But while we (and most of the world) is well acquainted with the Moghlai tandoors and the Goan prawns, what of the myriad other indigenous cuisines that rarely receive a share in the spotlight? Well, that's what we're here for. We're fairly certain even thorough bred Indian culture folk wouldn't know much about some of the unique cuisines we've listed out today so scroll through and do your best to sample some of these whenever you get a chance.
Happy reading, and happy drooling.
I) Syrian Jewish Indian Cuisine (Origins: Kerala)There’s a tendency to believe that Jewish cuisine began and ended with the last cream cheese lox bagel you wolfed down on some New York vacation but prefix it with a Syrian and suffix it with an Indian and you’ve basically got a not-so-metaphorical sandwich with some painfully good flavours. Overlooked flavours too, as far as India is concerned. In case you’re wondering where the Jewish diaspora in the country is now, they’re scattered all over the country in moshavim all over the country, but it’s the Cochin Jews – said to be the oldest in the country - that we have to thank for some of these divine dishes they’ve brought to us as a part of their food culture. Now back to the good stuff.Staple Dishes include divinely deep fried pastries and pastels stuffed with explosively good minced chicken breast, onions, cabbage, and spices for flavour. Hallelujah for them continent-crossing empanadas. And while we’re on the topic, the kadtela pastel stands out for its extra special dough, even if it does come with the same filling. Moving on, another favourite we couldn’t get enough of when we discovered it was, well, the Syrian Jewish Indian (can we just acronym this now?) of the dosa. Essentially a pancake served with a spicy/sour sauce called chamandi made of ground almonds, coconut milk, curry leaves and mustard seeds. This one’s actually creeped its way into many other Malayalee sects so don’t be surprised if its identity becomes heatedly contested but the truth is clear as day—-we have the SJIs to thank. Hubba, kind of like the Cochin version of Iraqi kubbeh, is another savoury delight worth sampling though and breads are all the rage within the community regardless of whether they’re baked, steamed, deep-fried or pan-fried.
Great Place To Get It: You gotta go to the source if you want the real thing. Cochin’s Koder House is as close as it gets.
II) Chettinad Cuisine (Origins: Tamil Nadu)With Chettinad food, you get a taste of Chettiar aristocracy. Characterised by pepper as opposed to chilli, there’s a subtle spicy seduction about this cuisine from Tamil Nadu that is just irresistible. Freshly ground masalas will have you hot beneath the collar with their pungent flavours, generally used to flavour succulent meats. And while Chettiars don’t eat beef or pork, Chettinad-style fish, prawn, crab, chicken and lamb will pave their way straight into your hearts. You know it’s the mark of true culinary genius when a cuisine strikes a masterful balance of flavours; with curries and meat dishes paired with rice and rice-based dishes such as appams, dosais, adais and idli, Chettinad cuisine feels like a tastebud adventure you keep coming back to.Staple Dishes include steamed, soft idlis, pancake-like dosas made from battery of and deep fried vadas generally constitute a Chettinad-style breakfast, along with pongal, a combination of rice and lentils boiled and seasoned with cumin, pepper, mustard, cashew nuts and ghee in a mouthwatering melange. There’s also uppuma, semolina cooked in oil and well-seasoned with mustard, pepper, cumin seed and dry lentils. The best part is, the dishes above can all be eaten with the signature coconut chutney, tangy sambar and mulagapodi or gunpowder chutney, in various combinations - all of which really take up the spicy quotient a notch. Mutton, chicken and fish dishes cooked Chettinad-style are a culinary legacy, and no meal in this region is considered complete without the crispy, wafer-thin papads or appalam.
Great Place To Get It: The Anjappar Hotels, Chennai and Bangalore is where it’s at if you’re looking for some real authenticity.
III) Naga Cuisine (Origins: Nagaland)If you want a taste of authentic Naga food, the best way to have it is in a traditional Naga household. Arguably one of the communities whose culinary habits are still pretty vague to most of the country, the Nagas have a distinct style of cooking their foods and seem to be having a ball of a time to boot, with outdoor kitchens being traditionally very common in the area. The fire is a pivot in these, and pieces of meat, such as pork and beef, are hung high above the fire and allowed to slowly dry out and smoke above the flames before being seasoned to the T.Staple Dishes? Nagas mean business when it comes to pork, and cook it in wonderful indigenous ways making this cuisine the pork lover’s paradise.
