When ordering “Indian” food in places such as the United States or the UK, garlic naan, biryani, butter chicken and dal are ubiquitous.
However, when you travel to India, don’t expect anything close to a standard menu. In this vast country, there are 29 states — each with its own topography and traditions.
Head 100 miles in any direction and the religion, language and culinary customs will be completely different.
The food experiences vary based on the landscape and climate, not to mention historic immigration patterns, spices, trade links, rulers and religions.
In northern destinations, you might find flatbreads and tandoor-grilled kebabs, while southern Indians dine on sweet coconut fish curries and rice.
Across the country, the diversity spans more than nine religions, all of which influence the relationship with food. For example, Hindus eschew beef, Muslims avoid pork and Jains practice strict vegetarianism.
With Covid-19 impacting international tourism, those of us in other countries probably can’t taste these delicious dishes in India right now, but there’s no harm in whetting our appetites.
From north to south, east to west, we take a deep dive into each region’s history and traditional dishes with insights from experts in each region.
Comprising states such as Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, northern India is heavily influenced by its history and topography.
It’s here where you’ll encounter the majestic Himalayas and the Indo-Gangetic Plain — fertile alluvial flatlands that have been considered the “food bowl” of India for centuries.
“The Himalayas have a huge influence on Northern India,” Palash Mitra, the chef at New Punjab Club in Hong Kong, tells CNN Travel.
“The mountains create a temperate, arid, less humid climate compared to Kolkata or Mumbai. In addition, the landscape is full of hills and valleys. As you head up to the borders of Punjab, you’ll see huge steppes.”
Mitra, who grew up in western India and worked in northern India for much of his early career, says the climate results in an abundance of specific ingredients, such as wheat, rice, maize, dairy, mustard seed, dried fruits, pistachios, almonds, saffron, turmeric and cumin.
The cuisine in this part of India tends to be rustic, with an emphasis on the seasons.
“Even though the presentation is simple, I would say it’s a celebratory style of food — they are celebrating the flavors, the seasons, the bounties of nature and spirituality,” says the chef.
Another major influence can be attributed to immigrants, traders and conquerors.
Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Nader Shah, Amir Timur… many of the world’s best known conquerors rolled through Northern India.
“The diverse food culture reflects many waves of migration from Mongolia, Persia, Turkey, Africa and many other regions,” explains Mitra.
“Communities moved there and set up a life. They brought their traditions with them, adding to the wide spectrum of regional foods in the north.
The Mughal empire, which ruled during the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, dined on many milk proteins, such as paneer (an Indian cheese), ghee and yogurt.
Of course, within the vast northern region, there are significant differences between food traditions.
In Punjab, Mitra says dishes tend to revolve around the tandoor (clay oven), whereas lamb chops, beef kebabs, chicken tikka and all kinds of skewered meats are cooked.
Aside from tandoor dishes, Mitra recommends amritsari macchi — river fish that’s coated in a chickpea batter then deep-fried and served with various chutneys.
He also recommends sarson da saag and makki ki roti. To make this dish, corn flour roti are cooked on a griddle, then stir-fried with mustard greens, spinach and other leafy greens and then served alongside onions and butter.
“Punjab food is meatier and they use yogurts to sweeten and tenderize the meats in dishes such as murgh (chicken) tikka.
“People in Himachal and Haryana use a lot more vegetables, fish and foods like that. But the most common thing among them is the use of dairy. They all use it, but in different ways.”
By comparison, in places like Kashmir, there’s a distinct Muslim influence. A notable dish here, called roghan ghosht (a.k.a rogan josh), is a slow-cooked lamb stew using fennel, ginger and rattan jyot (made from tree bark).
And in the mountains, there’s a pronounced Tibetan and Nepali influence featuring more dumplings, noodles and stews.
“The mountain communities are full of really kind, humble people — these are soul enriching places,” says Mitra.
“It’s about nourishing both the soul and the body.”
