India is the gourmand's delight, boasting not one or two but about as many cuisines as the number of communities. (And anybody who knows anything about India will tell you that there's just no counting the number of communities in this country, just as there's no counting the number of stars in the night sky!) It's all very well to broadly categorise the foods of India into North Indian and South Indian for the purpose of simplicity. But that is a simplistic categorisation, you'll realise, for even within every state in India one finds great culinary variation.
The account given here is categorised state wise and we have tried to give the reader a comprehensive guide. However, while all the major cuisines find their place in this write-up, one must remember that these are by no means the only ones.
The food of Jammu and Kashmir differs from region to region. The Hindu Dogras of Jammu being predominantly vegetarian, eat a staple diet of rice, wheat and beans. The Ladakhis eat rice, wheat, millet, locally produced vegetables and fruits, goat meat and dairy products made from yak milk. The most famous cuisine of the state though is Kashmiri. Dishes are cooked for a long time, so the meats may fully absorb the flavours of the accompanying condiments. The seasons and availability of fresh produce dictates the ingredients, some of which are dried for use in the winter months. The Kashmiri cuisine is essentially meat-based. There is a variation in the different eating habits of the Hindu and Muslim Kashmiris that determines which spices are used and which meats too since beef is prohibited for Hindus. The highlight of Kashmiri cuisine is the formal banquet called "wazawan", which includes a spread of over 36 courses cooked all night long by a team of chefs called ‘wazas' under the supervision of a ‘Vasta waza' or master chef, descendants of the cooks of Samarkand. The food is characterised by thick gravies which use liberal quantities of yoghurt, spices and dried fruits, and is usually cooked in ghee (clarified butter) or mustard oil. Saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, is grown locally. It is used extensively to flavour pulaos (rice dish) and sweets. The popular dishes include the starter yakhni , tabaq naat made of fried ribs, dum aloo (steam cooked potato curry), rogan josh made with mutton, gushtaba , a meatball curry, and haleem made from meat and pounded wheat. A Kashmiri meal must end with a cup of ‘Kahva', green tea flavoured with cardamom and almonds.
The food of Punjab is meant for the strong-hearted. It is rich in flavours and has a liberal dose of ghee (clarified butter) and spices. Punjab has an abundance of milk and therefore milk products are an important part of daily diet. No meal is complete without large glassfuls of butter milk or lassi (yoghurt drink). The people of this region are largely wheat eaters and have developed variations of breads including the stuffed aloo paratha (potato bread) and the makke ki roti (maize bread). Vegetarian delights such as sarson saag (mustard leaf curry), rajma-chawal (kidney beans with steamed rice) and kadhi (gram flour and yoghurt curry) are the most popular Punjabi dishes. Punjabis have also created a combination of the northwest frontier cuisine and Mughlai recipes to present rich poultry and mutton dishes. The ubiquitous ‘ tandoori chicken' is a great favourite!
The cuisine of Uttar Pradesh is just as diverse as its geography. Ranging from simple every day fare to rich, elaborate banquets, the cuisine of Uttar Pradesh has absorbed and adapted a variety of cuisines to create an entire smorgasbord of wonderful dishes. The people of Uttar Pradesh love to cook, to eat and to feed! Difference in communities notwithstanding, as a people, they are very warm and hospitable. For most of them, the ultimate in hospitality means you feed your guests till they beg for mercy.
Many Hindu communities are staunch vegetarians and they have created a vast variety of vegetarian dishes ranging from the all time favourite puri-aloo (potatoes and fried wheat bread) to savouries and divine desserts and sweetmeats. The Muslims, Kashmiris, Kayasthas and Christian communities cook up a storm of non-vegetarian dishes including a delectable selection of breads, kebabs, curries and biryanis . The Muslim cuisine, of northern Uttar Pradesh is very different from the Mughlai food of Delhi. The Nawabs of Oudh (now Lucknow) were great gourmets and encouraged their master chefs to create new styles of cooking like the famous ‘Dum Pukht' where the food is sealed in large pots called ‘handis', placed over a slow fire and left to cook in its own juices. When opened, these dishes release the most fragrant and delicious aromas. Lucknow and its neighbouring towns were put on the culinary map of India thanks to these rich curries, melt in the mouth kebabs, fragrant rice biryanis and pulaos and an eclectic collection of leavened and unleavened breads .