The smoked pork stew, for instance, definitely ranks high as a comfort food dish, with dried smoky pork chopped into bite-sized pieces boiled in a soup with tomatoes, potatoes and chillies. The Nagaland pork with dry bamboo shoots is cooked with huge chunks of fatty pig, which often have big cubes of pork belly mixed in as well. Fried with lots of chillies and bamboo shoots, which are typical of the region, the pork acquires a gorgeous aroma that already has us mopping up drool just thinking about it. (Plus, it sounds like the perfect hangover cure.)
Now the bamboo steamed fish is a Naga specialty that really had us paying attention; the fish is actually stuffed into the hollow part of bamboo and packed with a couple of light spices, before being placed in the ash of a fire to cook. They’re then emptied out of the bamboo into a bowl, a delicacy we think everyone needs to try at least once. Konshia Lon or eel chilli sauce – in which dry eel is ground with chillies, garlic or salt – is a signature Naga condiment that makes its way to almost every meal, and is said to pair like a dream with dried pork, crispy on the outside and gloriously smoky once you take a bite.
Great Place To Get It: If not a real Naga household, Nagaland’s Kitchen in Delhi is close enough, we reckon.
IV) Kashmiri Cuisine (Origin: Kashmir)Kashmiris celebrate a lovely duality in their cuisine – that of the Kashmiri Muslims and that of the Kashmiri Pandits - making it as divine as any Kashmiri landscape. Meat is an important ingredient that both communities relish, and the Kashmiri Muslim ‘Wazawaan’ is nothing short of a feast for royals, with upto – we kid you not - 30 or more courses. These are whipped up by the master chefs of Kashmir, known as the Wazas, who – to our rather disproportionate glee - have inherited their culinary secrets straight from their Mughal ancestors, making for a rich, delicious cuisine fit for kings.Staple Dishes include meats cooked in creamy sauces which are a signature Kashmiri touch that’s made this cuisine a perennial favourite spanning the geography of our country. When it comes to the majestic Wazawans, the ritualistic meal consists of the signature Rogan Josh, a lamb specialty with Persian origins with the robust flavours of varied spices as well as kormas, with succulent meats cooked in cream based sauces, and several other vegetable curries and dishes. The matschgand is a glorious lamb meatballs preparation, in which the gravy is tempered with red chillies, and there’s also the syun pulav or meat pulao that’s going to have you licking the bowl clean. In a nod to mutton-lovers everywhere, Kashmiri cuisine is also to thank for yakhni, a subtle yoghurt-based gravy flavoured mainly with bay leaves, cloves and cardamom seeds.
Vegetarians - don’t shrink away from the meatfest, because there’s some scrumptious dishes for you as well. In Kashmiri Pandit food, there’s Dum Aloo, potatoes prepared in Kashmiri spices and hing, and Mauje Chamman Kaliya, which is paneer cooked with leafy knolkhol (or German turnip) that’s so popular in the area.
Polishing off desserts such as the Kashmiri shufta, made of dry fruits and dairy products, are just the right note to wind up with, and Kashmiri cuisine is incomplete without kawah, a divine green tea flavoured with cardamoms, almonds and saffron.
V) Assamese Cuisine (Origin: Assam)The Assamese definitely have their priorities right. In Assamese, a kitchen is called an ‘Aakhol Ghor’, and it’s made up of two parts. There’s a dining area and a small cooking space to have tea and snacks, and then there’s the bigger room where all the real action takes place. This space is loaded with at least two earthen fire places known as chowkas, and is home to cooking styles and patterns that are quite distinct from the rest of the country as well as other states in the region, thanks to the unmistakeable influence of Southeast Asian countries.Staple Dishes
Like a lot of other parts of the country, rice takes the limelight in Assamese cuisine, eaten with exotic herbs, spices and condiments. Either steamed, eaten as poita, cooked rice soaked overnight and garnished with mustard oil and onions or Komal Saul (soaked with milk), rice is something the native Assamese community eats daily. Special occasions like Bihu witness delicious rice dishes like pithas, which are made from bora saul, a special kind of rice, and had with til, jiggery, coconut, sugar and powdered milk in different variations.
