“Caw Caw!” Sridhar calls out to the crows to come and accept his offering of freshly cooked rice and pulses every day before he settles down to lunch. This happens in Hindu households across the state of Tamil Nadu – people believe their ancestors come as crows to bless them by eating the food offered. So, food is offered to crows before it is served lovingly in banana leaves to members of the family. The banana leaf is used in place of a plate and there is a specific order of dishes to be served; if the order is not followed, the diner could be upset or even insulted. Across India, food is not just for sustenance; there is emotional connection.
If your idea of Indian cuisine is limited to Naan, Butter Chicken, and curry, you will be surprised to discover the diversity of the cuisine. Indian cuisine is a vast canvas of colors, tastes, aroma, and ethnicity. There are 38 different cuisine types based on region alone, and this is without counting festive dishes, street food, and fusion cooking. Let us explore here the best food varieties of different regions and thereby, the culture too, for Indian cuisine and culture are two halves of a coin. Also learn what to avoid, and how to eat like a local to experience the best of India.
The North – Rich and sumptuous
Let’s start with the Queen among states – Kashmir. Kashmiri cuisine largely depends on its mountainous topography; hence, meat and spices are favored. A fusion of tender red lamb’s meat with aromatic spices like red chilies, pepper, saffron, and turmeric, doused in a generous measure of oil, the Rogan Josh is Kashmir’s pride. Pair this with soft Indian bread like parathas, and you will understand why they call Kashmir Heaven on Earth.
Moving down from Kashmir, we come to the lush valleys of Punjab – here, we get food rich in spices, grains, and fresh produce. Perhaps the biggest contribution of Punjabi cuisine to India is its Dhabas – these roadside eateries line all the major highways of the country and are also found in small towns and villages. Authentic Punjabi cuisine with Butter rotis, Parathas, Chicken gravy, Paneer dishes and signature Dhaba dal are typical Dhaba fare; diners sit on charpai’s (a bed or bench woven with natural fibers) and eat this simple, yet spice-rich food situated on wooden planks. They usually accompany this fiery meal with a creamy, flavored yogurt drink called Lassi.
When talking about food in Punjab, we just cannot leave Amritsar out. This paradise for food lovers is famous for its stuffed Kulchas, lentil dishes and desserts. However, the best dining experience in Amritsar is at the Langar in the Golden Temple. Every day, hundreds of volunteers cook for thousands of visitors in one of the biggest community kitchens in the world. About 75,000 visitors partake of the Langar food every day; during religious gatherings, this number may easily exceed 100,000. Diners sit on mats and raise their plates to receive a flavorful offering of chapatis, a lentil dish, a vegetable dish and kheer, a milk-based dessert. Take part in this unforgettable experience to get a true flavor of Punjab’s culture.
The Golden Temple Langar
Central India – Food for royalty
As the capital of India, Delhi is incredibly busy and delightfully multicultural. Quick eats as street food is an art form in Delhi. The bustling streets of Chandni Chowk and Old Delhi are the best places to experience street food – enjoy Delhi’s golgappas, pav bhaaji and chole-kulche here. You can also find some of India’s best fine-dining restaurants and global cuisine outlets here.
The capital of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow offers food fit for Kings with its signature Awadhi cuisine. Dum Punkht – a technique where food is slow-cooked in sealed pots on a coal stove is Lucknow’s specialty. Experience the intensity of flavors with the richness of meat and vegetables in the Lucknowi Biryani, a must-have in this city. Yet another specialty of Lucknow is its galouti kebab which literally means “melt in the mouth” since it was first made for an old Nawab of Lucknow who loved meat and yet, couldn’t eat it because he’d lost his teeth. Lucknowi chefs combine and cook minced meat with papaya and spices and fry these patties in melted butter to make them easy to eat.
The East – Simple and delectable
Let’s now move on to the simple delights of East Indian food. While rice is a staple part of the East Indian diet, they give equal importance to vegetables and meat. Fish is a favorite in Bengal because of its abundant availability; likewise, people of the North-East favor pork. East Indian cuisine follows simple techniques of cooking and yet retains the original flavors of their ingredients; mustard oil has a dominant presence in this cooking style.
Kolkata, another bustling metro of India is famous for its street food, especially the Katti roll, which is a roll of Indian bread with meat, paneer, or vegetable filling. Bihar’s Litti Choka is a hidden gem in Indian cuisine; even Indians in parts of the country have not had the pleasure of indulging in this simple dish of baked wheat balls with a potato-based gravy. No meal is complete without a dessert; Bengalis are proud of their Rasgulla, Payesh and Mishti Doi. Do try these when you visit this part of the country.
