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, Bangladeshi, Nepali and Sri Lankan 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.
Throughout periods of its history, the subcontinent often had a dominant government, such as the Maurya Empire, Gupta Empire, Mughal Empire, 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 Indian Chinese dishes that constitutes a fusion between the cuisine colonial-era 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 the 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 and legumes, with occasional seafood.
- Udupi is especially famous for its vegetarian cuisine.
Rice is 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. A number of varieties are eaten. Long-grained and aromatic basmati rice is typically used in North Indian and Pakistani curry dishes. Red rice, which has a nutty flavour and chewy texture, 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.
Flatbreads are 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.
- Naan: A thick and chewy, leavened flatbread that is baked in an oven or tandoor (traditional clay oven). The most common types are plain naan, garlic naan, butter naan, cheese naan (stuffed with either paneer or nowadays melting cheeses like cheddar and mozzarella) and Peshawari naan, which contains nuts and raisins.
- Roti: A thin and coarse, unleavened flatbread cooked atop a tava (shallow pan). Rotis are typically made from wholewheat flour unlike naans, giving them an earthier taste and are considered to be the healthier option. Roti can also be made from other grains. Notably, in the Punjab region, makki di roti made from whole corn flour, is a local delicacy and is paired with either sarson da saag (mustard greens curry) or shalgam (turnips).
Other flatbreads include deep-fried pudis and bhatooras, poodas (savoury chickpea pancakes) and sweet pikelet-like malpuas.
Leavened, European-style breads were introduced to the region during the colonial era. Small soft bread rolls called pav (from the Portuguese pão) are common throughout Western India and is an essential component of dishes such as pav bhaji, vada pav and misal pav. Sliced bread can be found and is usually fried rather than toasted. Popular dishes made from bread include bread pakora, where triangles of bread slices are coated in spicy gram flour and deep fried, and a savoury version of French toast, both of which are eaten with sauce or chutney.
Legumes and lentils
Legumes and lentils are 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.
India has more cattle than any other country in the world, and milk and its derivative products are used in a range of savoury 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.
Herbs and 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. A mixture or combination of spices is called masala. Garam masala (literally "hot spice mix) is probably the most well known though are others such as chaat masala, which is tangier, and tandoori masala, which is coated on meats like chicken.
Fruits, vegetables and nuts
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. Alphonso mangoes are particularly well-known and prized among Indian fruits.
The high levels of vegetarianism on the Subcontinent 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. Pistachios are also much appreciated and pistachio kulfi is one of the most common flavours of what is often called Indian ice cream.
Meat and seafood
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, 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 drunk throughout South Asia and is the everyday drink in many regions. In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and parts of Nepal, the most common tea is masala chai, sweetened black tea mixed with a blend of spices and milk. The traditional drink of Kashmir is noon chai, a pink tea made from green tea leaves, milk, salt and baking soda, which gives it its characteristic colour. In Bhutan, the Himalayan region of Nepal and the Indian states of Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and the union territory of Ladakh, butter tea is the drink of choice where pu-erh tea leaves, yak or cow's butter and salt are blended together creating a tea with a stew-like consistency.
- In South India, the iconic and most common drink is filter coffee, a sweet and milky coffee with earthier flavours than the typical Western coffee due to a different extraction process and the addition of chicory.
- 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 Punjabi tradition and are popular in Northern India and adjoining areas of Pakistan.
- Dosas are savoury rice, lentil or wheat crepes that are staples of South Indian cuisine, such as in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. They are often stuffed, such as with a mixture of potatoes, onions and spices (this type of dosa is called masala dosa), but many types of stuffing are possible. The "rava" (semolina) masala dosas from Mysore are particularly famous.
- Utthapams are savoury pancakes. Like masala dosas, they are a staple of South Indian 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.
- Biryani is a savoury dish of meat (traditionally goat, though chicken, lamb and beef are used as alternatives), rice and spices that is popular throughout most of the Subcontinent and beyond. It is associated with the Muslim community, and exists in many different styles throughout South Asia and among overseas Indian communities, but the most famous style is the version served in Hyderabad. It is similar to several Middle Eastern rice dishes such as kabsa, mandi and mansaf.
