TL;DR Here is a installment of research on Indian Cuisine, focusing on the spices, flavors, and dishes of the culture.

If you are here seeking Chicken Tikka Masala and Curry Powder, you might be disappointed, but keep reading and your palate may also be opened up to a very varied cuisine.

Background

Being part one of the oldest cultures, Indian cuisine has been around for a long time. Ancient recipes were invigorated in the north during the time of the Mughal conquest, while the south developed a very different cuisine. But saying North and South would not be enough to cover Indian cuisine. Indian food is heavily regionalized among the different sub-sects of the population (which makes sense given the amount of time it has had to evolve): Punjab, Gujarat, Kerala, Calcutta and so on. Ahead of me there is a big task to try and cover this cuisine, but attempting to do so in a manner not to overwhelm you.

Meals usually involve a mixture of dishes, rices, breads, sides, and accompaniments all shared among the group eating. It’s a cuisine that’s very lonely to eat alone.

The Spices

Spice has many purposes in food and in particular to India, spices became ingrained for their cooling, medicinal (especially turmeric), and preservative properties. However, all spices weren’t native to india; Chili pepper actually came from the Portuguese. Here are the basics:

Chili Pepper (Laal Mirch) – can be fresh peppers or in the powdered form. Indian pepper is usually very fiery and should be used with caution. You can remove the heat by taking the seeds out, the finer you chop, the stronger the heat.

Tumeric (Haaldi) – it’s in the same family as ginger but not as strong. Unfortunately, the dried powder usually doesn’t carry a lot of the flavor and is often used for coloring. Fresh Tumeric will had a warm and musky/earth but strong and bitter flavor so use with caution.

Mustard (Sarso) – Usually fried in oil to get the flavor out, these seeds will add both a strong nutty flavor and aroma to the dish.

Cardamon (Elaichi) – A native to India spice, they very strong and pungent. They are used to flavor the dish but shouldn’t be eaten themselves. They are used for both sweet and savory dishes. Unique taste that’s hard to describe.

Cumin (Jeera) – A strong spice that should be used in the seed form to maximize flavor. Often will be fried or roasted to release the flavor. Unique taste that’s hard to describe.

Asofoetida (Hing) – Mainly a digestive, use sparingly in small quantities. Bitter flavor.

Ginger (Adrak) – A sharp, citrus-y flavor. Often blended into the dish rather than having separately. Fresh is the best option here.

Coriander (Dhania) – Aka cilantro. You can use the seeds or the herb to get a fresh citrus-y flavor in your dish.

Garlic (Lehsun) – hopefully you’re already familiar with this.

Garam Masala – garam masala is a mixture of spices, often including chili, coriander, and cumin, but recipes vary with restaurants having their own mix (similar to Chinese XO sauce).

Other mentions: Saffron, Bay Leaves, Dried Mango (Amchur) & Curry Leaves

With an understanding of these spices, you have the groundwork for Indian Cuisine. These spices used in different combinations across the different regions creates the wonderful cuisine of India. Take that chicken tikka masala!

Major Ingredients

A quick introduction to some of the staple ingredients:

Vegetables/Fruits

  • Vegetable oil
  • Coconuts (milk, fresh fruit, cream)
  • Tamarind
  • Mangoes
  • Bananas
  • Lemon/Limes
  • Papayas
  • Indian Eggplant
  • Bitter Melon/Gourd
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes

Dairy

  • Yogurt
  • Paneer (indian cheese, similar but not exactly cottage cheese)

Lentils, Peas, and Beans

We are big on our dhals, especially as a source of protein.

  • Chana (chickpea)
  • Mung Beans
  • Red split lentils
  • Tuvar dhal
  • Urid dhal
  • Black-eyed beans
  • Kidney Peans

Grains

  • Rice – white basmati rice
  • Breads (lots of variations, but usually from whole-wheat) – Naan, Chapatis, Rotis, Paranthas, Pooris, and Poppadums

Non-Vegetarian

There are varied stories on how meat become a part of indian cuisine. A lot of influence in the north came from the mughals:

  • Goat
  • Lamb
  • Chicken

And in the south, due to access, we will see more seafood:

  • Crab
  • Fish
  • Prawns

Staples Items around the Country

This list is not at all conclusive. Dishes with similar names will often have subtle differences as well as some dishes might not necessarily be specific to the region. 

North India – a lot of foreign influence notably the mughals

  • Kashmiri Food – aromatic, rich, and  will often include nuts
  • Tandoori Chicken – marinated chicken cooked in a tandoor
  • Karahi Chicken – chicken cooked in a karahi (a type of pan/pot) often with supplementary vegetables
  • Chicken Tikka – cubed, marinated chicken cooked in a tandoor
  • Saag (Spinach)
  • Lamb and Goat Curries (Rogan Josh)
  • Kababs – Shammi, Seek, and more
  • Kofta Curry – middle eastern influence of making “meatballs” in a indian sauce
  • Indochinese – a combination of the two cultures is also prominent here such as Chili Chicken or Hakka Noodles
  • Began (eggplant) bharth (mash) – roasted and mashed eggplant
  • Biryani – a rice and meat mixed dish

East India – local produce and fish from the Bay of Bengal

  • Chicken Jhalfrazi – a reminiscent dish of the British rule in the region
  • Fish Curries
  • Prawn Curries
  • Mixed Vegetables Curry
  • Tarka Dhal or Chana Dhal
  • Kerela (bitter melon)

South India – light and refreshing food, with seafood, and fiery peppers that are grown in the area; coconut is predominant here. You might start to notice a rise of meat (even beef) as a some populations in South or West India converted to

  • Chicken Madras
  • Vegetables in coconut sauce
  • Fried Fish
  • Dosa – ground dhals made into a batter than cooked to make a crispy bread-like meal
  • Sambar – a lighter version of dhal
  • Idlies – rice cakes
  • Coconut rice

West India – lastly we get to region which is fairly split, we have some groups that are strictly vegetarian, but then other that will eat meat (even beef) due to the Portuguese and Christian influences

  • Chicken Xacuti – a popular Goan fish curry
  • Vindaloo – another famous Goan export with Portuguese influence
  • Dhansak – a Parsi (Persians that fled to this region) dish of vegetables
  • Pork Balchao
  • Goan Prawn Curry
  • Stuffed Okra/Vegetables

Misc: Pickles, Chutneys, and Salads