India has such a vast and beautiful gastronomical heritage. There are so many aspects to Indian cooking. The variety itself is extremely confusing if you are not acquainted with this kind of food. So I’m going to try and simplify the great Indian ‘curry’ for you.
A curry is a liquid dish that varies in consistency and texture depending on the ingredients used. It’s all about balance. It would be unfair to generalize. But for purpose of simplification, a simple and very basic curry begins with sauteing onions which add a mild sweetness followed by ginger and/or garlic and chillies that give heat. Then tomatoes/tamarind extract/vinegar/ dried mango bits/kokam(garcinia cambogia)/curd/mustard is used to give it a bit of sourness and acidity. Powdered or ground spices are added for heat, flavour and aroma. A choice of meat and/or vegetables are added and kept to simmer with water. Then a thickening agent is used. Cream, yoghurt, ground almonds or cashews(north), ground peanuts(Andhra, south), ground coconut, coconut milk(west to south), rice flour(west), ground melon seeds, gram flour(north west), ground poppy seeds(west, east, south-east) cornflour(north-east), lentils(all through) are popular choices. These differ from region to region. This is just a very basic explanation of a simple curry. Now let’s look at the popular curries from across the country beginning with the north.
I think Rogan Josh is the most popular Kashmiri curry. This curry is very fragrant. It is a deep red hued lamb/goat gravy of thin consistency. A lot of spices are used in it’s preparation. But the kind of spices used are aromatics. They do not add much heat to the gravy. I say this because I have seasoned Indian tastebuds that love chilli. 😉. Mutton is very popular in Kashmiri cuisine and most people there consume meat. Apart from Rogan Josh, Shab Deg (meat and turnip), Yakhni, Meatball curry, Tabak maaz and slow cooked Dum gravies are popular gravies.
The state of Himachal Pradesh is known for their Pahadi kebabs. But I’ll limit this post to just curries. Up north, where it snows, fresh produce is limited in the mountainous terrains. So lamb, goat, lentils, pulses and yoghurt based gravies are a staple.
The food in the North Indian states is influenced by the Mughals who ruled over the land before the British took over. I’m not very familiar with food from Uttarakhand, Bihar and Haryana. But I do know they have delicious dum gravies, meatball and kofta curries. I have been to Haryana several times. But, the food I ate was very similar to Delhi cuisine. The gravies of Delhi are famous all through the world. Chicken tikka masala, Butter Chicken or chicken makhani, Kadhai Chicken, Shahi Paneer, Chicken do pyaza, Maanh ki dal, rajma chawal, dal makhani, paalak paneer North indians consume more rotis/flatbread; but as we move south, rice is more popular. Hence the northern gravies are thicker while the southern cuisine have gravies of a thinner consistency which pair better with rice while a thick gravy will be too dry if teamed with plain rice; and if you serve a watery gravy with rotis it just won’t soak up any flavour and will be difficult to hold any gravy in the rotis.
The Awadhi gravies of Uttar Pradesh are slightly similar to Punjabi and Kashmiri food. Lucknowi kebabs are very famous especially Kakori kebabs and tunda kebabs. The use of dairy (cream, milk, ghee and butter) is very prominent in the North. Dairy tones down the spice and adds a rich texture and taste to North Indian gravies.
Punjabi food is rich food. A lot of dairy is used in cooking. Food is laced with ghee, curd, cream and butter. This region is not along the coastline so fish is rare. The land here is extremely fertile and some of the best produce of the country comes from this region. The best quality of basmati rice as well as wheat is grown here. So both rice and rotis are consumed here….although rotis are more popular. Kebabs and tikkas, paneer and tandoor items are this region’s gift to the world. Bhuna masala, do pyaza, saag, karahi, kadhai, makhani, Sarson da saag, chole, methi malai, matar paneer, malai kofta, veg jalfrezi, korma and tikka masala are the tasty dishes of this region.
North-eastern food is a blend of Indian and Asian flavors. In these states meats are easily available and freely consumed. Without getting into religion and politics, most of the north-eastern states do not have a beef ban. Duck and pork are widely consumed and easily available unlike most parts of India. Since these states are close to China and Tibet, you’ll notice the influence of Cantonese style gravies. Fried rice and momos are a staple here. Smoked and cured meats are very popular. Just like the rest of India, each north-eastern state boasts of a different language/food/costume/culture/traditions/dance/trade. But in an attempt to simplify this post, I have clubbed all the north-eastern states. Their slow cooked smoked pork is really really delicious. States that have access to the Bay of Bengal also use a lot of dry or fermented fish in their cooking. Some tribes eat unconventional meats, insects and birds too. The famous bhut jholakia chilli is grown here in the north east. So food is hot but not over-loaded with multiple spices like the rest of India.
