Indian Food Culture: 9 Must-Try Dishes for a Taste of India

Indian Food Culture
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The most widely regarded cuisine in the world—the influence of Indian food culture on global gastronomy is undeniable. Shaped by the land, climate, and cultural traditions, the food in India might be loved across the globe, but it is so much more than takeout kormas and chicken tandoori. The native cuisine is integral to the Indian way of life, and we’re here to unearth why.

India is often regarded as a subcontinent of Asia, owing to its vast and varied lands. The second-most populous country globally, India extends from the snow-covered Himalayan peaks to its tropical rain forests in the south. The Indian culinary repertoire reflects the country’s diversity, and authentic Indian cuisine is steeped in local traditions unique to each region.

Journey with us across India with these nine national dishes distinct to the country’s sub-cuisines. Your favorite local takeout might not give you a taste of the real India, but these staples will. So let’s get into it. 

Masala Dosa, Karnataka 

Indian Food Culture
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It doesn’t need to be said that rice is a staple in Indian cuisine, and the same goes for roti. But what about the beloved rice crepe that marries both dishes. Dosa, the crispy, savory pancake, is a generic south Indian product, but masala dosa is especially popular in the coastal area of Karnataka, where the snack originates.

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The relatively uncomplicated recipe commands fermented rice and lentils to be soaked in water for five hours before being prepared with the traditional crepe batter. This is then cooked in ghee or vegetable oil on a flat skillet with various fillings, the most popular being potato and onion curry, accompanied by a chutney dip.

The crispy crepe is a savory snack and is a popular breakfast in the south of India. The fermentation process of the rice increases the vitamin B and C content of masala dosa, making it a nutritious and filling meal. 

Rogan Josh, Kashmir

Indian Food Culture
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You might find this fragrant lamb curry on all your local takeout menus, but its roots trace back to Persian cuisine, and Rogan Josh has become an integral part of culinary tradition for Kashmiri Muslims. Made with a mirage of spices, tomatoes, ginger, and garlic, this curry is loved worldwide and retains its essence regardless of regional variations. 

Rogan Josh is part of a Kashmiri culinary tradition called “Wazwan,” or “cookshop, “ a seven to 36-course meal of mutton, chicken, fruits, and vegetables. The preparation is regarded as an art form and immensely respected in the region as a marker of identity and patriotic pride.

The curry is rich in clarified butter and characterized by the tender lamb that falls from the bone. The recipe also combines aromatic spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and paprika, which gives Rogan Josh a deep red color.  

Hyderabadi Biryani, Telangana

Indian Food Culture
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Another culinary tradition with its roots in Persian cuisine, biryani, was introduced to India by the Muslim Mughal dynasty that ruled northern India from the 16th to the 18th-century. The modern biryani has developed into a mix of native spicy rice dishes of Indian and Persian pilaf. Hyderabadi Biryani stands out because of its unique cooking methods and ingredients.  

Hyderabad is a large city in southeastern India that sits on the banks of the Musi River. The regional biryani dish is distinct because of its tangy lemon flavorings, crispy and sweet fried onions, and unique spices that make it characteristically hot. Yogurt is also used to make the chicken or lamb sweet and tender, and saffron gives the dish a colorful appearance. 

Chaats, Mumbai

Chaats street food
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A savory street snack, Chaats come in a wide variety from Pani puri, bhel puri, masala puri, and kachori, but are all made with the same base of puffed rice, peas, vegetables, and spices. Chaat means “tasting” or “to lick” in Hindi, and this seasoned rice cracker is the most loved street food in Mumbai.

Typically served as an hors d’oeuvre or from roadside stalls, these aromatic spices and tangy dipping sauces encompass a family of Indian street food that’s iconic to the nation. Chaats are exotic and exploding with salty and spicy flavor, widely regarded as more than a snack in India, but a way of life. This moreish dish keeps everyone coming back for more and is integral to Indian food culture.

Makki Ki Rotie and Sarson Ka Saag, Punjab

Indian Food Culture
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This corn flour bread, served with the mustard leaf-based curry sauce, is a staple of the Punjab region but can be found all over Southeast Asia. Roti itself is thought to have been created in East Africa and introduced to India over 3000 years ago. The round flatbread has become integral to the subcontinent’s cuisine, and this cornflour variation is famous across the historical northwestern region of India.

The characteristically deep green Sarson Ka Saag that accompanies Makki Ki Rotie across Punjab does not look as appetizing as the deep red and yellow curries of the south. But the creamy and saucy winter delicacy is nutritious and prominent, combining collard greens, mustard greens, spinach, white radish, chickpea flour, and garam masala. 

Tunde Ke Kebab, Uttar Predash

Tunde Ke Kebab
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This minced meat kebab originates from Lucknow, the capital of the Uttar Pradesh state in northern India, and it is still prevalent in Awadhi, the believed home of the Hindu God Rama. Also known as buffalo meat Galouti, Tunde Ke Kebab is renowned for its spices and traditionally comprises 160 different herbs and seasonings.

Renowned chef, Haji Murad Ali, pioneered the dish in 1905, and Tunde Ke Kebab owes its name to its creator. Murad Ali only had one arm due to a kite flying accident when he was a child. Anyone with Murad Ali’s disability was referred to as a “Tunde” in vernacular. So when the chef entered and won a contest to produce a tender kebab for the toothless Nawab of Oudh who struggled with the chewy texture of traditional meats, the recipe was named after him and his impressive achievement despite his ailment. 

