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Regional Variations?

The Food Buster

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Hey everyone,

I might finally travel to India, and I'd like to plan my trip partially around the food. I'm a big fan of the cuisine, but I can never really keep track of the different styles and regional specialties. I've heard every state in India has its own take and that the North/South difference is especially marked. Can someone give me a brief run-through of the variations, please?

Thanks for the help.

Edmund Mokhtarian

Food and Wine Blogger


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Wow, now this is a huge question! What we could really do with is a large group of South Asians, who can tell you loads about their local cuisine! Sadly, as you may have noticed the "India" board is rather quiet, though there used to be a lot of very knowledgeable people around. You can find lots of very helpful people on some of the more South Asian orientated forums on the internet though.

In the meantime, I am a fellow learner and a huge fan of all things Indian, partly due to a little bit of ancestry via Trinidad. I would be more than happy to share some things that I have learned, if it would help you? I don’t claim to be an expert and I certainly don’t know enough about all the different regions to give you a detailed tour, but hopefully I can give you a brief overview of a few places. If we are lucky, someone more knowledgeable may come along and correct my mistakes, and add some more information.

Ok, so basically, India is a big country. Different regions have different climates, different plants, etc. not to mention people of different religions, ethnicities, caste, communities, language...the list goes on. What one person makes in their house can be hugely different from what someone who lives just down the street makes! Yes, every state has specialities and a distinctive cuisine, but even within one state there can be several cuisines that differ enormously!

To talk broadly about regional cuisine it is necessary to make some generalisations, which nearly always have exceptions. For instance, it is often said that the North favours bread whilst the South is rice country. I guess very broadly this has some truth, but actually I find that in many regions both rice and roti are eaten at a meal. It is true that the North has a lot of different breads though, and portions of rice, if they are served at a meal, may be smaller. In the South, you may get bread with a meal, but rice is the focus.

Different places in India use different spices, fresh and dried ingredients and cooking techniques, and serve their meals in different ways.

For instance, in North Indian garam masala is a fairly common spice blend, but in South India it is very rarely used. In Bengal, panch pooran is a distinctive spice blend, and in Maharashtra goda masala is a favourite blend. These are spice blends, but there are even specific spices that may not be much heard of outside of their regions - for instance, tirfal is a spice particularly loved by Konkani people but may be difficult to get hold of elsewhere. And in South India, dals (usually urad and channa) are often used like a spice in the tadka, to add a nutty flavour and texture. I don't think I have ever seen this technique in North Indian food, even though the same dals are used in other ways.

What about different cooking techniques? Well one example sometimes given is that in the South steaming is a more commonly used technique, whereas it is not that often used in the North (I can only think of Dhokla, a Gujurati dish, and a number of Bengali dishes such as steamed fish and steamed yoghurt, off the top of my head). And of course the North is famous for the tandoor.

Other North – South differences include simple things like what beverages and snacks are common. Chai (masala and plain) can be found all over, with a few regional special blends here and there, but in the South coffee is also an extremely popular drink and good filter coffee is an absolute must-try. In the North, as well as a range of pakoras and bhajis, samosas and kachoris are popular fried snack foods, whereas in the South I think you will probably see a variety of vadas a little more often.

Don’t forget that within a state, there may be quite large differences between the cuisines of various religions. Muslim dishes tend to be meaty (minus the pork of course), and often rather rich and aromatic. Christian dishes are also often very meaty; though this time they use meat of all kinds from duck to pork to beef to chicken. Sometimes Hindu dishes are vegetarian, sometimes they concentrate on fish, and other times they are meaty (minus the beef). Then there’s Parsi cuisine, which you really need to talk to a Parsi to get a good overview of, which is often meat and also egg rich and very distinctive. Jains follow a very strict form of vegetarianism which excludes garlic and onions and also a number of other vegetables. It sounds like the food could be quite restricted or bland, but actually a number of the dishes are rather innovative and exciting.

