The ancient Mogul emperors would surely be smiling if they could see us now. America, with the giddy enthusiasm that only an upstart can generate, is in the process of discovering India.

The year-long, nation-wide Festival of India, inaugurated by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi himself on June 13, has focused the eager eyes of our young country on the arts and customs of that venerable one.

Even the Smithsonian Institution's Festival of American Folklife, held every year around that most American of holidays, the 4th of July, will this year be devoted in part to the celebration of Indian folklife.

But the discovery of such a complicated culture is surely going to take a while.

Discussing the "cuisine of India," for instance, is a little like trying to discuss "European" cuisine. In an area with several thousand years of history and an attendant number of invasions and occupations, terrain that ranges from dusty plain to tropical island to snow-covered mountain, more than a dozen official languages and multiple religions, the cuisine of India is bound to display a certain diversity.

The Indian cuisine that translates most easily for Americans seems to be that of the north, especially in its more sophisticated versions from around Delhi. Thanks to popular cookbooks like those of Madhur Jaffrey, and through the restaurateurs and shopkeepers who wind up in urban centers like Washington, Americans have at least a nodding acquaintance with the spicy lamb stews and cool yogurt raitas of one division of Indian cooking.

But there is much more to it than that. Quentine Acharya, a Washington cooking teacher who grew up in the southern coastal city of Mangalore, where coconut and fish are staples, points out that "in restaurants here you seem to see the typical North Indian cuisine -- mostly Punjabi things like tandoori chicken -- and that's why I teach a lot of unusual things from other regions."

The mainstream Delhi cuisine, according to Jaffrey, combines two major influences -- that of the luxury-loving Mogul rulers who set up shop in the 16th century after picking up exotic tastes on their travels through Persia, and of the Hindu vegetarians who were already there.

The Moguls loved rich meat dishes enhanced by onions, cinnamon, yogurt, saffron, raisins and nuts. The Hindu vegetarians depended on more pungent herbs and spices and, of course, on vegetables, rice and dals, or lentil dishes.

But at the other end of the country, in Acharya's home town of Mangalore, the cuisine is heavily influenced by four centuries of Portuguese rule and depends on fish, coconut, sugar, vinegar and even pork, as well as on fiery chilies and large amounts of garlic and gingerroot.

Other dishes in Acharya's repertoire reflect the fact that India is a huge place where cuisines as well as religions and languages rub shoulders. The recipe she uses for biryani, a rich layered meat-and-rice casserole of Mogul origin, for instance, is one she learned from her sister's Muslim cook on a trip home. And Acharya has become acquainted with the cuisine of the lush Bengal region on the East coast through her husband, who grew up there.

But there is one thing most people who grew up in India agree on, and that is that there's nothing like home cooking. Ask for guidance about where in Washington Indians might go for a meal out and you're apt to get sighs. "To tell you the truth," says Terry Chawla, who operates the India Bazaar in Alexandria, "if I'm going to go out to dinner I'd rather go to a Chinese place."

Fortunately for everybody, the raw ingredients for cooking any Indian meal at home -- no matter its exact place of origin -- are available from stores in the Washington area. Some ingredients, including many of the spices and herbs, are available from supermarkets, and the balance from Indian stores. The one compromise that must usually be made is the substitution of lamb for the more typically Indian goat meat.

Shopkeepers in these specialty stores are invariably willing to help the first-time explorer forage through the bags of strange flours, lentils, seeds and spices, and to sort out the confusion that sometimes occurs when recipes from the Hindi, which is written in different characters, are translated into English.

Despite Indian cuisine's diversity, a few ingredients and techniques are fairly standard.

One of the major glories of Indian cuisine as a whole is its luxuriant use of spices. It's the spices that linger in the memory and keep aficionados coming back for more.

Some of these spices in combination have come to be thought of as "curry" powder. Ready-mixed curry powder is used by some Indian cooks here, and various combinations of spices are sold under that name in Indian stores, but according to Jaffrey the word represents a corruption of Indian cuisine by parvenu foreigners and has no application to true Indian cooking. Indians in America are apt to use the word "curry" to mean any dish with a spicy sauce. "Curry leaves," now available fresh in some Indian stores, have nothing to do with curry powder.

In any case, the spices involved most universally in Indian dishes are turmeric, cumin, coriander seeds, cardamom and cayenne pepper. Turmeric is the one that lends the bright yellow color to spice combinations sold as "curry powder."

Another combination of ingredients, in proportions that vary according to the cook, is called garam masala. Garam masala can be purchased already mixed, but is fresher if mixed in small quantities on the spot. It usually includes black peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and cumin, ground together. Garam masala is treated a little differently from other spices, usually being added at the end of cooking instead of the beginning.

Proportions vary widely from recipe to recipe, so you can feel free to mix your own.

