The best recipes of India: All you need to know about Indian food 

A lentil-filled mishmash of vegan, vegetarian and tender tandoori treats, Indian cuisine will keep you guessing and – most importantly – satiated while you travel through the various and diverse states of South Asia’s biggest nation. You don’t even have to visit India to be brought into the aromatic world of Indian cuisine, as Singapore’s Little India, Vancouver’s Punjabi bazaar and London’s Southall will all attest. Today we bring the heat with all the best Indian street food recipes, masala Indian cuisine and beyond, learning all about Indian food and its many faces below.

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Photo: Jeswin Thomas

1. Indian appetizers

Easing into our first slap-up meal, we start with some traditional Indian appetizers. Among everyone’s favourites is the bhaji, a deep-fried chickpea fritter ball, made from spiced batter sometimes cut with onions. The samosa is another of the more common street foods of India, a deep-fried filo pastry parcel of spiced potato or meat, perfect for tasting on the move. Lesser-known but also worth trying are idli and vada, two popular breakfast recipes of India, often served together. The vada is a sort of chickpea doughnut while the idli is a fluffy steamed rice cake, both often served with sambal (chili paste) and chutney.

Other popular Indian street foods – often served with an array of condiments and spicy sauces – are the dahi vada and vada pav. To avoid confusion, know that ‘dahi’ translates as yoghurt and ‘vada’ is ‘deep-fried fritter’. The dahi vada is exactly that; a deep-fried lentil fritter topped with thick yoghurt, while the vada pav is a deep-fried bean patty served in a ‘pav’ (bread roll). If you’ve had enough pulses, try a corn or cabbage pakora instead. For one last appetizer, we go for the North-Indian papdi chaat, similar to an unrolled crepe topped with potatoes, chickpeas and a spicy, sweet sauce, while down south it’s the dosa (plus dipping sauce) that dominates.

Photo: Marvin Ozz

Photo: Prchi Palwe

2. Bread

The best reason to break your keto diet is India’s variety of breads; fried, skillet cooked and oven-baked. The majority of these breads are flatbreads, including naan, roti and paratha (parantha). While all are made with wheat flour, naan is allowed to rise using yeast or yoghurt before being baked in a tandoor India oven. Roti is flatter and cooked over the stove on a tava (Indian skillet), while paratha is layered with oil – and sometimes stuffed – before being pan-fried. The famous Punjabi variant known as laccha paratha is made using ghee and all the more buttery and flavourful because of it, though, for the roti, you’ll want to try Northern India’s tandoori variation.

Dosa is another bread found in South India, lighter and similar to a thin crepe filled with savoury ingredients such as black lentils, urad dal (spiced lentils), spices and fenugreek leaves. Then there’s the sourdough breakfast bread known bhatura, the deep-fried morsel called puri (served as a snack – pani puri – or paired with the puri bhaji curry), the thicker roti-style bhakri biscuit, the sesame kulcha and the beloved crispy papadum. Of course, there are others found across the nation, but we’d be here for days!

Photo: Francesco Paggiaro

Photo: Ashwini Chaudhary

3. Tikka masala

A worldwide favourite, tikka masala is rich, creamy and heaven-sent. Though the name comes from the Hindi for ‘small chunks’ and ‘blended spices’, the dish is said to have originated in the UK (invented by a Bangladeshi chef) in the 1960s. The most common form of this dish is chicken tikka masala, charred chicken pieces accounting for the succulent small chunks, served in a tomato-based coriander gravy made richer with cream and/or yoghurt. For a South Indian masala, however, coconut cream is the secret. The base masala spices are generally turmeric, paprika, and tomato paste, making it similar to butter chicken in both appearance and base method. Additional spices include garam masala, sambar, cloves, cinnamon and fennel.

4. Murgh makhani (butter chicken)

The murgh makhana (aka butter chicken) is a favourite for both Delhi foodies and Indian food connoisseurs around the world, emerging in the capital during the 1940s from a Punjabi recipe. Made with spiced tomato and butter sauce, this curry is distinct from the masala in that it is creamier and saucier with a subtler tomato flavour, pan-cooked rather than tandoor roasted. Both authentic dishes will marinate the chicken for several hours, using a blend of lemon juice, dahi (yoghurt), Kashmiri red chili, garam masala, salt, ginger and garlic, though the murgh makhana may add yoghurt to the mix. Within the curry itself, you can expect a mild degree of spice, with complex flavours coming from cardamom, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, garam masala and fenugreek.