The typical Assamese meal comes served in bell metal utensils called Kahor Thal. Along with steamed rice, you get Khar anja, made of raw papaya, a variety of Pitikas (mashed potatoes, brinjal or tomatoes) and Tenga, a type of sour curry made of either fish or vegetables, along with kahudi (a combination of mustard paste, mustard oil & tamarind), kharoli and bamboo shoots known as khorisa. Hukoti, made of small dried fish, is a local favourite and pork and beef dishes come out on top as well.
The refreshing Assamese tea needs no introduction. Known for its strong malty flavour, the tea here is a heavenly concoction regardless of whether it’s black tea, lemon tea or the common milk tea.
Great place to get it: Got to give it to the capital for their food culture, Jakoi in Delhi is where you need to be if you want to try some.
VI) Kolhapuri Cuisine (Origins: Maharashtra)Kolhapuri food is one of those cuisines you just have to try for yourself, as any sort of description is probably not going to be able to do justice to the countless flavours it includes. The typical homemade Kolhapuri masalas and onion and garlic chutneys characterise this cuisine and you really haven’t eaten real Kolhapuri food until the spices and joy have succeeded in driving you to tears. Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life.Staple Dishes
Misal Pav is a common meal in the region to start off your day with and boy, does it get you going. A mixture of boiled moth beans, potatoes, farsan, sev and kat, which is a spicy soup-like gravy made with garam masala, onions, tomatoes, garlic, ginger and coconut, this dish really packs a punch with its pungent flavours, and is generally had with pav. Vada pav - deep fried potato vadas eaten with chutney and fried green chillies in pav – is also very popular in the area, as is the simple and delicious pithala bhakri, but it’s probably the mutton dishes that steal the show.
Tambada rassa, a hot and spicy soup made from red chillies, and pandhara rassa, a white curry made from mutton stock, coconut milk, cinnamon, ginger and garlic, are dishes that people travel miles for, to be had with rice and mutton sukka (tender pieces of lamb cooked in a traditional Kolhapuri way with special chutneys and masalas). The two rassas or curries balance each out other perfectly, leaving your palate in a state of flavourful ecstasy. Don’t forget the refreshing buttermilk (you’re really going to need it).
Great place to get it: Kolhapuri Katta in Pune is your closest option if it's real Kolhapuri fare you're craving & if you're willing to go the distance, you should head straight to Opal Restaurant in Kolhapur.
VII) Khandeshi Cuisine (Origins: Maharashtra)You haven’t tried Khandeshi cuisine until you’ve tried the mouth scorching thecha, made from blending green chillies, garlic and peanuts roasted over charcoal drizzled in peanut oil. If there’s one thing people hailing from the Khandesh region of Maharashtra just adore, it’s gravy dishes, generally made with daals and peanuts and are completely different from tomato and onion gravies. Think kala masala, turn up the spice levels and then think of the earthiness of the Khandeshi people themselves – that’s the cuisine we’re talking about.Staple Dishes
Like most Maharashtrian households, breakfast means batata pohe and upma in a Khandeshi household, energy boosters to kick off your day with. Jowar crepes are also pretty popular, as are crepes made with moon dal flour mixed with ginger-garlic paste known as mugache dhirade. Coming back to the gravies (there’s just no escaping them), a green tomato bhaji with peanut gravy and fenugreek bhaji with peanut gravy are ubiquitous in the area, with a typical pumpkin sabji also making appearances.
Egg plants are another soft spot within the community (we can just imagine their ears perking up at the very mention of them) and stuffed eggplants or vangyache bharit – which is essentially Khandeshi-style baingan bharata – are dishes which are whipped up often.
Come to think of it, we’ve probably had a lot of these dishes without knowing their origins. The Khandeshi Shev-Bhaji for instance - a red spicy curry is served unfailingly with onion slices and lemon as lunch with chapatti – is found in many other parts in Maharashtra as well. Bhendake with kadhi is another must mention specialty, with delicious buttermilk kadhi being brewed in an earthen pot and tempered using chili-garlic-ginger paste and lichen over live fire, served with steamed toor daal dumplings for some home-style comfort food.
