Culinary Arts

All About Indian Cuisine: The Most Popular Dishes and Where to Start

Written by MasterClass

Feb 2, 2019 • 4 min read

Indian food, not unlike any other country’s national food scene, is a vast constellation of culinary influences and traditions from all over the Asian continent.


What Are Common Ingredients and Flavors in Indian Cuisine?

Most Indian dishes are built from the same flavor foundation, and common ingredients include a panoply of spices:

  • Chili peppers (dried whole and powdered)
  • Mustard seeds
  • Cumin
  • Fennel
  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Allspice
  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Coriander
  • Turmeric

A custom spice mixture known as garam masala is a good indicator of local palates, as the blend changes slightly depending on where you are (and whose auntie is cooking).

A table filled with colorful Indian Spices


Is Indian Food Healthy?

While the country has a soft spot for sweets, Indian food is relatively healthy and vegetable-forward, with plenty of vegetarian and even vegan options like okra bhajis, samosa, and dal. Because cows are sacred to Hindus, and Muslims abstain from pork, proteins like lamb, fish and chicken are typically more heavily favored. Cheese and yogurt are prominent in some vegetarian dishes like saag paneer and naan.

What Are the Different Regional Cuisines in India?

Simple food that packs a flavorful punch is the defining feature of Indian cuisine from region to region. That theme is informed by religion, population, and geography, though interpretations on the right way to cook something varies wildly even between neighbors. Heartier dishes similar to those found in Pakistan are found in the North, while similar flavor profiles in the South can be found throughout Southeast Asia.

  • Northern India. The cuisine of Northern India is dominated by rich curries and thick sauces paired with breads and fragrant yogurts. It features spice-forward dishes made in clay ovens, like tandoori chicken and chana masala. Onion, tomato, and garlic is a common combination.
  • New Delhi. Street food in New Delhi, for example, might be chaat or samosa.
  • South India. South Indian cuisine features more coconut milk-based flavor profiles, herbs like lemongrass and curry leaves, and native fruits. Rather than breads, you’ll find more rice, lentils, and stews—and sauces are generally thinner as a result.
  • Kerala. Street food in Kerala might include pazham pori (banana fritters) and sweet dumplings.
  • Northern India. Jammu and Kashmir. Cuisine in Jammu and Kashmir, in the northernmost tip of the country, is centered around meat dishes like rogan josh, a yogurt-based lamb curry fragrant with chillies.
  • Gujarat. The state of Gujarat, surrounded by coastline with plentiful seafood access, is primarily vegetarian, thanks to the large concentration of Jainism—a religion based in non-violence and asceticism.
  • Mumbai. Just across the water from Gujarat, Mumbai (India’s largest city, formerly known as Bombay) is famous for its market hawkers and the culture surrounding street food. Stalls feature everything from piles of tangy puffed rice bhelpuri to roaming chaiwalas serving milky black tea to sugar-soaked electric orange jalebi.
Paneer and indian dishes on a table


What Are the Most Popular Indian Dishes?

If you’re familiar with Indian restaurants in the US, marquee dishes include:

  • Aloo gobi (crisp golden potatoes and cauliflower)
  • Butter chicken
  • Chana masala (chickpea stew)
  • Palak paneer (a spinach curry with fresh cheese)
  • Chicken tikka masala
  • Doughy, butter-brushed naan
  • Crisp papadum
  • Fish curry
  • Lamb vindaloo
  • Dal makhani (a stew made with whole black or yellow lentils)
  • Pakora, a fried snack typically featuring cauliflower or potato coated in a light batter

Common Indian Side Dishes

The Indian canon is full of complementary flavors and presentations, and sides are an important part of any meal. They provide balance, color, and cleanse the palate.

  • Papadum: A thin crisp made from black gram flour typically served as a starter or an accompaniment to a meal.
  • Raita: This basic condiment, made from yogurt studded with grated vegetables and ground spices, typically cumin, is used to cool and temper heat along with things like Basmati rice.
  • Chutneys: From tamarind to mint, chutneys are a favorite addition to snacks like masala dosa or samosa—many Indian families even mix their mint chutney with ketchup, to be eaten with samosa or dahi toast (which features a raita-esque yogurt filling).
  • Achaar: As the staple pickle of India, achaar comes in many varieties. Made from either a fruit or a vegetable, achaar brightens up anything from rice to yogurt to dal, and is ever-present at the Indian table. The classic is a spicy mango achaar, which varies in heat and spice from state to state but brings a reliable sweet-sour profile.

Traditional Indian Cooking Equipment

  1. Tawa pan: A flat grill pan similar to a plancha, used for cooking fresh breads like roti.
  2. Tandoor ovens: Traditional clay ovens used to cook a variety of dishes in Northern India, like naan or marinated meats.

Cooking Indian food at home doesn’t require any special equipment—a sauce pot and a sauté pan will do all the work just fine—but the key lies in a good larder. You can find just about any specialty ingredient (including achaars and even instant papadum) online, and you can stock up on basic spices at an Indian grocer.