India's best known cuisine came from the Mughals and along with European cooking, influenced the royal kitchens. However, the common man's kitchen in Rajasthan remained unaffected and the simplest ingredients go into preparing most dishes. The food owes much to the demands and ingenuity of the lifestyle of the people. For example, the universal favourites Dal-baati (lentil curry with wheat dough balls roasted in hot coals) and choorma (dry, flaky, wheatbread crumb pudding garnished with raisins and almonds) were food items that could be carried for days in the hot desert climate by warriors. Baatis could be buried in the hot desert sands and slowly baked till required. Non-vegetarian dishes include ‘ soola ' or barbecued meats marinated to succulent tenderness and grilled on open coal fires. Its origins lie in the yesteryear hunting expeditions of the nobility.
In the desert areas of Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Barmer the scarcity of water and fresh green vegetables had its impact on the creativity of the cooks. Instead of water, the womenfolk of the herdsmen used milk, buttermilk and clarified butter that was available in plenty, as well as dried lentils and beans from native plants. Gram flour is a major ingredient and is used for preparing delicacies like gatta ki sabzi , pakodi and khata . Bajra and corn, the staple grains, go to making rotis , rabdi and kheechdi . And various chutneys prepared from locally available spices like coriander, garlic, mint and turmeric round off the regional flavour
However, it is sweets that the Rajasthanis really excel in, each region having its speciality. So Jaipur is famous for its ‘ mishri mawa ' and ‘ ghevar ', neighbouring Pushkar for its ‘ malpuas ', Ajmer for its ‘ sohan halwa ', Jodhpur and Jaisalmer for their ‘ laddoos ', Bikaner for its ‘ rasgullas ' and Udaipur for its ‘ dil jani '. And you can find mouth watering, crisp and syrupy ‘ jalebis ' everywhere.
Being constantly on the move, the Rajasthanis required foodstuff that could last several days and be easily carried. So, a large number of savoury snacks were developed - ‘ dal-moth ', ‘ mathri ', ‘ bhujia ', ‘ khatta-meetha sev ', which are popular to this day.
Almost always strictly vegetarian, Gujarati cuisine is unlike any other Indian cuisine. The difference lies in the unusual blending of the sweet with the savoury into a harmonious whole. Even though the state of Gujarat has absorbed many outside influences down the ages, the cuisine has remained much the same. The grand spread of Gujarati cuisine can be glimpsed and savoured in the very popular "Gujarati Thali" a large silver platter consisting of innumerable bowls full of vegetable curries, dals or lentil based gravies, a variety of breads, savories - crisp spicy fried farsans , sweetmeats and an amazing range of sweet and sour chutneys and pickles. The entire meal including the vegetables and dals (curried lentils) achieves a delicate balance of flavours – sweet and sour, salty and spicy, crisp and soft, low fat and deep-fried!
Some of the well-known Gujarati delicacies are Paunk (combination of various roasted cereals), undhyoo (a speciality of potatoes, sweet potatoes, brinjals and broad beans baked in an earthenware pot in a mud oven), kadi (a curry of yogurt and chopped vegetables), khamam dhokla (a salty, sweet-and-sour cake made from chickpea flour), shrikhand (a dessert made from yoghurt spiced with saffron, nuts, cardamom and dry fruit) and doodh pak (a dessert of thick sweetened milk with dry fruit and nuts).
Bengali food consists of a lot of fish, lentils and rice. Breakfast could be milk and rice flakes eaten with gur (jaggery) or luchi (fluffy wheat pancake) with aloo dum (a dry spicy potato dish not to be mistaken for the Kashmiri dum aloo ). Lunch and dinner are elaborate affairs. The first course is rice and daal (lentil curry) with vegetables, pickled mangoes and fresh salad. It is followed by rice and meat and yet another course of rice and fish. Great fish eaters, the true blue Bengali is the one who can crunch fish bones without letting them stick in the throat! The 'hilsa' fish is a speciality when cooked in mustard sauce.
Bengalis love sweets. A vast array of milk based ‘mithai' (sweetmeats) originated in Bengal. The light and spongy Rosogulla , the mouth-watering Sandesh are available all over India, but nowhere do they taste as they do in Kolkata. Sweetshops in other parts of the country just have to call themselves "Bengali Sweet House" and their reputation is established. If you're ever in Kolkata do try the delectable Mishti Doi (rich sweet yoghurt).
Goan cuisine is the end result of the blending of local Konkani and Portuguese food styles. This culinary amalgamation and adaptation has created fiery coconut based curries and stews using pork and beef and rich cakes and pastries, as well as an interesting range of port and red and white wines.