Throughout the North, jalebi with rabdi — swirls of deep-fried batter, topped with a creamy condensed-milk sauce, spices, sugar and nuts — is a must-try.
You can find it on every street corner, though Mitra claims those in Haridwar, in North India’s Uttarakhand state, are the most exceptional.
“If you go to Kashmir, you have to go to Dal Lake and try the local food around this area,” says Mitra.
“There is a big Muslim community, so you want to try to rogan josh and the Kashmiri muji gaad. It’s like minced meat, cooked in a stew.”
In Central India — covering the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand — the food packs a punch.
“Generally, people of this region don’t like bland or monotonous food,” Amit Pamnani, a professional chef who runs a culinary homestay experience called Stay with a Chef in Indore, in Madhya Pradesh, tells CNN Travel.
“They want it to be somewhat heavy on spices. The flavor of any dish will be strong — a mix of spicy, salty, sweet and sour all at once.”
The climate of this inland region is hot and dry, which is part of the reason behind the penchant for spice. Chilies, for example, are thought to keep the body cool while the anti-microbial properties of some spices can keep food from spoiling quickly in the heat.
Pamnani says a history of Mughal influence — a Muslim empire that ruled the region from the early 16th century to the mid 19th century — has also shaped the cuisine.
“While the Mughals enjoyed meaty dishes, such as the country’s kebabs and biryanis, we also have a large community of Jains (an ancient Indian religion known as Jain Dharma) who are strict vegetarians,” says Pamnani.
“Some actually don’t eat ingredients that grow underground, such as garlic or onions. Instead, they use a lot of cumin and asafoetida [an aromatic herb that tastes of leeks when cooked] to add flavor to their food.”
In Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, Pamnani says Galouti kebabs are a must-try: “It’s almost like a meat pâté. Legend has it that they were invented by a cook in the Mughal Darbar [king’s court] for a toothless king who couldn’t chew meat, so he made this melt-in-your-mouth kebab.”
Indore, the chef’s homebase, is one of the most famous places in Central India to dig into street food.
The two most well-known street markets — Chappan Dukan (meaning “56 Shops”) and Sarafa — are brimming with vendors.
Here, Pamnani recommends hunting down local staples, such as sev (a savory crispy fried noodle snack), dahi vada (lentil dumplings covered in yogurt and chutney), chole tikki (boiled chickpeas in a spice stew), coconut crush (coconut water smoothie) and Kachori samosas (deep-fried pastry puffs filled with vegetables).
Capital cuisine: Delhi
If you only have time to visit one food city in India, it has to be Delhi.
The capital of India is the melting pot of all of India’s regions and ethnicities, providing a round-the-country tour of culinary traditions.
Alongside world-famous butter chicken, stuffed parathas, chaat and kebabs, Delhi’s dining scene also plays host to a variety of international influences.
“If you want to try food from any region in India, you can find it here,” Anubhav Sapra, founder of Delhi Food Walks, tells CNN Travel.
“The noisy labyrinthine lanes of Chawri Bazar and Chandni Chowk have an extremely rich culinary culture to offer to tourists and residents alike.”
Old Delhi is considered to be the street food capital of India, so Sapra suggests you start your food crawl there.
“Many of the authentic Delhi dishes can be found here, such as bedmi puri (puffed bread with lentils), chole kulche (a popular breakfast of spiced chickpeas in a curry), nagori halwa (a sweet treat of puffed bread with a semolina- and ghee-based paste) or paaya (trotters),” says Sapra.
“At Jama Masjid mosque and Turkman Gate, you can relish nihari (a slow-cooked meat stew) at Kallu, biryani at Taufeeq ki Biryani, or enjoy Hussain’s fried chicken.”
Beyond Old Delhi, travelers can explore Tibetan cuisine beyond momo dumplings in the city’s northern neighborhoods.
“Close to the Yamuna river is Majnu-ka-Tilla, a residential area that’s also known as Little Tibet,” says Sapra.