Photo: Azmaan Baluch

Photo: Amirali Mirhashemian

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The murgh makhana (aka butter chicken) is a favourite for both Delhi foodies and Indian food connoisseurs around the world, emerging in the capital during the 1940s from a Punjabi recipe

5. Chole (chickpea curry)

A fragrant vegetarian curry even meat-eaters will love is the chole, a North Indian classic easily made in a big batch and served alongside puri and bhatura. Referring to the Hindi word for chickpeas (sometimes also called chana or chana masala), chole is a chickpea-based curry flavoured in a gravy of onion, ginger, garlic and aromatic spices. Usually spicy and always flavourful, chole is a staple dish at celebrations and – if you want to try making it yourself – it also freezes very well.

6. Tandoori chicken

More of the same you might be thinking, but tandoori chicken certainly needs to be appreciated in its own right, minus its usual curry immersion. The cooking method of tandoori chicken is painstaking, taking several hours of marination and pre-charring before whacking it in the tandoor clay oven to cook over wood or coals for a smoky flavour. The marinade for the chicken usually includes turmeric, cayenne pepper and Kashmiri red chilli powder to achieve that iconic orange tint, though food colouring is the cheat’s method. Other ways to get the tastiest Indian chicken are roasting (as in the chirga and tandoori murgh), stuffing plus spit-roasting (as in the murgh kabab seekhi) and steaming plus spit-roasting (for the kookarh tandoori). Try your tandoori alone as an appetiser or served within any number of delicious curries such as butter chicken.

Photo: Azmaan Baluch

Photo: Esperanza Doronila

7. Rogan josh

Another northern delicacy from the state of Kashmir, brought by the Mughals and influenced by Persian cuisine, the rogan josh is worth saving room for. This curry dish, roughly translated as ‘red lamb’, is traditionally cooked with braised lamb or goat and served in a curry of garlic, ginger and aromatic spices, such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds and bay leaves. Onions and yoghurt are sometimes added later to tone down the heat from the Kashmiri chillies, which – alongside alkanet flower –  give the dish its colour. To eat the rogan josh as intended, try it as part of a wazwan (a Kashmiri multi-course meal), a royal feast served on large copper plates and shared among groups.

8. Vindaloo

The dish of choice for spice fanatics and big egos alike, the vindaloo has an intriguing history that once made for a milder dish. Originating from Goa under colonial rule, the vindaloo is the flavourful fusion of Portuguese and Indian cuisines, traditionally made with wine-marinated pork (carne de vinha d’alhos as the Portuguese would have it), which, in the past, allowed sailors to preserve their raw ingredients in barrels before Goan cooks localised the dish with spices and palm vinegar instead of wine. The vindaloo is alternatively served with chicken, lamb, beef, shrimp or vegetables at curry houses across the world.

Photo: Ting Tian

9. Dal

One of the vegan Indian dishes beloved by Hare Krishnas and festival-goers alike, dal really is a great meal for anyone; hearty, filling and rich in flavour. The name dal (also spelt daal, dhal and dahl) refers to the dish’s main ingredient (split lentils and/or peas) and is used more broadly for all types of lentil and bean soups. A traditional dal is usually made by simmering lentils in water, turmeric and salt until cooked to perfection, but there are many other more flavourful versions such as the dal makhni (adding Indian beans, spices and cream), the dal tadka (cumin seeds, mustard seeds and other whole spices), the chana dal (chickpeas again) and the Dhaba dal (a fast-food version often served in roadside Dhaba joints.) Dal is widely enjoyed across South Asia, with additional features such as tomato and onion often added, to be eaten alongside roti or chapati and sometimes rice.

10. Malai kofta

A creamy dish with a long history, the malai kofta is essentially the Mughal vegetarian version of a meatball marinara. The kofta consists of a mix of potato, carrot, bean, pea and sweetcorn rolled together with spices and paneer before being drenched in a creamy onion and tomato gravy and served with plain rice or flatbread. A popular recipe in Northern India amidst the Mughal Empire of the 16th to 19th centuries, the malai kofta helped shape Middle Eastern, South Caucasian and Central Asian culinary history, thanks to the empire’s vast reach. In Arab cultures, kofta is typically made of lamb but India diverges with its vegetarian version.

Photo: Edgar Castrejon

Photo: Jeswin Thomas

11. Korma

Another dish with roots in Mughlai cuisine is the korma, a yoghurt-based curry with a thick sauce flavoured with ginger, garlic and fried onion. Korma is often prepared with chicken, goat or other meats, but the vegetable korma and the paneer-based navratan korma are equally worthy vegetarian options. Myriad different spices are used in traditional korma recipes, including ground cumin, coriander, ginger and chilli which are carefully combined with yoghurt before the meat and/or veg is added. In southern recipes, korma also features dried coconut.

