Is there a country in the world that compares to India when it comes to food? Every region, every state, every city has its speciality and yes, there’s more to life than butter chicken. It would take a dissertation to break down the differences in cooking styles but if there’s one thing we’ve discovered in our travels it's that the best way to learn is dig in.
Northern Indian cuisine
The Northern Indian cuisine is the typical style one would expect to find outside of India. Rogan josh and chicken korma both hail from the north, which is also known for its love of flatbreads like chapati and naan. Tandoors (clay ovens) are popular too, in which dishes like tandoori chicken are cooked, and dairy plays an important role in daily cooking. The Indian cheese ‘paneer’ is often used as a vegetarian alternative in a lot of dishes and curries are often served with yoghurt.
The mountainous regions of the north see more of a Tibetan and Nepali influence so there are more dumplings, noodles and stews. Momos, the Nepalese dumpling, are particularly prevalent and delicious.
Western Indian cuisine
The Western Indian regions tend to be Hindu and often vegetarian, though this changes from state to state. Maharashtra, for example, has a lot fish and coconut-based dishes thanks to its coastal location, while Goa has a fairly unique blend of Indian and Portuguese styles as it was once a major Portuguese trading port. Vindaloo is a great example of this influence: its name comes from Vinho de Alho’, a Portuguese marinade. Like Maharashtra, Goan cuisine also features seafood and coconuts thanks to its coastal location.
Eastern Indian cuisine
In the coastal regions of the east, fish is the meat of choice while further inland it’s pork and chicken. Dishes are less spicy than, say, the northern style, with mustard seeds playing more of a role in flavouring. Rice is big, but nowhere near as big as desserts, for which eastern India is known. Some popular desserts include the kheer rice pudding, a sweetened yoghurt known as a ‘mishti doi’ and rasgulla, a sponge-like ball of cottage cheese soaked in syrup.
Southern Indian cuisine
The meals and specialities in the south differ from region to region, of course, with Hyderabad, for example, being known for its biryani. Whereas the north loves a bit of flatbread, the southerners tends to steer towards rice, lentils, stews and the ever-satisfying dosa, which is a popular breakfast dish. Though dosas are now widespread in India, they originated in the south and are like a kind of crepe, made from rice and served with chutney and sambar (a lentil stew).
India is one of the best destinations for vegetarians and vegans. Though the percentage of Indians that describe themselves as total vegetarians is in decline, there are still plenty of meat-free options available around the country. Lentils, chickpeas, paneer (cottage cheese) and kofta are common as curry options, for example, while aloo paratha, which is a flatbread stuffed with potato and spices, is a must-try dish.
Vegans will find encounter plenty of options too. In fact, Intrepid runs its very own Indian Vegan Food Adventure, which visits Delhi, Jaipur, Kanota and Agra while fitting in as much tasty vegan food as possible. Vegans should be wary, however, of dishes cooked in ghee, which is a kind of butter. Be sure to ask that your food is not cooked with ghee.
Of course, this is all a lot easier when you’re travelling with a local, someone who knows the language and the culture. If you travel with Intrepid, you’ll have a local leader who can help you decipher menus and recommend good plant-based choices.