Murad Ali’s secret? A combination of rose water and raw papaya paste that is still used to make the most tender kebabs in India today. And, of course, the never-ending list of spices associated with the dish. Modern variations also use chicken and mutton in place of buffalo, and the dish is served with Romali Roti, the thin Punjabi flatbread. Visit the iconic Tunday Kebabi Restaurant in Lucknow, opened by the prize-winning chef himself, where the most authentic Tunde Ke Kebab is still served up daily.

Vada Pav, Maharashtra 

Indian Food Culture
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India has the world’s largest vegetarian population, with 40 percent of the country adhering to majoritively plant-based diets. So it’s no surprise that this is reflected in Indian food culture, with this dual-carb potato dish being a national favorite in India’s second-most populated state. 

Vada Pav is a type of potato patty infused with chili, paprika, garlic, and onion and served in a bread roll or a pav. The streets of Mumbai would not be the same without this typically Maharashtrian snack being served on every corner. Vada Pav has long been a popular street food for its inexpensive yet satiating qualities.  

The potato sliders are easy to make but explode with flavor and boast a satisfying crunch when deep-fried to perfection. Serve with chutney and whole green chilis for authentic street food luster.

Dhokla, Gujarat

Dhokla cake
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Located on the western shores of the Arabian Sea, Gujaratborders Rajasthan and is known for its distinct desert landscape, temples, beaches, and as Mahatma Gandhi’s home. Among the myriad of vegetarian staples native to this state, Dhokla is the frontrunner. 

Made from fermented rice and chickpeas, this batter is steamed and garnished with mustard seeds and coriander. Unlike Roti or Dosa, which use similar ingredients, Dhokla is not a flatbread but a dense, cubed rice cake. Khaman Dhokla is a lighter variation of the savory cake, made with just split chickpeas rather than the Gujaratian rice-chana dal batter. Khaman Dhokla is native to Maharashtra, but both steamed golden sponges are eaten across India. 

Khichari, Haryana

Indian Food Culture
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What is widely known as kedgeree in western-fusion cuisine originated from the melange of spiced lentils, rice, fried onions, and ginger, known as khichari, dating back to the 14th-century in India. Early colonists developed a liking for the hearty, spicy rice, and it was introduced as a fashionable Anglo-Indian breakfast in Victorian Britain. But Khichari was also popular with the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and has remained a staple in rural Haryana and Hyderabad for centuries. 

Indian Khichari differs from the fish-based and boiled egg-adorned variations of the British, traditionally made in rural areas from pearl millet and mung dal, which are pounded in a mortar and eaten with ghee or lassi. Hyderabad Muslims even eat Khichari with ground beef and a sour tamarind-sesame sauce, and it’s also celebrated as an Ayurvedic healing dish.  

Check out the renowned Indian Coffee House in Kolkata where classic Khichari is one of the few dishes to be found on the menu. This large cafeteria-style eatery prioritizes the sociable nature of Indian food culture with uncomplicated dishes and a limited menu of world-class hot beverages.

What is the cultural food of India?

Some ingredients are staples in Indian food culture across the country. These included pearl millet, used in Khichari in rural areas, rice served with curries and fermented for roti batters, whole-wheat flour used in most flatbreads, and a variety of lentils that comprise daal, curries, and dhokla. Lentils are either used whole or split, and red lentils, pigeon peas, and black gram are especially popular in the south. Curry is also characteristic of Indian cuisine, rich in hot spices, including cardamom, turmeric, dried peppers, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, and garam masala. 

Why is food so important to Indian culture?

In many Indian households, sitting down for a family meal is regarded as one of the most important activities of any day. Family’s who eat together are thought to stick together as mealtimes help maintain healthy familial relationships. Dinners are great for talking, sharing, bonding, and understanding each other, and physically sharing food help facilitate this. Hence, casual Indian meals often resemble banquets, with numerous dishes from which everyone eats rather than personal plates. 

What is unique about Indian food?

Indian food is characteristically spicy, nourishing, and exploding with flavor. A typical Indian dish contains at least seven ingredients for nutrition, variety, and healing properties. Yet, the myriad of additional spices is infinite. Indian food culture is also unique because of the sharing nature of native meals. Indian mealtimes comprise numerous dishes, even breakfasts, and lunches. The core of an Indian meal is rice, flatbread, and a lentil stew (dal). Still, there will also be a vegetarian, meat, or seafood curry, depending on the household, and several pickles and chutneys to accompany.  

Why is Indian food so popular?

Indian food is so popular because the native dishes have perfected spice combinations that excite the palette and make every bite a joy. The dizzying array of dishes from which to choose also makes Indian food endlessly adventurous. North Indian gastronomy has evolved to be so spicy because certain seasonings stop food spoiling in warm climates where bacteria thrive. As an unfamiliar practice to the temperature climates of the west, these spice combinations remain exotic, enticing, and far removed from western culinary traditions. Still, Indian food is more globalized than other Eastern cuisines because of the expansive historical colonization of the country. India’s imperial history plays a massive part in its long popularity in the west. 

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Esmé is an English literature graduate and freelance writer. Originally from London, Esmé is lucky enough to call Bali home. Her travels have taken her from the far corners of the East to the islands of the Caribbean. When she's not writing, you'll find her lying on a beach somewhere, lost in a crime novel.