A Crash Course on Indian Cuisine
For what may seem like such a simple thing, the subject of food is actually quite complex. Daily meals vary drastically from culture to culture, and as the world continues to share its cuisine across continents, the realm of culinary arts continues to expand. Even as an Indian myself, I admit that the diversity of Indian cuisine can make it a bit overwhelming, and after having witnessed the common faux-pas of going to a North Indian restaurant for Dosa (which happens to be a South Indian dish), I found that a simplified crash course on Indian food might be helpful! Doing the research for this guide allowed me to learn a lot about my own culture that I didn’t know as well, so I hope that it brings some clarification and knowledge to the table!
Contrary to how Western society may present it, Indian food is not a single, nationalized cuisine, but rather a vast umbrella of several diverse dishes that come from a plethora of regions across the country. India itself cannot be simplified to a single culture, language, or religion due to its regional diversity, and its cuisine is no different. From Maharashtra, to Kerala, to Punjab, to Bihar, each region has its own character, vibe, and richness that makes it different from any other.
Some States Included: Kashmir, Punjab, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh
Popular Dishes: Chole Bhature, Daal, Paneer Makhani, Tandoori Chicken & Naan, Samosa, Chaat
Because of its geographical location, Northern Indian cuisine has strong Central Asian influences. It is often mildly spicy and consists of high amounts of fresh bread and dairy: Naans baked in tandoors (clay ovens), parantha (a thin, multi-layered bread), paneer (fresh cheese), creamy curries made with tomatoes, onions, cumin, and various masalas. Some popular snacks include the infamous samosa — a fried pastry stuffed with potato, vegetables, and sometimes meat — as well as chaat, a sweet-and-savory salad with potato and various sauces.
Some States Included: Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andra Pradesh
Popular Dishes: Dosa, Uttapam, Korikoora, Idli-Sambar, Rasam, Vada, Mutton Biryani
South Indian food can be characterized by its fried and griddled dishes, served with various thin curries. Dosa, one of the most popular South Indian dishes, is a savory crepe that is often served with spicy potato folded inside and with a spicy curry called Sambar. Uttapam is a similar dish also usually served with curries and sauces akin to Sambar, but it is a slightly thicker bread with vegetables and spices placed over the top like a pizza. Although many areas in southern India are non-vegetarian, vegetarian dishes are popular and are often consumed even by non-vegetarians.
Some States Included: Orissa, Bihar, Sikkim, West Bengal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Chhattisgarh
Popular Dishes: Rasgulla, Thukpa, Momos, Sandesh, Jhaal-Moori
Heavily influenced by Mongolian and Chinese cuisine, food from eastern India is much more simple and less spicy than it is in other parts of the country. In coastal regions, fish is the primary source of protein, whereas inland, pork tends to be more common. What eastern India is most famous for however is its sweets. We can thank this region for Rasgulla, a popular dessert with curd balls and semolina drenched in a sweet syrup.
Some States Included: Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Goa
Popular Dishes: Vindaloo, Modak, Dhokla, Shrikhand, Vada Pao, Fish Curry
Goa, a state in Western India, used to be a major trading port for Portugal, and much of the region’s cuisine is therefore influenced by Portuguese food. Vindaloo for example gets its name from Vinho de Alho, a Portuguese marinade. Western Indian food itself is very diverse; the cuisine makes use of peanuts and coconut due to optimal growing conditions for these crops, and Gujarat’s food is usually entirely vegetarian whereas Rajasthan’s food tends to be a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian. In Maharashtra, fish is often used in cooking. Gujarati meals often feature several small portions of various vegetables, curries, and dishes.
The next time you go to an Indian restaurant, pay attention to all the items offered on the menu. Are you in a primarily North Indian restaurant? South Indian? You may even find that some restaurants that primarily serve variations of a single dish, like dosa, might offer a dessert or a popular drink from other parts of India. Enjoy your journey exploring the vast breadth of Indian cuisine!