“In the narrow lanes of this area, you will find a huge variety of traditional Tibetan foods — much more than momos.”
There are lots of food stalls and humble restaurants, serving up meaty stews, chicken thukpa (a Himalayan noodle soup) and spicy fried pork with steamed rice.
South Delhi is also worth visiting on any food adventure. Home to a vast Afghan settlement of migrant workers, it’s known as Little Kabul.
“There are rows of Afghan tandoor shops and restaurants in this area, serving some of the tastiest tandoor cooked meals,” says Sapra.
He recommends exploring narrow Kashmiri Lane, where the scents of freshly baked roht (Afghan sweet bread), mantu (lamb and onion dumplings) and juicy mutton kebabs topped with sour sumac (a citrus-like spice) permeate the air.
Set against the Bay of Bengal, eastern states like West Bengal and Odisha are home to a largely humid climate, epic rainfalls, rivers and lakes.
As a result, there’s no shortage of green vegetables, fruit and rice. In addition, fish and cooling yogurts make appearances at almost every meal, as do nourishing mustard seeds and hearty ghee.
Best enjoyed at street stalls, the regional staples include dalma (hearty lentil stews), machher jhol (a tomato-based fish curry), pakhala (a fermented rice dish seasoned with spices, curd and lemon), badi chura (dried lentil cakes), aloo dum dahi vada (potato curry with lentil dumplings and yogurt), red chili chutney and delicious chhena poda (roasted cottage cheese with cashews and raisins).
“It’s very humid, very hot, so you will see a lot of cooling desserts and thin yogurts — almost like buttermilk — that keep people feeling full and hydrated,” says Sapra.
You’ll encounter dramatic variations in food traditions between the states in this region.
While Bengali cuisine tends to be simple yet packed with flavor, Oriya dishes are subtle and delicately spiced.
“I think Odisha’s food is one of the most underrated in India.”
To the north, there’s heavy influence from Mongolian and Chinese food traditions with momos and mutton on every corner.
Within the region, Bengali cuisine is by far the best known, thanks in part to its delicious street snacks and beloved desserts.
“Almost everything in Bengali cuisine is cooked in mustard oil,” says Sapra.
“Mustard is a very important part of Bengali food, along with vegetables. They leave no stone unturned when it comes to greens — Bengalis are known for using every part of the vegetable.”
Among the most popular dishes in West Bengal, you’ll want to taste various bhaja — fried snacks — as well as chana dal (thick chickpea dal) cooked in lots of spices.
A light, fluffy accompaniment to most meals is luchi, a deep-fried flatbread made from maida (white flour).
“Bengali cuisine has a lot to offer to all street food lovers,” says Sapra.
“Their popular mouthwatering puchkas (a flaky shell full of sour tamarind water, chaat masala, potatoes, chili and chutney) are an absolute delight for the palate, along with ghugni (a curry-like street snack made with yellow and white peas) and jhalmuri (puffed rice with a mélange of vegetables, nuts and spices).”
Sapra also recommends fresh singhara (a crispy fried snack filled with potatoes, peas and other vegetables), mughlai parathas (fried bread stuffed with minced meat and onions), or kati rolls (super spicy skewer-roasted kebab rolled in paratha bread) that are best enjoyed on a night out with friends.
“We can’t talk about Bengali food without mentioning sweets,” says Sapra. “Bengalis love their sweet dishes and why not? They are delicious.”
He points to specialties such as rasgulla (dumplings full of paneer and sugary syrup) and ras malai — similar to a crustless cheesecake made from chhena (cheese curds).
“Another one of their special desserts is payesh, which is rice pudding sweetened with jaggery (cane sugar and date palm sap),” says Sapra.
“This sweet dish tastes so good that you can never be satisfied with just one bowl.”
In northeastern India, the eight sisters — Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Sikkim — are secluded from the rest of the country.
Bhutan and the Himalayas hug the region to the north, while Bangladesh borders to the south.
