Dating back 5,000 years, India is an amalgamation of diverse cultural, religious, and culinary influences. You might be surprised to learn that many foods that seem to embody Indian cuisine – rich, tomato-based curries and the piping-hot potato and pea samosa stuffing – include ingredients that aren’t native to the country. Portuguese and Dutch colonization brought items such as tomatoes, potatoes, vinegar, and grilled bread to India.
A reflection of the diverse nature of this Southeast Asian country, India possesses more than 19,500 languages or dialects, 121 languages spoken by 10,000 or more people, and two official languages – Hindi and English.
The Diet and Popular Dishes by Region
Often reported to be the country with the highest percentage of vegetarians globally, Indian cuisine boasts an array of delectable vegetarian dishes. And much like the variety of languages spoken throughout the country, India’s cuisine varies significantly by region. Regional geography, local food staples, and the predominant religion influence signature dishes, preparation styles, and masala (spice blends). India’s cuisine reflects the peoples who have migrated and settled the lands over the past five millennia, from the cooking methods to the spices.
Northern Indian cuisine is what comes to mind when people across the globe think of popular Indian dishes. The tandoor oven features heavily in Northern Indian cuisine, as do flatbreads and dairy products. And while many people think of naan as an everyday Indian bread, it’s actually an import. Naan arrived in India during the Moghuls’ rule and is a traditional daily Afghani bread.
Vibrant spice blends elevate Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala, and Rogan Josh to mouth-watering levels, while yogurt and paneer cool spice-laden dishes.
As you travel south, the level of spice increases – Southern India is known to have some of the hottest and spiciest foods in the country. The cow is sacred in this region, so the cuisine is primarily vegetarian, with coconut, rice, and seafood featuring heavily.
Spicy Chicken Curry originated in the south and is known for its aromatics, but all regions have a version with varying degrees of spice. Fish curries are also mainstays in Southern India, as are Dosa – light, crepe-like pancakes stuffed with savory ingredients – and Pongal, a sweet rice dish.
Marked by lush hills and valleys, Eastern India’s cuisine reflects the verdant geography that remains rainy and wet year-round – perfect for agriculture. Bamboo shoots, a variety of greens, and mustard oil are typical in East Indian vegetable dishes. China and Mongolia heavily influence Eastern Indian food, which is known for sweet dishes and desserts.
Momos, or dumplings, are prevalent in this region, and the small dough packages – filled with everything from meats and vegetables to chocolate and cheese – are prepared fried, baked in the tandoor, or boiled. Syrupy-sweet Rasgulla is a treat, with each spongy, cheesy bite bursting with flavor.
A heavily vegetarian region, the western portion of India boasts hearty, flavorful meatless dishes and popular favorites like Bombay Duck and Pork Vindaloo. Many in this region share meals with a thaali, or large platter, which contains up to 10 different dishes ranging from vegetables to sweets.
Meal Practices and Eating Traditions
Indians enjoy three meals a day – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – with flatbread and rice as basic staples. Complete meals feature the addition of vegetables and a protein, as well as a selection of chutneys and pickles.
While cutlery has a place at mealtimes, it’s typically used for serving, while the right hand is used for eating. This practice is steeped both in tradition and religious beliefs, as several religions believe the practice of eating with one’s hands aids not only in digestion but in feeding one’s soul or spirit.
Known as the “Land of Spices,” India produces more than 70% of the world’s spices.
Sample rich Indian masala, or spice blends, with this popular dish:
Chicken Tikka Masala
2 ¼ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast 1 fresh serrano chile, to taste
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil – divided 1 ¼ tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon minced garlic cloves – divided 1 ¼ teaspoons garam masala
1 ¼ tablespoons ginger root, peeled and minced – divided 1 ⅔ cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt – divided 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper – divided ¾ cup heavy whipping cream
¼ cup onions, diced
STEP 1: Dice serrano peppers.
STEP 2: On a separate cutting board, trim excess fat from chicken. Cut chicken breast into 1-inch cubes. Place in mixing bowl.
STEP 3: Toss chicken with half the oil, half the garlic, half the ginger, and half of the salt and pepper. Let sit for 20 minutes.
STEP 4: In a skillet or Dutch oven, heat the remaining oil. Working in batches, sear the chicken pieces (don’t overcrowd the skillet). Once lightly browned, place in a bowl and set aside until all the chicken is seared.
STEP 5: In the same skillet, sauté onions, serrano chile, and remaining garlic and ginger until fragrant.
STEP 6: Add tomato paste and garam masala to skillet. Sauté for 3 minutes.
STEP 7: Add water, tomatoes, and heavy cream to the mixture and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and let simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.
STEP 8: Add cilantro and remaining salt, pepper, and seared chicken. Simmer for 10 minutes.