Let's talk quickly about a few more differences you may spot in the cuisines of various states, dishes they are well known for perhaps.

Allow me to start in a state that makes some of my favourite food: The state of Kerala is known for using a lot of coconut in its cooking. Grated fresh coconut, coconut oil, coconut milk - it's all used. South India in general also makes quite a lot of use of coconut, and so does the West coast of India, through Goa and Maharashtra. These coastal regions also love their fish and fresh seafood is a great thing to try.

Karnataka is said to be the home of many tiffins such as dosas, and indeed they do have some of the best in the country. However, Tamil Nadu is also very well known for its tiffins, and I actually think I prefer many items there! Andhra Pradesh is quite well known for its fiery food, and Hyderabad in particular is famous as a place of exquisite Muslim cookery with a Southern twist. All over the South, sambar and rasam are popular gravy (in India, gravy is a wet sauce rather than a dry dish, it is not the same use of the word gravy as used in other countries) or wet dishes but each place has a distinctive style. Green bananas, yams, drumsticks, various gourds – these are popular Southern vegetables, among others. In general, I notice that the South uses less heavy dairy such as paneer, but yoghurt is popular.

Up North, a region that particularly likes its fish is West Bengal (and Bangladesh actually too). They prefer fresh water fish though, and cook it in a variety of ways. Other distinctive Bengali touches are spice pastes made of mustard or white poppy seeds, tadkas with panch pooran (a spice masala with five whole spices), frequent use of masoor dal, and the use of mustard oil. In addition, Bengal is famous for its fresh cheese sweets, such as rasgoola, rasmalai and sandesh. Bengalis are rightly very proud of their cuisine!

Another Northern region, though with a very different cuisine, is the Punjab. The Punjab is famous for its homey, hearty food, often containing lots of dairy such as ghee, butter and yoghurt. Breads are a favourite here, especially tandoor baked breads. Paneer is a favourite ingredient and appears in many dishes. Some famous Punjabi dishes are pulse based, such as rajma (contains kidney beans), chole (contains chickpeas) and dal makhani (contains urad beans). Don’t forget to drink lots of creamy, delicious lassi.

Still in the North, Delhi is a fantastic foodie city. Famous for its rich and often rather meaty Mughlai cuisine, Punjabi food is also very popular here. Old Delhi is well known for its fantastic street food, especially chaat items, and vegetarian dishes.

In the North West, the state of Rajasthan has some interesting examples of making delicious food with scarce resources. It is quite a dry state and green vegetables and water can be scarce. So the cuisine makes innovative use of papads, gram flour and pulses to create dishes. Often the dishes are quite rich as more ghee or oil is often used instead of adding water, or at least this is what I was told!

Gujarat is another state with an innovative cuisine. There are many fascinating and delicious Vegetarian items, and indeed the vegetarian Guajarati thali is famous all over the country. Farsan are a special category of snack items (though they are often served with a meal), frequently made from gram flour. Many are fried, but some such as dhokla are steamed. Farsan includes a range of noodle like dishes, and other interesting and imaginative vegetarian dishes. Gujurati cuisine has a reputation for having a sweet touch, with jaggery or sugar added in small amounts to many savoury dishes, but I am not sure if this is true for the whole state or only parts.

Now we’re back on the West coast, so it’s only fitting we talk about Maharashtrian food briefly. There are a wide range of veg and non veg dishes, and a large number of delicious snack foods. Famous among these are pao bhaji, vada pav, pani puri and sabudana vada. Add kulfi, deliciously cool gola and refreshing nimbu pani to this and you can see why it is so easy to wander around eating here and there! Despite all of these delicious fried and sweet items, Maharashtrian cuisine has many very healthy dishes, often utilising sprouted beans and healthy rural flours made from various kinds of millet. Try and find places serving local thalis so that you can sample a wide range of dishes served in a traditional manner. Other local must trys are thalipeeth, poha and, my personal favourite, pithale-bhakri.

