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Some foods we associate with Indian cuisine aren’t as authentic as you might imagine. Chicken tikka masala is believed to have been invented by Ali Ahmed Aslam while he was the chef at Shish Mahal Restaurant in Glasgow, Scotland. Meanwhile, the Balti cuisine that you can find in Birmingham, England (a place known for its top-tier Indian cuisine), is more of an adaptation of the food served in Baltistan, a region of Pakistan. So if you’re planning a trip to the Indian subcontinent (or headed to an authentic Indian restaurant), what should you eat? Here are 10 Indian foods you must try.
The Persians initially perfected the art of the biryani, but it was Mughal rulers who brought the recipe back to India. To cook a great biryani is tricky, even for chefs who have mastered the rice dish. Each grain of rice should be separate and infused with spice; the meat, potatoes, and vegetables, which are mixed in the rice, also have to be perfectly tender.
The ingredients are added to a heavy-bottomed cooking basin called a handi, usually made out of clay or copper. The biryani is cooked slowly, using a process called dum pukht, so that the flavors can gradually infuse together. The dough that seals the lid traps the steam so there’s no loss of flavor.
In this South Indian classic, fermented batter made from lentils and rice is used to make thin, crispy crêpes, which are served with spiced potato curry. In India, these stuffed crêpes are often eaten for breakfast. The masala dosa is believed to have originated in the city of Udupi in the state of Karnataka.
As the story goes, a Brahmin adiga (cook) wanted to drink alcohol, but since Brahmins weren’t allowed to have access to it, he attempted to ferment some from scratch using rice he had in the kitchen. The experiment failed, but rather than waste the ingredients, he cooked the batter in a pan and created the dish. Though the recipe varies from city to city, it’s customary to make the crêpe batter by soaking the rice and lentils overnight.
Rogan josh was brought to India during the days of the Mughal Empire. It has since become a staple of Kashmiri cuisine, where it’s commonly served at a traditional feast called a wazwan. This aromatic curry typically features red meat of some kind, such as mutton, goat, or lamb.
To make rogan josh, first braise the meat to tenderize it, and then slow-cook it to bring out the flavors. Be sure not to rush this process. Chop the chilis, which give the dish its vivid color, and add them to a mixture of garlic, ginger, and onions blended with spices, such as cardamom, cumin, turmeric, and coriander. The addition of yogurt gives the dish its delicious, creamy consistency.
Paneer is an Indian cheese made from milk curds (similar to cottage cheese), and cooked in a tasty sauce to make vegetarian dishes, such as paneer makhani. This Punjabi favorite is often served with rice or flatbread, such as naan or paratha; they help to mop up any leftover sauce.
Also known as paneer butter masala, paneer makhani is prepared by combining tomatoes and cashews with chili peppers, poppy seeds, and spices, such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger paste. The mixture is cooked until the tomatoes are soft and you’re left with a thick sauce. Many chefs make their own paneer, but you can save time and buy it at the grocery store, too.
Raita is a kind of dip, served as a complement to spicy dishes to cool the palate. Raita is similar to Greek tzatziki in some respects but typically has a thinner consistency. The base of the dip is yogurt, to which seasonings, such as coriander, cumin, mint, and cayenne pepper, are added.
Raita often contains cucumber, but you can mix it up a little and throw in other raw or cooked vegetables, or even fruit, instead. It takes only a few minutes to whip up, as there’s no cooking involved, making this one of the simplest Indian recipes to attempt at home.
Among India’s favorite street foods are the fried, hollow dough balls called pani puri. Inexpensive and filling, pani puri are available on every street corner in India. Each state has its own variations and its own name: “puchka” in Bengal or Bihar, for example, or “gupchup” in Odisha. Bite into the crisp shell of a pani puri and you’ll find a filling of soft, flavorful mashed potato.
The delicious dough balls are messy to eat, but they sure are scrumptious — whether you dip them into a sweet and spicy chutney or pop them into your mouth as they are. If you want to make them yourself, the hard part is rolling the dough to the right thickness, so that it puffs up in the oven. Master that, and there’s no stopping you.
A tandoor is a type of traditional clay oven, used widely in India to cook naan, a thick flatbread leavened with yeast. The tandoor relies on the use of charcoal or wood to provide a source of heat. It’s very effective, and the temperature inside can reach an incredible 900 degrees Fahrenheit. For this reason, naan is slapped on the side of the tandoor and baked, so that it chars but doesn’t burn. It retains its soft texture, which comes from the yogurt that is one of naan’s key ingredients. Don’t confuse naan with the similar-looking flatbread paratha. The dough used to make paratha is rolled out and fried, leaving the bread much crispier.
Dhokla is an Indian cake that originated in the state of Gujarat and has since made its way across the country. If you’re expecting it to taste like a sweet yellow cake, you’re in for a surprise. Dhokla is made of fermented Bengal gram flour that’s steamed to make the fluffy, cake-like texture — no sugar, butter, or eggs required. It’s then spiced to taste and typically served with chutney sauce for dipping.
Idli sambhar (often spelled “sambar”) is a breakfast dish commonly served in southern Indian states, such as Tamil Nadu. The dish is composed of idli, soft and fluffy steamed rice cakes, dipped in sambhar, a vegetable stew containing lentils and vegetables cooked in tamarind broth.
Idli sambhar may have been invented in the 17th century, when the chef of ruler Shahuji I was preparing a dish called amti and switched out the usual ingredients to create a new dish named after Sambhaji, the guest of honor. However, it’s just as likely that the dish originated further north in Karnataka, where idli was created.
The consumption of kulfi in India can be traced back to the 16th century and was most likely another Mughal delicacy that originated in Persia. This frozen dairy dessert is similar to ice cream, but it’s denser because the batter isn’t whipped. Kulfi comes in a range of flavors, such as rose, mango, cardamom, saffron, and pistachio.
Kulfi is a popular street food, and the people who sell it even have a special name: kulfiwallahs. You’ll need patience to make the treat yourself. Authentic, creamy kulfi takes around four hours for the milk to reach the right creamy consistency, though if you’re impatient, you can substitute cream, condensed milk, evaporated milk, and even corn flour for some of the liquid to speed up the process.
Mysore pak is a melt-in-the-mouth candy often served at Indian festivals. It comes from the city of Mysuru, formerly known as Mysore, in the state of Karnataka. To make it, you’ll need sugar, ghee (clarified butter), and besan or gram flour, which comes from garbanzo beans or chickpeas. If you have a sweet craving, first melt the fat in a pan. Add the flour and cook it.
Separately, boil the sugar with water to make a sugary syrup. Mix the two ingredients together and add a pinch of baking soda, spread the mixture, and allow it to cool. When it’s firm, cut the sugary candy into small cubes and serve. It will keep best in an airtight container, but only if you have plenty of willpower – mysore pak is irresistible.