Thali Set

Anthropology: Food Culture in India and its Different Styles

Food has been an integral part of the life of mankind since ages. Like breathing, drinking and eating, is a basic survival instinct for all animals born on earth. All the history text books point to the time when early man ate animals burnt in fire. Along with man, several things have revolutionized in time, like culture, technology, knowledge, fashion and so on. Food is one important factor among these. Tracing its history of changes from long time before is onerous. This post is only to focus on the food style changes from the recent past.

Traditional Foods: Menu and Making

Food in the beginning, during stone age was non-vegetarian, man used to eat animals cooked on fire. Later, as people got more civilized and gained more knowledge, they stopped killing animals and went on to eat plants and its products, which are regenerative in nature. For multiple reasons, I also feel that being and eating “Vegetarian” food is less harmful and more healthy for both people, and the ecosystem of earth. I personally endorse “Vegetarianism” which is why I have focused this post mainly on the vegetarian dishes from both the horizons. It would be easier to divide the food style in India between the North and the South. The country known for its diversity, food is no exception to it.

North Indian Specials


In north Indian households, breakfast is mainly stuffed parathas / Pooris with accompaniments rich in vegetables. It fills your stomach quickly and keeps you energetic.

This picture shows a traditional breakfast dish of North Indians. It is stuffed parathas, in the picture it is Aloo Gobi Paratha (Potato and cauliflower stuffed paratha).
Aloo Gobi Paratha (Image Credit: Pinterest)
The picture shows blown up Pooris, a popular breakfast choice for North Indians. It is accompanied by a gravy made out of potato or boiled chick peas.
Poori baaji (Image Credit: Pinterest)

Wheat flour is the staple food for North Indians. Main course dishes that are prepared using this are Paratha, Chapathi, Phulka, Poori and so on. The initial procedure for all the dishes is same, in the raw form. That is, a thick dough is prepared using wheat flour, salt, water and oil / ghee. This is cut into equal sized balls that are flattened using rolling pins. If this is stuffed with some vegetables, and cooked on a tawa using minimum oil, it becomes stuffed paratha. If they are roasted with minimum oil on pan directly, it is chapati / Roti, if they are cooked on fire directly on one side, it is Phulka, if they are deep fried in oil, it is Poori. The side dish is curd mixed with vegetables like cucumber / carrot or a gravy made out with boiled chick peas or a simple potato masala.


This shows a typical North Indian Lunch menu / Thali. It consists of Roti, Chawal (Steamed rice), Dry subzi (Aloo bindi / Potato and Ladies finger), Gravy ( Peas Mushroom Curry), Daal (Toor dhal or Moong Dhal gravy), Yogurt, Salad and optionally a sweet (truffles)

Lunch consists of Roti and Chawal (Steamed Rice) as main course. There are minimum two side dishes, one dry and the other in gravy form. There is always Dal to have with rice. Pickle is served at all times when they eat. This is optionally served with sweet (truffles) and pappad. There is always Yogurt / flavored buttermilk. It is usually finished with Salad.

North Indian Thali Menu (Image Credit: MyKitchenTrials)

The dry subzi / curry is prepared by sautéing chopped vegetables in optimum amount of oil. The gravy is usually made by grinding coconut, cashews and few other ingredients depending on the dish and its recipe. Boiled vegetables are then simmered with the gravy for serving. Boiled dal is tempered with cumin seeds (Jeera), ginger and green chilies in ghee. Thus, there is a lot of vegetables included for mid day meal.


This picture typically differentiates the popular north Indian breads. Chapati, Roti, Phulka and Paratha.

Dinner consists of any choice of their breads, accompanied by a simple side dish like Dhal or Curd (Raitha made using yogurt and chopped onion, seasoned with fresh coriander and salt)

North Indian Breads (Image Credit: Tamil CookBook)

South Indian Delicacies


For the most part of South India, breakfast is Dosa, Idli, Pongal or Upma. All of these are based on rice. Soaked rice is ground into nice fine batter which is fermented after adding salt, over night. This batter is laid flat on tawa and roasted in minimum oil to make Dosa. The batter is filled on the plates of a steam cooker to boil it as Idlis. A mixture of rice and moong dhal is boiled together in a cooker and tempered with cashews, ginger, pepper and curry leaves in ghee, to prepare Pongal. Semolina (Rava) or Vermicelli (Semiya) is cooked with onions fried in minimum oil to make Upma.

