Each region of India has its own style of cooking and distinct flavours. The North is known for its tandoori and korma dishes; the South is famous for hot and spicy foods; the East specialises in chilli curries; and the West uses coconut and seafood, whereas the Central part of India is a blend of all. As the majority of India’s population practices Hinduism, vegetarianism is widespread across the continent, but Hindu food habits also vary according to regional traditions.
In the Ganges, a meal typically consists of plain rice, accompanied by vegetables sautéed with spices, dhal (a blend of pulses), unleavened bread and a sweet. Bengali cuisine is considered somewhat more elaborate and refined, being the only place in India in which food is served in separate courses.
In the south, where rice is the staple, it is eaten in many forms, including thin crepes known as dosai or steamed to form idli.
Goans are known for their use of vinegar and fiery chillies, with the hot curry known as vindaloo hailing from this region. The name, however, actually derives from the Portuguese words for vinegar and garlic.
Spices are unquestionably the cornerstone of Indian cooking and are widely cultivated according to region. For example, cardomom, cloves and peppers are harvested mainly in the south, while chillies and turmeric come mainly from Rajasthan, Kashmir and Gujarat.
The period of British colonial rule left its mark on the food of India and the blending of eastern spices into western food that began at that time has endured to this day. Examples include kedgeree (a rice and lentil breakfast dish), mulligatawny ("pepper water") soup and the ubiquitous curry. Curry is a catch-all term used originally by the Raj to refer to any sauced dish of spicy meat, fish or vegetables and is probably an adaption of the Tamil word kari, meaning "sauce".
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Kumar Mahadevan's recipe for this famous Kashmiri Indian lamb curry is a winner. The lamb becomes meltingly tender and the spices smell enticing as you’re cooking them. The choice of saucepan is very important – the ingredients should fill no more than a quarter of its depth, so you need quite a deep pan with a heavy base to retain an even temperature.
Dhal is a simple meal of cooked, spiced beans, peas or lentils. It is high in protein and fibre. This recipe uses toor dal, or yellow split peas, but other varieties include urid, mung and masoor, to name just a few. To me, this recipe redefines dhal – it is so yummy that you can have it for dinner on its own, although it is perfect served with steamed rice or Indian bread. The fresh tomatoes and coriander give it real freshness and the asafoetida is worth seeking out to counter the gassy effects of the split peas – it is available from most Indian food stores.
I was delighted to learn the secret of this beautiful green dish – and how to keep it green as well (by blanching the spinach, pureeing it and then cooking it only briefly in the finished dish). Instead of pureeing the spinach, you can chop it to achieve a more textured dish typically served in Indian homes. You can also substitute frozen spinach for fresh – and that’s already chopped! Paneer (firm Indian cottage cheese) is now available in supermarkets.
For potato lovers who like a hint of spice, this Indian recipe is the best thing in the world. The snap, crackle and pop as you fry the spices is part of the joy.
Is there anything better than tender spiced chicken? Ajoy Joshi has an unusual technique for cooking this Indian dish, which involves covering the saucepan with a bowl with a little water inside it instead of a lid. As the chicken cooks in its own juices, it creates steam that holds the bowl in place, sealing in all the delicious flavours. The result is amazingly tender – as if the chicken has been steamed. Ajoy is also a master at blending spices. Try this recipe - you won't be disappointed.