If you spot the term ‘shahi’ beside korma on the menu, this means the dish is considered royal, perhaps formerly served up for the Mughal court, such as the white korma, a dish garnished with silver leaf for the most important royals. For a non-royal variation served at any Indian café or restaurant, look for the korma pilau, a dish served with braised meat over rice.

Photo: Rahul Shah

Photo: Vivek

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Myriad different spices are used in traditional korma recipes, including ground cumin, coriander, ginger and chilli which are carefully combined with yoghurt before the meat is added

12. Saag paneer

Sharing a likeness with the aloo saag (a potato curry Indian dish), the saag paneer is another spinach-rich (saag) option using cubed paneer (a type of Indian cheese) instead of potato. For the saag paneer (sometimes known as the palak paneer), the spinach or other leafy vegetable is first cooked with spices before adding in the paneer. An Indian cottage cheese made from cow or goat’s milk, paneer is non-melting due to the addition of lemon or vinegar in the preparation process, before being hardened under a stone slab or kneaded by hand (depending on the region) for a chewier result. Eat your saag paneer with roti or naan and sometimes rice, such as in the state of Odisha where locals eat it with pakhala (lightly fermented rice). Non-vegetarian saag variations include the saag gosht (spinach with goat or lamb).

Photo: Lior Shapira

13. Rice dishes

More than just a way to soak up the juices from your curry, rice features on its own in all kinds of classic dishes. The biryani is perhaps most well-known, derived from the Persian word birian, meaning fried or roasted. Here, basmati rice is boiled with spices and layered in a pot with meat, eggs and vegetables, commonly served alongside mint, onions and yoghurt. Dried fruits and nuts are also added on occasion. There are many street food India styles of biryani, including chicken, goat and the Bombay biryani, but the extra special Hyderabadi dum biryani (aka a spicy chicken biryani) is more likely enjoyed at a dinner party or a spice Indian restaurant alongside cold raita.

Beyond biryani there’s the fragrant pulao (or pilaf to Middle Easterners), a rice dish traditionally made with raisins, cashews and spices. Pulihora meanwhile has a spicier base, made using turmeric, tamarind, coriander, ginger and Indian green chili; its sacred orange colour seeing it commonly served up at Hindu festivals. Khichdi, then, is the ultimate comfort food – a rice and lentil dish spiced with cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves and peppercorns – closely followed by curd rice, a popular dish among south Indians (with yoghurt, fruits and vegetables) served last and used to aid digestion. Those looking for an alternative to plain rice with their curry can try jeera rice, a side dish spiced with ghee-fried cumin seeds.

Photo: Shreyak Singh

Photo: Omkar Jadhav

14. Indian drinks

You’ve had your fill of spices and now it’s time to cool off. Thankfully, India has a good range of tasty drinks to help you, starting with the lassi, a sweet yoghurt drink ideal for helping neutralise your chili-burnt tongue. Mango lassi is a world favourite, but other flavours such as strawberry are just as good, watered down with milk or water to create the perfect consistency. A firm second choice is a chai (chai and tea are the same thing in India) made by boiling water and milk before adding generous amounts of sugar and black tea. Another chai variation is the masala chai, made all the more aromatic with a blend of cardamom, cinnamon, pepper and ginger. Also to try after your meal is the savoury buttermilk drink known as chas. Cumin, mint and rock salt give this drink a kick while also helping to aid digestion.

Photo: Francesca Noemi Marconi

Photo: Prchi Palwe

15. Indian desserts

Indian desserts come in various forms, but it’s the deep-fried and sugared dough of gulab jamun that may be the most heavenly one. Not quite a doughnut, gulab jamun is made by mixing milk and powdered milk solids into a dough before frying and dropping into a bath of syrup until soft and oh-so sweet. If you’re looking for cake, Gujurat knows how to please with its steamed sponge dhokla made from gram flour and split chickpeas. One of the lighter breakfast recipes in India, dhokla goes great with tea and chutney.

Prince of sweet street foods in India is the barfi, a milk-based sweet with added nuts as in the kaju ki barfi (with cashew paste), almond barfi and pista barfi (pistachio, baby). The doodh peda is a slightly different style of barfi, made from thickened condensed milk and spices rolled into small discs. For a sit-down pudding, the halwa is your best option, made from flour, sugar, ghee and water/milk. Though simple, the halwa is super hearty, with variants such as the carrot halwa (made with grated carrots), the besan halwa (made with chickpea flour) and the mung halwa (mung bean flour).

If all these sweets have you worried for your diet, kheer could be your saviour. A traditional and light pudding served at festivals and during fasting periods, kheer is a made from milk, ghee and dry fruit, with the addition of non-refined sugars such as jaggery or gur, allowing you to try as much as you want!

Photo: Rahul Shah

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