There are a great many reasons that people choose to travel to India. One is the incredible landscapes that can be seen all over the country. Another is the delectable cuisine that embraces both the vegetarian and non-vegetarian diet. And yet another is the spirituality of this fascinating country – a country where a variety of religions were not only born but continue to exist alongside one another throughout the sub-continent.
India is a land of temples, religious festivals and local legend. It is thought that Buddhism originated in North India, sometimes around the 5th century BC. This ancient religion is practiced widely throughout many parts of Asia to this day, and India is no exception. The country may be predominantly Hindu, but there is a significant Buddhist population as well as a substantial Jain and Muslim community scattered throughout the states.
To visit India during the celebration of a Buddhist festival is to experience a peaceful and deeply spiritual event. One of the largest and most sacred festivals in the Buddhist calendar is known as Buddha Jayanti. Worshippers travel to temples to pay their respects to Siddartha Gautama and offer up incense, flowers and fruit in commemoration of his birth and death.
As you might imagine in a country with such an extensive and delicious menu, food plays a role in many festivals around India. However, at a Buddhist festival like Buddha Jayanti, vegetarian fare is considered the most appropriate food – Strict Buddhists show an appreciation for life in all forms. Additionally, tasty treats made from dairy produce are incorporated into the celebrations, particularly the traditional rice pudding kheer, a creamy concoction flavoured with jaggery or dried fruit and nuts.
Kheer holds a special place in the heart of Buddhists. There is even a legend about a young village girl called Sujata who offered the Buddha a bowl of rich milk and rice – the last meal he ate for seven weeks. Kheer is one of the most popular desserts in India and is made by simmering rice in sweetened milk and ghee. Jaggery, sugar or honey can be used to sweeten the dish and a sprinkling of cardamom finishes it off.
Although Buddhists do not set out strict rules on dietary requirements and many practicing Buddhists are both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, there are certain foodstuffs that many Buddhists tend to avoid. These foodstuffs are considered to have an effect on the body that will distract it and cloud it from its path to enlightenment. This list includes hot and spicy or pungent foods such as garlic, onions and shallots.
Instead, for flavour, Buddhists tend to use pastes made out of aromatic ingredients such as ground turmeric, curry leaves and candlenuts. These vegetable pastes act in the same way as a curry paste, providing an excellent base for a number of vegetarian stews and dishes.
It is the mix of different religions and cultures with their different dining habits, ingredient preferences and traditional recipes that have made Indian cuisine what it is today – one of the most popular culinary traditions in the world. Sample the enticing flavours of this beloved cuisine with a visit to one of London’s best Indian fine dining restaurants.