Great place to get it: Khandeshi Jhatka, Pune is where you need to be to get a taste.
VIII) Khasi Cuisine (Origins: Meghalaya)Khasis believe less in talking about food and more in cooking and eating it--a people after our own hearts. This is the only conclusion we can come to with the monosyllabic names they have for their staples such as rice, which is called Ja, meat being called Dah, and vegetables, known as Jur. Khasi cuisine of Meghalaya is totally different from other tribal cuisines in the North East, and they have a way of making food neither bland nor super spicy, using only basic spices like pepper, turmeric, garlic, ginger, bay leaf and chillies in their cuisine. One more thing – vegetarians, you might want to sit this one out, it’s all about the meat with this one.Staple foods
Jadoh - quite a showstopper - is a rice cooked in pork or chicken stock with chunks of tender meat. A lot like a less spicy biryani, fish jadoh is made using boiled fish head which is added to the rice, a filling and delicious concoction generally ahd for dinner. Doh Nei long, a pork curry dish with fat and meat is another sumptuous meaty delight, cooked in grounded sesame seeds, while dohjem takes it up a notch even further – liver, kidneys and intestines of either pork, beef or chicken are cooked in a mouthwatering dry curry with onions, black pepper and sesame seeds.
Vegetables are generally sautéed or made into salads, but eating fresh wild herbs in a gastronomical law of the land although there are a bunch of variations from one tribe to another. We can’t leave you without the mention of a pork salad dish that is as simple as it is delicious - dohkhleh is made of chunks of well boiled pork mixed with ginger and onions and seasoned with just the right amount of salts with Khasi, while Jaintias use chunks of chicken and top it off with pieces of shredded boiled egg. Needless to say, Khasi food is designed to satiate the most carnivorous of the lot with their unique cuisine. [In case you want to dig deeper, a lot of these dishes feature on our best pork dishes list.]
Great place to get it at: We're afraid you're going to have to find a Khasi household for this one! Time to make some new friends.
IX) Syrian Christian Cuisine (Origins: Kerala)The spice game is strong in Kerala, it’s no surprise. History has it, merchants from around the world had been trading with the state even before the time of Christ and in any Syrian Christian home, food is a way of life. Vegetables, fruit and spices abound in god’s own country giving them gifts that the people of the land have mastered in using to concoct heavenly dishes that are as aromatic as they are mouth-wateringly delicious.Staple dishes include The kappa-meen vevichathu (cooked tapioca with fish curry) and the oh-so-delicious Syrian beef fry (known as erachi olarthiathu) made with curry leaves, ginger-garlic paste, pepper and varied spices (often cooked with beef and mutton) are typical Christian dishes from the region that should give you an idea about what makes this cuisine outstanding and drool-worthy. Even as the food cooks in the kitchen, you’re often accosted with countless aromas – the smell of wood fire smoke, freshly ground spices and cooking meat – that’ll have you yearning impatiently to tuck into it. Coconut milk is an important part of the cooking process, and vegetables are generally cooked in their own juices before being seasoned with a few spices. Breakfast in KSC homes is generally the humble puttu, prepared with roasted, coarsely ground rice flour and fresh, ground coconut and they generally tend to mix it up quite a bit by layering the mixture with curried meat or shrimp, amping up the dish considerably.
Fish and meat and synonymous with this cuisine, and the meen molee is a must-try creamy fish curry that’s made with coconut milk and just a dash of spices. The paalappam is one preparation that has us in awe. It literally takes hours to make, as it slow cooks in an appam chatti over a wood fire, served with a spicy chicken or mutton stew that’ll have you wondering what you’ve done to deserve this much happiness.
Great place to get it at: Strangely, the closest place for this one's in Ahmedabad, at Four Food.
