Many cultures and customs converge in India, including food traditions. The subcontinent can be divided into roughly four culinary regions––north, east, south and west. These cooking regions are grouped by geography, climate and cultural influences. While most Indian food is identified by the use of somewhat exotic spices, the subtleties and variations of regional favorites, as well as traditional ingredients used in the major cooking regions, produce ethnically diverse and delicious cuisine throughout the country.
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Heavy oils and wheat-based dishes are characteristic of North Indian cuisine. Traditional entrees include vegetable-stuffed wheat pancakes (parathas) and unleavened bread. Tandoori cooking originated here, with naan, tandoori chicken and tandoori kebabs a key part of the regional cuisine. Dairy products are plentiful in this region as well, with yogurt, clarified butter (ghee), and cottage cheese (paneer) appearing frequently to mellow out some of the more pungent spices. Deep fried foods, like dough balls, are also popular in this region.
Fish and rice dishes of all kinds––spicy, sweet or sour—dominate the dinner tables in Eastern India. Fish curry (macherjhol), noodle soups (thukpa) and mashed vegetables are typical in dishes made in East India. Most entrees are rice-based, with lots of spices and oils used in preparation, although food dishes are treated with a lighter touch, with steaming, light frying and boiling as the most common cooking styles. Regional spices include mustard, fennel and cumin. East India is also renown for sweets, especially cakes and candies.
More tropical flavors dominate the cuisine of Southern India, such as coconut, bananas and jackfruit. Stuffed rice and lentil crepes (dosas) and fermented rice cakes (idli) are other South Indian delicacies. Strong spices dominate South Indian food, and favorites include cinnamon, clover, cardamom and pepper. Seafood, particularly fish and prawns, often stars as the main dish. Most South Indian food is less greasy than other areas, as dishes are primarily steamed or lightly fried. Rice dominates in the kitchen, just as it does in the east.
Fewer meat dishes are prominent in Western Indian cuisine, as the area’s inhabitants are heavily vegetarian. Stir-fried and curried vegetable dishes are plentiful, as are sweet and sour sauces that are served over rice. Most meat dishes feature seafood, as Western India enjoys an extensive coastline. Lobster, crab, fish and prawns all feature prominently in Western Indian dishes. Peanuts, cashews and sesame seeds are frequent garnishes to main courses. Steamed cakes (khaman dhokla) and flat bread (rotli) are eaten as sides.