Madhur Jaffrey, the grand dame of Indian cuisine, said that calling it Indian food is a gross misconception. Rather, the apt term is “foods of India”. Indian culinary tradition is a rich resource inherited from a vast and diverse melting pot of culture ranging from the heavy perfumed dishes of the Middle East to the lighter continental fares of the West. Ancient Kings had dedicated teams of extraordinary cooks serving up exquisitely experimental dishes in order to capture royal favour. These dishes are faithfully replicated to this day by succeeding generations of the same family. Every imaginable conqueror or colonizer that ever set foot on Indian soil, ranging from Mughals to Britishers, Portuguese to French, managed to put their own twist to mainstream dishes and introduced foods absolutely alien to the native palette. These dishes now are an intrinsic part of the Indian gastronomical map. Different regions of the country have their own cultural diasporas and these have distinctive cuisine native to that place. A north Indian will have a palette so dissimilar to that of a South or East Indian, that an onlooker might conclude they hail from radically different countries. It is not the similarity of their food that binds Indians together. It is the sheer love of food itself.
Indian food has been travelling the world for hundreds of years, inculcating a huge fan base. Britain, which proudly carries the tag of “Curry Nation” voted Chicken Tikka Masala to be its most favourite national dish. In a new trend, a bevy of sophisticated Indian food bloggers have sprung up across the globe. They post recipes, impart tips and tricks and write witty cultural bites to go along with the food. This promotes people’s familiarity with the cuisine and keeps the legacy alive and thriving in the 21st century.
In ode to the eternal global popularity of Indian food, here is a list of the top 10 most delicious dishes of India. These dishes are not gourmet. They are traditional, mainstream and perhaps very common. But their popularity is phenomenal and their taste other worldly. It is said that Indian food is best enjoyed by bare hands. Chuck the cutlery, bring out the banana leaf and keep a hajmola handy:
10. Butter Chicken:
Punjabi food is an institution of its own. Apart from being the national favourite road trip food, it is revered throughout the length and breadth of the country, celebrated and heartily enjoyed. It is legendary how much Punjabis enjoy their food and the butter chicken is an iconic example of the divine flavours that characterize their dishes. Tender pieces of chicken are marinated overnight and then grilled to seal in the flavours. These are then cooked in succulent tomato cream gravy with yoghurt, nigella seeds, green chilies and of course lots of butter! The yoghurt balances out the combined heaviness of cream and butter. This is best paired with steaming hot Nan. The taste buds will tingle long after the food has been digested.
9. Prawn Malai Curry:
Though Bengalis tend to favour fresh water fish curries with far more aplomb than their sea food counterparts, the Prawn Malai curry is a vehement exception. The prawn and coconut milk combo is not unique to Bengal. It is a typical feature on any on the menu of all the coastal states. But each state has its own take on the recipe and this particular one is spectacularly special. The word”malai” refers to cream. True to its nomenclature, this prawn curry oozes creaminess due to the thick sweet and full bodied coconut milk gravy that cocoons the prawn in aromatic spices. Freshly ground mustard, ginger and green chilies and oodles of extra flavor. The dish is cooked in mustard or coconut oil for ideal spice saturation. It is best made with “Bagda Chingri” or jumbo prawns for their juicy meat and large portions. Immense happiness guaranteed.
8. Hyderbadi Biriyani
The Nizams of Hyderbad knew a thing or two about opulent aristocratic entertainment. Their lavish lifestyle was supplemented by the ethereal dishes that their bawarchis served up on a daily basis. The crown jewel of the kitchens- Hyderbadi biriyani-enjoys royal status among Indian gourmets even today. The development of the biriyani parallels the history of the country. It was originally a Persian dish that Taimur Lang brought to India when he invaded the country. The biriyani remained confined within the Mughal courts for a long time to come and royal chefs worked at producing more sophisticated versions of the dish that the emperors were so fond of. Ultimately Aurangzeb introduced it in Hyderbad when he proceeded to conquer South India. The Nizams blended the flavours of the classic biriyani with traditional Andhra flavours and thus the modern day Hyderbadi biriyani was born.
There are two types of this biriyani. The Kachchi (raw) biriyani is so called because it is prepared in raw gravy. Tender lamb or goat meat is marinated in exotic spices, greek yoghurt and golden caramelized onions overnight. Come morning, it is sandwiched between layers of perfumed Basmati rice and cooked over low flame till all the meat flavor seeps in to the rice.
In the Pakki biriyabi, the meat is cooked before being sealed in the vessel with the rice. The other ingredients remain essentially the same.
Hyderbadi biriyani is accompanied by the cooling Raita- a deliciously spiced cooling youghurt dip and a Mirchi Ka Salaan- a chilly gravy that adds an extra oomph to the flaours of the Biriyani.