Most of these spices are available in supermarkets, but there are some that require a trek to an Indian store. Among these are asafetida, a resin that in its raw state smells incredibly bad to uninitiated noses, better after it's been heated in oil and which, when mixed with other foods, often greens.

Other spices common to Indian recipes are black or green cardamom pods (out of which come the more commonly found seeds), fenugreek seeds, black cumin seeds, onion seeds, mustard seeds and amchoor, a sour powder derived from mangoes.

Some other flavoring ingredients -- onions, garlic, fresh gingerroot, fresh coriander leaves and fresh, hot green chilies -- are used more by some groups than others but are nearly universal, too. Most Indian recipes are more highly flavored with spices and herbs than most American recipes, many are made hot with chili or other peppers and some are very, very hot. But heat is optional, and chilies can be left out of any recipe.

Dals, which are dried legumes like lentils or peas, are used throughout India and are a major source of protein for the Hindu vegetarian population. When you think of dals, forget standard, mushy, colorless concoctions and start thinking in terms of bright yellow, astonishing rose and dusky black. A typical Indian store will have approximately the number of running feet of dals as American supermarkets have cereals. The combination of dal and rice is a standard throughout India.

Breads, as a group called roti, vary thoughout India but virtually all are flat and usually unleavened. They are most often cooked on a griddle or deep-fried instead of baked in the oven. At mealtimes these breads can be used partly as eating utensil, pieces being broken off to wrap around morsels of vegetable or meat.

Indian breads can easily be reproduced in America using American white or whole wheat flours, but for some recipes a very fine whole-wheat flour ground from Canadian wheat and available from Indian stores is preferable.

Yogurt is another constant in Indian cuisine. It is used as a marinade for meat or chicken, as an ingredient in sauces, in a sort of liquid salad called raita, and as a cooling drink called lassi. The combination of yogurt or buttermilk, dals and rice or wheat breads has provided the complete proteins for Indian vegetarians for a thousand years before modern nutritionists declared it wise.

Paneer, a fresh cheese, is used frequently, too. It can be made at home, but some Indian stores in the area are beginning to carry it for customers who call ahead of time. It is used frequently with such greens as spinach.

Chutneys and "pickles" are also universal. Chutneys may be sweetish and made of tomatoes or fruits and spices, or they may be the most incendiary imaginable combination of chilies and herbs. Sometimes they are used as dipping sauces for fried snack foods like samosas (deep-fried envelopes of dough with a spicy potato and pea filling) or pakoris (vegetables coated with a chickpea-flour batter and deep-fried).

"Pickles," which Americans would call relishes, are made with limes, lemons or with vegetables, sometimes with sugar and/or vinegar.

Usha Chadha, whose husband owns the India Bazaar store in Vienna, Va., says that if she were having a party, the menu would include a lamb or chicken dish, a dal, two vegetables such as spinach with paneer and spiced cauliflower or okra, rice, one yogurt dish, a simple salad made with cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes and onions with a lemon juice dressing, and a chutney or two. If she's feeling expansive she might add another vegetable dish or two, Chadha says, since "we tend to make too many dishes." Acharya would add a pullao (a rich, festive rice dish) made with raisins and nuts.

After dinner, guests might chew on green cardamom pods, which have a tart, almost lemony flavor, to aid digestion and refresh spice-warmed mouths, or on fennel seeds, which taste a bit like licorice. PURIS (Makes 20 puris)

2 tablespoons shortening or oil

2 cups Canadian wheat flour (available in Indian groceries or use 1 cup whole wheat and 1 cup white flour)

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup water, approximately

3 to 4 cups oil for frying In a large bowl mix oil or shortening into the flour. Add salt and enough water to form a soft dough. Knead for a few minutes. Pinch off 2-inch balls and roll into 4-inch-diameter circles on a floured board.

Heat oil in a wok or large heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When very hot, add puris, one at a time. Fry until they puff up, then turn and fry a few more seconds. Drain on paper towels and serve hot. (If making ahead, cool and then wrap tightly in foil. Reheat in foil in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes.)Courtesy of Quentine Acharya ALU SABZI (4 servings)

6 medium-sized potatoes

4 tablespoons cooking oil

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds

1 onion, coarsely chopped

1 green chili, minced fine

2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced fine

2 tablespoons grated ginger

Salt to taste

1 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander

Squeeze of lemon juice Boil potatoes about 20 minutes (they should still be firm). Peel and cut in 1/2-inch cubes. Heat oil in large skillet and fry mustard and cumin seeds, covering the skillet to protect yourself from popping seeds. Add chopped onions, green chili, garlic and ginger. Fry 2 minutes.

