Regional Cuisines

India is a country of diverse cultures and religions. Its terrain too differs f r o m place to place resulting in diversity of soils in different regions. Due to this the produce in each region differs causing a diverse range of cuisines. The regional cuisine differs f r o m place to place and the Indian fare is so wide and varied that several preparations in one region are unknown in the other. Indian regional cuisine relies on the indigenous spices, and growth of vegetables in the local soil. The different regional cuisines like Rajasthani, Kashmiri, Mangalore, Karnataka, Kerala, et al. are rarely available in metros and several other cities. North Indian and South Indian food are the only cuisines which have become popular and they are projected as Indian cuisine not only in most restaurants in India but also abroad. Ashok Malkani, in this first part, finds out the different regional cuisines and their complex nature.
Indian cuisine is one of the world's most diverse cuisines, due to the fact that each geographical region has its own wide assortment of dishes and cooking techniques reflecting the varied demographics of the ethnically diverse Indian subcontinent. The cuisine is based on the climate of the region and religious practices. For example, Jain cuisine is not only completely vegetarian but also excludes underground vegetables such as garlic, etc. Cuisines f r o m regions like Rajasthan, Sikkim, Malabar, Pondicherry, etc. have their own distinct taste and flavour 

Yet when one visits a restaurant in metros and even tier II and III cities the dishes listed on the menu are mostly North Indian or South Indian. Even when one visits Indian restaurants abroad for some genuine Indian food one finds only North Indian or South Indian food on the menu.  

There are a vast number of regional cuisines too! Why this bias towards these two cuisines and what are the other regional cuisines and what are the favourite cuisines of each region?    

Anand Kumar, Executive Chef, Hilton Bangalore Embassy GolfLinks explains, “Indian cuisine has been categorised as North and South for a long time, perhaps because of the lack of knowledge on different states, regions and places earlier. However now there is much more awareness.  Each state in India boasts of a distinct cuisine like Kashmiri, Punjabi, Rajasthani, etc. which offers variety of tastes and flavours. In fact many times within a state say like Karnataka you can find various cuisines like Mangalore coastal cuisine, Uttara Karnataka, etc. 

Indian food is rooted in sustainability and produce. Each region would cook food that they grew and harvested. This is why in the dairy farming communities of Punjab and North India paneer and ghee are popular. Whereas in the south there is more focus on grains like ragi etc. In its food a lot of coconut that is grown in abundance is also used. The influx of different invaders further influenced Indian cooking. There are strong influences of Mughal cooking in the north while Portuguese, French etc. can be seen in the south western part of India. 

Spiciness in Indian foods  

“Foods of India are better known for its spiciness. Throughout India, be it North India or South India, spices are used generously in food. But one must not forget that every single spice used in Indian dishes carries some or the other nutritional as well as medicinal properties.

North Indian Food - Food in the north India: To begin with, Kashmiri cuisines reflect strong Central Asian influences. In Kashmir, mostly all the dishes are prepared around the main course of rice found abundantly in the beautiful valley. Another delicious item cooked here is the ‘Saag’ that is prepared with a green leafy vegetable known as the ‘Hak’. The ‘Wazwan’ prepare dishes which are unique to the Kashmiri culture. But on the other hand states like Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh show high consumption of chapatis as staple food. Again, these chapatis are prepared with a variety of flours such as wheat, rice, maida, besan etc. Besides chapatis other closely related breads baked in these regions include Tandoori, Rumali and Naan etc. However in the northern region impact of Mughlai food is quite obvious.

West Indian Food : In western India, the desert cuisine is famous for its unique taste and varieties of food. Rajasthan and Gujarat are the states that represent the desert flavour of Indian food. Here an immense variety of dals and achars (pickles/preserves) is used that simply substitutes the relative lack of fresh vegetables in these areas. In the states like Maharashtra, the food is usually a mix of both north as well as south cooking styles. Here people use both the rice and wheat with same interest. Along the coastline of Mumbai a wide variety of fishes is available. Some of the delicious preparations include dishes like the Bombay Prawn and Pomfret. In Goa, that is further down towards south, one can notice Portuguese influence in the cooking style as well as in the dishes. Some of the major dishes of this region are the sweet and sour Vindaloo, duck baffad, sorpotel and egg molie etc. 

East Indian Food:  In the eastern India, the Bengali and Assamese styles of cooking are noticeable. The staple food of Bengalis is the yummy combination of rice and fish. Usually the Bengalis love eating varieties of fishes. A special way of preparing the delicacy known as ‘Hilsa’ is by wrapping it in the pumpkin leaf and then cooking it. Another unusual ingredient that is commonly used in the Bengali cooking is the ‘Bamboo Shoot’. Various sweets prepared in this region, by using milk include the ‘Rosogollas’, ‘Sandesh’, ‘Cham-cham’ and many more.