7. Chettinad Fish Curry:
The southern states of India have a thriving fishing community that has been practicing this trade for generations. Despite using a wealth of common ingredients, each community’s take on the classic coastal fish curry is amazingly unique. The Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu is celebrated for its rich cuisine and finger licking dishes that are hugely popular all over the country. The Chettinad fish curry, or Meen Kozhambu as it is locally known, has been around as long as the fishing community has been and its taste has only gotten better with time. Whole spices are sizzled in hot mustard oil. Fennel, fenugreek, peppercorns and paprika permeate the fresh fish that is then cooked in coconut milk and tomato gravy with a healthy dose of tamarind pulp. The result is a tangy, spicy pungent dish that resonates and awakens the taste buds.
6. Mutton Rogan Josh
Rogan Josh is a signature Kashmiri dish and is yet another example of how a large part of Indian cuisine has evolved from Persian and European roots. The “Josh” in the dish is Persian for the extreme high heat in which the dish must be cooked. The “Rogan” originates from the European “Rouge” and refers to the deep red colour of the meat. Crispy brown onions, ginger, garlic, yoghurt and a whole range of spices such as cloves, cardamom, pepper and cinnamon are used to flavor the gravy in which tender chunks of meat are to be braised. It is literally doused in deseeded red chillies to bring about the deep red colour. The dish is rounded off with a generous sprinkling of saffron. Because of its western origins, this is particularly popular with Europeans and Americans.
5. Pork Vindaloo:
Thanks to Goa being the national party capital, the dishes of this tiny hamlet of a state have received the due recognition they deserve. Most of Goan cuisine is influenced by coastal flavours and its Portuguese roots. The Portugues were very impressed with the French Pot Au Feusse which modified to become “Vinha De Alhos”. Native Goans took to the dish immensely when the Portuguese landed on their coast centuries ago. The dish was further adjusted to suit native palettes and began to be pronounced as Vindaloo. The dish is cooked with generous helpings of chilli, wine, cubed baby potatoes and garlic. Depending on religious and personal preference, the pork is sometimes substituted with lamb or chicken and the wine with vinegar. Like the Rogan Josh, this is also extremely popular with westerners and is a regular feature in their menus. Vindaloo has been mentioned time and again in various Hollywood movies and sitcoms. However it is safe to assume that the dish they prefer is watered down beyond measure to reduce the chilies effect. Indians prefer the robust and spicy paprika laden Pork Vindaloo that is sure to set tongues on fire.
4. Palak Paneer
Not only is Palak Paneer the most popular vegetarian Indian dish of all time, it is also the most nutritious. It is extremely high in iron and protein content. Originally a Punjabi dish, this is now a staple in all Vegetarian and most non Vegetarian homes as well. As such, many different variations of the same recipe exist. Essentially fresh chunks of cottage cheese are gently simmered in a heavy pureed spinach gravy that has been flavored with spices. This is a simple non fussy dish that is cooked with just a handful of ingredients and is taken off the flame quickly so as not to burn through the nutrients. Low in calories but high in taste, this dish perfectly captures what Indian food is all about.
3. Dum Aloo
Dum Aloo is a versatile potato gravy dish that many regions in India consider their own. Punjab, Bengal, Kashmir and a handful of other states would like to claim this for themselves. But a potato by any other name is just as delicious. Potatoes are fried or boiled and then slow cooked in rich brown gravy flavoured with cumin, coriander, asafoetida and garam masala. Depending on the region, the recipe will vary to accommodate geographical and local influences. But the end result is a succulent and spicy potato dish that is a favourite staple at festive occasions as much as it is for special evenings at home. Any Indian kid will associate a host of happy memories with this dish. For adults it tends to bring on dangerous bouts of nostalgia centering around, “My mothers’s special dum aloo…”
Any list of the foods of India would be incomplete without this beloved sweet dish. It has more names than Lord Krishna: Kheer, Payesh, Payasam, Payasa, Phirni, Payoxh and so on. Every religion and community has their own version of this decadent dessert. One does not need an excuse to make kheer but it is especially reserved for religious and cultural celebrations, festive gatherings and memorable occasions. The dish is about two thousand years old and most likely originated in Odishawhen temples began to serve it to devotees. This practice is followed to this day and hundreds of thousands people receive servings at the Lord Jagannath temple in Puri. Kheer is considered auspicious and is used to mark the beginning of ventures to ensure good luck. Indians just looks for excuses to make Kheer, and using culture or religion works fine just as long as we get to eat lots of it.
Kheer is made with milk, rice or vermicelli, jiggery, coconut, dry fruits and nuts, cardamom, cinnamon and a whole host of special ingredients that creates a tantalizing aroma and beckons the taste buds to a feast of the senses.
And finally the Numero Uno dish – the Dal. Perhaps it is unfair to categorize this as a specific Indian dish because no two versions of it are is the same, no two recipes are alike. The dal is as varied and diverse as the population of the country, yet is one of the few constant items on the dinner table that is cherished all over the country. Dal is lentil soup that is cooked with vegetables and spices and is teeming with good health and flavor. Be it the rich Dal Makhni, the light and cooling Musoorir Dal or the sour Sambar, it can be a filling meal all by itself or a satisfying accompaniment to the main dish. Dal is revered in a Michelin starred restaurant table as much as it is appreciated within the four walls of one’s own home. Come mealtime and Dal is unanimously associated with all that is good and lovely in Indian food.