Beginner's Guide to Regional Indian Cooking

Editor's Note: This special three-part (read the first installment here) series on the regional cuisine of India, by Monica Bhide and Chef Sudhir Seth, is made available to the readers of Seasoned Cooking by the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. This amazing organization is devoted to increasing awareness and knowledge of the arts of cooking, eating, and drinking, and to making further contributions to the literature of food and drink. Please join us in thanking them for their work and supporting them in their cause! Introduction

When someone asks me if I know how to cook Indian food, all I can do is smile. Sure I can cook some of it, but can anyone truly cook food that represents a country of more than 1 billion people, with over a dozen languages, 800 recognized dialects, and several religions, India is as diverse as it gets!

The Aryans who occupied the North and the Dravidian’s who occupied the South were the first influencers in India. India’s cuisine has also been influenced greatly by the multitude of invaders throughout the country’s history; the Mughals, British, Turks, and Portuguese all left their mark. By adding their own cooking styles and ingredients, they provided a rich diversity, resulting in a unique cuisine. In the words of the legendary Madhur Jaffrey “Nothing was ever discarded. It was made Indian.”

India is also a country with a 3000 year old religious heritage. Home to Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Jainism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and the Bahai religions (to name a few) – all dictating what can and cannot be eaten. The Jains don’t eat garlic, the Muslims don’t eat pork, and the Hindus don’t eat beef. Other faiths have limitations on any vegetable grown under ground. Then there are days when people fast and on those days’ special meals need to be prepared according to the guidelines for that particular faith. There are specific norms for food that are followed for major life events like pregnancy, birth, baby’s first foods and death.

From the lap of the Himalayas in the North to the coast of southern Indian, from the Ghats of Western India to the eastern Bay of Bengal, from the deserts of Rajasthan, to the backwaters of Kerala, from the luscious fields of Punjab to the mountains of Kashmir -- the geography, climates and the landscape are as diverse as they get.

The different Indian states are so unique in their geography, culture, language and tradition that they are almost like individual nations. In addition to all the factors mentioned so far, another important factor that has influenced the cuisine is the focus on the medicinal values of the ingredients. The Vedas or ancient Indian texts explain how to combine food, exercise and meditation to obtain the right balance in ones physical, spiritual and mental forms. Religion has not only integrally affected what is cooked but how it is prepared as well. The Muslim tradition of preparing “halal meat” or the Hindu tradition of not tasting a meal as it is being cooked (since the first offering of the meal has to be for the Gods and for a cook to taste it while it is cooking is considered “unclean”) has certainly had its impact on how foods are prepared. The Hindu cook relies on the sight, texture, smell and color of the spice mixes to know exactly when they are ready as opposed to taste.

The history, climate, geography, religion and regional areas have all influenced the cuisine. Intrinsic culinary traditions are constantly being updated by the ever changing political and socio-economic landscape. I liken the country to a quilt with each part of the quilt (a state) being unique and yet an integral part of the whole.

What holds this diverse cuisine together is the aromatic and flavorful spices. The art of Indian cooking is in blending these spices so they are in perfect harmony in each dish.

The basics of an Indian meal, despite of all the contrasts and contradictions, are similar. There will generally be some lentil, regional vegetables, pickles, chutneys, rice or bread, possibly a meat or fish dish, served at every meal. Desserts are usually milk based. Food is eaten with fingers, using pieces of bread to mop up the vegetables and curries. I remember reading somewhere “trying to eat Indian food with cutlery is like trying to make love through an interpreter”. With due respects to the author of that line, I completely agree! The meal is completed with a digestive like “Paan”, areca nuts, sugar coated fennel seeds and many others. (Paan is made of betel leaves, which are filled with all kinds of ingredients to create this legendary digestive)

I hope you will try the recipes in this online class. By the time you get done you will have sampled a dozen regional cuisines that are distinctly different in terms of their taste cooking methods and presentation. I have only attempted a dozen or so regions, there are so many more… Perhaps in another course!

I am attempting to give you a glimpse of what lies in each region. There is so much more. The information here is a mere starting point into the cuisine of a very diverse country.

Kashmiri Cuisine

It has been a very long time since last visited the state of Jammu & Kashmir, nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, but it left an impression. Shikaras (large houseboats) on Dal Lake, sumptuous meats, perfect apples, an aristocratic valley so picturesque it felt like paradise. In fact, if I remember my history correctly, when the Mughal Emperor Jahangir first saw Kashmir he said “Agar firdaus bar ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin asto” (If there is a paradise on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here).

