India is one of the most exotic countries in the world and I’m proud to say I am a huge fan of Indian food. In my opinion, I think each Indian dish represents an independent and delicate culinary work. The distinctive aromatic flavour and the exuberant combination of spices are just as fascinating as the country itself!
I’d like to introduce some of the most common spices used in Indian cooking as well as some must-try local dishes when you visit India. If you are seeking to combine your love for cooking with authentic travel experience, check out Indian Home Cooking Class and Home Cooking Jaipur with Payal. If you’re a foodie on a constant search of unique dishes like me, The Full Belly Walk With Lavy may be what you’re looking for.
Before you start noting down all the must-try, let’s learn a little bit about the heart of Indian Cuisine — “Spices”, are widely known as “Masala” in Hindi. Indian spices include various kinds grown across the country and its subcontinental area. Due to a variety of climates in India, a great deal of spices are produced and cultivated for centuries. These spices are used in many ways such as chopped, whole, roasted, sautéed, ground, fried, and as topping. Some are added at the end as flavouring while some are heated in a saucepan with cooking oil to create a gravy base. Typically, stronger flavoured spices are added first and lighter ones the last. In addition, the word “curry” is a rather general term used by Westerners to indicate any Indian dishes that come with spiced flavours. If you do get a chance to visit an authentic Indian restaurant, you’ll notice that they take their spices very seriously. They would list all the main specific spices used in each dish. I have to admit I was utterly mesmerised when I first visited an Indian restaurant. The variety of spiced dishes seemed intimidating but exciting at the same time for me!
If you’re no stranger to Indian cuisine, you shall recognize The Masala Dabba (container for spices) below. The Masala Dabba is like the very basic spices cabin in every Indian kitchen. The following are 6 common and essential spices you may find in The Masala Dabba.
Clove is extensively used in Indian cooking and its aniseed flavour is easily recognised and similar to other spices like star anise or fennel. Cloves are dried up flower buds and a lot of oils are pressed out, explaining its strong medicinal smell. One can either use them as whole or blend with other spices. Due to its strong flavour, cloves tend to overpower other delicate spices, which is something one should be aware of when adding them.
Coriander is perhaps the most ubiquitous spice used in the world of Masala. Being one of the oldest spices in the world, the coriander seeds are very aromatic and distinctive in its golder-ridged texture. There are different ways to make the most of the spice in cooking. You can either mix the coriander seeds with other spices or ground the seeds to dry-roast it in a pan to increase its flavour. Coriander is used in one of the most famous dishes, Chicken Tikka Masala.
Cumin or Jeera adds a rather smoky, earthy flavour to the food. It can be used in raw form or cooked in hot oil to help release its aroma. Some people will ground the spice to get a fuller and more intense flavour. One thing to note when dry-roasting cumin is that you should turn off the knob once you sense a smoky fragrance otherwise the whole dish may taste bitter when you mix the over-toasted cumin with other spices.
Saffron is recognised to be the most expensive spice in the world because it requires extensive labour to produce. The best saffron comes in dark-red and the fresher the saffron the redder it appears. It is usually used in small quantities (considering its value) and dissolved in warm milk or water before added to dishes
- Mustard seed
Among the 40 kinds of mustard seeds, the ones commonly used are black mustard, white mustard and brown mustard. All three kinds are used in Indian cooking, however, the black mustard is added most frequently than the other two. The black mustard also has the most pungent smell while the white mustard is the mildest. Mustard seeds are the fundamental spices used in curries.
Besides coriander, Turmeric is another popular spice in Indian cooking. Turmeric is a ginger like rhizome, which can be used dried or fresh. It is known to provide several health benefits and medicinal properties. Fresh turmeric is stronger than grounded one. Additionally, it stains easily so be careful with your clothes or utensils when using it. You can use it to give your curry dish a glossy golden look.
Read here to learn more about other commonly used spices in India:
Spices play a very critical role in Indian Cuisine. The fact that different spices are cultivated and used in different regions of the country explains the limitation of listing all the dishes in this blog post. Thereby, the following article will focus on introducing 6 must-try plus most-shared dishes when visiting India.
Dosa is a crispy, flat bread made of rice batter (a fermented crepe), served with a lentil sauce (sambar) and a variety of chutneys. It’s a famous Southern Indian snack, which actually comes with versatile flavours. The usual fillings in a dosa includes coconut,sambar, potato and onion. Dosa also goes well with vegetable stew so you could also have it plain if you like.
Read 11 Types of Dosa to find out how diverse this Southern Indian Snack is.
Your trip to India won’t be complete without tasting Indians’ favorite snacks/street food — Samosa. It is said to be the pride of North India. Samosa is a deep fried snack prepared by rolling the dough of white flour and then filling it with the mixture made of potatoes, green peas, garam masala, onions, chilli powder, fennel and salt. When’s the best time to have Samosa? Anytime you like! The classic Samosa comes with cottage cheese fillings. However, here are some ideas on trying different flavours of samosas when you’re in India. Read Best Samosa to try in India
Biryani is a dish that’s great for sharing. It is an aromatic rice dish cooked with several spices, notably saffron, and a protein (typically lamb) that’s been marinated.
The main ingredients consist of Basmati rice, chicken, yogurt, spices, shredded onion, cucumber slices, lemon, coriander leaves and saffron. It is available with variations such as chicken or vegetables, thus the vegetarian biryani.
There are countless versions of Biryani as each family may have their own Biryani recipe. One commonly known flavour is the Hyderabadi Mutton Biryani, which is from a city called Hyderabad. It is a combination of Mughali and Iranian cuisine. Here’s an interesting piece to learn How a biryani tastes and looks like from place to place.
- Tandoori Chicken
Tandoori Chicken can be found in most Indian restaurants and is usually served as a starter. It is also popular among other southeast Asian countries. The chicken is marinated in a mixture of yogurt and spices for after hours. Then it is roasted in the traditional tandoor under very high temperature, thus the name.
Chaat is a collective term describing savory snacks found at the food carts by the roadsides. It includes numerous dishes such as pani puri, sev puri, samosa, dahi-puri and so on. Indians usually have chaat as starters or evening snacks. Though strictly local to Mumbai, Chaats can be savoured anywhere in the streets throughout India. The key ingredients include chilli powder, onions, tomatoes, and curds. One popular chaat is Papri chaat,which is fried crispy dough served with boiled chick peas, potatoes, chilis, tamarind chutney, yogurt, and different spices.
- Rogan Josh
Rogan josh is one of the staples from the Kashmiri cuisine and is a lamb dish of Persian origin. Rogan means oil while josh means intense heat, suggesting how the dish is prepared. The meat used in rogan josh is lamb shank or shoulder. They are marinated in caramelized shallots, yogurt and spices, mainly the Kashmiri red chilli, explaining the characteristic color of the dish. This Kashmiri dish can be eaten with naan, an Indian flat bread or flavoured rice.
Apart from the six dishes listed above, there are simply too many other delicious Indian dishes awaiting to be savoured. I myself, learned a lot from writing this blog post, too! Business Insider published an interesting article about avoiding the westernized knockoffs and go for the authentic Indian cuisine. And there are dozens of online articles sharing the top must-try dishes when visiting India. Like this one: 26 Traditional Indian Food That Will Change Your Life Forever. I have a new pocket list of what I want to try on my next visit to an Indian restaurant now, so should you!