In a word: heat. And we’re not talking temps.
Favorite Indian spices include turmeric, cardamom, cayenne pepper, clove, saffron, nutmeg, mace, fenugreek seeds, black mustard seeds, cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. Fresh spices like garlic and ginger are also frequently used to up the heat factor in many Indian dishes.
Like the United States, the cuisine and type of spice used varies considerably depending on the state in India (there are 29 in the country). Most American Indian food is inspired by the Northern Indian state of Punjab—popular Punjabi cuisine includes palak paneer (spinach and cottage cheese in a curry sauce), butter chicken, naan (Indian flatbread), chicken tikka masala (chunks of chicken in spicy curry) and samosas (fried stuffed patties served as apps). But you won’t find these dishes as spicy as you would in Northern India.
Southern Indian foods like dosa (a type of pancake made from rice and black gram) are harder to find on menus in Indian restaurant in the States (although easier to get in melting pot cities like New York City).
Authentic Indian cuisine is labor intensive—it typically involves preparing a dish with many ingredients and cooking is for a long period of time. A lot of love also goes into the meal. That isn’t to say that you can’t find authentic Indian cuisine in the U.S., but because of the length of preparation and cooking time involved, authentic Indian food isn’t as prevalent in the States.
Also, Americans love their meat and potatoes. In India, a significant percentage of the population is vegetarian—much more so than in the States—for varying reasons, including cultural (Indian food is often influenced by religion, specifically Hinduism, which mandates that eating beef is taboo).
In India, while you might not find much beef, you will find lots of plant-based food and vegetables (spinach, tomatoes, onions, peas, and cauliflower)—with tons of spice. Of course, vegetarian dishes are also found on menus in Indian restaurants in the States. Again, just don’t expect as much heat in the vegetable dishes.
Cheese and yogurt are also mainstay ingredients in Indian food. The aforementioned palak paneer is a popular dish in India, as well as in the States.
Butter chicken is uber-popular but can be labor-intensive. But this butter chicken recipe from The Kitchen Paper is an easier version of the popular dish. And here’s another recipe from Kitchen Paper for homemade naan, the perfect sidekick to butter chicken (to everything really). The recipe does not call for yeast, so you can have naan in a curry—er, hurry.
Chicken vindaloo is another favorite. Here’s an authentic chicken vindaloo recipe from Rachna’s Kitchen for the tangy, sweet and spicy hot dish.
Vegetarian dish palak paneer is comfort food. Try this palak paneer recipe for your next Indian feast.
Related Video: Watch These Indian Chefs Put a Delicious Twist on Southern Collards and Corn Bread
Header image courtesy of The Kitchen Papers.