Kashmiris are primarily meat eaters. There are two main types of cuisines, that of the Kashmiri Muslims and that of the Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus). The Kashmiri Muslim “Wazawaan” an elaborate ritualistic meal for special guests is nothing short of spectacular. It can have thirty or more courses of specially prepared Rogan Josh, Kormas (meats cooked in cream based sauces), Ristas (meatballs), and vegetables. Mouth watering desserts generally made of dairy products follow and the meal is then topped off with the “kawah” a green tea transformed into a magical portion with just the right amount of saffron, cardamoms and almonds. The meals are prepared by the Wazas – the master chefs of Kashmir. They are the descendants of Mughal rulers who come here in the early 15th century. The Kashmiri Hindus eat meat and this sets them apart from the Brahmins of the rest of India.

Kashmiri dishes are very rich, reminiscent of their lavish history with the rich Mughal rulers. Nuts, fruits, saffron, meats are used a lot in the preparation of the food. One very unique ingredient in Kashmiri cooking is the use of Mawal - dry cockscomb flowers. Another unusual spice mixture, in the form of small flat discs, is Ver or Vari. It is prepared in a manner unique to each household and is used in small amounts to season dishes.

Kashmiri Lamb Chops or Ribs

Kashmiri Lamb Chops or Ribs (Kabargah)
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 4 black cardamom pods, crushed
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 pounds lamb ribs
  • 2 ½ cups milk
  • Salt to takes
  • ½ cup plain yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon red chili powder
  • 2 + 4 tablespoons gram flour (chickpea flour)
  • Oil to panfry
Heat ¼ cup of water in a pan. Add the cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves. Simmer for a minute.
Place the ribs/chops in a pot. Add the milk and salt.
Cook until the milk is absorbed.
While the meat is cooking, prepare the yogurt marinade. Mix together the yogurt, red chili and two tablespoons of gram flour and set aside.
Set the other four tablespoons of gram flour on a flat plate. Remove from heat and transfer the meat to a platter. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a large skillet. Dip each chop in the marinade, then coat generously with the dried gram flour.
Pan fry it until golden brown on each side.
Remove the meat from the ghee and drain on a paper towel.
Serve hot.
Maharastrian Cuisine

Host to the biggest film industry in the world (Bollywood), the financial powerhouse of India, a food lovers paradise, a bustling metropolis, and home of the famous Dubbawalas – and all this in just its capital city Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). I fell in love with Mumbai eleven years ago and my love grows stronger each time I visit. From the very ethnic and regional to the very eclectic and international, the restaurants cater to your every taste, whim and pocketbook.

I learned the art of Maharastrian cooking from my mother in law. The right amount of buttermilk to make the perfect Upma (a semolina pudding), the right way to temper aSaar (a warm and soul warming tomato soup), how much practice it takes to make perfect Modaks (rice flour dumplings), how to mold tapioca to create melt-in-your-mouth patties called Sabudana Wada and of course how to make the perfect pomfret.

A dessert specific to this area is called the Puranpoli (bread stuffed with channa dal and jaggery). My husband taught me to eat it crumbled with tablespoons of warm ghee and milk. I think it has got to be the ultimate comfort food.

Maharashtra also has the credit for producing India’s leading mango called Alphonso mangoes.

Home to the cities of Kolhapur and Ratnagiri, Maharashtra also has some of the spiciest food served in India. Kolhapur’s mirchi or chili is legendary. The Konkan coast also boasts a wide variety of seafood – fresh prawns, pomfret, squid, crabs, you name it and you can find it. During the research for my new book, I had the chance to meet and talk with some of the fisherwomen of the Koli group in this area. They show such ease in preparing such wonderful fish dishes teased with the right amount of masalas.

On my last trip to India, I was able to spend time with a dear friend of my mother in-law’s who is Jewish (Bene Israel Jew). Mumbai has a small Jewish community and she was telling me about a kosher Indian restaurant that she could take me to. But the highlight of the meeting was when she produced a half hand- written half –typed cookbook published many years ago. It was a present for me. It has some of the most interesting recipes from Egg Vindaloo to Jewish Puff puris (balloon breads) to Sabbath cake to a dish called Birda (a bean dish). The recipe message for Birda reads “this dish is prepared by the Bene - Israel Jews of India, particularly on the 9th of Ab to be had after the fast.” Another message reads “We Bene – Israel Jews according to tradition eat fish which have an eye on each side rather than two eyes in the front.” There is so much history in each recipe. I am forever thankful to this kind lady. India is also home to the oldest Jewish Synagogue in the Eastern region. India forum has had some interesting conversations on Jewish Indian cuisine.

