Aromas of Indian Cuisine: The Heart of Indian Cooking

Aromas of Indian Cuisine: The Heart of Indian Cooking

The Indian Institute of Technology, Jodhpur recently analysed almost a thousand recipes by popular online Chef Tarla Dalal. They broke each dish down by its individual ingredient and analysed how often ingredients overlapped flavour profiles. Interestingly, most of the ingredients in a dish didn’t overlap and they came to a conclusion that if two ingredient’s flavour profiles didn’t overlap, they are less likely to appear in a dish. Such is the uniqueness of Indian cooking. It does necessarily require pairing of ingredients as in most cuisines. Even if two opposing flavour profiles are added to a dish/against each other, they come together beautifully creating the most wonderful aroma and taste.

CSP was in conversation about the aromas of Indian cuisine with two eminent chefs: Chef Thirugnanasambantham, or as we call him Chef Thiru, and Chef Toine Hoeksel. Chef Thiru is the principal of the Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration, Manipal University. Chef Toine is the Culinary Director, Asia Pacific at the Marriott International who absolutely enjoys Indian food, particularly Dosa. In an interview with Chef Toine, he remarked at the different styles of Indian cooking that require quite a bit of preparation and specific equipment.

“The quintessential characteristic of Indian cuisine is the use of a variety of spices and according to the dietary theory, each meal is supposed to be a blend of 5 tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, which combine in numerous ways that feature remarkably in our food repertoire,” said Chef Thiru.
Fresh whole spices contribute largely to the aroma of any dish especially after roasting or frying in oil and aroma is intertwined with taste and flavour. Whole spices such as fenugreek seeds, coriander seeds, carom seeds, cumin seeds, and mustard seeds impart maximum flavour to the dish. Curry leaves, bay leaf, coriander leaves, and many more, along with turmeric and asafoetida provide a unique fragrance to the food contributing majorly to the taste of the dish as well.

Every country has different spice mixes that provide uniqueness to their food like the Indian garam masala used in various curries and stews, or the Chinese 5-spice powder paired with fatty meats such as duck, pork and stews. Other examples of spice blends around the world include Herbs de Provence from the south-eastern region of France, used extensively in Mediterranean and French cuisine; Baharat and zaatar spice mixes widely used in Levantine cuisine; Jamaican Jerk spice used to marinate meats before cooking; Cajun seasoning from the United states and the South American chimichurri. The list is endless as there are infinite possibilities of pairing these spices that contribute majorly to the aroma of any dish.
Indian spices are used across the world. Some indigenous aromas are quite popular among non-Indians and many try to reproduce it in their culinary traditions. According to Chef Toine, Cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, turmeric, and cumin are some of the most frequently used spices in his culture.
Chef Thiru, having worked extensively with many international culinary experts said, “Be it the milky, spice-infused aroma of the masala tea or the exquisite fragrance of the mélange of spices that go into Indian curries, they never fail to bring about a sense of nostalgia for anyone who has ever been to India and has tasted Indian food,”.

The charcoal steeped aroma of tandoori chicken or the same when mixed with the richness of butter in butter chicken; the smell of freshly ground coconut, curry leaves, and mustard seeds or the scent of a fresh crispy Dosa cooked in ghee; the robust flavour of ingredients and spices invokes a sense of happiness and comfort that people relate with Indian food. It’s individualised and depends on the food and aromas that people generally associate with India based on their past experiences. So, it can be the smell of a humble dal tadka or the elaborate aroma of biryani.

Ancient texts on Indian cuisine such as Bhojanakutahalam, Kshemaktuhalam, and Pakadarpana give an account of traditional food science and technology as developed by our ancestors. They also bring to light the importance of using the right cookware for specific dishes. Indians have used cookware made of clay, iron, copper, bronze, and wood for centuries. They impart various medicinal properties and also contribute to the aroma of the food cooked in it.

Chef Thiru brought to light the different cookware used in cooking along with the dishes cooked in it. “The earthenware utensils used by our ancestors not only contribute to the taste of the food, but also provide nutritive benefits and impart an earthy and rustic aroma to the dish. In urban households, paucity of time and maintenance of such vessels has led to the excessive use of cookware made of aluminium and steel over the traditional clay and stone utensils,” he said.