South Indian Food : In the southern India, the states make great use of spices, fishes and coconuts, as most of them have coastal kitchens. In the foods of Tamil Nadu use of tamarind is frequently made in order to impart sourness to the dishes. It simply distinguishes the Tamil Food f r o m other cuisines. The cooking style of Andhra Pradesh is supposed to make excessive use of chilies, which is obviously to improve the taste of the dishes. In Kerala, some of the delicious dishes are the lamb stew and appams, Malabar fried prawns, Idlis, Dosas, fish molly and rice puttu. Another famous item of this region is the sweetened coconut milk. Yet another dish is Puttu, which is glutinous rice powder steamed like a pudding in a bamboo shoot.”

Regions popular for their foods 

Sanjay T Sutare - Chef de Cuisine of Neel - Tote on the Turf - a division of “deGustibus Hospitality Pvt. Ltd. Mumbai, avers, “The country’s two distinct food philosophies at the fore front, The North Indian – which was centered around Punjabi food culture with influences of North West Frontier Cuisine and the South Indian the South of the Indian peninsula which was the Dravidian food philosophy, were the basis of early days eateries that were operating commercially. This very basic offering having lived its life, commercial chefs started tapping into the intricate flavour nuances of regional food and breaking it down to the state’s, cultures, eating habit’s based on religious preferences and on hyper local, or seasonal ingredients which were earlier restricted to home food. Some of the popular regions whose cuisines have now gained prominence are: 

Rajasthan – Being a desert state, it has a predominantly vegetarian section of people. The use of lentils in various forms, millets, chilies and a lot of clarified butter are its key characteristics. Further to this the princely states also indulge in a lot of hunting and game was included in the food preferences.

Sikkim & the North eastern region:  have a very different food preference. Here the weather and the topography narrow it down to very light food which has flavourful broths, momos, dried meats and simple curries 

Pondicherry: has an amazing confluence of South Indian food and French techniques and flavours. It’s a unique example of foreign influence on the native food. 

Malabar: is the celebration of all things easily available at the coast line, seafood and coconut are the main stays. The huge Indian coastline does bring different influences to the same ingredients making the variety of regional flavour profiles even more vast.” 

Kuldeep – Executive Sous Chef, Holiday Inn Chennai OMR IT Expressway, maintains, “Indian cuisine is one of the most liked Cuisine across globe, the blend of all four regions (North, South, East and West) brings in the cultural mélange of the states in a plate for our Guests.

North and South Indian Cuisines are more prominent because of their renowned Culinary History which makes it distinct and peculiar amongst the Indian as well as foreign nationals. The cuisines f r o m East and West part are also equally prominent but not at par with North and South because of the peculiar taste and ingredients (like more usage of chilies and spices and even the methods of cooking) which makes them distinct f r o m other states.

Rajasthani cuisine is rich, using more of Ghee and whole spices and they create an amazing flavour by using maithanichilli and their unique ways of slow cooking techniques. North east regions like Sikkim, Manipur, etc. use more of chilies, root ginger, dried fish and pickles made out of it which makes their cuisine stand apart f r o m others.

If these cuisines are well presented and defined in front of guests, then it will surely make a mark for itself and guests will want to relish them repeatedly.” 

Anil Chabukswar - Executive Chef, Grand Mercure Mysuru, declares, “India is a vast country with varied tastes and cuisines that vary f r o m region to region. Each region is known for their own unique flavours and will vary according to its weather conditions. At Grand Mercure Mysore, we ensure that guests enjoy a perfect amalgamation of regional as well as international flavours that will enhance their overall dining experience. The North Eastern region of India has rice as their staple food, their hand-fermented food and beverages are also consumed on a large scale. On the other hand, the Southern region of India is partial to coconut and rice with milk and pepper being widely used. In the Northern belt f r o m Rajasthan to Gujarat gram flour, ghee and pickles are immensely popular.”

Flavours of different regions 

Saurabh Singh - Executive Chef, Four Points by Sheraton, Kochi, is more elaborate as he describes the flavours of different regions thus: 

Rajasthani cuisine was influenced by both the war-like lifestyles of its inhabitants and the availability of ingredients in this arid region. Food that could last for several days and could be eaten without heating was preferred. Scarcity of water and fresh green vegetables had their effect on the cooking. It is also known for its snacks like Bikaneri Bhujia, Mirchi Bada and Pyaaj Kachori. Other famous dishes include Bajre ki roti (millet bread) and Lashun ki chutney (hot garlic paste), Mawa Kachori f r o m Jodhpur, Alwar ka mawa, Malpauas f r o m Pushkar and Rassgollas f r o m Bikaner, "paniya" and "gheriya" f r o m Mewar. Originating f r o m the Marwar region of the state is the concept Marwari Bhojnalaya, or vegetarian restaurants, today found in many part of India, which offer vegetarian food of the Marwari people.

