Traditional Indian food is renowned worldwide for its wonderful use of herbs and spices, and its diverse range of deep-fried snacks, pastries, curries, gravies, sauces, rice dishes, tandoor-cooked meats, vegetable dishes, chutneys, breads and sweets.
Indian cuisine replicates a 5000-year history of the melding of various cultures, leading to diverse flavors and regional cuisines. The arrival of the Mughals, the British, and the Portuguese further added fusion and variety. Yet, while delicacies vary by region and state, most are built from the same taste foundations and there are many similarities in terms of spices and flavors, regardless of the geographical region.
The main differences are largely divided into South Indian and North Indian cuisine. A lot of the northern regions of India are vegetarian, and therefore many of the most inspiring vegetable dishes originate from the northern states. Staple ingredients in Indian cooking include rice, tomatoes, potatoes, lentils, chickpeas, onions and yoghurt, and the most common spices used to flavor authentic Indian food include turmeric, cumin, coriander, mustard seeds, cardamom, chili, garlic, cloves, saffron, fennel, nutmeg, star anise, and fenugreek.
In the same way that food influences traveled to India, Indian cuisine has also traveled overseas. Particular dishes have gained esteem and have trickled into cuisines all over the world, however for the most authentic of flavors and dining experiences, these dishes should really be tried in situ in their destination of origin.
Here is a selection of some of the most popular Indian dishes to eat in India on vacation:
Pakora is a savory, deep-fried Indian snack made with chunks of vegetables such as potato, cauliflower and eggplant, or meat of choice, which is then dipped in chickpea flour, seasoned with turmeric, salt, chili, or other spices, and deep-fried in ghee.
It is a quintessential Indian snack, easily found on numerous street corners and most popular during spring, when the locals choose to celebrate the monsoon season by eating fried foods.
The name chaat encompasses a wide variety of Indian street foods, snacks, or small meals which usually combine salty, spicy, sweet, and sour flavors. They are usually small, consumed on their own as a snack, or combined with other dishes to form a big meal.
Throughout India, chaat can be found at chaatwallas – street vendors serving various dishes, from stuffed bread to deep-fried pastries with accompanying dipping sauces.
Vada Pav is a favorite sandwich-style snack from Mumbai, named after its ingredients: vada, or spicy mashed potatoes, which are deep-fried in chickpea batter; and pav, or white bread rolls. This iconic street food is said to have originated from a street vendor named Ashok Vaidya, who worked near the Dadar train station in the sixties and seventies, and came up with a way to satiate the hungry workers.
Idli is a traditional, savory Indian cake that is a popular breakfast item in many South Indian households, although it can be found throughout the country. It is made with a batter consisting of fermented lentils and rice, which is then steamed. These savory cakes are commonly served hot and consumed on their own, dipped into sambar or chutneys, or seasoned with a range of spices.
Paratha is a flaky, layered, golden-brown Indian bread, which is typically consumed for breakfast. It consists of whole wheat flour that’s baked in ghee, Indian clarified butter, and comes in round, triangular, square, or hexagonal shapes.
Very often, parathas are stuffed with ingredients such as boiled potatoes, cauliflower, garlic, ginger, chili, paneer, or radish. They are sometimes accompanied by pickles, yogurt, homemade chutneys, and occasionally served as a side to meat and vegetable curries. In Punjab, paratha is eaten with lassi, a popular yogurt-based drink.
Naan is a well-liked flatbread with a chewy texture. It consists of white flour, yeast, eggs, milk, salt, and sugar, baked in a tandoor oven. Its characteristic tear-drop shape is achieved due to the way that the dough droops as it cooks on the tandoor walls.
Aloo Gobi is a vegetarian dry curry, consisting of potatoes (aloo), cauliflower (gobi), and Indian spices. It has a warm, yellow-orange color because it contains turmeric. Other common ingredients include kalonji, curry leaves, garlic, ginger, onion, coriander stalks, tomato, peas, and cumin.
A dish of tender chicken in a mildly spiced tomato sauce. It’s traditionally cooked in a tandoor (a cylindrical clay oven). The gravy is always made first by boiling down fresh tomato, garlic, and cardamom into a bright red pulp. This pulp is then pureed after cooling. Butter, various spices, and khoa (dried whole milk) is then added. The dish originated in Delhi during the 1950s.
This classic lentil-based dish originates from the northern parts of India. Although there are variations, the dish is usually prepared with toor dal (split yellow peas), garlic, ginger, onions, tomatoes, garam masala, red chili peppers, ghee, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and fenugreek leaves. Once prepared, dal tadka is usually garnished with coriander leaves and served hot with jeera rice and roti on the side.
The traditional southern Indian dish known as masala dosa is popular throughout the country, made from a batter of soaked rice and black lentils, which are ground into a paste and blended to create a thick batter, usually left to ferment overnight. The mixture is enriched with a handful of fenugreek seeds, which gives the dosa its distinctive golden-brown color and a delicious, crispy texture.
It is then baked on a hot oiled griddle into a thin pancake and often stuffed with potatoes, onions, and mustard seeds before being garnished with grated coconut and chopped coriander. It is usually consumed as a quick snack, but can also be a breakfast dish.