A little further down the West coast is Goa, and yet again you will find many delicious and different dishes. As mentioned earlier, coconut and fish are much loved here. Actually there are a few similarities with some parts of Maharashtra and also South India. On top of this there is a Portuguese influence (the Portuguese did rule Goa for something like 400 years!). Vindaloo is a famous Goan dish with a Portuguese influence (the name indicates that the dish contains vinegar and garlic). Another is bebinca, a sort of rich layered egg pancake/custard dessert made from many eggs, coconut milk and sugar.

Ok, so those were just a few examples from some regions, and only really the very well known bits and pieces. It would be helpful to know where you are thinking of visiting. Also, I appreciate that I may have listed dish names that mean very little to you – I am happy to clarify (or you can google), it’s just I was trying to do this somewhat swiftly!

Remember, a tourist can easily miss out on a large number of these regional differences, as they are eating out rather than in people’s homes. A lot of people enjoy eating out to have something different from what they normally eat at home, so in the South you will see people tucking into naans, butter chicken and other Northern dishes with great relish, and in the North you will see people enjoying idli-sambar as a change from their local cuisine! Then there’s the ubiquitous hotel menu, which includes all the standards such as dal fry, jeera rice, channa masala, aloo gobi, and can be found in most hotels all over the country.

You will be able to try some regional specialities by eating out, but you should really try to get yourself invited to local people’s houses! Failing that, look for crowded, small local restaurants that are serving “meals” or “thalis”, especially those that advertise local food. Breakfast is another good time to try more local foods. In the South you will find idli, upma, dosa, etc. in most places but you should also be able to find regionally specific items such as puttu-kadala (Kerala), pongal (Tamil Nadu), etc. In the North you can enjoy aloo parathas and poori bhaji in most places, but once again look out for regional treats such as in Amritsar, the delicious Amritsari kulcha.

There is so much more to say about regional Indian food, so many different aspects and variations that I could write pages more, and I don’t even know that much! I’ve tried to touch on a broad variety of variations, but I can definitely go on. Many people are fiercely proud of their local cuisine, and are keen to clear up misinformation, which is why you are better off speaking to some South Asians about what they grew up with and so on :smile: It’s also worth noting that in our increasingly global world, many traditional local dishes are being forgotten or altered to adapt to changes in taste preference, time and ingredient availability and so on. So sometimes discussions about regional food can get quite heated – “Oh no, it never contains garlic! That’s a new addition, and not traditional at all”, “Well, that’s how my mother always made it, and her mother too, so it is traditional”….you get the picture!

I hope this has been somewhat helpful. I know I have written too much! Remember, even in a lifetime you could not learn everything about all aspects of Indian food. A lifetime maybe might be enough to get to know one regional cuisine :biggrin:

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Wow, that was an incredible post! Thank you so much for taking out the time to be so thorough. Really, for a true novice like myself, this is more than enough - you gotta start somewhere, after all.

If and when I do go and dabble in the cuisine, I'll be sure to report back.

And yes, I agree - we need a more active India board (that applies to most all the international boards in general).

Thanks again for the amazing work.

Edmund Mokhtarian

Food and Wine Blogger


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Jenni - incredible post! Worth archiving. Blown away by the breadth of your knowledge, thank you so much.

To anyone interested in an introduction to Indian regional cuisine, I'd recommend searching out Madhur Jaffrey's 'A Taste Of India,' which has been out of print for some time. It surveys Indian cuisine by region, explains ingredients, traditions and culture, and is beautifully illustrated. It doesn't contain a ton of recipes, but all of the ones I've tried - bar none -have turned out well, and they are extremely varied. (Just read the recipe thoroughly in advance, and beware the dreaded "Jaffrey surprise" of a complex sub-recipe on a different page referenced halfway through.)

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Jenni - incredible post! Worth archiving. Blown away by the breadth of your knowledge, thank you so much.