Malabari Cuisine or the cuisine of Kerala, a state in the south of India, is linked to its history, demography and culture. Kerala cuisine offers both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes prepared using fish, poultry and red meat with rice a typical accompaniment. Chilies, curry leaves, coconut, mustard seeds, turmeric, tamarind, and asafoetida are all frequently used.

Sikkimese cuisine is the traditional cuisine of Sikkim, a state of India. Sikkimese are traditionally Rice eaters. Nepalese cuisine is very popular in Sikkim because Sikkim is the only state of India with an ethnic Nepali majority.

Pondicherry Cuisines have a great French as well as Tamil influence. Tourists who come f r o m across the globe have really liked the food and wish to visit Pondicherry time and again. One thing that can make Pondicherry cuisine stand different f r o m any other food to try is the common practice that is followed by the locals when preparing food. In the sense, food in Pondicherry is cooked in very less oil, and is easy to digest. Offering a lot, tourists will come across freshly baked baguettes and crisp croissants with a steaming cup of coffee which is considered to be a perfect breakfast of the people living in Pondicherry. Other than this, tourists can even try out the popular Indian delicacies that find much favour in Pondicherry including Tandoori Potato, Soya Dosa, Assad, Coconut Curry, Podanlangkai, Curried Vegetables, Stuffed Vegetables, Palpayasam which is sweet milk and a lot more.”

Avinash Kumar, Executive Chef, Novotel Imagica Khopoli, Maharashtra, asserts, “The cuisine of India is one of the world's most diverse cuisines, characterised by its sophisticated and subtle use of many spices, vegetables, grains and fruits grown across India. There is no homogeneity of flavour between North and South or East and West but rather, a wealth of flavours that is simply staggering. Culinary diversity is one of India’s treasures.

Doing absolute justice to its culture, Rajasthani cuisine is rich, colourful and unique in taste too. Concoction of Milk, ghee and local spices make up for the most local delicacies here. The Rajasthani cuisine serves a lip-smacking range of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options to sweet and savoury dishes. Unlike Rajasthani, the cuisine of Sikkim majorly consists of non-vegetarian specials such as Phagshapa, a pork dish cooked with radish and chillies. Sikkim offers a three dimensional gastronomic affair with cuisines like Tibetan, Sikkimese and Nepali. 

Similarly, like Sikkim, Malabar cuisine offers a blend of three styles of preparing food - Arabia, Zamorin and Chirakkal which is unique to the region spanning f r o m Kasargod to Malappuram in Kerala. Pondicherry cuisine puts across a blend of its neighbouring states like Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka. Although being geographically distinct, the various delicacies prepared in Pondicherry share a common trait of that being made using very less oil and the food is easy to digest. 

Indian culinary diversity generally tends towards the search for a well-balanced symbiosis between spices and herbs, offering very tasty dishes which can boast surprising medicinal properties!”

A melange of different ethnicities 

Neelabh Sahay, Executive Chef, Novotel Kolkata Hotel & Residences declares, “India is a diverse country and its cuisine reflects that by being a mélange of different ethnicities and flavours.  As a result, there is a huge variety of regional and traditional cuisine native to Indian sub-continent. Because a lot of people f r o m the northern as well as the southern part of India travelled and settled in different regions of the world, their cuisines became popular. To cite an example, Rajasthani cuisine is savoured by not just the residents in Rajasthan but across India and even by foreigners as well. 

However, there are lots of regional cuisines that have not been explored until now due to several reasons. Presently, the new era chefs in our industry are trying to explore these regional cuisines and using them in their menus to not only highlight the vast richness of this country’s food and bring it to the forefront but also to provide customers with something new. Few of them are listed below:

Assamese cuisine is a mixture of different indigenous styles with considerable regional variation and some external influences. Although it is known for its limited use of spices, this cuisine has strong flavours f r o m its use of endemic herbs, fruits, and vegetables served fresh, dried, or fermented. Rice is the staple food item and a huge variety of endemic rice varieties including several varieties of sticky rice, are a part of the cuisine in Assam. Fish, generally of the freshwater varieties, is widely eaten. The food is usually served in bell metal utensils. To conclude the meal, Paan, the practice of chewing betel nut, is offered.

