While South Asia is a vast subcontinent with diverse climate and culture, some culinary traditions can be found across the region.
With the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi diaspora, not least within the former British Empire, the cuisines of South Asia have spread around the world.
With 1.75 billion inhabitants, a land area larger than the European Union, a countless number of languages and dialects, and millennia of written history, South Asia is difficult to conceptualize. However, the region has had some unifying cultural factors. While the Dharmic religions (mainly Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism) are rooted in the region, Muslim, Christian and a small Jewish community also have a long history, along with a Zoroastrian community (called the Parsees for their origins in ancient Persia). All these religions have contributed to the kaleidoscope of flavours now generically called "Indian cuisine". For example, Hindus avoid beef but tend to make great use of dairy products such as yogurt and cheese (paneer); among Muslims in Northern India and adjoining areas of Pakistan, goat curries and tandoori meat dishes are popular; Jews avoided mixing meat and dairy due to kashrut rules and developed dishes using eggs with meat instead; and the Parsees in Gujarat contributed the rich dumpakht dishes, which are made by sealing the top of a cooking vessel with bread.
Through most of history, the subcontinent has had a dominant government, such as the Emperor Ashoka, the Mughal Empire, the British Raj, and today's India. All the various empires, including the British, have also contributed to Indian cuisine as we know it today. Neighboring lands have also made their influence felt. For example, there is an entire repertoire of Indo-Chinese dishes that constitutes a fusion between the cuisine Chinese immigrants brought with them and Indian preferences.
South Asian diaspora communities often have dishes that are locally adapted or invented, and thus cannot be found within the subcontinent. When travelling to such areas, it is often worth trying out some of these dishes; you may be pleasantly surprised by what you get. Famous examples of such dishes include chicken tikka masala from United Kingdom, roti prata / roti canai from Singapore and Malaysia, and bunny chow from South Africa.
Food in South Asia is traditionally eaten by hand, though a fork and spoon may be used in more upmarket establishments. If eating by hand, it is important to use only your right hand to handle food, as the left hand is traditionally reserved for dirty things like cleaning yourself after using the toilet.
Countries and regions
- In Pakistan and northern India, wheat is the predominant crop, and bread (generally flatbread), existing in many varieties including naan, roti, paratha, kulcha, puri and pappadam, is a common staple food. Breads may be plain or filled with various forms of usually savoury filling. Breads in the western regions of the Subcontinent have similarities with those in Iran, Central Asia and the Middle East.
- The cuisines of southern India, eastern India and Bangladesh are based on rice, with occasional seafood.
- The city of Udupi is especially famous for its vegetarian cuisine.
- Rice: The basic staple food in southern and eastern regions of South Asia. Rice flour is used to make the savoury pancakes called dosas and utthapams that are so characteristic of South Indian food. It is the base of biryani, a savoury dish that is popular throughout most of the Subcontinent and beyond. A number of varieties are eaten. Long-grained and aromatic basmati rice is typically used in North Indian and Pakistani curry dishes. Red rice is the only type that can be grown at very high altitudes and as such, is the main variety eaten in Himalayan Bhutan and parts of Nepal.
- Flatbread: The staple food in the northwestern parts of South Asia. The variety in flatbreads is huge, varying by the flour used and method of cooking. They range from oven-cooked naans, stove-cooked rotis, to deep-fried pudis and bhatooras, poodas (savoury chickpea pancakes) and sweet pikelet-like malpuas.
- Legumes and lentils: As essential to South Asian cuisine as grains. Curries made from ground pulses, called dal, are ubiquitous throughout the subcontinent and are eaten with rice or roti along with sides. Lentil flour is also quite often used in baking both savoury and sweet items.
- Seafood and fish are staples of coastal regions, including Kerala and Bengal.
- Dairy products: India has more cattle than any other country in the world, and milk and its derivative products are used in a range of Indian savory dishes, drinks and desserts. Cultured milk (yogurt) is commonly used as a condiment and as an ingredient in Northern Indian curries; a fresh cheese called paneer is also often used in Northern Indian cuisine, reduced milk is extremely common in sweets, and ghee (clarified butter) is very widely used in cooking.
- Spices: South Asian food might be more famous for its spices than anything else. Some dishes are extremely hot (not least in Andhra Pradesh), and Indian restaurants in the Western world sometimes have a grading system for hotness. But spiciness does not always mean lots of red or black pepper, and it is more the variety of different types of aromatic spices that typifies Indian cuisines.
- Fruits and vegetables: The various climates of South Asia allow for a vast range of fruits and vegetables, tropical as well as temperate. Fruits are garnished with salt or masala in order to enhance flavour and improve digestion.
- Nuts: The higher levels of vegetarianism make nuts a valuable source of protein. Nuts on their own or as ingredients are more commonly eaten than in Western cultures. Almonds are particularly common in the north while coconuts are indispensable to South Indian, Sri Lankan and Maldivian cuisine.
- Meat: As pork is taboo in Islam, and cattle are inviolable in Hinduism, goat, lamb/mutton and chicken are the most popular kinds of meat in South Asia. Since many religious movements promote animal ethics, and much of the population can hardly afford meat, many dishes are vegetarian or vegan. A notable exception to the usual avoidance of pork in Indian food is in Goa, where vindaloo was introduced by the long-time occupier, Portugal, as a dish of pork and garlic in wine or vinegar and was subsequently fused with local tastes to become the spicy dish that is known around the world today.
- Tea is an everyday drink around northern and central South Asia. In the south, the iconic and most common drink is filter coffee.
- A yogurt drink called lassi, in salty, sweet or fruity flavours, is widely available in Northern India and Pakistan.
- Customs for alcoholic beverages vary a lot between countries and regions. In general, alcohol laws are harsh in Muslim communities, and tend to be rather complex matters through the subcontinent. The Indian states of Bihar, Gujarat (although liquor permits are available), and Nagaland, parts of Mizoram and the union territory of Lakshadweep (with the exception of Bangaram) do not permit the consumption of alcohol. Other parts of India have many laws around it, with drinking ages ranging from 18 to 25, dry days and district-level prohibitions. Pakistan prohibits alcohol (although in theory the ban is for Muslims only) and Sri Lanka doesn't allow women to buy or possess alcohol.
- The warm climate and restrictions on alcohol make fruit juices, sugarcane juice and coconut water popular.
- A curry is a dish based on herbs and spices, together with either meat or vegetables. A curry can be either "dry" or "wet" depending on the amount of liquid. In inland regions of Northern India and Pakistan, yogurt is commonly used in curries; in Southern India and some other coastal regions of the subcontinent, coconut milk is commonly used.
- Tandoori dishes, baked in a tandoor (clay oven), are a legacy of Mughlai cuisine and are popular in Northern India and adjoining areas of Pakistan.
- Masala dosas are savoury rice, lentil or wheat crepes that are staples of South Indian cuisine, such as in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (Mysore rava [wheat] masala dosas are famous). They are often stuffed, such as with a mixture of potatoes, onions and spices, but many types of stuffing are possible.
- Utthapams are savoury pancakes. Like masala dosas, they are a staple of Madrasi cuisine and exist in many varieties. Unlike masala dosas, they are not rolled around stuffing but include the ingredients in the batter.
- Chaat are spicy snacks. These are often sold on the streets of large cities like Mumbai. Common types of chaat include pakoras (fritters) and samosas (savoury pastries), but there is a very great variety of savoury snacks.
- Chutneys and sambars are savoury (or in the case of some chutneys, sweet/sour/spicy) condiments used to accompany curries, masala dosas or utthapams.
- Spicy pickles, often called achar, are also used as a condiment.