The city of Mumbai is also famous for its street food. You have to experience the walk on Chowpatty beach, the endless stalls of street vendors selling Bhel Puris, the Pav Bhaji (bread served with a spicy vegetable dish) sprinkled with lemon juice, the sugarcane juice, and the Vada Pau (a vegetable burger for lack of a better description), the list and the tastes are endless.

Macchi Fry Koliwada

This recipe was given to me courtesy of the Marriott Hotel in Mumbai.
  • 2 fillets white fish, large cubes
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 green chili, minced
  • Salt to taste
  • 3 tablespoons of chickpea flour (gram flour)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon red chili powder
  • Oil to pan fry
Marinate the fish cubes in a mix of the garlic, green chili and salt. Leave for 10 minutes.
Prepare the second marinade. Mix the gram flour, turmeric, chili powder, lemon juice and a small amount of water to make a very thick batter.
Dip each fish piece into the marinade to ensure that it is well coated.
Pan fry until crisp on the outside and cooked on the inside.
Serve immediately.
Tamilian Cuisine

Tamilian cooking comes to you from the south eastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Its capital city Madras (now known as Chennai) is home to the legendary Madras curry powder developed for the British. I first visited Madras (Chennai) in 1990 and what struck me was the sheer choice of foods prepared from rice. Rice in its many forms – Dosas ,(Rice and lentil crepes) Idlies (steamed rice and lentil cakes), Uttthappams (pan fried rice and lentil pancakes) to name a few. These are served along with a lentil curry called Sambhar. The real crowning glory of the food here, in my opinion, are the range of chutneys, papadums (lentil wafers), pickles and spice powders that are available. Many of the people here are vegetarian and rice is a large part of their diet. I am also a huge fan of the strong filtered Madras coffee.

In addition, Tamil Nadu is famous for the fiery cuisine of the Chettiyars from the area of Chettinand. Tamilian cooking uses a lot of black pepper, red chili powder and mustard seeds.

Hyderabadi Cuisine

Hyderabad is located in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. My family lived in the gorgeous area of Banjara Hills there for a while. I was too young and so have no recollection of the city, though my father tells stories of the Hyderabad “chowki ka khana” that are quite remarkable. Chowkies are low tables that seat people on the floor and were used in Hyderabad for formal dining occasions. Multiple courses of meats, vegetables and rice dishes were served accompanied by live musicians singing. Dishes were prepared with aromatic spices, were plated in a beautiful manner and served by gracious hosts. One of my favorite Hyderabadi dishes is a pilaf made of layers of rice and goat meat cooked entirely in milk. The flavors are provided by spices in a “potli” or a bouquet garni which may have up to 21 spices in it ranging from coriander seeds to dried rose petals to sandalwood powder to dried vetiver roots. The end result is a very fragrant dish that is pure white with aromas that will make you thank God for being alive!

My father tells me of a saying in Hyderabad that the best food comes when it is made with mohabbat or love. His favorite dish he tells me is the Batter Ka Achar or pickled quail. I take his word for it when he calls it heavenly, I have not been lucky enough to try it or even find a recipe for it.

Hyderabadi cuisine is the culmination of the local ingredients like curry leaves, tamarind and mustard seeds tying the knot with the kebabs, pilafs and meat dishes brought in by the Muslim invaders. From the minced lamb to prepare Shimkapuri Kebabs to the layered rice and meat Biryanis, Hyderabad is a gourmet’s paradise. And then there is the typically Hyderabadi “Irani Chai”. A large number of Iranians came to Hyderabad in the 1600’s. Their tea, different from other parts of India, was absorbed immediately and became an integral part of the local culture with Irani Chai houses springing up all around the city.