Unlike Assamese food, the Union Territory of Pondicherry boasts of a sumptuous cuisine that shows strong French and Tamil influences. But the Pondicherry Cuisine reflects a happy blend of the food f r o m the neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka too. On one side of the plate you will get freshly baked baguettes and crisp croissants with a steaming cup of coffee and on another side of the plate, you will get south Indian delicacies such as Masala Dosa, Sambar Vada, and Idli. They are equally, if not more, popular food items eaten at the time of breakfast in Pondicherry. One of the famous dishes called Kadugu Yerra is an incredible curry made with prawns cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with potatoes, vinegar, fenugreek and mustard paste and creamy coconut milk. 

Now, I will take you to the extreme part of the North East that is Mizo Cuisine. Their cuisine is influenced mostly by Burmese with a hint of Bangladeshi cuisine. Their staple is Rice for every meal period and with that, they generally serve all types of deep-fried, stewed, steamed and boiled preparations of Vegetables, Beef, Pork and Poultry. At times, they use a variety of downstream freshwater fish and shellfish as well. The most interesting part of their meal is that every meal consists of spicy chutney made of fish or shrimp or beef. Spices are not generally used, but their curries get the flavour f r o m locally grown chillies a whole lot of herbs.

Vikas Singh, Executive Sous Chef, Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai, claims, “Indian cuisine and its Ingredients vary f r o m one region to another. The way in which ingredients are used across varied methods and styles of cooking makes each dish taste different f r o m the other. 

A cuisine’s foundation is based on the ingredients available. For instance, Rajasthani cuisine focuses on use of chilies widely as many of its varieties are available locally. Another such ingredient is roasted gram flour (Besan) found in various Rajasthani dishes such as Gatte ki sabzi, Papad ki sabzi and sweets like Laddoos made out of besan. 

The use of meat again changes f r o m one region to region - Rajasthani or Kashmiri food uses lamb as its primary meat inclusion whereas preparations f r o m Malabar or Pondicherry are seafood-centric, using different forms of fish on the menu.” 

Vilas Dhankute - Sous Chef, Grand Mercure Bangalore, states, “As far as distinct flavour and taste is concerned, Rajasthani cuisine immediately comes to my mind. Gatte-ki-subzi, dal baati Churma, mangodi. Kadhipakoda, papad-ki-subzi, Laal mas etc. all these dishes have its own taste with hand full of ghee. Royal, rich and exotic, the cuisine of this land is a magical mix of flavours, and spices. If you go through the street food then its pyazki kachori, chillipakoda, Jalebi and badam milk the flavours of all are absolutely mouthwatering.

Mayur Ramachandran - Executive Chef, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Bengaluru Racecourse, disclosed, “The diversity of our country’s geography brings along with it a diversity in produce and along with it, its influence on the cuisine of every region. India is blessed to have some of the most extensive crop produce, in terms of variety, in the world. This diversity of crop, produce and flora and fauna results into an interesting concoction of recipes and cultures. Hence, the result, is a diversity in the various cuisines of the country.”

Gaurav Anand - Executive Chef, Sheraton Grand Bangalore Hotel at Brigade Gateway, states, “As far as distinct flavours are concerned, I believe that Rajasthan and Malabar play a major role. Malabar cuisine is a blend of Arabia, Zamorin and Chirakkal styles of preparing food, unique to the region spanning f r o m Kasargod to Malappuram in Kerala. In my opinion, it is heaven for a food lover, offering some of the tastiest dishes that Kerala has to offer. How the coconut is best used we can see in the Kerala cuisine and more specifically Malabar cuisine.

The traditional Rajasthani cuisine is heavily meat based. Game such as pheasants, partridges, goose and migratory birds are hunted in season. Rajasthan cuisine has also been influenced by trade, conquest and inter-marriage. Trade flourished across a sweeping arc stretching f r o m Gujarat to the South-West to Nepal in the East.”

Ashvini Kumar, Executive Chef, Four Points by Sheraton, Navi Mumbai, Vashi, says, “We at our hotel, have offered Bengali, Malvani, Coastal, Andhra, Punjabi, Goan, Kashmiri, Mango Saga (Recipes of mangos f r o m Farmer & Farms) and found that the guests have appreciated them.” 
Dev Bose, Executive Chef, Crowne Plaza Pune City Centre, opines, “Every cuisine has a distinct flavour & authenticity of the region. Bengal is predominated by mustard, in Goa kokum is widely used in different food. Similarly, Rajasthan is associated with red chili. So, these distinct ingredients can be mixed and matched with the food of another region and served to guests.”

