By Amanda Little
Traveling through India is like traveling the world within a single country. Culture, customs, food, and specialties are different everywhere you go in India. Some regions offer curry that will clear your sinuses, while others serve up succulent seafood.
There are dozens of different styles and types of bread in different areas, and each region has its own take on staple dishes like chutney and dal. But no matter where you go, mouthwatering food is waiting for you.
The savory, sweet, and sips of the north.
Dig into a savory bowl of dal, a nutritious, flavorful and hot stew-like dish that focuses around lentils and vegetables. A rich blend of spices like cumin, ginger, garlic, garam masala and more, including the jalapeno peppers, make this dish a quick staple for lunch or dinner. Dal is usually eaten with rice, or flatbreads like roti or chapatis.
An unusual drink that is widely popular is lassi, a yogurt-based drink that is traditionally savory, but can be made sweet. Usually, its flavored with ground and roasted cumin, but it can sometimes be found with fruit and spices mixed in to the drinker’s taste.
Naan bread is among the more well-known of the many varieties of bread found throughout India. Naan is a specific kind of flatbread that tends to be thicker, and is similar to pita bread. However naan is cooked in a tandoor, which differentiates it from both pita, and another Indian bread roti, which is cooked on an iron griddle called a tava.
Rice or bread is a staple in nearly every meal.
Chutney can be found anywhere in India, but the flavors and favorites will vary as you move throughout the country. Usually, the dish consists of chopped onions, green or dry red chilies, coriander leaves and local herbs ground into a coarse paste. If you’re exploring through Mumbai, you’ll find the favored coriander chutney, but the Morok Metpa chutney, served with ngari fish, is a favorite in Manipur. No matter where you go, chutney is enjoyed with all kinds of meals.
Chamthong (or Kangshoi)
Seasonal vegetables boil and stew with chopped onions, maroi, ginger, ngari, and more to bring the savory and heart-warming chamthong, or kangshoi, to the dinner table. It's topped with fried fish pieces or dried fish, and usually eaten along with rice.
A sweet type of rice porridge, chahou kheer hails from Manipur and tends to be topped with nuts, cardamom, sugar and rice fruit. The treat can also be made with black rice and its usually creamy look takes on a purple hue instead. The dessert can be enjoyed hot or cold.
Seafood makes its way into stews and curry along the coast.
Small, ball-shaped sweet dumplings of chhena and semolina dough pile high on a platter, and become rasgulla. The popular desert has spread as far as Asia because of its light but sweet taste and sweet syrup.
Fish dishes and seafood are popular along India’s coast, but Pakhala is the most common rice dish, which can be left overnight to ferment, becoming basi pakhala. The unfermented dish is called saja pakhala, and is a light summer dish. They are both served with green chilies, onions, yogurt, seafood, badi, and more.
This style of flatbread is made from wholemeal flour, and is popular not only in India, but Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malidives, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, as well as parts of South Africa, the Carribbean, Trinidad, Fiji, and many more. The main characteristic of this bread style is that is is unleavened, making it a key difference between roti and naan, other than the way it is cooked. Roti is most used as an accompaniment to a meal.
Bread varies so widely throughout India, you can find different kinds in every region.
Biryani can be served up as vegetarian or with chicken, mutton, fish or a favorite meat. A blend of spices like garlic, turmeric, chilies, masala, cardamom, coriander, and more are mixed into rice to make the dish. Meat and eggs are added as desired.
Traditionally a breakfast in Southern India, idli is a savory bread-like cake composed of fermented black lentil and rice. There are several variations to idli based on the region, like idli made of semolina or sanna. Idli can be eaten with chutney, curry, and stews that are popular in the area.
Fermented batter is cooked similar in the way a crepe is made, forming the pancake-like dosa. Instead of the usual flour, its main ingredients are rice and black gram. Traditional dosa is served with a stuffing of potatoes called sambar, or chutney.
Some foods are only prepared for sacred festivals.
Chaat is a simple dish that is usually sold as Indian street food offically in Delhi and most of northern India, but has made its way across the entire country as an hors d’oeuvre or snack food most easily found in food carts. Fried potatoes are tossed together with chana and chopped onions, and served with heaping spices and chutney on top.
Along the Konkan Coast, vade is known as a specialty. Vade is deep-fried, made from a batter of rice, lentils, and finely ground spices, like coriander, fenugreek, pepper, and cumin. Vade comes out of the fryer puffed and hollow because of the fenugreek and coriander in it, and it is often served with a spicy, coconut-based chicken curry called kombdi vade. The best kombdi vade can be bought from a street cart in Mumbai on a street called Kombdi.
Modak is a favorite sweet among Maharashtrians because of its association with the lord Ganesha. The elephant-headed god is said to favor modak as his favorite treat and it is prepared during the Ganesh festival in August. Its made up of wheat flour kneaded with milk, and stuffed with jaggery, which is grated coconut mixed with sugar. It is then steamed or fried and 21 of them are offered up to the god as many more are fed to the people celebrating. Some sweet shops sell modak during the festival season, but for an authentic taste, it should be home made.