Add cubed potatoes, salt to taste, turmeric, and cayenne. Fry, stirring once or twice, for 2 or 3 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes and fry mixture about 10 more minutes, again stirring occasionally. Stir in chopped coriander and lemon juice. Serve with puris or parathas. Courtesy of Quentine Acharya ZUCCHINI KOFTA CURRY (4 servings)

FOR THE KOFTAS:

2 medium zucchini

1/2 small onion, minced fine

1 green chili, seeded and minced fine

1 tablespoon finely minced ginger

1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

1 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon cooking oil plus extra for deep-frying

Salt to taste

1 cup (approximately) chickpea flour

FOR THE SAUCE:

4 tablespoons cooking oil

1 small onion, sliced thin

2 teaspoons curry powder

2 teaspoons cumin powder

2 teaspoons coriander powder

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 cups tomato pure'e

1 cup water

Salt to taste

FOR THE BLENDER JAR MIXTURE:

1-inch piece ginger

4 garlic cloves

1/4 cup water

Wash zucchini well, cut off ends and grate or shred fine into a large bowl. Mix zucchini with onion, chili, ginger, garlic, cumin, cayenne, sesame seeds, lemon juice, cooking oil and salt. Mix in enough chickpea flour to bind the ingredients together adding a little water, if necessary. Form mixture into 2-inch balls, or koftas.

Heat 2 inches of oil in wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add koftas a few at a time and fry gently until browned on all sides. Drain on paper towels.

To make the sauce, heat oil in a heavy pot and fry sliced onions until translucent. Stir in curry powder, cumin powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder and cayenne pepper. Fry for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Grind blender jar mixture to a smooth paste and pour, along with tomato pure'e and water into sauce. Mix well, bring to a low simmer. Carefully slide koftas into curry. Simmer over low heat 30 to 35 minutes.

Serve with rice or rotis and a yogurt raita. Courtesy of Quentine Acharya MUNG BEAN DAL (4 servings)

1 cup dry green mung beans

3 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons cooking oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 large bay leaf

1 onion, chopped

1 green chili, chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons finely minced ginger

1 tomato, chopped

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 tablespoon lemon juice for garnish

2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander for garnish

Pick over mung beans for small stones or mud, then rinse well. Cook in a heavy pot, covered, with water and salt for 40 to 50 minutes or until beans are soft. Set aside.

Heat oil in a small skillet or frypan. When quite hot, add cumin seeds and bay leaf. Fry for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Then add chopped onion, green chili, garlic, ginger and tomato. Fry for 2 more minutes. Stir in turmeric and curry powder.

Fry a few minutes. Pour fried ingredients into mung bean mixture. (This type of seasoning, used frequently with dals, is called a bagar.) Stir well and add a little more salt if necessary. Heat through and garnish with lemon juice and chopped coriander. Eat with rice, puris or chapatis.Courtesy of Quentine Acharya FISH MOLEE (4 to 5 servings)

2 pounds flounder, cut in 1-inch-thick slices

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Oil for deep-frying

FOR BLENDER JAR MIXTURE:

3-ounce bunch fresh coriander

1-inch wedge peeled ginger

6 garlic cloves

1/2 small, peeled onion

1 green chili, stem removed but with seeds

1/2 cup water

Juice of 1 lemon

FOR THE SAUCE:

2 tablespoons cooking oil

1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds

1 onion, sliced thin

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 or 2 whole green chilies, stems removed but with seeds, chopped

2-inch-thick slice creamed coconut (available at Indian or Latin American markets)

Rinse flounder slices and put in a large plate. Sprinkle with turmeric powder, salt and cayenne pepper. Mix well and set aside 1/2 hour to 1 hour.

Heat 2 inches of oil in heavy wok or frying pan over medium-high heat. When very hot, add flounder slices and fry well on both sides for about 5 minutes. Remove fried flounder and set aside.

To make blender jar mixture, wash coriander well, cutting off stems, and place in blender jar with ginger, garlic, onion, whole green chili, water and lemon juice. Grind to a smooth paste. Set aside.

To make sauce, heat oil in medium-sized cooking pot. When very hot, add mustard seeds. Either remove pan from heat or cover immediately for a few moments to prevent mustard seeds from spattering. When they "pop" add onion slices and fry 2 or 3 minutes. Stir in cumin, curry powder, turmeric and whole green chilies. Fry 2 minutes. Stir in blender jar mixture and fry over medium heat 3 minutes.

Put fried fish pieces into sauce and add 2 cups water. Mix in creamed coconut. Cover and cook at a low simmer 25 to 30 minutes. Serve hot with plain steamed rice and a hot lemon pickle. Courtesy of Quentine Acharya YOGURT WITH BANANA IN THE GUJARATI STYLE (4 servings)

1 cup plain yogurt (preferably whole-milk)

1/3 to 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/16 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 to 1 fresh hot green chili, or to taste, very finely minced

1 teaspoon sugar

1 firm but ripe medium-sized banana, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds

Put the yogurt in a bowl and beat gently with a whisk until creamy. Add the other ingredients and mix. Refrigerate until you are ready to eat.

