.

Each family in India will have their own unique recipe for these spice blends and they are generally ground fresh when required, or if used daily made in bulk and stored for the year.

Please don’t use Curry Powder when cooking Indian food. Reducing Indian food to a generic blend of spices and saying it’s all that’s required to make a curry can be insulting to a whole food culture. I appreciate that it can be hard to build up a good larder of spices – but it’s worth it. Many Indian dishes only require a few basic spices, which cost less than £1 each.

7. Indian Desserts are sickly and too sweet.

Although not many people associate Indian cuisine with desserts, each area of India has a rich history and variety of many different dessert recipes. Desserts are used in Thalis, given as Prashad (offerings) to Deities, and eaten aplenty during festive periods.

Many people unfairly judge Indian desserts on one they may have tried at a restaurant or eaten at a sweet shop. It’s true that shop-bought sweets and desserts are often far too sweet. But the amazing thing is that so many Indian desserts are incredibly easy to make at home, and when you cook them yourself you can control and adjust the sweetness to your own taste.

Why not try some of the easy desserts featured on my blog? You can follow the recipe and adjust the sugar to your own taste. Try Rasgulla, Til Chikki, Mango Shrikhand, Moong Dal Halwa, Sevai Kheer or Gulab Jamun to begin.

8. Indian Food is hard to cook at home.

One of the reasons I started this recipe website is to show people that Indian food is not hard to make at home. I know it can seem intimidating – especially to those who didn’t grow up in the food culture or had the added experience of watching the food being cooked on a daily basis. But I’m here as living proof that with practice and passion you can easily learn how to cook Indian food.

The large amount of ingredients and spices can also seem daunting to beginners. But don’t worry – you just need to know when to add the different types of spices. I have several articles designed to teach you the basics; 16 Essential Spices for Indian Cooking and A Comprehensive Guide to Whole Spices: Seeds. Both of these articles go into depth about the flavour profile and uses of spices, but also tell you when to add them to a dish.

Another really common misconception that I frequently see is that authentic, traditional Indian food takes hours to cook. This is simply not true. In reality, it depends on the dish. There are several dishes which traditionally take hours of slow cooking to make – think Dal Makhani or Kheer – but in this modern age most of those recipes have been adapted to become quicker. And there are some dishes which can take as little as 10 minutes to make!

As a beginner I recommend that you start with some easy under-20 minute recipes to get used to the methods and techniques involved. Once you feel confident with those dishes, you can slowly build up from there. It will be much easier than you expect, don’t worry! Try Aloo Palak, or Baingan Bharta.

Cooking any new cuisine is a learning experience, but with the right tips, the right ingredients, and a good mentor, you can learn the basis in no time.

You don’t need any special equipment to make most Indian dishes, either. I’ve written an article on Indian Cookware that covers everything from everyday items to specialist ones – but if you’re a beginner, on a tight budget or simply don’t want to invest quite yet, you can make delicious meals with whatever you have at home, such as a simple non-stick pan or a wok.

Finally, there is nothing better for boosting your confidence than a friendly community of people who are also on their cooking journey. There are lots of groups available to join for free to help you with cooking Indian food, including my favourite – The Curry Club (Home Cooking).

9. Indian Food is eaten with Naan or Basmati Rice.

Did you know that both Naan and Basmati Rice are generally only eaten on special occasions, at restaurants or with particular meals?

Naan is probably the most well known and beloved Indian bread outside of India. Even I love Naan! But this is not what Indian people eat on a daily basis and usually Naan is only eaten outside the house as it requires a tandoor. I have developed an easy recipe to cook it on your stovetop so we indulge regularly, but we also eat a variety of other breads.

There are hundreds of bread varieties across India. Flatbreads like Roti/Chapati and Paratha are often eaten daily and can be flavoured with different vegetables and spices, rolled flat or in layers, and even stuffed. Mixed Grains and seeds can be combined into Thalipeeth and Thepla. Gluten Free flours like Cornflour, Maize, Amaranth, Finger Millet, and many more are also made into flatbreads, especially in Rural areas.

Further, lentils and rice can be ground and used as a batter to make thin ‘crepes’ like Dosa, Appam, and Cheela/Pudla. Some breads are baked over coals, like Bati or Litti, while others like Naan, Kulcha and Tandoori Roti are made in Tandoor ovens. Deep fried breads like Puri and Bhatura puff up wonderfully and are a must for festivals.

Basmati Rice is eaten with Pulao, Biryani or Kheer. For daily meals, less ‘heavy’ and cheaper varieties are preferred which vary greatly by region. In-fact, there are over 6000 different varieties of rice cultivated in the country, each of which are eaten with specific meals or by a specific regional group.

In my partners home they eat ‘Kali Mooch’ steamed as a side dish for their meals. Here in the UK we eat either Sona Masoori or Ambe Mohar due to availability. Why not try something other than Basmati for a change?

You could even consider eating whole grains like barley, quinoa or bulgur wheat as an alternative to rice.

10. Indian food is Meat Based. OR, Indian food is all Vegetarian.

As confusing as this may sound, both myths do exist in tandem, and yet both are wrong!

In the West, meat-based Indian dishes tend to be more popular as compared to the vegetarian dishes, which are often relegated as side dishes and not given much importance. In India, the opposite is true – in fact the vast majority of traditional dishes are vegetarian, if not vegan. As a matter of fact, 30-40% of Indians are vegetarian and the remaining 60% of the population eat meat infrequently, which results in a cuisine rich in choices for vegetarians.

Whether you want to travel in India, eat Indian food or learn to cook Indian food, you’ll find there’s something for everyone. There will be no shortage of Omnivore, Vegetarian, Vegan and even Gluten Free foods for you to try, although availability of these will vary depending on the area that you’re in.

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