Beginner's Guide to Regional Indian Cooking

Editor's Note: This special three-part series (read the first installment here) 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! Punjabi and Delhi Cuisine

Punjab is the Land of Five rivers is a highly agricultural state. The cuisine of this state is greatly influenced by the Mughal cuisine (see note on Mughal cuisine). The world famous Tandoori style of cooking has its roots here. Punjabi’s are bread eaters compared to a larger portion of India that prefers rice as it staple food. The heart of Punjabi cooking lies in the masalas (spice mixture) and gravies that are prepared with ginger, garlic, onions and tomatoes. This thriving agricultural state boasts a cuisine that is rich in vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian choices. Other than the obvious Tandoori dishes that are famous here, of equally importance is the Punjabi preparation Sarson Ka saag (a velvety preparation of mustard greens seasoned in with ginger, garlic, green chilies) that is served along with a corn bread called Makki Ki Roti.

Tandoori cooking was introduced in Delhi by Kundan Lal of the Moti Mahal restaurant in Dariyaganj. Why do I tell you this? Because eGullet’s very own Vivin’s family owned this restaurant.

India’s capital city, New Delhi, is a world all its own. There is so much history here in one city that even an entire book cannot do it justice. All the rulers (the Mughals, the British and others) bought with them their own cuisine and left a mark, from which emerged a very singular cuisine – a delectable mix of various cultures that now defines “Delhi Cuisine.” The Mughalai Tandoor chicken, Seekh Kebabs, biryanis (rice and meat dishes), the appetizing Naans and other breads are a core part of the food in Delhi. Then there are the British introduced sandwiches, trifles and cakes which are found on many a menu. (A point to note here: When I added Custard and Jelly to one of my books as an Indian dessert, the editor thought I was kidding. Not really. A lot of the British desserts are still very popular in Delhi and really are “Indian”!) And of course the British left behind their love for scotch whiskey.

During the partition of India and Pakistan, a large number of Punjabi’s came and settled in Delhi. They brought in the hearty fare. Delhi is home for me. The Punjabi food of Delhi is close to my heart since I grew up eating it each day. Aloo Ka Parathas (Indian griddle breads stuffed with spiced potatoes) of course with fresh home made white butter served with a tall glass of Mango Lassi (yogurt based mango drink) are on top of my list for favorite Delhi foods. (For more on North Indian breads, see our North Indian breads class). Delhi’s food has also been greatly influenced by other communities like the Banias, the Khatris and the Kyasthas.

I do find it interesting that the “national drink” of India – where a large part of the country is quite warm – is hot tea! In Delhi even in the summer months with the terrible hot winds called loo blowing, we would still drink tea. Piping hot Chai (tea) topped off with Malai (clotted cream).

Paneer ki Bhurjee

Fresh paneer cooked with tomatoes and cilantro.
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 2 Serrano green chilies, minced
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 small red onion, finely chopped
  • ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 small tomato, diced
  • 2 cups paneer*, grated
  • 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, finely chopped
  • Salt to taste
* You can buy paneer at your local Indian grocer or prepare it at home.
Heat oil in large pan. Add chilies. After 20 seconds stir in cumin and onions.

Cook onions until soft and begin to change color.

Add the turmeric and the red chili powder.

Add tomatoes.

Cook for a few minutes. Don’t mash the tomatoes, just lightly sauté them. Add paneer.
Cook for another minute. Season with salt. Garnish with cilantro and serve.

Rajasthani Cuisine

The princely state of Rajasthan is a desert, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the cuisine is lacking. Home to Indian royalty, Rajasthan is famous for its elaborate dishes. When I was a child we lived for a while in Jaipur, Rajasthan’s pink city named so for all its pink buildings. I don’t have memories from that time, yet when I visited a few years ago the welcoming city made me feel as though I had never left. Think vivid when you think of Rajasthan – brightly colored clothes, the pink walls of Jaipur, the music, the dancers, all larger than life. The Muslim influence is very strong here and so there are a wide variety of meat preparations. Lapsi, a popular wheat porridge, is a very delightful dish.

Maharani Gayatri Devi, wife of the Maharaja of Jaipur was listed by Vogue magazine as one of the most beautiful women in the world. Her book on the cuisine of this state has done helped not only to bring in the traditional recipes but to document an era.

Jaipur is one of the few places, I have been served Papads (lentil wafers) in a curry. In most other parts of India they are eaten dried as wafers would be. Dry mango powder and garlic are used a lot in the cooking. One of the most famous dishes of Rajasthan is called Dal Bati Choorma: Bati, a round bread imbibed with clarified butter and traditionally cooked in the scorching desert sand, Dal, a lentil curry and Choorma a sweet bread laced with jaggery and butter. A bit heavy to digest, but a must try.

(For some good information on Jaipur visit Jaipur - The Pink City)

For this class, Chef Sudhir picked a very unique dish called Gatta Curry, chickpea flour dumplings cooked in a sauce.