As a slight variation, you might like to add 1 teaspoon lightly ground black mustard seeds to the yogurt as well. This makes the dish a bit more pungent.

Another possible variation is to substitute for banana 1 cup ripe mango that has been peeled and diced into 1/2-inch cubes. If you like, you may add a teaspoon of lightly ground black mustard seeds to this relish as well. "The World of the East Vegetarian Cooking" by Madhur Jaffrey (Knopf, 1981) VERY SPICY DELICIOUS CHICKPEAS (4 to 6 servings)

These spicy chickpeas can easily be made up to two days ahead of time. In fact, their flavor improves if they are left, refrigerated, for 24 hours.

5 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 medium-sized onions, peeled and minced

8 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon ground coriander seeds

2 teaspoons ground cumin seeds

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

6 tablespoons finely chopped, skinned, fresh or canned red-ripe tomatoes

2 20-ounce cans chickpeas, drained, or 4 1/4 cups home-cooked chickpeas

2 teaspoons ground roasted cumin seeds

1 tablespoon ground amchoor

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1 teaspoon garam masala

1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

1 tablespoon or more lemon juice

1 fresh hot green chili, minced (use more or less as desired)

2 teaspoons very finely grated fresh ginger

Heat the oil in a wide pot over a medium flame. When hot, put in the minced onions and garlic. Stir and fry until the mixture is a rich medium-brown shade. Turn heat to medium-low and add the coriander, cumin (not the roasted cumin), cayenne and turmeric. Stir for a few seconds. Now put in the finely chopped tomatoes. Stir and fry until the tomatoes are well amalgamated with the spice mixture and brown lightly. Add the drained chickpeas and 1 cup water. Stir. Add the ground roasted cumin, amchoor, paprika, garam masala, salt and lemon juice. Stir again. Cover, turn heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove cover and add the minced green chili and grated ginger. Stir and cook, uncovered, for another 30 seconds. "The World of the East Vegetarian Cooking" by Madhur Jaffrey (Knopf, 1981) BIRYANI (6 to 8 servings)

A very rich, layered rice-and-meat casserole, biryani is a meal in itself and need only be accompanied by a bowl of yogurt raita and a platter of cucumber and tomato slices.

4 cups basmati rice

2 teaspoons salt

4 tablespoons cooking oil

2 large onions, sliced thinly

2 or 3 large bay leaves

1 stick cinnamon, broken up

6 cardamom pods

6 whole cloves

2 1/2 to 3 pounds cubed lamb (use lamb shoulder or shank, including bones)

2 tablespoons ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon curry powder

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon garam masala

1/2 teaspoon red cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

FOR THE BLENDER JAR MIXTURE:

2-inch piece peeled ginger

10 to 12 large garlic cloves, peeled

2 large tomatoes

1/4 cup waterFOR THE ASSEMBLY:

16-ounce carton plain yogurt

Few strands saffron, soaked in 1 cup warm milk

1 cup (2 sticks) melted unsalted butter

1 teaspoon kewra essence (optional)

Yellow food coloring (optional)

Pick over basmati rice for stones and wash well several times in cool water.

Bring about 1 gallon water to a rapid boil in a large pot. Add 1 teaspoon salt and basmati rice and boil for only 5 to 6 minutes. Rice will still be quite firm. Drain immediately and set aside in colander.

Heat oil in large heavy pot and gently saute' sliced onions until translucent. Add bay leaves, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, and fry 1 to 2 minutes. Add lamb and brown well over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, turning frequently. Add 1 teaspoon salt. Mix in all the ground spices and fry well for 10 more minutes.

Make blender jar mixture by blending together ingredients and stir mixture into lamb. Cover tightly and simmer until meat is cooked, about 40 to 45 minutes. Mix in 1/2 cup yogurt reserving the balance for assembly. Cool away from heat a few minutes.

To assemble biryani: Ladle some sauce from meat preparation into bottom of large dutch oven or deep oven-proof casserole dish. Cover with a layer of rice. Sprinkle a few drops of saffron milk over rice. Put a layer of meat and gravy over this, then another layer of rice. Spoon some of the melted butter over rice. Sprinkle with a few drops of kewra essence.

Repeat layers, putting dollops of yogurt and melted butter in between, until all the meat, gravy, rice, yogurt, butter and saffron milk are used. Take a few drops of yellow food coloring and with a spoon streak it into the rice. Seal with foil and over that put the lid of the dutch oven or casserole dish. Cook in a 300-degree oven for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove from oven and keep sealed until ready to serve. Spoon out gently onto large decorative platter.

Courtesy of Quentine Acharya