The porous nature of earthenware and its ability to absorb moisture lets the heat circulate evenly through the food and slow cooking makes the food aromatic. Clay is alkaline in nature due to which it interacts with the various acids in the food and balances the pH which then contributes to the aroma. Apart from this, the freshness and aroma of the spices kept in brass jars cannot be sustained in plastic containers.

Famous Bengali dessert, mishti doi is set and served in earthenware, giving it a perfect combination of caramelised and nutty aroma. Indian breads are made on clay tawas which give them their characteristic toasty smell; kalchattis made of soapstone are used to make aromatic rasam and sambhar; and brass and copper degs and handis for making biryanis, curries and stews. Mortar pestles made of stone ensure that the aroma of spices and herbs is retained as it does not heat up like electric mixer grinders.

Chef Toine added, “Yes, different cookware used would ensure/give a different preparation method that either increases or decreases the aroma to stay longer or more contained. Clay braising pots are used for braised poultry dishes for example with red wine and root vegetables, typically closed cooking methods such as braising or slow cooking keep aromas longer”.

When we speak of aromas, they not only entice the taste buds but they also have an effect on the mind. For Chef Toine, aromas have always had an impact on the mind when it comes to food. Memories rush back when the aroma of a dish that your mother made fills the air. “The smell of freshly baked bread or cinnamon rolls in the morning or even the aroma of freshly brewed coffee entices us,” he said.
According to Chef Thiru, flavour is first detected through aromas received in the olfactory cells of the nasal passage. The majority of flavour, approximately 80%, is actually experienced through smell, and this ability to smell aromas is more important than tasting food on our tongue.

There is a direct link between aroma and taste because the nose and mouth share the same olfactory passage. Aromas play a key role in food perception before we actually taste it. Most of what we experience while eating comes from the sense of smell and there is an intricate association between flavour and aroma. This is extremely useful while pairing wine and food. For certain foods, it brings out memories and creates a sense of nostalgia, whereas for other foods, these olfactory receptors form a perception about the forthcoming meal by sending signals to the brain.

Our palate can only construe sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami elements, whereas we sense over a trillion different aromas through smell and together, they help perceive flavours such as spiciness and creaminess. The unique flavours of foods and spices are lost without the ability to smell, according to Chef Thiru.

Many Indian dishes including dhungar maans are flavoured by pouring clarified butter on burning coal, along with whole spices and closing the utensil. This lets the dish breathe in the smoky aroma from the coal, giving it a distinct flavour. Artificially flavoured jellies, soft drinks and candies use the same base, but create a huge variety of flavours just by using different fragrances and essences.

Seasonal changes bring forth cravings for specific dishes. One can guess the season with just the aroma brewing in the air. Certain aromas are more preferred by people during particular seasons.
“We look for foods that provide us refreshment and cooling during summers and immediately start formulating refreshing aromas like those of lemon, mint, watermelon, etc., whereas the smell of freshly brewed coffee or tea and fried snacks appeals more to customers during rainy seasons. During winters, the warm smell of cinnamon or pumpkin spice appeals more than aromas of summer foods,” commented Chef Thiru.

The fragrances of different fruits also bring about nostalgia and we immediately connect that fruit with a particular season (like mango means summer). “It is a natural instinct as people look for comfort in food and immediately connect these specific aromas to different times on the calendar,” said Chef Thiru.
The general aroma perceptions change with seasons for everyone but apart from that, each individual has his own relationship and memory with different fragrances and connects it to a particular season which might not be the same for others.

Indian cuisine is one of the most loved among people across the globe. A bowl of the humble Dal Chawal (rice and yellow lentils) can make anyone feel at home in an instant. Every Indian kitchen, every street, every dhaba, and every restaurant has its unique aroma and it is hard to ignore and turn away from it. Indian food has the right level of heat, the perfect spice blend, an extra helping of sweetness, and a heapful of love.