The second most populated country on earth, India is perhaps most famous for its amazing food. With over a billion people living in one of the largest countries by land size, there is no shortage of delicious things to eat in this wonderfully diverse nation.
It’s important to note that it would be impossible to cover every dish in India in a single article as each region and state in the country has its own unique food culture. That being said, there is generally a distinction made between the food of the northern and southern regions of the country.
In this article, we will look at some of the differences and a baker’s dozen of the most famous foods and drinks within northern and southern Indian cuisine.
Northern Indian Food
Northern-style Indian food is often wheat-based with a heavier emphasis on meats and cream-based sauces utilizing ingredients such as ghee, a clarified butter. Generally, Indian restaurants outside of the country tend to serve a variation of this northern style.
Breads made from wheat such as naan, chapati, and roti feature heavily as an accompaniment to meals. Samosas, also made with wheat flour, are a popular appetizer.
Some of the more common spices used include dried fenugreek, amchoor, made from dried unripe green mangoes, and a spice blend known as garam masala. This popular blend is made with coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, and a host of aromatics such as fennel seeds and nutmeg.
Curries such as aloo gobi, palak paneer, and murgh makhani, also known as butter chicken, are enjoyed throughout the north. Many of the dishes are made with dairy cream and blended nuts.
Let’s take a look at some of the most famous northern-style Indian foods, in no particular order:
One of the staples of North Indian cuisine, naan is a thick flatbread made of wheat flour, active dry yeast, water, and salt. After kneading, it is allowed to rise for several hours and then cooked in a large clay oven called a tandoor.
The first mention of naan in India was recorded around the year 1300 AD. There are many variations of this flat bread available today, some of which include milk or yogurt in the dough to soften the bread. It’s often brushed with butter or ghee before serving; garlic naan is one of the most popular types.
Naan is usually served as a side and will often be used as a utensil to scoop up a delicious bite of curry. It can also be stuffed with a variety of fillings such as potato or cheese.
Popular as a snack, appetizer, or even a full meal, samosas are fried pastries made from a wheat flour called maida. They are often filled with potatoes, onions, peas, and various spices.
Samosas have been available in India for hundreds of years and come in many varieties. They can be made vegetarian and also with meat. A side of chutney is usually served with it, typically made of coriander leaves, green chilies, ginger, cumin powder, and chaat masala powder.
Aloo gobi is a dish made of cauliflower, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and a variety of spices and herbs. Some of the more popular choices include turmeric, coriander, cumin, curry leaves, green chilies, and garam masala.
The ingredients are cooked together and served hot with a side of rice, roti, naan, or paratha. It’s often served dry but can also be made into a curry.
The famous food gets its name from the Hindi word for “potato”, aloo, and the word for “cauliflower” gobi.
Consisting of fried balls of potato and cheese that are served in a cream-based gravy, malai kofta is the ultimate northern Indian comfort food. Koftas, as the potato cheese balls are known, are made by mashing boiled potatoes and combining them with crumbled cheese that’s generously spiced and fried until golden brown and crispy.
The gravy is made from a base of cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and onion that is then combined with tomatoes and cashews. This mixture is then added to a combination of butter, additional spices, and water to create the final product.
The koftas are served in the gravy and are accompanied by a side of butter naan, paratha, roti, or rice.
Murgh Makhani (Butter Chicken)
Also known as butter chicken, murgh makhani is a curry chicken dish that is a relative newcomer on the north Indian food scene. It was invented in the city of New Delhi in the 1950s unintentionally when the owners of the Moti Mahal restaurant mixed leftover tandoori chicken into a curry of tomato and butter.
In the 1970s the dish was exported to restaurants outside of the Indian subcontinent and was rebranded as butter chicken. It remains one of the most popular foods both within and outside of India.
Today, the curry is made by using a tandoor to cook chicken that has been marinated for several hours with lemon juice, garlic paste, ginger paste, yogurt, red chili, salt, and garam masala. The chicken is then added to a curry of tomato, butter, garlic, and ginger that has been generously spiced with cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, and fenugreek.
Masala Chai Tea
As the world’s second-largest producer of tea, it’s no surprise that Indians love masala chai, or simply chai as the beverage is known throughout the country. India did not always feel this way about tea, however.
Tea leaves have been growing wild in India for thousands of years but it was not until the early 20th century that demand for the beverage would skyrocket. The British occupiers of India encouraged the production of tea in the Assam region in order to loosen the lucrative Chinese monopoly of tea production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Production increased and prices fell, making tea a much more accessible beverage for the average Indian. It would go on to become an integral part of Indian culture and become one of the most beloved drinks in the country.