X) Mangalorean Cuisine (Origins: Managalore)Mangalorean cuisine of the Tulu Nadu region is a potpourri of flavours borrowed from countless communities in the region, and is largely influenced by South Indian cuisine in all its flavour-filled, varied glory. Think coconut and curry leaves. Are you also thinking chillies, rice and dosas? Now we’re talking.Staple dishes include the Mangalorean Fish Curry that is popular all over the state of Karnataka, which must be had with the one-of-a-kind Kori Rotti, a dry crisp roti made of rice flakes that soaks up gravy in the most gorgeous way. The Bangude Pulimunchi is another favourite, with silver-grey mackerels cooked in a fiery hot and sour gravy made with tamarind and chilli Mangalorean Bunt-style, a dish that often marks the start of a never-ending love affair. A lot of Mangalorean curries also team up perfectly with the light, lacy neer dosa which brings us to the rice dishes such as the ubiquitous idlis and dosas (and all its myriad variations) which you just can’t get enough of in a lifetime, no matter how many you’ve already ordered.
The cuisine of the Mangalorean Catholics definitely deserve their own mention here, the by-product of a culture that blends the best of Mangalorean and Goan ways of life. Roman Catholics from Mangalore generally have their roots in Goa, and after a lot of them migrated Southwards, their food culture evolved to accommodate Mangalorean customs in addition to the existing Konkani and distinct Portuguese influences. And what a package it is.Staple dishes include the famous pork roast which is generally served as the piece de resistance at wedding dinners, and the Christmas special pork sorpotel. Mangalorean Catholics’ pork delicacies are unparalleled and they’ve really mastered the art of mixing different pork bits into their idyllic dishes such as Pork Bafat, Kalleze un Kiti (which uses heart and intestines) and the dream team Sanna-Dukra Maas, which is idli fluffed with toddy or yeast served with pork. The traditional Rosachi kadi especially, a fish curry made with coconut milk, is bound to leave you a happy camper.
XI) Bihari CuisineLandlocked Bihar boasts of a cuisine quite distinct from those we’ve explored up till now in this list. Area-wise and population-wise, Bihar definitely pulls its weight in the country, and sharing borders with West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal, we found out it’s quite a gastronomic adventure too especially if you’re someone with a sweet tooth.Staple dishes include the famous laddoo of Maner, gram flour, sugar and ghee all rolled up into a ball that’s a diabetic’s worst nightmare. Gaya, famous for its association with Lord Buddha, is also the birthplace of Tilkut, made from with white sesame seeds and sugar, and Anarsa, comprising of rice flour, white sesame seeds and sugar. Moving reluctantly away from the sweets, we have dalpuri which is basically a type of bread filled with boiled and crushed gram-pulse fried with special spices to add that uncanny flavour. The Bhojpuri speaking belt in the Northern parts of the state also sees plates with a side of , baked eggplant with spices (Baingan-ka-Bharta), although it’s not a traditional Bihari dish per se. Coming back to what’s important - the Makhahe Ki Kheer is a sweet as hell pudding with puffed lotus seeds cooked in milk that’ll send you straight into that food coma.
Great place to get it at: Loosen your belt up a notch, its at Potbelly Rooftop Cafe, Delhi.
XII) Konkani Saraswat Cuisine (Origins: Goa, Konkan Belt)
Saraswat cuisine is another one of those lovely amalgamations the country's created - originally hailing from Goa, it's like the delightful offspring of Udupi and Malvani food culture. Traditionally, it's the Saraswat Brahmins from the Konkan we have to thank for this unique cuisine that's mostly pesco-vegetarian - good thing too, because missing out on the community's spin on seafood would be a real pity, replete with curries cooked with coconut, coconut oil, tamarind, and curry leaves. You can't help but notice that their cuisine is less spicy than their Goan Catholic counterparts though, with less Portuguese influence as well.
Staple dishes include Hooman ani Xit or fish curry and rice, hands-down the most popular dish in the region and Indian breads such as Puris, Chapatis and Parathas are pretty common fare here, as with most of the country. There's actually a couple of different sects amongst the Saraswat Brahmins, such as the Satvik Brahmins whose cuisine is very similar to that of the Jain community. Strictly vegetarian, they don't use vegetables plucked from underground, like onions, potatoes, and garlic. Vegetarian meals here are generally dishes like bhaji or shaak, made from different fruit and vegetables, hoomans or curries and misal, a delicious spicy usal topped with fried snacks.
Words: Aditi Dharmadhikari
[That's all we've got for now but if you know of any incredible and overlooked cuisines that isn't heard enough of in the country, don't hold out on us. Let us know in the comments section below.]