Mirchi Ka Salaan

  • 8 - 10 large green chilies
  • Oil to deep fry
  • Salan Paste
  • 2 tablespoons peanuts
  • 2 tablespoons desiccated coconut
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 2 -3 red chilies, whole
  • ¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar or jaggery
  • 1 small red onion, chopped
  • 2 Serrano green chilies
  • ½ teaspoon onion seeds
  • ½ teaspoon mustard seeds
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 4-5 cloves
  • 1 sprig of curry leaves
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons tamarind paste
  • Fresh cilantro for garnish
Slit and deep fry the green chilies in hot oil.
Remove and keep aside. Roast all the ingredients for the paste on a dry skillet. Then grind them together along with the onions and the green chilies. Heat oil and add the onions seeds, cumin and mustard seeds, when crackling add the cloves and the curry leaves.
Add the garlic and stir for a minute. Add the salan paste and continue stirring. Add a few tablespoons of water at intervals to avoid paste sticking to the pan. Add the tamarind pulp and ½ cup of water.
Stir for 5 minutes until the gravy resembles the consistency of a sauce and the oil begins to separate out.
Add the salt and the fried chilies to the hot gravy.
Simmer for about 5 minutes.
Remove and garnish with finely chopped coriander leaves.
Bengali Cuisine

When ever I write about Bengal, a state on the eastern shores of India, I am not sure where to begin. Why? Because this land offers so much and is so diverse, I always seem to fall short of words. It certainly is a state blessed – huge palms, flowing yellow mustard fields - giving the land a yellow hue and earning it the name – Sonar Bangal – Golden Bengal. I have a few close friends from the area and the best way to describe them would be refined and passionate – about their heritage, their language, their desserts and by God their fish. Even the Brahmins of Bengal (Brahmins are traditionally vegetarian) east fish, calling it Jal Toria or fruit of the ocean. No part of the fish is wasted – and each is prepared with such grace and perfect balance between the spices and the fish.

Bengal's many rulers over the years – the Mughals, the British, the Chinese, have brought great variation to the cuisine. The Mughals brought in the Qormas (cream based meat dishes), and Kebabs , the Hakka Chinese brought in the Calcutta style Chinese dishes like Manchurain (deep fried morsels of meat or vegetables served in a sauce of chilies and soya sauce). Trust me, once you try this style of Chinese it will have you hooked.

Bengali cuisine is known for its substantial use of mustard seeds. Mustard oil is the widely used cooking medium giving Bengali recipes a very distinct taste.

The crowning glory of Bengali cooking has to be the desserts. When I was in college in India, there was a Bengal sweet shop called KC Das close to where I lived. Shamelessly, each evening friends and I would stand in line to buy the Misti Doi a sweet yogurt prepared in an earthen pot. The kind shop keeper saved a few for us each night. For some reason he would chide us away from it during the winter months, saying it would cause us to catch a cold – old wives tales I think. On those nights we would get luckier for he would provide us with mouth watering Rasgollas (cheese balls sweetened with sugar syrup)

There are two ingredients that are unique to the cooking here. Mustard oil as the cooking medium and the very aromatic Panch Phoron five spice mix – fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fennel seeds and onion seeds – mixed in just the right proportions. I call this spice mix the way to instant “gourmet-dom”. Use it and you will see what I mean – it creates such perfect dishes people think you are an amazing chef when the spices are really doing all the work.

Mustard Fish

Shorshe bate Macch – Mustard Fish
This recipe is presented with due credit to Bong from eGullet for his notes that are used here.
  • ¼ cup black mustard seeds
  • ¼ cup white mustard seeds
  • A touch of garlic (Not traditional but the Chef loves it so we added it!)
  • 4 fillets white fish (small Tilapia fillets)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • Salt to taste
  • Mustard oil to panfry the fish
  • 2 Serrano green chilies, slit
Soak mustard seeds (I use 50% black and 50% white) in water for 10-15 minutes.
In a blender, grind mustard seeds and garlic with enough water. Start with a relatively less water and slowly keep adding water as needed. The final consistency will be a bit more liquid than Dijon mustard. Make sure that there are no whole seeds left over. In my blender, this process takes about 10 minutes. This will be your gravy. Don't forget to add a bit of salt and mix some more. Set aside.
Marinate fish fillets with the turmeric and the salt. Heat a shallow pan with a little bit of mustard oil, over medium high heat. When oil starts to smoke, add in the fish pieces so they are in a single layer. After a minute or so, turn them over, and cook until brown. Remove from heat.
In the same oil add the mustard paste.
Add some slit green chilies for some heat. Cook the mustard paste until it starts boiling and then add the fish.
Simmer for another 3 – 5 minutes. Serve hot.
Editor's Note: This special three-part (read the first installment here) series on the regional cuisine of India, by Monica Bhide and Chef Sudhir Seth, is made available to the readers of Seasoned Cooking by the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. This amazing organization is devoted to increasing awareness and knowledge of the arts of cooking, eating, and drinking, and to making further contributions to the literature of food and drink. Please join us in thanking them for their work and supporting them in their cause!