Masala chai is made by taking strong black tea that is brewed in milk and water with a generous amount of sugar. It can then be spiced with any combination of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and black pepper. The mixture is then strained and served warm for a delicious and full-flavored treat.
Southern Indian Food
Southern Indian food is often more rice and lentil-based with a stronger emphasis on vegetables and seafood. The area tends to experience heavier rainfall resulting in an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables that are utilized in the cuisine.
Southern dishes are more likely to use coconut milk as a base for sauces and they are generally considered spicier than their North Indian counterparts. Popular spices include cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and clove.
Let’s take a look at some of the most famous southern-style Indian foods, in no particular order:
One of the most popular dishes in southern Indian cooking, masala dosa is a thin crepe-like pancake that is made from a dough of rice and lentils that have been soaked overnight and ground into a batter. The batter is allowed to ferment overnight and is then cooked in a pan until crispy.
Often fenugreek, dal, or red chili will be added to the batter for additional flavor and texture. It is most often served with a side of sambar, a lentil stew, chutney, or potato curry.
Although masala dosa can be found throughout the country, it is considered a specialty of southern Indian cooking with origins in the southern state of Karnataka around the 1st century CE.
The term chutney can refer to any number of sauces within Indian cuisine that are served as an accompaniment to a countless number of appetizers and main courses. While chutneys are enjoyed throughout the country, coconut chutney is a specialty of southern Indian food.
Made with fresh coconut meat, chilies, ginger, cumin, and salt, this white chutney makes use of the abundant and fresh coconuts of the southern regions of India. It is often served with breakfast dishes such as idli and can also be served with dosa.
Idli is a rice cake made from rice and lentils that have been soaked overnight and then ground into a paste. This paste is allowed to ferment and then poured into a mold that is steamed in a pot of boiling water.
The rice cakes can be eaten at any time of day but are usually enjoyed at breakfast and served alongside a side of coconut chutney, sambar, or curry.
A stew made of lentils, vegetables, tamarind, herbs, and spices, sambar is a staple in southern Indian cuisine. Allegedly invented in the 17th century by a ruler of the Maratha empire in the modern state of Maharashtra, the popular stew has remained a hit to this day.
Often served with dosa and idli, sambar is a healthy and filling comfort food that will always have a place in a southern Indian home.
Considered by some to be the most popular dish in India, biryani is a rice dish with southern Indian origins. Some claim that the state of Hyderabad is the home of biryani, allegedly invented during the reign of the Mughal Empire that spanned the 16th-19th centuries.
It can be prepared vegetarian or with the addition of a meat such as goat, lamb, chicken, or fish. The rice is known for its fragrance and generous use of spice. Every region of India will have its own version of the dish.
Some of the more popular additions include fennel, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mint, coriander, garlic, onions, and tomatoes.
There are two ways to prepare biryani, the first, referred to as the kacha method, involves placing all of the ingredients together raw or partially cooked and allowing them to cook together evenly with steam. The second method, referred to as the pakki method, cooks the meat separately before adding it to the rest of the ingredients and allowing everything to finish steam cooking together.
A thin pancake made of fermented rice and coconut milk, appam is enjoyed at all times of the day throughout southern India. Comparable to a dosa, rice is soaked overnight, ground, and then mixed with freshly grated coconut and allowed to ferment.
When ready to cook, the batter is poured into a heated and seasoned kadai, similar to a wok, and slowly tilted around the sides of the pan creating a thin and crispy pancake.
Often served alongside a vegetable stew or curry, appam can be used as a utensil to soak up the broth and to grab a delicious bite of well-seasoned vegetables.
While the north has masala chai, in the southern part of India, chicory coffee reigns supreme. Made from a mixture of coffee grounds and chicory (affiliate) in a ratio that can range from 80 percent coffee to an even 50/50 of both, this is the preferred after-dinner drink in the south.
The coffee is usually made with a small coffee press unique to southern India. The press contains two chambers, one for the grounds, and a second piece underneath for the coffee to be filtered into.
The coffee chicory mixture is loaded into the press, lightly packed, and then boiling water is poured over it. It’s then covered and set aside for the coffee to be made. The resulting coffee is usually quite strong and is lastly combined with boiled milk and sugar to balance the taste.
We have only scratched the surface of what this beautifully diverse cuisine has to offer. With over 28 states, each with its own take on the cuisine, it’s clear that there is no shortage of delicious things to try on your next trip to India.