Rajasthani Gatta Curry

  • 2 cups chick pea flour or gram flour
  • 3 tablespoons oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon chile powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • Pinch of asafetida
  • ¼ teaspoon cloves, roughly pounded
  • Water to knead
  • 2 -3 tablespoons oil
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • Pinch asafetida
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoons Garam Masala
  • 2 teaspoon powdered coriander seeds
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • Fresh cilantro
Sieve chickpea flour. Add salt, chili powder, turmeric, asafetida and cloves.
Add about 2-3 tablespoons of oil. Add water and knead to a stiff, smooth, glossy dough. Leave to rest for 15 minutes.
Shape into cylindrical rods.
Boil in 4 cups of water till they come up and are covered with tiny bubbles. Add a few drops of oil to the water. This will keep the water from boiling over. Lift out of the water, leave to cool. Discard the water. Cut the cylinders into bite size pieces.
To prepare the curry, heat the oil. Add the cumin seeds and the asafetida. Add turmeric, salt, coriander powder, 'Garam masala' and chile powder. Add 3 cups of water and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat and add the yogurt.
Simmer for about 2 -3 minutes. Add the yogurt and chickpea flour sausages or the gattas prepared earlier.
Simmer for a few minutes and serve hot garnished with the cilantro.
The Cooking of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar

The state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) is home to India’s holiest city of Benaras and the holy river Ganges. The primarily Hindu city of Benaras’s other claim to fame is its silk sarees, the typical attire for Indian women.

When I was child, I had visited the city of Nawabganj (close to Lucknow) from Delhi via a train. Lucknow is a largely Muslim city. My most vivid memory is of a couple from UP who were traveling with us opening their tiffin (a carrier for food) and offering to share with us the most delightful Pooris (fried Indian breads) and some kind of a yellow spiced potato dish. I distinctly remember the food was so good that my cousins and I shamelessly finished off the food belonging to this sweet old couple. They watched with kindness in their eyes and my father watched with embarrassment as we freely ate the food of strangers! Then they reached into their bag and produced the mango. Lucknowi mangoes, even my father could not resist!

Lucknow is also famous for its velvety Kakori Kebab (a kebab prepared with minced meat and many fragrant and wonderful spices), Raan (a whole leg of mutton, perfectly prepared) and the hospitality of their people.

To the outside world, UP is probably best known for its white marble treasure, The Taj Mahal, nestled in the city of Agra.

Bihar is the state where the Buddha obtained enlightenment. It is a state with a colorful past with various rulers leaving their legacy on the culture and cuisine. I have found Bihari food to be simple yet flavorful. The Bihari city of Patna is famous for it unparalleled quality of rice produced here. Rice is served in many forms here, the sweet rice dishes being the most distinctive – powdered rice cooked with clarified butter, milk and sugar. Another dish unique to Bihar is the Makhahe Ki Kheer. Makhanas are puffed lotus seeds and are cooked in milk to prepare this very sweet pudding. Sattu, roasted chickpea flour is used as a basis for many of the dishes of Bihar.

Bihari Aloo Ka Bharta

  • 3 medium potatoes, boiled and peeled
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 inch ginger root, peeled and chopped
  • 1-2 teaspoons uncooked mustard oil or vegetable oil
  • 2-3 whole dried red chile
  • Salt to taste
In a bowl mash the potatoes and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a ladle or a small saucepan. Add the cumin seeds, onion and cloves.

When cumin begins to splutter transfer the content of ladle to the mashed potatoes.
Roast the dried red chile over slow fire – Hold the chile using a tong and then hold it over an open flame for just a second.
Crush the roasted dry chile onto the mashed potato. Add the salt, and the uncooked mustard oil to the potato mixture. Mix well. Garnish with cilantro leaves before serving.

Keralite Cuisine

The state of Kerala, also called coconut country, is in the southern part of India. Geographically it is over 600 km. in length and only 75 km. wide. It is a state with over 90% literacy, emerald back waters, miles of coffee and tea plantations. Kerala is the heart of the Indian spice coast. Vegetarian choices abound and their preparation is very simple. I love the fish dishes of Kerala cooked with pungent curry leaves, mustard seeds and the ever present coconut milk. Kerala has a large Christian population and beef dishes are quite common here – as opposed to the rest of India where the cow is considered scared by the Hindus who will not eat beef.

My first trip to Kerala was for a wedding in 1989. We were served a lavish wedding dinner on traditional banana leaves (an important fact I learnt was that the narrow part of the leaf should be to the guests left hand side) adorned with pickles, chutneys, rice, papads, vegetables curries of many types, small bowls for sambhar and rasam (lentil based dishes). All of the dishes are served and placed on the leaf in a predetermined order. Dessert is the intensely sweet Payasam (vermicilli cooked in milk and lots of sugar) followed by a steaming hot cup of South Indian coffee.