- Dhokla is a steamed, leavened savoury snack originating from Gujarat, having a cake-like texture and made from rice, chickpea and/or lentil batter. The most popular type is khaman dhokla made from chickpea flour, garnished with mustard seeds, curry leaves and green chillis, and typically served with a red or green chutney. It is eaten as a breakfast item, entree to a meal or as a snack with tea.
Broadly, the two major types of condiments found in South Asian cuisine are chutneys, which are equivalent to sauces, dips and spreads in European cuisines, and achars, which are pickles.
Chutneys can be savoury, sweet, sour or spicy and served as an accompaniment to snacks such as samosas, pakoras and dhokla, and some types of meals, including dosas and utthapams.
Achars tend to be spicy, salty and oil-based and accompany meals which are somewhat bland. Achar is very strong in flavour and salt and is meant to be eaten in very small portions per bite with the bread, rice and/or curry. It is supposed to provide a kick to the meal but eating it in large quantities will overwhelm your taste buds.
Another condiment, or perhaps more accurately side dish, eaten throughout Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is raita. Raita comes in many varieties, each one made from yogurt mixed principally with an herb, vegetable, pulse or fruit. A bit of salt and pepper can be added as well as water to thin the blend. From a gastronomical perspective, raita cools you down from the heat of the curry and the rest of the meal. Raitas are diverse with many states having their own style though the most common ones are boondi raita (containing fried batter balls of besan or chickpea flour) and cucumber (similar to tzatziki in Greek cuisine).
Sweets and desserts
It's fair to say that nearly everyone has a sweet tooth in South Asia. Sweets can be baked, fried, roasted, frozen, or produced in a myriad of other ways. Increasingly, sweets which were specific to one region are spreading in popularity and are available across the entire region. Sweets are given as gifts to family and friends and consumed at higher rates during festivals, whether religious or secular. They are eaten typically after a main course meal or as in-between snacks.
Gulab jamun is a dairy-based dessert consisting of fried and caramelised milky balls dipped in a rose- and cardamom-scented syrup and garnished with an assortment of nuts. The traditional recipe uses khoya (freshly dried milk) which provides a melt-in-your mouth feel to the dish. These days you might come across gulab jamun made from milk powder, which is easier to make but not as tasty. Gulab jamun spread in popularity during the Mughal Empire and is therefore available across much of South Asia and among the diaspora communities all over the world.
Jalebi is made by deep frying batter in coil or pretzel-like shapes and soaking it in syrup, usually flavoured with saffron. It's eaten as a snack, a dessert, or a breakfast item. Jalebi is often served with milk or rabri (a kind of fragrant condensed milk). With its origins in the Middle East, jalebi enjoys pan-South Asian popularity though the name of the treat varies by region.
Kheer, also called Payasam or Payesh, is South Asian rice pudding. The default version contains rice, sugar and thickened milk as a minimum and is usually flavoured and garnished with cardamom, saffron, raisins, nuts, petals and/or floral essences. It can be eaten cold at the end of a meal or hot at the start or end of a meal like porridge. Variants of the dish substitute the rice with other grains or pseudo-grains such as bulgur, sago and tapioca.
Kulfi is a frozen dairy dessert eaten across all South Asian countries with its popularity stretching as far as Myanmar. Often dubbed "Indian ice cream", its taste for the most part will remind you of ice cream though there are a few key differences. Kulfi is made from evaporated milk and sugar, does not contain eggs and is not whipped or aerated. As a result, kulfi is denser, creamier and slower to melt than ice cream and can have a slightly chewy texture. The most common shape of kulfi is a long, thin cone. When you buy it from stalls or trucks on the street it is usually served on a stick, while in restaurants it is given in a cup or plate. The traditional flavours include malai (cream), cardamom, rose, pistachio, mango and saffron. For those with allergies, keep in mind that even non-nut flavours often contain nuts (almonds, pistachios and cashews being most common). Nowadays, much like ice cream, you will find hundreds of flavours as you shop around and go to different vendors.
Rasgulla is an Eastern Indian sweet consisting of balls of chhena (a moist, softer cheese than paneer) cooked in and permeated in a light rose-scented syrup. The origin of rasgulla is disputed between Odisha and Bengal with people on either side of the border claiming that it was invented in their state. What is more clearly known is that the first canned rasgullas were sold in Kolkata in 1930, after which they took off in popularity across the subcontinent. A variant of the dish is ras malai where the chhena balls are immersed in sweet thickened milk instead of syrup, providing a creamier feel to the sweet.