Highly remote, this is one of India’s most underrated provinces when it comes to food.
“It’s green and lush, with rainforests, deep rivers and valleys — it’s like heaven,” Chef Atul Lahkar, a celebrity chef and owner of Heritage Khorikaa in Assam, tells CNN Travel.
“Because of the rainfall, it’s easy to cultivate food here. People tend to live very closely with nature… foraging, farming and fishing.”
Known for its tribal communities, micro climates and lush rice paddies — Meghalaya is said to have the highest annual rainfall in the world — the food varies from state to state.
“It’s impossible to generalize because we have so many subcommunities — 28 in Assam alone — all with their own traditions,” says Lahkar.
But they do share a few common traits, namely simple, rustic food that eschews oil, ghee, milk and spice mixes.
You’ll often see baked, grilled or steamed dishes, such as chicken, fish or pork steamed with endemic herbs inside bamboo leaves.
“The traditional meat dishes are pork or chicken barbecue, because most of the tribal communities are hunters. This is the lifestyle,” says Lahkar.
Other common ingredients include bamboo shoots, white gourd, lentils, aromatic herbs, ginger, garlic, chili and more than 230 types of rice every color and texture imaginable.
“Rice is a staple food in this region. We often eat it pounded in a traditional way, with vegetables, meat or fish,” says Lahkar.
“We also use a lot of aromatic herbs, like borage (also called starflower). This herb is often paired with fish and meat to add a punch of flavor to the dish.”
Around the region, you can also find iterations of apong or xaj — a homemade rice beer often infused with herbs or fruits — almost everywhere.
In terms of foods to try in Assam, Lahkar recommends baah gajor gahori — pork with bamboo shoots and sticky rice (steamed rice wrapped in banana leaves).
In Meghalaya, he says one of the most popular dishes is Khasi-style pork with rice cooked in pork blood with sesame seeds, ginger and garlic.
And in Nagaland, the region’s staple smoked pork should be consumed with akhuni — an intensely aromatic type of chutney made with fermented soybeans.
“In every part of the northeast, they have their own heritage style of cooking,” Lahkar. “It’s all very simple and rustic.”
In Western India, states such as Rajasthan and Gujarat lie in largely dry stretches of desert where fresh vegetables and fruits are not always available.
“Food was influenced by both the war-like lifestyles of its inhabitants and the availability of ingredients in this arid region,” Manish Joshi, the executive chef of Taj Lake Palace hotel in Udaipur, tells CNN Travel.
“Food that could last for several days and could be eaten without heating was preferred. Scarcity of water and fresh green vegetables have all had their effect on the cooking.”
You’ll find lots of dried lentils and beans, dairy and liberal use of ghee, as well as millet- and barley-based breads.
The area is also known for snacks like bikaneri bhujia (crispy moth beans and spices), mirchi vada (fresh green chillies stuffed with spicy potato filling) and pyaaj kachori (a fried pastry filled with a spicy onion filling).
Other famous dishes include bajre ki roti (a millet-based flatbread), lasun ki chutney (hot garlic paste) and mawa kachori (puffed pastries full of creamy mawa cheese) from Jodhpur.
The region has seen centuries of influence from Central and West Asia — especially Persian, Arabic and Urdu communities that settled here over the years.
It’s also important to note that Rajasthan has one of the most plant-based diets of all Indian states, home to roughly 75% vegetarians.
“Originating for the Marwar region (southwestern Rajasthan state), the concept of Marwari Bhojnalaya, or purely vegetarian restaurants, are found in many parts of Rajasthan,” says Joshi.
However, there’s plenty of influence here, too, from the Rajputs, who are avid hunters.
“Their diet consisted of game meat and dishes like laal maas (mutton curry), safed maas (mutton with cream, yogurt and dry fruits) and khad khargosh (curried rabbit),” adds Joshi.
“The natives of the Rajputi areas also prepare a wide variety of chutneys made of turmeric, garlic, mint and coriander.”