Sambar is a tamarind-based broth, prepared with lentils and vegetables. It originates from Tamil Nadu, but it is also very popular throughout South India. The dish is traditionally served with steamed rice or various Indian flatbreads.
Although it originated in Punjab, dal makhani has become a favorite Indian lentil dish all over the country. It consists of black beans or red kidney beans and whole black lentils, called ‘urad’. The dish is prepared with plenty of ghee and seasonings such as ginger, garlic paste, and chili, and it is slowly cooked in a rich, tomato-based sauce.
The name makhani, meaning butter, is due to the addition of cream and a drizzle of melted ghee or butter that provides the typical velvety flavor of this classic.
Usually eaten as a snack, main meal, or breakfast, this North Indian specialty is a tangy chickpea curry, which is probably the most popular vegetarian dish in India, commonly found on railway platforms and in school canteens.
The chickpeas are simmered in a combination of spices and herbs, often served with rice or Indian flatbreads such as roti or naan, and garnished with yogurt.
Originating from India’s Mughlai cuisine, shahi paneer is a rich, hearty and nutritious cheese curry, prepared with paneer cheese, onions, almond paste, and a rich, spicy tomato-cream sauce. The dish is typically accompanied by Indian breads such as naan, roti, or puri, and garnished with coriander leaves.
Rogan josh is a staple of Kashmiri cuisine. It consists of braised lamb chunks cooked with gravy made from browned onions, yogurt, garlic, ginger, and aromatic spices. Known for its brilliant red color, a classic rogan josh uses liberal amounts of dried Kashmiri chilis.
Tandoori chicken is one of the most famous Indian dishes. It is made by marinating chicken meat in yogurt, and is seasoned with tandoori masala, nutmeg, and cumin, before being placed on skewers. Traditionally, it is cooked at very high temperatures in cylindrical clay ovens called tandoor, resulting in succulent meat with a smokey flavor.
Vindaloo is a flavorful curry dish, well known in Goa and Konkan. It is typically made with marinated pork, but it can also be made with chicken, beef, mutton, or paneer. The dish is named after the Portuguese dish, carne de vinha d’alhos, meaning meat marinated in wine vinegar and garlic. Many Indian spices are incorporated into the dish, such as tamarind, cinnamon, cardamom, and hot chilis.
This authentic fish curry originates from Malabar, Kerala. The curry is typically made with seer, sea bass, tilapia, or sardines. Other ingredients include onions, tomatoes, hot chili peppers, chili powder, curry leaves, coriander, turmeric, garlic, fenugreek, tamarind, oil, and coconut milk, which lends the dish its rich creaminess. It is flavored with deep and earthy Indian spices such as fried curry leaves and tamarind.
Biriyani dates back to the Mughal Empire. The main ingredients are basmati rice, spices, a base of meat, eggs, or vegetables, and many optional ingredients such as dried fruits, nuts, and yogurt. It is believed that Mumtaz Mahal – Emperor Shah Jahan’s queen for whom the Taj Mahal was built as a tomb for – inspired the dish in the 1600s.
Samosas are a tasty, deep fried, or baked, golden brown pastry triangles with savory fillings, usually spiced potatoes, onions, peas, and lentils, although sometimes, they are made with ground lamb, ground beef or ground chicken. Samosas are typically served hot and accompanied with chopped onions, yogurt, or fresh, homemade Indian chutneys and sauces made with a variety of ingredients such as mint, coriander or tamarind.
These puffy treats are common Indian street food and are believed to have traveled to India along the old trade routes from Central Asia.
Ras Malai is a much-loved, delicious Indian dessert of West Bengali origin made from white cream, sugar, milk, and cardamom-flavored paneer cheese known as chhana. Cashews, almonds and saffron are often added. Spongy, soft, and aromatic, it is typically served chilled and garnished with cardamom seeds or dried fruits. It is commonly consumed during festivals such as Holi and Diwali.
Kulfi is a classic Indian ice cream made with slowly simmered whole milk. Although the long-simmering process results in a loss of volume, it makes up for it with a delicious, nutty, caramelized flavor. The ice cream is characterized by its unusual, conical shape, a result of using traditional, special molds with tight-fitting lids.
Kulfi is usually flavored with ingredients such as pistachio, rose water, green tea, and saffron. It is believed to have been invented by the early inhabitants of the Himalayas during the Mughal Empire era.
Gulab jamun is a dessert based on milk solids that are kneaded into a dough, shaped into balls, and deep-fried in ghee. The balls then get soaked in a sweet thick syrup, flavored with saffron, green cardamom, and rose water. When served, gulab jamun is often garnished with dried nuts to further enhance its flavors.
Even though its name originates from Persia, barfi is an original Indian sweet that resembles a fudge. It is made from a base of condensed milk solids (khoa or khoya), granulated sugar, and ghee, and the most common ingredients added to this include nuts, usually pistachios, cashews, and peanuts. However, fruits, saffron, rose water, gram flour, or almonds are also found in some regional varieties.
Traditionally served in a handle-less clay cup called a kulhar, lassi is a frothy yogurt-based drink, blended with water and various fruits or seasonings. It originated in Punjab and there are many varieties, but most are either sweet or salted. Mmm mango lassi. That thought alone makes us want to go to India!
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