The northern parts of India have given the gifts of their rich curries, soft breads and smoky tandoor dishes to Indian restaurants around the globe.
Much of what has spread across the globe as ‘Indian’ food is inspired by the staple dishes of the Punjab region in the country’s north-west, but there’s huge variation in cooking styles right across India, and the north is no exception; alongside the familiar Punjabi dishes, there’s Bengal, Kashmir, and much more to discover.
From the slightly controversial butter chicken to a favourite home-style rice pudding, here are five dishes that will deliver a delicious insight into India’s north.
1. Lamb korma - a curry with a rich history
What lies behind much of what’s called “North Indian” food, says Sydney chef Inderpreet Minhas, is not so much geography as a rich culinary history.
“The North Indian food that we know today [in restaurants] is based off that dynasty of Mughals who came into India from Uzbekistan in the late 1400s. They brought their ideas with them and then mixed them with local cultures and traditions,” says Minhas, who is chef/restaurateur with the three Sydney restaurants owned by his family – Grace of India, started by his parents in 1993, and serving up many of the familiar dishes we love; and more recent openings Lavendra, which explores cuisines from across India, and WaazWaan, which focuses on the food of Kashmir.
The Mughal kings, Minhas explains, lived extremely luxurious lifestyles, including large amounts of money spent on food, and a great attention to detail. “A lot of these kings, they’d only eat once or twice a day, one reason being that the food was prepared in such a lavish manner and there was lots of it … also, they considered themselves as very noble and busy people, so they thought, ‘we can't spend all day eating, we don't have time for three or four meals.’ … That's kind of where the idea of the North Indian heavier-style meal comes from. It comes from a practical purpose originally, but the dishes were popular, and they spread more widely," he says.
And korma – a rich, creamy curry which can range from mild to fiery – is a great example. It also reflects the fact that while coconut milk and cream are more common in the south, diary is used more in the north.
“The korma is originally from Uzbekistan. It's a dish brought down [to India] by the Mughals,” Minhas explains. Traditionally, meat is seared, and then slowly braised with yoghurt or cream. The style often seen on restaurant menus has a nut paste in the ingredients, too. “The nut paste is usually cashews or almonds, and yogurt, mixed together with spices, and then added into the curry as part of the cooking process."
Diana Chan uses an almond, coconut, ghee and white poppy seed in the lamb korma she makes in Asia Unplated with Diana Chan. The paste, she explains, thickens the curry and give it “a rich, nutty flavour and texture”. The result is “rich and decadent and really lush”. Fit for a Moghul king, perhaps!
2. Butter chicken - possibly the world's favourite Indian dish
Loved across the world, butter chicken is a take-way and restaurant menu favourite – indeed, Minhas says it’s one dish that HAS to be on the menu, all the time, at all three of the family restaurants. But while the rich nature of the dish might embody the sprit of the Mughal legacy, it’s actually a much more recent invention. Just where it was invented, though, is a matter of debate.
“No one really knows. Some people in India say a restaurant called Moti Mahal, which credits itself as the first restaurant to invent butter chicken,” says Minhas. “But, if you went to the UK and said butter chicken, they’d say ‘we invented that’.”
We suggest whipping up your own butter chicken – aka murgh makhani – to eat while you contemplate that mysterious history: We’ve got plenty of recipes to choose from including a family recipe for butter chicken with mint yoghurt and pickled onion from Shruti Kohli; this tikka butter chicken from Smita Granland, which includes a recipe for home-made naan, perfect for mopping up every last drop; or Poh Ling Yiew’s version, served with a refreshing raita and buttery turmeric rice.
3. Bengali fish curry - because the Bengalis really know their seafood
Not all curries are heavy, rich and creamy, of course. When Melbourne chef Adam D’Sylva cooks up one of his favourite curries in Asia Unplated, it’s a Bengali-inspired fish curry that he describes as “healthy, light and refreshing”. Barramundi, prawns and mussels are cooked in a tomato, chilli, garlic and ginger sauce.
Bengal, a region in the north-east of the Indian subcontinent, straddling both Bangladesh and India, is a great example of how diverse the cuisine of northern India really is.
“Bengali people are expert at two things. One is cooking fish. And then the second thing is sweets and desserts. Any Indian who wants Indian dessert food will trust a Bengali to make it for them. Or if it comes to cooking fish, they know that Bengalis are the best,” says Minhas.
4. Paneer - a simple cheese with much to offer
“Paneer is home-made, unsalted, white cheese. It has a fresh farmer’s cheese-like quality and a dense, crumbly texture that works wonderfully with the spices of India but equally well with flaky sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and a drizzle of quality olive oil. It is full of virtues; it is a great source of protein, packed with vitamins and minerals and so tasty,” says TV host and cookbook author Anjum Anand, who says one of her favourite ways to eat it is to marinate it in herbs and spices, wrap it in foil and cook it on the barbecue.
It is also used in a wide range of sweet and savoury Indian dishes.
The next time you order a dish made with this Indian cottage cheese, take a closer look when you cut open a piece.
“Try to go to an Indian restaurant which makes their own paneer,” Minhas suggests.
“Paneer is a staple of Northern India-style cooking. When we make paneer in our restaurants, while we boil the milk, we also add splices into the paneer. We add whole spices and ground-up masala. We’re adding flavoring to the paneer, so the flavour’s inside the dish … The taste of homemade paneer is way beyond what you get when you buy a store-bought type of paneer.”
“If you have a piece of paneer and you cut it open and it's white on the inside, it means that there’s no flavour in it. But if you cut it open and it's a little bit yellow, and you can see some marks in there, it means that it's been flavoured.”
In Indian, paneer is often made with buffalo milk, but in Australia, where buffalo milk is hard to get and usually only available seasonally, it’s most commonly made with cow’s milk.
Paneer is used in many dishes. A good one to try next time you're eating out, or ordering in, is paneer tikka, says Minhas. “Paneer tikka comes in many forms. It depends on how you spice it. And it’s tandoori cooked, so a tandoor-cooked paneer grabs the flavour of the tandoor, which is so famous in North Indian cooking. It gives you that smoky taste.”
If you’d like to try making your own paneer, you can try Anand’s recipe for herby barbecued homemade paneer; this buffalo milk version; or Peter Kuruvita’s goat milk paneer. And then use it in recipes such as Vegetarian nasi goreng with marinated paneer; achari paneer murgh, a chicken and paneer curry (shown above); palak paneer, soft paneer with spinach; or paneer Frankie, a fried paneer wrap.
There’s a sweet side to paneer too – try these paneer balls in saffron sugar syrup (rasgulla).
5. Kheer - say hello to Indian comfort food
This pudding is sweet and fragrant, and easy to make; it does require some time spent stirring, but the reward is a rich, creamy texture and great flavour.
“It’s probably the most common home-cooked dessert that we have in the Punjab,” says Minhas. “It’s rice pudding with Indian flavours, and quite often we’d cook it with jaggery [an unrefined cane sugar] rather than white sugar.”
In Asia Unplated, Diana Chan makes her recipe using basmati rice, almond milk and sultanas, and flavours it with cardamom, cloves and a touch of saffron. It can be served warm or cold, she says – but she’s especially keen on it cold, so she chills hers, and tops it with flaked almonds, mango and pomegranate seeds.
Catch Diana Chan and friends cooking and eating their way across Asia in Australia in the brand-new series, Asia Uplated with Diana Chan. Airs on SBS Food at 8pm Thursdays from 19 December 2019 to 20 February 2020, or catch up on SBS On Demand.
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