Heading west toward the coast, the state of Gujarat share similar food traditions with Rajasthan, though they tend to cook with more sugar due to historic influences from Chinese invaders and immigrants.
With a long stretch of coastline, the “Jewel of Western India” sees more seafood, chutneys, pickled vegetables and fruits.
Among the must-try experiences is the Gujarati thali — a platter of various dals, kadhi (a sour yogurt curry with vegetable fritters), sabzi (a mixed vegetarian dish), steamed basmati rice and rotli bread — which is often served on a glimmering silver platter.
With influence from the Jain culture, Gujarat is also a heavily vegetarian state, but the dishes are varied with flavors that often combine sweet, spicy and sour.
The broad range of spices — from turmeric to cumin, cardamom, coriander, tamarind, saffron, mint, cloves, ginger, cayenne, curry leaves, chili and more — make the masala mixes here particularly notable.
Maharashtra — where Mumbai is located — enjoys a long stretch of coastline and a tropical climate where the monsoon season can last for months. However, there’s also a wide swath of hinterland that’s far removed from the sea.
“The natural produce, cereals and vegetables vary greatly,” Pushpesh Pant, Indian food critic, historian and author of “India: The Cookbook,” tells CNN Travel.
“Fish and seafood are part of the daily diet along the seaboard while millet, mutton and different seasonal vegetables and lentils predominate elsewhere.”
Within the mix, there are several sub-regional cuisines, including coastal Malvani-style food in South Konkan — known for its coconut-based seafood curries with sour, fiery flavors — and Vidarbha cuisine, a particularly spicy style that can be found in and around Nagpur city, in the central part of Maharashtra.
Nagpur is also home to ultra-spicy Saoji cuisine, which has its own unique style of non-vegetarian cuisine that often features goat meat, fish, lentil dumplings, boiled rice and roti.
“There is a great difference in the cuisines inhabiting this region … Hindus aren’t a monolith. Brahmins, Marathas and other castes, as well as Parasi, Muslims, Christians, Sindhis, refugee Punjabis and Anglo-Indians all have left their mark on food of this region,” says Pant.
In Mumbai, on the western coast, the food culture has long been shaped by industry and waves of immigration throughout the 20th century.
“Bombay was once a city full of textile mills,” says Pant. “It serves as home to India’s film industry and the country’s financial capital. As an important port, it continues to draw immigrants like a magnet.”
As a result, the city’s cuisine is a “melting pot on full boil,” says Pant.
“Gujarati-Parsi, Goan and various strains and streams of South Indian foods intermingle here. The straightjacket of caste, orthodox prescriptions and prohibitions no longer fetter the young.”
He says a few of the must-try dishes around the city include sol kadi (a pink-hued coconut and kokum drink), fish Koliwada (spicy battered and fried fish), Kolhapuri mutton rassa (a highly aromatic mutton curry), puran poli (an Indian sweet flatbread) and jhunka bhakri (a chickpea flour porridge) — to name a few.
Elsewhere in the region, look for kombdi vade (chicken curry and deep-fried bread) from the Malvan region, tambda rassa and pandhra rassa (mutton cooked in two different kind of curries) from Kolhapur, sumai or pomfret fish curry and mud crabs — many of which are often paired with thalipeeth (local flatbread) and kokum sharbat (a cooling fruit juice).
Of course, the street foods of Mumbai are part of the experience. In particular, food experts recommend seeking out misal pav, vada pav and Bombay grilled chutney sandwiches.
Sitting on the western coast of India, Goa is a popular beach destination about an hour south via plane from Mumbai.
Despite the proximity, the cuisine here is completely distinct, due in part to 400 years as a Portuguese colony and trade port.
As a coastal state, the food in Goa is dominated by ingredients like seafood, rice, potatoes, chili, vinegar (via Portugal), tamarind, kokum (a variety of mangosteen), tirphal (a kind of Sichuan-stye numbing peppercorn), cashew and coconut.