This image shows some of the common south Indian breakfast options. Dosa, Idli, Pongal with side dishes like coconut chutney, tomato chutney and sambar

The side dish for majority of these tiffin items is a “Chutney”. This is a freshly prepared dip and there are different types. Most popular ones being Coconut chutney and Tomato Chutney.

South Indian Breakfast Tiffin (Image Credit: MaryzKitchen)


The lunch menu consists of rice, their staple food with main course like Sambar (Dal gravy with vegetables) and Rasam (Soupy liquid made using tamarind water and pepper powder). Additionally, boiled dal is kept aside and served to mix in rice along with ghee. The accompaniments are typically a dry vegetable curry, that is cooked and roasted in less oil garnished with coconut scrap and a liquid gravy known as “kootu” – any suitable vegetable boiled with moong dal to which a paste of coconut, jeera and green chilly is added and simmered. The lunch ends with a nice curd rice / buttermilk drink.

This image depicts a typical south Indian lunch meal that is serves on plantain leaf. It mainly consists of Rice, Sambar, Rasam, Curry, Kootu, Curd and a sweet / pappad optionally.

The south Indian lunch is traditionally served on a plantain leaf. This picture shows a basic thali meals with sweet (Semiya payasam), pappad and fruits that are served optionally.

South Indian Meals (Image Credit: Pinterest)


South Indian dinner choices are typically made from the tiffin items mentioned in the breakfast menu section. But the most popular choice is usually Upma, Dosa, Idli, Adai dosai and so on, which are filling and light to have. There are other special delights like Kuzhi paniyaram, Idiyaapam and Aapam Thengapal which are some of the unique tiffin varieties of the region.

This image shows a famous south Indian tiffin, Rava/ semolina upma

There are many varieties of “Upma”. Rava / Semolina is an easily available ingredient in any household, making it an obvious choice. Also, it is known that boiled rava will grow to three times its size in our stomach, before it gets digested. So, small portions of this dish can suffice and keep you energetic for long.

Rava Upma (Image Credit: Pinterest )

North Indian and South Indian food style

As we explore the kind of food that both the parts of Indian community have, there are lots of similarities over the differences. Apparently, North Indians and south Indians have a different choice of staple food (Wheat & Rice). Whereas , both the traditional food styles share the following features historically:

  • Ingredients used in breakfast menu is rich and heavy as compared to the preparation of other meals of the day. Be it the deep fried Pooris in oil or the ghee glazed pongal that are served in the morning, it is quite a rich choice
  • Both the lunch menus have one kind of dry vegetable curry and one type of vegetable gravy, apart from the plain dal that is kept. Also, yogurt / buttermilk is the tail part of it. Some form of curd is incorporated in the menu.
    • While the North Indian lunch serves a raw plain salad, South Indian lunch serves banana and other fruits
    • Pickle is a compulsory accompaniment in both the delicacies
    • Soup is an optional starter in North India, which resembles the rasam of South India, as both of them are prepared using tomato puree and pepper powder
  • Dinner is usually a tiffin variety that fills the stomach quickly and keeps us light
  • Also, the way of eating itself is very similar. It is generally a practice to sit down on the floor , fold the legs and sit together as a family to eat. Although it is not a customary practice or compulsion, it is the traditional way of eating all the three meals a day. Most of the households follow this even today.

Geographic differences

The reason why staple food is different for both the sections of people, can be easily understood by looking at the geography of the regions. North India, is famous for its mountains and relatively cool climate. Plain landscape is less and hence growing crops like wheat is feasible. Wheat based food will heat up your body to generate the required temperature within, in order to maintain the metabolism for easy digestion. So, the fibrous content rich wheat became their natural choice. Nevertheless, the cooking methods are such, that they also incorporate “Ghee” which is a natural coolant, for it to neutralize any excessive heat in the body.

South India is surrounded by water on all three sides and has a relatively hot and humid climate. Plain lands near water bodies gave a lot of fertile space to cultivate carbohydrate rich paddy / rice crops. So, rice became their obvious choice of staple food.

Importance and Health benefits of Indian Food

Contents of the food

From the basic menu in both the regions, it is evident that the process of cooking and the reason behind the method, have to do with medicinal values that help the people to lead a healthy life. It is noteworthy that fireless cooking is not really a usual option for Indians, even today. The very idea of eating food has been always associated with the ones that are cooked and boiled properly. Be it the North Indian gravies or South Indian kootu, they are all brought to the apt boiling point. This way, any risk of eating raw, non-boiled food is completely out of question. While this being one of the important factors for the world wide pandemic today, that started when a person ate some raw animal meat, it is very much understandable why the food was meant to be cooked in a specific way.

