There's so much to love! Get to know the tantalizing culinary specialties of Northern India.

By Chandra Ram
January 27, 2021
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Palak Paneer Curry
| Credit: Brie Passano

You are probably familiar with some North Indian cooking if most of your experiences with Indian food come from eating butter chicken, saag paneer, and naan in restaurants. The dishes from this part of India have earned the most frequent flyer miles as they've been made to represent the entire subcontinent at Indian restaurants in Europe and America. But while they have come to exemplify Indian food for a lot of people, there's so much more to eat and learn about the region than what you get from a few bites of chicken tikka masala, a dish with disputed origins but that was created to appeal to Western palates.

North Indian cuisines vary in each region, but are largely influenced by the Mughlai cooking of the Mughal Empire, which ruled India from 1426 to 1857. The Mughals came from Central Asia, and that impact on their cuisines is still evident today, especially in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi. The curries from the north are often richer and thicker from ground cashews and other nuts, like you find in chicken korma, or from cream or yogurt, as with butter chicken. Dairy is found in a lot of North Indian cooking, be it cream, butter or paneer, a fresh cheese featured in dishes like matar paneer and saag or palak paneer. The quality of the dairy is important; some of the butter and cream in North India is made from the water buffalo that proliferate in the area, and so is richer than cow's milk butter and cream. 

Indian Chicken Tikka Masala
| Credit: Allrecipes

North Indian cooking also features dried fruit, like the dates and prunes found in Sindhi biryani, along with lamb or goat, plus saffron and almonds. Warm spices like cinnamon and cardamom and spice blends like garam masala predominate; you'll find more spicy chilies in the South. And while rice is eaten everywhere, the north is where you find a variety of breads like naan, parathas, or makki ki roti, the cornmeal flatbreads that are traditionally served with mustard greens or spinach in Punjab.

Meats like lamb, goat and chicken are more prevalent in the north, especially in the mountainous areas like Kashmir. That said, the Muslim and Hindu influence means there is little or no pork or beef. Meats are often ground for koftas or keema dishes, braised or skewered on kebabs and grilled in a tandoor. Rogan josh, a tomato-based curry of cooked lamb or mutton, is famously found in cafes in the Muslim parts of Old Delhi. It comes from Kashmir, which is also the home to wazwan, a long meal with dozens of dishes, that includes gushtaba, which are meatballs cooked in a spicy yogurt sauce. Meanwhile, the town of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh famous for the ground lamb kebabs sold from carts to visitors who come for its art and architecture. And in the northeast state of Assam, ducks are featured in a lot of the cooking, especially paired with the rice that also grows there.

Indian Style Sheekh Kabab
| Credit: Allrecipes

But while the north is where you'll find more meat dishes, the area still boasts a large vegetarian population, and a variety of vegetable dishes to suit them. This is where aloo gobi, one of the best-known Indian dishes of potatoes (aloo) and cauliflower (gobi) sautéed with onions and seasoned with turmeric, comes from. Navratan korma, another famous vegetarian dish from the north, is a rich vegetable curry named for the nine jewels of the Mughal emperor Akbar. It features nine vegetables seasoned with cardamom, turmeric, cloves, and cinnamon and cooked in a sauce thickened with ground cashews.

Lentils and other pulses are also widely used, as in dal makhani, another North Indian dish popular throughout the world. It's made with black lentils (and often rajma, red kidney beans), which are seasoned with garam masala and slowly stirred with decadent amounts of butter and cream (stirred 147 times if you want to be absolutely traditional). In Rajasthan, dal bati churma is a signature, consisting of small flatbreads made of wheat and semolina that are fried and eaten with a dal made with a several different lentils and seasoned with cinnamon, chiles, and ginger. And Gujarat, in the western part of India, is known for its dhokla, a steamed savory cake made of fermented chickpea flour that is topped with chutney, coconut and mustard seeds. You'll also snack here on bhajis, vegetable fritters tossed in a chickpea flour batter and fried.  

Fish is also eaten in North India. Amritsar in Punjab is known for its local freshwater fish, which are battered with chickpea flour, fried and served from street carts and in restaurants and homes throughout the city. And Bengal is known for its fish and rice, slicked with pungent mustard oil and seasoned with panch phoron, a spice mixture of fennel seeds, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, fenugreek, and onion seeds.

Desserts from North India are as rich as many of their savory counterparts, like gajar ka halwa, a pudding made from cooking grated carrots in milk, sugar and ghee. There's also the candied pumpkin seasoned with rosewater in Agra and vermicelli pudding, cooked in sweetened milk with raisins, almonds, cardamom and saffron. Wash your meal down with cups of chai (don't call it chai tea!), the tea seasoned with spices including cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, star anise, and nutmeg that warms bellies around the world.

Check out our collection of Indian Recipes.

Chandra Ram is the author of The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook: 130 Traditional and Modern Recipes.