When it comes to eating Indian food, there are a few dishes that everyone knows, like butter chicken (also known as chicken tikka masala) and saag paneer. These dishes are so ubiquitous, they are recognized around the world as “Indian food”. But in reality, as Munchies explains, these dishes hail from North India, and were invented between the 1920s and 30s, making them young in 9,000 year old India. Indian food is so much more than butter chicken. Thanks to influences from other cultures over thousands of years, India has developed a really rich, highly regional set of cuisines that are worth seeking out. Consider this your guide toward discovering the regional food of India for your next catering event.
The first stop on our tour of the regional food of India is north Indian cuisine, where you’ll find meat eaters (chicken and lamb, but also beef) and dishes made with thick, spicy and creamy gravies, often featuring dairy, yogurt or ghee (clarified butter). Mutter paneer is a popular curry to look out for, made from the semi-firm Indian cheese paneer and peas in a spicy and creamy tomato based gravy. Lamb korma is another popular gravy-based dish from this region, which features lamb braised in cream or yogurt. Another north Indian food to scan the menu for is chaat (savory snacks sold as street food), typically found in the appetizer section. There are many different types of chaat, but perhaps the most popular is pani puri (also called gol gappa or fulki). Tiny, crispy fried puri breads are stuffed with potatoes, chickpeas or onion, along with flavored water (spicy cilantro hot pepper or sweet sour tamarind are common). Once filled with water, the puris must be eaten quickly before they dissolve, typically in one giant bite.
Next, let’s head south, where rice and spicy foods are king, partly because the climate is hot and humid year-round. You’ve probably heard of dosas, the long, thin and crispy fermented crepes made from rice and black gram. Another regional food of South India to consider checking out are idlis, savory steamed rice and black gram cakes. These cakes are plain (much like basic rice), and are often served with chutneys (coconut chutney is popular in South India). You can also order sambar with it, a hot and sour lentil vegetable soup with tamarind that’s traditionally served with idli as a breakfast or snack in South India.
In the East, cuisine varies from meat eaters inland, to fish and seafood in the coastal region, to Tibetan and Nepalese influences in the Himalayan mountain region. Most dishes in this area are flavored more subtly than other parts of India. From Bengal, look for macher jhol, a spicy fish stew made with turmeric and tomatoes. From the mountain region, look for momos, which are basically steamed filled dumplings that may also be pan-fried or deep fried. Fillings vary wildly based on local population, with ground meat being most popular (think lamb or chicken) or a variety of vegetables, tofu and paneer cheese. They are typically served with a dipping sauce made from tomato. Sweets are also really popular around eastern India, so look for rasgulla, semolina and cheese curd balls soaked in a sugar syrup, for a sweet finish to your meal.
When it comes to the regional foods of India, western India is comprised of some meat and seafood eaters (Maharashtra and Goa), along with a large vegetarian population (especially in the state of Gujarat). The island of Goa served as a trade port and colony for Portugal for many years, so you’ll find Portuguese influence in it’s cuisine. Look for pork vindaloo, a spicy, tangy stew made with chiles and vinegar. Goa and Maharashtra are both coastal, so you’ll also find seafood and coconut/coconut milk dishes, like in a Goan fish curry. In Gujarat, vegetarians get a lot of their protein from pulses (lentils, beans and peas) and flatbreads like roti. Look for dal under soups, and you’ll get a thin lentil-based soup that is served as part of lunch or dinner in Gujarat, often with plain rice. A vegetarian or Gujarati thali is a great way to try a little bit of many different vegetarian dishes. Expect several dry curried vegetable dishes, a dal (lentil soup), rice, Indian flat bread like roti and a variety of chutneys and achaar (pickles).
It’s impossible to boil down the regional food of India into just two dishes per region, so consider this guide a starting point to help you eat your way around India at your next catering event. May you discover a new favorite Indian dish at every meal!
(Need help understanding a basic Indian menu? Check out this great guide!)
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