Kerala is the natural home of black pepper, cardamom, coconut and tapioca and their presence is dominant in the cuisine. Keralite “irachi” (meat) is generally cooked with strong spices and is a dry preparation. Of course no discussion of Kerala cooking can be complete without discussing the appam, a bread that looks like a pregnant crepe really. Served with mutton or chicken stew this mouthwatering bread takes a bit of practice to prepare. (For more on South Indian breads, please see A Sampling of South Indian Breads.)

Kerala Prawn Curry

  • 2 pounds tiger prawns
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 2 Serrano green chiles, split
  • 2 small red onions, finely chopped
  • 1 sprig curry leaves
  • 2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger
  • ½ teaspoon Garam Masala
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • Cilantro leaves to garnish
Remove the shell from the prawns. Marinate the prawns with salt, turmeric powder and lemon juice and set aside.
Heat oil in a medium size pan. Add the fennel and green chile. Add chopped onions. Fry until transparent. Add the curry leaves. Now add the tomatoes and ginger garlic and keep continue to cook until the oil separates. Add prawns and the Garam masala powder.
Cook for another 2-3 minutes. Add a can of the coconut milk and bring it to a simmer.
Adjust salt.
Garnish with chopped cilantro.
Goan Cuisine

I am at a distinct disadvantage here not having visited this tourist heaven. My experiences of Goan food have been at the home of Goan friends. Goa, a tiny state, sits on the western shores of India. While the rest of India was heavily under the influence of the British and or the Muslim invaders, Goa was under Portuguese rule for many years. The Portuguese came to Goa in the 1500’s, after the Muslim sultans of the Bahamani dynasty, and stayed for over 400 years. The food reflects a love of vinegar, meats and strong spices – all things necessary for the perfect Vindaloo. Goa is a largely Christian state.

Sandy beaches, rolling hills, lush fields, rivers, coconut groves, mango, cashew, areca and bananas trees form the landscape of Goa.

And the fish. Goa is famous for its fish preparation. How good are the dishes? Well -- the Goan poet Bakibab Borkar address the God of Death Yama and says “Please sir, Mr. God of Death, Don’t make it my turn, not today. There is fish curry for dinner.”

I do owe a thanks to my friends for introducing me to the very potent cashew nut and coconut palm alcoholic drink of Goa called Feni.

Pork Vindaloo

Adapted from "The Everything Indian Cookbook", by Monica Bhide, Adams Media.
  • 3/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, roughly pounded
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 teaspoons red chili powder
  • 1 ½ lb. boneless lean pork, cubed
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon ginger root, julienned
  • 1 large red onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 6 whole dried red chiles, roughly pounded
  • 1 inch cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • Table salt to taste
In a non-reactive bowl, combine the rice vinegar, water, black pepper, garlic, red chili, green chili and pork.
Refrigerate, covered, for an hour. In a deep pan, heat the oil. Add the cinnamon, ginger root and sauté for about ten seconds. Add the onion and sauté for about 7-8 minutes or until golden brown. Add the red chilies and turmeric powder and sauté for another 20 seconds.
Remove the pork pieces from the marinade and set the marinade aside. Add the pork and sauté on high heat for about 10 minutes or until the pork is browned and the oil starts to separate from the mixture.
Add the marinade and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat and simmer covered for about 30-45 minutes or until the pork is tender.
Add salt to taste. Serve hot.
Gujarati Cuisine “Sugar and Spice and everything vegetarian” – I think that sums up the cuisine for me!! It is simple and delightful and uses vegetables in a remarkable way.

Situated on the western coast of India, Gujarat is paradise for vegetarians. Leafy green vegetables, fruits, millet, rice and lentils dominate. Millet is said to be very high in protein. Butter and milk are used abundantly. The Gujaratis are known for their wide variety of pickles and chutneys. “Farsan” or crispy fried snacks are a staple part of the cuisine. Gujaratis have a sweet tooth and many parts of the state use sugar liberally in cooking (including in dals, and rice). Food is traditionally served on large steel plates or Thalis.

The cuisine has been greatly influenced by the Jains and the Buddhists. A little known secret: a group of Muslims known as Bohras, who live here, prepare the most delicious meat dishes.

When I think of Gujarati food, I must admit I am partial to the dhokla, a salty steamed cake made from chickpea flour tempered with mustard seeds, fragrant curry leaves and green chilies. It is delicious particularly with a well made cilantro or green chili chutney.

Gujarati Shrikhand

  • 4 cups thick yogurt (yogurt with whey removed, see pictures below)
  • 1/4 teaspoon saffron (soaked in a tablespoon of warm milk)
  • 1/2 cup fine sugar
  • Pinch of cardamom powder
  • Garnish with crushed pistachios (optional)
How to prepare thick yogurt:
Preparing to hang the thick yogurt
Thick yoghurt set over a colander
Draining the whey
The finished product
Place all the ingredients in a bowl. Mix well. You can do this with a spatula or a hand held blender.
Adjust sugar to taste.
Chill for about 30 minutes. Serve.
Editor's Note: This special three-part series (read the first installment here) 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!