Thanks to the arrival of nearly half a million Indians to the U.S. in the 1980s and ’90s, the breadth and depth of regional Indian cuisine has expanded across the United States. In more and more U.S. cities, you can eat your way around India without leaving your zip code. While each Indian state has its own special cuisine, the foods of the country can be split into four major regions: North, South, East, and West.
With roots in Persian and Moghul cuisines, food here skews toward kebabs and other meats cooked in clay tandoor ovens. Meat consumption is in line with religious affiliation—Hindus and Sikhs avoid beef, Muslims pork.
1. Typical northern street-food bites (a.k.a. chaat) include bhel puri (above), puffed rice with fried potatoes and sev (crunchy bits of chickpea-flour noodles), spiked with tamarind and cilantro chutneys.
2. Rogan josh is lamb stew from Kashmir, featuring a gravy made with onions, garlic, ginger, aromatic spices, and Kashmiri chiles.
3. Chana masala, or chole, is a spicy chickpea curry with tomatoes; scoop it up with pieces of bhatura, pita-like fry-bread.
The weather: hot and humid. The food: spicy. Seafood is everywhere, coconut chutney is a popular condiment, and rice in some form is served with almost every meal.
4. Masala dosa, a giant crispy crêpe filled with spiced mashed potato, is one of Southern India’s signature dishes, as fun to eat as it is impressive to serve.
5. A popular South Indian sweet is jalebi urad—urad (lentil) flour, formed into rings or pretzel-like shapes and soaked in saffron syrup.
Vegetarian and meaty dishes coexist in this zone, where there’s lots of southern Chinese influence on the food, including using cornstarch to thicken sauces and seasoning with soy sauce.
6. Bengali palak pakora are spinach fritters with a crispy coating of spiced chickpea flour.
7. Rasgulla (above) are balls of paneer (i.e., fresh-cheese dumplings), poached and served in syrup.
Except for Rajasthan and the coastal areas, Western India is mostly vegetarian and sweets-loving. A traditional Gujarati meal includes a thali filled with 10 vegetable dishes, condiments, rice, dal, and sweets.
8. Gujarati dhokla (above) are steamed chickpea cakes topped with toasted black mustard and sesame seeds, shredded coconut, and the ubiquitous green chutney, made with mint.
9. Crab xec xec is a popular Goan dish of crab cooked in a spicy tomato and aromatic curry-leaf sauce.
10. And last but definitely not least, dal—mildly spiced lentil soup—is an understated Western Indian companion with every meal.
Essential Indian Condiments
Please share your own favorite regional Indian dishes!
Photos by Chris Rochelle