Weather and soil cause diversity in cuisine 

Amit Dash, Executive Chef, The Westin Pune Koregaon Park, states, “Indian cuisine consists of a wide variety of regional and traditional cuisines native to the Indian subcontinent. Given the range of diversity in the weather condition, soil type, culture, authenticity, and original recipes, these cuisines vary f r o m each other and use locally available spices, herbs, vegetables and fruits. Indian food is also heavily influenced by religion, in particular Hindu, cultural choices and traditions. It is not only the North Indian or South Indian food, the cuisine is also influenced by Mughal and British who ruled India. 

Cuisine like North Eastern, Rajasthan, Malabar and Odisha food has its own identity and flavour. North Eastern people are mostly rice eater with lots of meats. Fresh water fish, Pork, and beef are the meats they take. Uses of Chilies and fermented bamboo shoots are the unique ingredients. Rajasthan food is mostly very rich, cooked with Ghee, uses of gram flour is more with lots of vegetarian varieties. In non-vegetarian laal maas and safed maas is very popular. A special type of Chilli is being used in Laal Maas is maithani chilli. Odia food is relying heavily on local ingredients. Food is delicately spiced; people love to have seafood over meat. Crab, Sea fish and prawns are very popular. Uses of Panch potan (5 spices cumin, mustard, fenugreek, fennel and kalonji) are widely used to flavour the dishes. The fermented water rice with yoghurt (Pakhala) is very popular among the odias. Traditional Kerala food is vegetarian except of Malabar, uses of sea fish with coconut milk and whole spices are more. Different types of sea fish such as Maceral, Pomfret, King Fish and prawns are regular dishes of Kerala.”

Rise in popularity of diverse regional cuisines 

Ashish Choudhury, Chef de Cuisine, Hyatt Regency Pune, declares, “Over last few years, besides North India and South Indian cuisines, other regions across India have gained a lot of popularity which has enabled our guest to expose various new flavours which is new as well as refreshing at the same time.

They offer distinct flavour such as in Malabar there is predominant coconut flavour due to its availability, whereas the Rajasthan cuisine is very rich and loaded with Ghee and butter, also very heavy on snacks items like pyaz kachori, bikaneri bhujia etc.

The North east cuisine has also gained a lot of attention as it offers a very mild and healthy cuisine, very close to Chinese cuisine coming f r o m its geographical influence. Again, Pondicherry has its own French historical influence on its dishes like Stuffed Cabbage, baked beans etc.

So a lot to do is f r o m geographical influences, ingredients availability and historical influences that makes a cuisine distinctive f r o m each other.”

Ilandhirai Vadivel - Executive Chef at Radisson Blu Pune Hinjawadi believes that each region has its own attraction. “The cuisine of Malabar is distinctive due to the deep influence of the confluence of various cultures that have blended into the very fabric of this region. It has incorporated the flavours of Arab, Brahmin, Zamorin and Chirakkal, rendering it fantastic in its uniqueness. Kozhikode and Thalassery are known as the centres of Malabar cuisine. Malabar cuisine consists of a plethora of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes that carry its distinctive flavour and aroma.

The state of Rajasthan is famed for its rich regal culture and heritage. The arid nature of the region, the extreme climatic conditions, scarcity of water and vegetation has witnessed evolvement of unique cooking styles and food habits of the natives that is noticeably different f r o m other Indian cuisines. The Rajasthanis have moulded their culinary styles in such a way that many of their dishes can be shelved for several days and served without heating. The royal heritage of the region as well as the gastronomic enthusiasm among locals have led to a wide variety of delectable and exquisite Rajasthani dishes starting f r o m main courses to snacks to sweet dishes. Some items like Dal-Baati-Churma and Bikaneri Bhujia have garnered both national and international popularity among foodies.

The food of Sikkim is something that will amaze you with its simple yet relishing flavours. The food of Sikkim is a rich mixture of Nepalese, Tibetan and native Sikkimese food. This blend of the three cultures is very soothing on the taste buds and leaves you craving as soon as you drop your plate. 

The Union Territory of Pondicherry boasts of a sumptuous cuisine that shows strong French and Tamil influences. Freshly baked baguettes and crisp croissants with a steaming cup of coffee constitute the breakfast of most of the people in the union territory. This is a French legacy. This is not to suggest that the many south Indian delicacies--such as Masala Dosa, SambarVada, and Idli--are not savored and enjoyed at the breakfast time. They are equally, if not more, popular food items eaten at the time of breakfast in Pondicherry.” 

(There is much more to regional cuisine. Read about the best food regions in the country, preference of regional cuisine over international cuisine and much more in the next issue. Also more recipes)  

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