While South Asia is a vast subcontinent with diverse climate and culture, some culinary traditions can be found across the region.
Cuisine of the Indian subcontinent includes the cuisines from the Indian subcontinent comprising the traditional cuisines from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
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 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 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.
Many of foods from the Indian subcontinent go back over five thousand years. The Indus Valley people, who settled in what is now Northwestern Indian subcontinent, hunted turtles and alligator. They also collected wild grains, herbs and plants. Many foods and ingredients from the Indus period (c. 3300–1700 B.C.) are still common today. Some consist of wheat, barley, rice, tamarind, eggplant, and cucumber. The Indus Valley people cooked with oils, ginger, salt, green peppers, and turmeric root, which would be dried and ground into an orange powder.
Indians have used leafy vegetables, lentils, and milk products such as yogurt and ghee all along their history. They also used spices such as cumin and coriander. Black pepper which is native to India was often used by 400 A.D. The Greeks brought saffron and the Chinese introduced tea. The Portuguese and British made red chili, potato and cauliflower popular after 1700 A.D. Mughals, who began arriving in India after 1200, saw food as an art and many of their dishes are cooked with as many as twenty-five spices. They also used rose water, cashews, raisins, and almonds.
Staples and common ingredients
Chapati, a type of flat bread from the former regions, is a common part of meals to be had in many parts of Indian subcontinent. Other staples from many of the cuisines include rice, roti made from atta flour, and beans.
Foods in this area of the world are flavoured with various types of chilli, black pepper, cloves, and other strong herbs and spices along with the flavoured butter ghee. Ginger is an ingredient that can be used in both savory and sweet recipes in cuisines from the Indian subcontinent. Chopped ginger is fried with meat and pickled ginger is often an accompaniment to boiled rice. Ginger juice and ginger boiled in syrup are used to make desserts. Turmeric and cumin are often used to make curries.
Common meats include lamb, goat, fish, chicken and Beef. Beef is less common in India than in other SouthAsian cuisines because cattle have a special place in Hinduism. Prohibitions against beef extend to the meat of (water) buffalo and yaks to some extent. Pork is considered as a taboo food item by all Muslims and is avoided by most Hindus, though it is commonly eaten in Goa, which has a notable Roman Catholic population from Portuguese rule. A variety of very sweet desserts which use dairy products is also found in cuisines of the Indian subcontinent. The main ingredients to desserts of the Indian subcontinent are reduced milk, ground almonds, lentil flour, ghee and sugar. Kheer is a dairy based rice pudding, a popular and common dessert.
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.
List of Cuisines of the Indian subcontinent
Bangladeshi cuisine is dominated by Bengali cuisine and has been shaped by the diverse history and riverine geography of Bangladesh. The country has a tropical monsoon climate. Rice is the main staple food of Bangladeshi people and it is served with a wide range of curries.
Bangladeshi dishes exhibit strong aromatic flavours; and often include eggs, potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines. A variety of spices and herbs, along with mustard oil and ghee, is used in Bangladeshi cooking. The main breads are naan, porota, roti, bakarkhani and luchi. Dal is the second most important staple food which is served with rice/porota/luchi. Fish is a staple in Bangladeshi cuisine, especially freshwater fish, which is a distinctive feature of the country’s gastronomy. Major fish dishes include ilish (hilsa), pabda (butterfish), rui (rohu), pangash (pangas catfish), chitol (clown knifefish), magur (walking catfish), bhetki (barramundi) and tilapia. Meat consumption includes beef, lamb, venison, chicken, duck, squab and koel. Vegetable dishes, either mashed (bhorta), boiled (sabji), or leaf-based (saag), are widely served. Seafood such as lobsters and shrimps are also often prevalent.
Islamic dietary laws are prevalent across Bangladesh. Halal foods are food items that Muslims are allowed to eat and drink under Islamic dietary guidelines. The criteria specifies both what foods are allowed, and how the food must be prepared. The foods addressed are mostly types of meat allowed in Islam. Bangladeshi people follow certain rules and regulations while eating. It includes warm hospitality and particular ways of serving as well. This is known as Bangaliketa (Bengali: বাঙালি কেতা). The culture also defines the way to invite people to weddings and for dinner. Gifts are given on certain occasions. Bangaliketa also includes a way of serving utensils in a proper manner. Bengali cuisine has the only traditionally developed multi-course tradition from the subcontinent that is analogous in structure to the modern service à la russe style of French cuisine, with food served course-wise rather than all at once.
Bhutanese cuisine employs a lot of red rice (like brown rice in texture, but with a nutty taste, the only variety of rice that grows at high altitudes), buckwheat, and increasingly maize. The diet in the hills also includes chicken, yak meat, dried beef, pork, pork fat, and mutton. It has many similarities with Tibetan cuisine
Indian cuisine is characterized by its sophisticated and subtle use of many Indian spices. There is also the widespread practice of vegetarianism across its society although, overall a minority. Indian cuisine is one of the world’s most diverse cuisines, each family of this cuisine is characterized by a wide assortment of dishes and cooking techniques. As a consequence, Indian cuisine varies from region to region, reflecting the varied demographics of the ethnically diverse Indian subcontinent. India’s religious beliefs and culture has played an influential role in the evolution of its cuisine. It has influences from Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian, East Asian, and Central Asian, as well as the Mediterranean cuisines due to the historical and contemporary cross-cultural interactions with these neighboring regions.
North Indian cuisines
Cuisine of Uttar Pradesh
South Indian cuisines
East Indian cuisines
Cuisine of Chhattisgarh
Cuisine of Jharkhand
North East Indian cuisines
Cuisine of Arunachal Pradesh
Cuisine of Meghalaya
West Indian cuisines
Thathai Bhatia Cuisine
Other Indian cuisines
Indian Chinese cuisine
Indian fast food
Maldivian cuisine also called Dhivehi cuisine is the cuisine of the Nation of Maldives and of Minicoy, India. The traditional cuisine of Maldivians is based on three main items and their derivatives: coconuts, fish and starches.
Nepalese cuisine comprises a variety of cuisines based upon ethnicity, soil and climate relating to Nepal’s cultural diversity and geography.Dal-bhat-tarkari (Nepali: दाल भात तरकारी) is eaten throughout Nepal.Nepali cuisine has significant influences from Neighboring Indian and Tibetan cuisines.
Pakistani cuisine (Urdu: پاکستانی پکوان) is part of the greater South Asian and Central Asian Cuisines due to its geographic location and influence. As a result of Mughal legacy, Pakistan also mutually inherited many recipes and dishes from that era alongside India.
Other Pakistani cuisines
Pakistani Chinese cuisine
Pakistani fast food
Sri Lankan cuisine
Sri Lankan cuisine has been shaped by many historical, cultural, and other factors. Foreign traders who brought new food items; influences from Malay cuisine and South Indian cuisine are evident.