Take a tour of regional Indian cuisine with cookbook author Chandra Ram.
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Goan Pork Vindaloo
Goan Pork Vindaloo
| Credit: Alina

If India's cultures and cuisines seem complicated to you, then you already have a sense of how wonderfully complex the country is. And even better, you are starting to understand how much there is to cook and eat.

India's Rich Culinary History

The most important thing to understand about India is that it is not a monolith. India is one of the youngest countries in the world, having gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947, but is also home to cultures that date back as long as 4,500 years. More than 19,500 different dialects and languages are spoken throughout its cities and villages. Each of its 29 states and seven union territories has its own cooking traditions, techniques, local and signature ingredients that vary so much, I think of them as separate countries united under a single border. And each region boasts specialized dishes that have come about because of their proximity to the mountains or oceans, local produce, and the prevailing religion of the area, among other factors. The duck and rice eaten in Assam in northeastern India bear a stronger resemblance to Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking than they do to the crispy dosa and spicy vegetable sambals found in Andhra Pradesh further south.

India's history of being colonized is another strong influence on its cuisines; dig into a plate of pork vindaloo in Goa, on the southwestern coast, and you'll taste its past as a Portuguese colony in the rich pork and garlicky vinegar sauce. But you won't find vindaloo or any pork in other parts of India with a large Muslim population. Similarly, you may have heard that eating beef is taboo, but beef fry is one of most popular signature dishes in Kerala. It's safe to say that for every preconception or rule you have about Indian food, there is a contradiction or exception. And the more you learn about India's varied flavors, the more you realize that you couldn't pick one dish that symbolizes the entire country any more than you could say there is a sandwich or cake represents all of American or European cooking.

So…relax. You don't have to try and understand all of Indian cooking at once to enjoy it. The best way to learn about Indian food is region by region, dish by dish, and bite by delicious bite; doing so will take you far past what you see in most Indian restaurants.

Explore the World of Indian Spices

Most of those bites will be seasoned with the spices that make Indian food so flavorful. You can find Indian spices in grocery stores or online, but a visit to an Indian market is the best way to stock your spice cabinet. Picking up some cumin, coriander, Kashmiri chile powder (which is much milder than most chile powders), mustard seeds, turmeric and cardamom will give you a good start. But don't forget asafetida, which lends its signature funky flavor to curries and stews. And make sure you take advantage of the many masalas, or spice blends, that make cooking Indian food a little easier; chaat masala, garam masala, curry powder, and vadouvan are my favorites. No matter what spices you use, make sure they are fresh, and when possible, buy them whole and grind them when needed, for the most flavor. And remember that you must always toast your spices, either in a dry pan over low or medium heat, or cooked in oil or ghee (a type of clarified butter used in Indian cooking). Toasting the spices brings out their flavor like nothing else.

Photo by Allrecipes Magazine
| Credit: Allrecipes Magazine

Indian Snacks and Street Food

One of the best ways to dive into Indian food is with the snacks and street food that are eaten throughout the country. Snacks keep Indians fed day and night, and are found at roadside stands and on carts at every Indian train station. Chaat is the term used to refer to these snacks, which manage to be spicy, sweet, salty, crunchy and creamy, often in a single bite. Among the most popular are samosas, which are fried savory pastries stuffed with potatoes, lentils or ground meat. Bhel puri is another popular chaat that is a mixture of toasted puffed rice, lentils, and nuts often topped with chopped fruit or vegetables and tossed together. Frankies are wraps of roti, a flatbread, filled with spiced vegetables or chicken. Pavs, which are like sliders, are another favorite snack; pav bhaji features braised potatoes, sweet potato or squash and/or other vegetables, while vada pav is an irresistible snack of a crispy fried savory potato doughnut sandwiched inside a bun. Most if not all of these snacks are topped with chutneys, which range from the herbal cilantro and mint options to sweet and tart mango and tamarind. Sip a sweet-salty lime soda or a cup of chai along with your chaat, and enjoy a first taste of India.

Check out our complete collection of Indian Recipes.

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