Currently, the buzzing articles and recommendations from doctors and dieticians all over the world, to help us fight the Corona Virus, mainly focus on ingredients like Ginger, Turmeric Water, Amla, Pepper milk and eating any food that is properly cooked and boiled to at least 100degree Celsius (the boiling point of water). It has proven antibody qualities that regulate and improve immunity. These so called “Immunity boosters” are being used in Indian households on a daily basis! Almost every dish (except sweets) contains turmeric powder. Soups / salads / Rasam are all rich in pepper powder. Ginger tea is a common beverage that is served in the house of people across all strata.

After having a heavy lunch, in both the cultures people usually have something called “Paan” – betel leaf filled with areca nuts, that is only meant for chewing (not eating it completely by swallowing). In a way this is to stimulate digestion by helping your mouth to secrete more saliva. Also, this takes away any smell that may linger after eating. But beyond this, it is believed to prevent occurrence of cancer, diabetes and other health ailments.

The way of eating

The culture of eating on plantain leaf started because they were broad, easy to use and dispose. But it is proved by researches that the food served on banana leaves absorb polyphenols that prevent many diseases. Also, the anti bacterial properties of the leaf kills any germs present in the food. It is an economical, hygienic, natural and healthy option available easily to people. Similarly, the eating posture – sitting down on the floor with folded legs and eating the food using bare hands, has proven health benefits.

The cross-legged posture of sitting down on the floor while eating is recommended because, you have to bend down to eat the food, so the stomach will shrink / contract while you bend down and come up. This instigates the secretion of digestive acids in the stomach, enhancing the digestion. Also, you won’t be able to over eat due to the movements in the abdomen muscle. Over eating which is a source of obesity, fat deposition, cholesterol and many other health issues can be prevented this way. This way of sitting is known to improve blood circulation across our body and keep the heart healthy.

Eating using bare hands, apart from being a healthy exercise, is believed to stimulate digestion. There is a friendly bacteria called flora, that is known to reside in parts of your body like hands, mouth, intestine and gut. When you eat using your hands, this bacteria enters the body and protects the digestive system from any exposure to harmful bacteria. Also, it is believed that eating with your hands will make you more conscious on what you eat and develop a better connect between your mind and body.

Anthropology: Role of Food in Festivals and Customs

There two types of people in my opinion. One, the ones who eat to live. Two, the ones who live to eat. And I belong to the second type! It is because of the numerous delicious dishes whose tastes linger in my tongue. Thanks to all the festivals that never pass without sharing a special food with family and friends. As all the festivals have a cultural past to it, there is also a scientific reason behind it. The season when they occur and the way it is celebrated affects the physiology and psychology of our body in a certain way. For example, lots of sweets and snacks are made during “Diwali” that occurs in winter during November-December. This will reduce the work of digestive system that will otherwise get overloaded if we eat the usual carbs rich diet.

Therefore, India has given immense importance to food, by making it a part of customs to be followed for years to come and beyond. Wasting food is regarded as sin and hence children are taught to get only the consumable portion of food and clean their plates completely by eating up everything on it.

Indian food and its complete wellness

As the world advanced from 20th century to the 21st century, we witnessed an impactful social revolution called “Globalization”. Along with this came a plethora of choices, opportunities, cultural exchange and many more. It opened doors to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) that paved way for the “IT (Information Technology) industries” across all metropolitans in India. This led to better employment, education, easy accessibility to international commodities, enhanced communication among peoples of various countries and many other benefits. Since then, there has been a strong influence of western culture among Indians. Be it food, lifestyle or attitude, it did create a big impact.

With the advent of modernization, Food market boomed with snacks that are termed as “Junk food” by dieticians and doctors today. The culture of having burgers, pizzas and aerated drinks topped the priority over indigenous delicacies. Not complaining the western food culture. The point here is, we cannot copy others blindly. If your American client is wearing a jean, why do you have to wear it here in this hot weather? Western clothing and food habits are designed to suit their environment and living conditions, not ours!

When populous countries like India and China were once trying to curb the growing population through government schemes and awareness programs, today majority of the working couples in India visit fertility centers to become parents. What have we even done to ourselves? Natural processes are becoming machine aided ones. Therefore, be it child birth or immunity against Corona today, the solution for complete wellness lies in appropriate food. As a famous saying goes “What you eat is what you are.”, so be aware to make a wise choice, not just for your health but also to pass it on to the upcoming generations.

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