“The Portuguese were responsible for bringing chili peppers to the Goan coast, and today, the spice features prominently in the state’s cuisine,” says Karan Anand, head of relationships at Cox & Kings travel agency.
“Sourness is another flavor that finds prominence, whether in the form of vinegar, kokum or tamarind.”
He says Goan food can broadly be divided into two types: Goan Hindu (Saraswat) and Goan Catholic.
“Hindu dishes to try include humon-xit (curry and rice), kismur (a salad of sorts made using dried shrimp or fish, coconut and onions) and tondak (a stew made using lentils or grams),” says Anand.
Meanwhile, must-try Catholic dishes are xacuti (a thick, coconut-heavy gravy with chicken or lamb), choris pao (local bread stuffed with the local pork sausage), sorpotel (a spicy pork dish) and bebinca (a multilayered pudding traditionally served at festivals like Christmas).
In addition, local staples like Goan vindaloo, fish curry and sausage pao are not to be missed.
Anand recommends getting your fill at restaurants like Mum’s Kitchen or Peep Kitchen in Goa’s capital city of Panaji.
Home to the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana, Southern India’s landscape and climate are dramatically different than the dry deserts of the north.
Also known as Peninsular India, the south is hugged by the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east, creating a predominately tropical climate that hosts humid temperatures and heavy monsoons.
Across the region, recurring ingredients include lentils, dried chilies, coconut, tamarind, plantains and ginger — all ingredients that grow easily in the tropical climate.
“The food in Southern India has earned fame across the world, particularly for delicious dishes like dosas, vada (savory fried snacks), idli (fluffy rice cakes) and uttapam (thick dosa-like pancakes) which are typically served with a coconut chutney and sambar (South Indian-style vegetable stew),” Sudip Misra, chef of Bengaluru Marriott Hotel Whitefield, tells CNN Travel.
Though selecting a few dishes can’t do justice to the region’s diversity, Misra recommends bisibelebath (a rice and dal dish seasoned with curry and mustard leaves), chicken chettinad (yogurt-marinated chicken curry with coconut), mutton pepper fry and appam (pancakes made from fermented rice batter and coconut milk).
There’s also meen moilee (a coconut and fish curry dish) and the delectable neer dosa (lacy crêpes made with a rice batter).
“You can expect robust flavors, since spices are used generously here,” says Misra.
“The region is known for its varied range of high-quality spices like cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper. But the level of spice and method of cooking differs from each state.”
The cuisine also draws influence from Ayurvedic traditions — an ancient system of Indian medicine.
“Considered extremely healthy, South Indian food incorporates specific herbs and ingredients that are meant to be part of a holistic way to regain the mind and body’s health and vitality,” says Misra.
When it comes to preparation methods, most dishes are cooked or steamed using very little oil, ensuring that they taste light and are easy to digest.
A food tour of the region might take you to Udupi, in Karnataka, to sample breakfast staples like idli and dosas and over to Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, to dig into famous Chettinad cuisine — said to be one of the fieriest in all of India.
Influenced by seafaring Southeast Asian traders and, later, British and French colonizers, the cuisine in Chennai includes spongy rice cakes, sambar, dosas, coconut chutney, mutton pallipalayam (a slow-cooked curry mixed with ginger, tomato, chili and coconut) and lots of rice.
Misra also recommends a visit to Kozhikode, in Kerala, which known for its Malabar paratha (a flaky, layered flatbread), chatti pathiri (a pastry stuffed with nuts and raisins) and famous pazham pori (banana fritters).
A former French settlement, Pondicherry is a paradise for fusion food, while Madurai, in Tamil Nadu serves the most mouth-watering lamb dishes.
“Andhra Pradesh is known for its fiery food and, on the flip side, Pondicherry and Kerala serve up very subtle spices in their cuisine,” says Misra.
“The list is really endless, but you can be sure you will eat well in South India.”
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