Bengali Fish Curry
The Vegetarian West
While the East is proud of its meat-eating heritage, the Western part of India, except Goa, is largely vegetarian. Especially popular here is the Rajasthani and Gujarati Thali meal – multiple courses of food are skillfully arranged on one large platter to make a heavy meal. This includes rotis, rice, lentil dishes, vegetables, gravy, pickles, papads, buttermilk and a dessert. Since a vast part of this region is a desert, vegetation is sparse; yet the cuisine uses lentils and other resources creatively to offer a wide range of vegetarian snacks and dishes. Rajasthan also has its share of meat dishes contributed by Rajputs, who were well-known hunters. Laal Maas, a mutton gravy dish, and Khad Kargosh, made of rabbit meat are regional specialties.
Goan food is a world of its own; drawing heavily from its Portuguese heritage, this cuisine is a unique fusion of Indian and foreign that cannot be found in other regions. So, you have the Xacuti, chicken cooked in thick coconut gravy; Choris Pao, pork wrapped in Indian bread; and the sweet Bebinca.
Mumbai again is a haven for foodies. As the finance capital of India, this city is always on the move and is home to people from various cultures and ethnicities. Catch a Vada Pao, potato patties in an Indian-style burger or Aloo Poha, made of flattened rice for breakfast. Lunch on Mumbai’s favorite Bombay Duck, a seafood dish; or the Parsi specialty, Parsi Machchi; then walk along the Juhu beach to savor the city’s famous chaat.
The Lip-smacking South
South Indian cuisine has its own style and differs completely from the rest of Indian cuisine. The generous use of coconut, gingelly oil, curry leaves and red chilies makes this cuisine aromatic as well as flavorful. Rice is available in plenty and used not only as a main course but also to make breakfast and dinner varieties like Idly and Dosa. The simple idly, made of a fermented batter of rice and lentils, is eaten along with sambar or chutney, and is said to be one of the healthiest dishes in the world to eat for breakfast. Even within South India, there are subtle differences in tastes depending on the geography of the region. Coastal Andhra Pradesh, for instance, offers tangy dishes, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian; the sharpness of taste can have you gasping for water if you are not used to this level of spice.
South Indian food
Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana, offers a fusion of royal Nawabi cuisine with influences of the South – the Hyderabadi Biryani, for instance, has fans throughout the country – the dish offers a burst of rich flavors, thanks to its “dum” cooking technique. Kerala uses coconuts in every form and is clearly a champion in seafood. Tamil Nadu has its share of “pure vegetarian” restaurants that serve Thali meals on a banana leaf to fill you up. On the other hand, the Chettinad cuisine of Tamil Nadu offers delectable meat dishes with a rich flavor typical of South India and hospitality that makes you want to come back again and again. Karnataka, again, has the strictly vegetarian Mysore and Udupi regions competing in flavor with Kodagu’s bold and spicy meat dishes.
What to drink?
Moving on to what people drink here, the most popular beverages throughout India are tea and coffee. And like its food culture, Indian beverages do not recognize the word “instant”. Coffee is filtered in a percolator and offered in quaint tumblers in Tamil Nadu as “filter coffee”. In other Indian states, you will find tea brewed with a combination of spices and served in earthenware as Masala Chai. Apart from this, there are regional specialties like yogurt based Lassi and Chaas, sugarcane juice and a local lemonade called Nimbu Paani. Apart from this, cool down on a hot day in India with the soothing nectar of tender coconut, one of the most sought-after delicacies, especially in summer.
When in India…
While spoons and forks are available on request, most people use their fingers. Try going the local way when you are here and learn how to eat with your fingers to relish the delights of the region.
If you are visiting India for the first time and are not used to Indian food, please note that the spice levels may overwhelm. Ask for mildly spiced food to suit your taste. Though street food is popular, it’s important to identify the right eateries. Please eat where you can see your food being freshly cooked in hygienic conditions. Apart from restaurants and street stalls, India has a concept of homestays where you can stay with a family, experience the local culture, and eat home-cooked food. This is a unique experience; the food you get here will differ from what you get at restaurants. Try this for a truly authentic taste of India.
A culinary visit to India is the ultimate sensory experience with the flavors lingering in your tongue long after you return home.