Agreed! Jenni, I hope you're contributing to the Wiki, this would be a great contribution.

Oh no no no! Seriously guys, I am a mere novice and the small amount of information I have provided barely skims the surface and only picks up on some of the more well known regional differences. Let the experts write on the wiki!

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Jenni, any recommendations for regional Indian cookbooks would be really useful.

I have "Curried Favors" by Maya Kaimal, which includes a lot of Keralan (Keralite? Malayali? not sure of the correct adjective) recipes. But I've been wondering how authentic it is even compared to Jaffrey, since for example it recommends tamarind as a souring agent in fish curries whereas Jaffrey actually tells you to go out and find kodampuli.

I also have Camille Panjabi's book, which ranges all over India, but haven't actually cooked from it. My go-to's remain Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, probably like many of us.

I owned Yamuna Devi's Lord Krishna's Cuisine for a while, but never enjoyed anything I made from it.

Any other suggestions greatly appreciated!

Edited by patrickamory (log)
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Tamarind is used in Kerala, so don't worry too much about its usage being inauthentic. It's also called kokum and is used quite a bit in Konkani cuisine, and is found in Maharashtrian and Goan food. I believe it is used quite a bit in fish preparations in Kerala, and I've seen it used elsewhere in the South too.

Your best bet is to find cookbooks written by people from the actual region they are writing about, or who have at least spent a lot of time finding out about a specific cuisine. I find that cookery writers with a narrower focus (trying to do one cuisine rather than many!) are more likely to produce authentic recipes. Having said that, don't be scared of trying some of the more fusion or pan indian recipes. They can still be delicious and satisfying. It's just that it's nice to make something as it would be made in the place it's originally from, if that makes sense!

I really like the following books (Note: Many of these are vegetarian as I am a veggie!):

'Dakshin', 'Simply South' and 'Southern Spice' by Chandra Padmanabhan. These contain recipes from South India. I think some of the recipes from Dakshin are slightly overcomplicated, but they are still very tasty. The other two books contain some recipes that are more homey and less often seen in cookery books.

'Cooking at Home with Pedatha' by Jigyasa Giri and Pratibha Jain is a great book on Andhra cuisine.

'Samayal' and 'Classic Tamil Brahamn Cuisine' by Viji Varadarajan are both great books on Tamil Cuisine.

'Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts' by Ammini Ramachandran is an amazing book on vegetarian cuisine from Kerala. The author is an extremely knowledgable lady who occasionally has posted on eGullet and also has her own website, here.

'India: The cookbook' by Pushpesh Pant is a hefty, gorgeous tome which attempts to give authentic, homey recipes from all over India. Although I am sure that people from different regions will spot a few flaws in recipes from their own regions, overall it makes a pretty damn good effort.

'Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals' by Chitrita Banerji is a fascinating book about Bengali food and culture. It's basically a book to read, with a few recipes in it. The layout is not great for cooking from, but it's an excellent book.

'My Bombay Kitchen' by Niloufer Ichaporia King, don't actually own this one myself but have heard extremely good things about it from other, very knowledgeable people. It's a book about Parsi home-style cooking.

Well, that's a few for now, notice that many of them are South-orientated! I will try and think of some more later. Incidentally, Yamuna Devi's book has some interesting recipes but remember that she is actually an American and many of the recipes are written from that perspective and with an American audience in mind. So not everything is that authentic, though much of it is delicious. And she has some pretty good technical notes on making milk sweets and a few other things. Madhur Jaffrey writes beautifully and has many delicious recipes. Julie Sahni I have always found to be a bit more average, but you can use whatever tastes good to you.

Don't underestimate the power of South Asian food forums and regional blogs online. Also make an effort to take notes if/when you travel to India - ask people for their favourite recipes, try and watch people cooking, taste different dishes and note down flavours...this is the best way to get first hand experience!

You should never think you know everything about a certain cuisine, and you should never stop learning!

Edited by Jenni (log)
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