Beloved by people all over the world, Indian food has transformed millions of palates and global cuisine. The exquisite depth of flavour in almost every single dish is a delicious result of the country’s history, heritage, climate, and geography. From north to south, and east to west, rich traditions, cultural diversity, and philosophies — Ayurveda, for example — all play a role India’s culinary scene.
From sipping a cup of steaming hot chai streetside and dipping freshly fried pakoras in mint chutney during monsoon rain to roasting meats in a tandoor oven and gathering with loved ones for simple pleasures like spicy daal chaawal (lentils and rice), there’s an art to eating food from this country. Here’s the ultimate India food guide.
Travel to: India
Food habits in ancient India
As early as 3000 BCE, India was harvesting world-famous super spices like turmeric, cardamom, black pepper, and mustard. Foods like rice, curd, ghee, mango, and betel leaves, for example, appeared in ancient texts. Although many old recipes were lost, these texts provide insight as to the kind of food being consumed in pre-historic India, and staple ingredients that became the foundation of cuisine that would be exported all over the world.
The inception of vegetarianism came with Buddhism, and Ayurveda came about with a food classification that identified things as saatvic, raajsic, or taamsic. Arabia also influenced the country’s cuisine, and when Islamic rule came to India, they introduced famous meat dishes like biryani and kebabs to the country – this way of eating became known as Mughlai cuisine. Ardent foodies, the Mughals brought a lot of flair and new techniques – recipes often included decadent ingredients like butter, meat, and cream.
After British rule, India was introduced to cooking methods such as baking and ingredients like chilis, potatoes, and tomatoes, which of course went on to become staples of the Indian diet.
Regional Indian cuisine
India is a huge country. There are more than 20 major languages in the country, over 700 different dialects, and nine different religions. Religion specifically plays a huge role in the kind of food which prevails in different regions. Hindus don’t eat beef, likewise, Muslims don’t eat pork, and Jains are strictly vegetarian.
All of this cultural diversity is best reflected in how food has evolved regionally over time. For example, most Indian food is cooked in vegetable oil, but in northern and western parts you might find dishes cooked in peanut oil, whereas eastern India favours mustard oil, and along the western coast where coconuts are found in abundance, coconut oil is used extensively.
If you’re lucky enough have travelled around India and sampled the food, you’ll have some understanding of the culinary nuances and regional variations. Outside of India, unless you know where to look, what’s served in restaurants is usually a general version of the cuisine. Dishes on the menu rarely showcase the unique intricacies of Indian food, but things are changing.
There’s been a renaissance to bring the true soul of Indian cooking to the western restaurant scene. And if you’re travelling to India, don’t be surprised if the food you see is totally different from what you’re used at home. Whatever you do, don’t call naan “naan bread!” It’s just naan.
Curries laced with coconut accompanied by mounds of cooked rice and spicy tart lentil sambar. The cuisine found in southern India is as rich as the north but in a completely different way. The hot and humid climate of southern India and the proximity of most states to the coast lead to a very different kind of foodie experience. Many locals enjoy a vegetarian or pescetarian diet laden with spices. Feast on dosas (a rice flour pancake stuffed with potatoes) dipped in coconut meat chutneys.
Two well-known cuisines come from northern India, Kashmiri and Mughlai. Many dishes that are beloved internationally originate here. For example, rogan josh (slow-cooked red meat stew) is a famous Kashmiri dish, tandoori chicken (marinated chicken cooked in charcoal fired clay ovens), and chicken tikka (grilled chicken) are some of this region’s most famous exports.
Northern Indian cuisine is big on full-bodied curries made with rich dairy products like cheese, butter, and cream. Meat and different types of bread (naan and roti) are also a big part of the diet in this region. Don’t leave without trying as much flame-grilled meat as you can.
Thanks to the climate, rice grows in abundance here. Green vegetables, fruit, mustard seeds, yoghurt, and gram flour, among others, are some of the prominent ingredients in eastern India. The geography of this region means food is also influenced by China and Mongolia. Dishes are often cooked with mustard oil, which imparts aroma and flavour, and a local five-ingredient spice mix known as Paanch Phoran (white cumin seeds, onion seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds and fenugreek seeds). Indulge on machher jhol (fish curry) and sandesh — a favourite local dessert made with paneer and sugar.
The Gujarati thali — a shiny round silver platter loaded with an assortment of dishes, steaming basmati rice and bread is enough to make anyone fall in love with the cuisine from this part of India. In other parts of the region like Goa, you’ll become besotted with the fish curries, and in Rajasthan go head over heels for laal mass (a red meat curry).
The varying climate of western India, means locals rely on what is available readily. Making use of the coastline, coconuts, peanuts, and other things that grow in the environment form the foundation of the cuisine here. Make sure you try a plate of bhelpuri, a famous street snack which will leave you wanting more.
See Also: Your Guide to Walking Through India
Must-try Indian dishes
Ditch what you would normally order off the menu, and try some of these dishes instead!
- Sarson ka saag: Palak paneer is yummy, but this is better! Delicious mustard greens cooked with garlic, ginger, and spices served with a biscuit-like flatbread made from maize flour.
- Seekh kebabs: Do yourself a favour and order a plate of seekh kebabs dripping in butter. There’s nothing quite like minced meat artfully bound together with spices, magically skewered and cooked over hot charcoal.
- Paratha Rolls: Marinated chicken tightly wound up in a flaky paratha with onions and mint chutney is the way to go. Any desi person worth their salt knows a good chicken roll is hard to come by outside the motherland. If they have anything called garlic chicken mayo roll on the menu, don’t think twice about ordering several.
- Chaat: As far as vegetarian Indian streetside snacks go, chaat is up there with the best. There are so many different variations of chaat, from a simple chana-based version (chickpea) to sev puri, bhelpuri, dahi puri, aloo chaat, and so on and so on. Our advice? Try as many as you can and wash it down with an ice-cold soft drink. It sets off the chutneys and is a good kind of burn.
- Fish fry: Really simple but so good and satisfying to eat. Whitefish spiced up and then shallow fried with a squeeze of lemon.
- Dum biryani: There’s biryani and there’s dum biryani. It’s one of the most intoxicating Indian dishes and a labour of love. Chicken or meat is stewed for several hours with tomatoes, herbs, spices, and onions before being set over a flame with parboiled rice to steam. The result? A mouthwatering medley of chicken and rice that tastes out of this world.