Goa's famous Pork Vindaloo is the fiery local speciality, cooked in hot red chilli peppers and vinegar – it's hot and tangy. Other specialities of Goan cuisine are equally well known: Xacuti (a chicken or meat dish), Chourisso (spicy Goan sausages), Sorpotel (a pig liver dish) and Prawn Balchao. A meal should be rounded off with delicious, much relished desserts, Dodol and Bebinca . Fresh seafood is an absolute must for Goan cooking, which includes dishes of prawns, crabs, mussels and fish cooked in local styles and mouth-watering creations of lobster cooked in wine and cheese.
Feni , the local cashew fruit or coconut brew hits all the right spots. For the less adventurous, there are some local ports and red and white wines or the cool, refreshing coconut water drunk straight from the tender green coconut.
Andhra food is deliciously hot and tangy. The everyday favourite is pulihara , tamarind rice spiced up with sliced green chillies. Telugu people love their side dishes, pickles that'll have you red in the face, crisp poppadums and yoghurt. The dosa, a rice pancake is special in Andhra. Called the pessaratu , it is filled with a savoury semolina preparation called uppama .
Famous all over the world, the aromatic meat and rice preparation called biryani belongs to Hyderabad. Taking its cue from the Nizams of Hyderabad, this distinctly Muslim food is mainly concerned with succulent meats, sweet spices and ways of putting them together in the most delectable fashion there could be. Fruits, like custard apples, bananas, mangoes and the locally grown grape, anab é shahi, act like an antidote to the spices of the food.
While Andhra cuisine (barring Hyderabadi fare) is predominantly vegetarian, the people of the coast do eat fish and prawns cooked in sesame or coconut. Rice toddy is the locally brewed alcoholic drink.
The food of Tamil Nadu is what passes for “south Indian cuisine” everywhere else in the country. Idli , dosa , vada , sambar , uppama ! As with all Indian food, a meal centres on a base of rice or semolina preparation. Eaten alongside is the sambar , sour hot dal souped-up with vegetables. The Brahmins are vegetarian, but others consume sour-hot fish, mutton and chicken with gusto.
Of the Tamilian cuisines it is Chettinad food that is on the ascendance on the popularity charts. The cuisine belongs to the money-lending community of Chettiars who were originally from the deep south of the state but whose trade links took them far and wide into South East Asia. The wealth of the community is reflected in its food, which is liberal in its use of oils, meats and spices. Of course they cook the usual chicken and fish, but they also have dishes for such exotica as Japanese quail. They do a variety of vegetarian dishes. The basic terms are varuval, poriyal and kuzambu. A varuval is a dry preparation where meats or vegetables are lightly fried with onions and spices, the poriyal is a rich hot curry, and kuzambu is a stew of meat or vegetables in spiced up coconut milk.
The drink of choice through the state is coffee. Grown in the plantations in the Nilgiri Hills, the coffee is brewed with great care and filtered such that it is guaranteed to deliver the day's caffeine fix with one flavourful punch.
Rice is the staple of the Kerala diet. Various preparations form the base of the meal; curries of fish, meat and vegetable accompany it. Most dishes bear the flavour of coconut, curry leaves and mustard seeds, and the tastes of coconut milk and tamarind. All communities except the Namboodiris, a community of orthodox Brahmins, consume meat.
Kerala cuisine is distinguished by its regional and religious variations. The food of the Malabar Coast is distinct in its use of red chillies, pepper, mutton and beef preparations and the fondness for the famed Malabari ' barotha ' a many-layered fried bread made from unleavened dough. The Travancore region is staunchly Hindu so beef is taboo but pork is not. Rice is still the staple; but while the curries are less spicy there is a strong flavour of coconut oil. The Malayali relishes sea fish, mussels, pork, beef, mutton and fowl, and these may be stewed, fried or curried. Usually Muslims won't eat pork and Hindus won't eat beef. The influence of the Middle East is unmistakable in the richness of the meat dishes
Puttu is a breakfast speciality made from steamed rice flour. The Kerala variation of the dosa , the Tamilian rice pancake, is called appam . The pathiri is yet another kind of bread, which may be had sweet or stuffed with meat. The most popular sweets are payasam and pradaman. Rasam , served right at the end of a meal, is light pepper water intended to help you digest your food. Kallu and patta charayam are the local liquor: the latter is a kind of arrack - extremely potent; the drink is usually accompanied with boiled eggs and hot pickles, which go some way in taking the edge off the drink. Culinary specialities include banana, yam and jackfruit chips, avial , a vegetable curry flavoured with fresh coconut, green chilis and curd, injipuli , a tamarind and ginger sauce , as well as the hot but very delicious Malabari prawn and chicken curries.