The people from the Eastern states like West Bengal and Odisha are big fish eaters. Bengalis love fresh water fish …which is not something that people who are accustomed to sea fish/salt water catch like. Macher Jhol is the most popular gravy from West Bengal. It’s a type of spiced fish curry. Doi mach is another famous curry which is a simple yoghurt based gravy with fish. They also have doi baingan which is fried brinjal in tempered yoghurt. Kosha Mangsho is another popular red coloured spiced yoghurt based mutton curry. They also have a unique mustard flavoured fish curry which is very different and unique to this region.
As we move down south, gravies get hotter and hotter. Unlike the thick and nutty, creamy north Indian gravies, much of the southern gravies are thinner in consistency and a whole lot spicier. Coconut grows in abundance right from the western coast all the way through the southern coastline. So many of the gravies have a grated coconut base or coconut milk base or even a tamarind base. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are known for their spicy spicy spicy food. I really like their Mirch ka salan which is a spicy peanut based chilli gravy. Their gutti vankaya koora is also super delicious (brinjal curry). Andhra (chicken/mutton)curry and Gongura (chicken/ mutton) curry is super delicious too.
Out here in Tamil Tamil Nadu, we have a lot of vegetarian gravies and chutneys. Most of them have a lentil base, curd base or a tamarind base. And from the fiery kitchens of Chettinadu, come the aromatic Chettinad curry. I love this gravy. It smells as good as it tastes. It is insanely spicy though. Rasam and sambhar are very popular here and is consumed daily. Rasam is an extremely watery spiced tamarind gravy. Every region in south India makes a different kind of sambhar and Tamil Nadu is no different. However, I prefer Udipi sambhar which hails from the Udipi region of Karnataka. I also like the Arachuvitta sambhar from Tamil Nadu, but I am not too fond of the regular sambhar that we get all across Tamil Nadu.
The food in Pondicherry or Pudducherry is a mix of French and Tamil cuisines due to the French colonies several years ago and the influence of the neighbouring state.
Moving on to Kerala. I loveeeeeee Keralite food. They have everything I love. Fresh coconut milk based gravies, fish and beef are a staple here. Like the north-eastern states and Tamil Nadu, this is one of the few places in India where beef is not banned because Keralites love their beef! Their ishtew(Stew) is super delicious. Their beef Nadan and Fish Molle are as delicious as their fame. Yum yum yum.
Then we go to Karnataka. Again I really like food from Karnataka. Their gravies are mostly coconut based, prepared with either coconut milk or freshly ground coconut. And the Udipi sambhar is a delicious sambhar that goes really well with ‘tiffin’ items.
Moving on to Maharashtra, the western coast of India. I hail from Maharashtra. My ancestors, the East Indians were the original inhabitants of Bombay city, now known as Mumbai. Bombay is the financial capital of India and the most populated city here. It is always open, alive and active. It is a melting pot of cultures today. Most of Bombay is reclaimed land from the sea and the city is grossly over populated. It was developed as a port by the British for trade activities. Maharashtrian food is extremely healthy. The gravies are loaded with hot spices. I especially love Kolhapuri chicken, Malvani Chicken and Prawn Lonvas They are not for the faint hearted. Coconut is used extensively here too …not as much as the Southern states though. Like the southern states, tamarind or kokam(garcinia cambogia) is used for tartness. The best variety of mangoes hail from this state. Mangoes are dried and preserved in the summer and many dishes use dried mangoes for acidity.
Then we go to Goa….another one of my favourite places. I feel very much at home here. Goan food is inspired by the Portuguese who had colonized the land several years ago. Pork, fish and Goan sausages are a staple here. Their gravies have a chillies-and-vinegar base or a coconut base both of which I love. Vindaloo and Sorpotel are the most amazing pork gravies you’ll ever have (if you can tolerate the heavy vinegar content). Xacuti and Cafreal are lovely curries too.
Gujarati food is predominantly vegetarian. The Jain community in Gujarat do not consume anything that grows below the ground, so gravies are made without onion, ginger and garlic. Tomatoes or lentils form the base of such gravies. Gujarati food is relatively sweet. Undhiyu is a famous dish from this region. The Parsi community in Gujarat (Zorashtrian Persians who fled to India to maintain their religious identity after the Arab invasion of Iran in the 17th century) however consume a lot of non vegetarian food. Dhansak, Salli boti, koimino patio are some of the famous Parsi dishes.
Up the north-west front, Rajasthan is dry land. Popular gravies include lal maas, ghatte ki sabji and dal batti.
My favourites among Indian gravies are Moghulai style North Indian gravies, Keralite and Mangalorean coconut milk based curries and Goan vindaloo and Maharashtrian fiery curries.
This article is just an attempt to present the majestic Indian curry to the world. I have tried my best to represent most states/union territories. But, India is so vast and diverse, it is impossible to do justice to this subject. For example, my home state has several districts and cities and each place has a sub cuisine of it’s own. I don’t intend to bore anyone with an entire thesis so I decided to make a mention of the most popular variants only. Of course, I am narrating it all as per my personal exposure and experience. It is largely based on my palate preference. If you think I missed out a delicacy, I would love to hear and learn from you. Please let me know in the comments section below. Pic credit for first image:popularity.sg
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