Learn all about the fascinating origins, people, and unique ingredients behind the varied and flavourful regional cuisines of India. Text & photographs by Sangeeta Khanna
With its diverse climatic zones and cultural plurality, India offers an irresistible bouquet of flavours. The topography, local produce, and traditional recipes of every region make up a potent cocktail of sights, scents, and tastes on your plate. It is highly recommended to visit some of the lesser-known regions of India and experience their local cuisine. Until the time comes when you can confidently plan a trip to the country, you can savour its regional dishes within the safe confines of your kitchen. We’ve put together a primer on the flavours of five states, with a local recipe from each!
Colours of Rajasthan
Think of a hot, arid desert where the vibrant colours of traditional attire compete with the bold and rustic flavours of food, and soulful folk music evokes a yearning for long journeys. That’s Rajasthan for you.
The landscape of this western state is mostly monochromatic, thanks to its vast swathes of sand and buildings made of natural stones that borrow from the earth’s colours. The traditional garments of its people and the adornments of its numerous palaces and temples bring a splash of colour into the picture.
The food of Rajasthan brings its own hues, along with robust flavours of spices, dried wild berries, dairy, and game meats. You may wonder how the parched expanse of the Thar Desert could have made the palate of its inhabitants so refined— on one hand, the nomadic tribes conjured up the most surreal flavours using wild bushes and pit ovens, while on the other, the royal families of the region had their dishes prepared in precious metal containers with exotic spices and nuts that were part of the silk and spice trade. The staple food of Rajasthani nomads is simple yet soulful. The royals got used to enjoying this fare during their shikar (hunting) trips, and thus, it seeped into the royal kitchens as well, with more nuts, prime cuts of meats, saffron, ghee, and other ingredients that spelt affluence.
Here is the recipe of a nomadic flatbread called khoba roti with a surface pattern that resembles the sand dunes of its home state. It was earlier cooked on hot embers, but now an iron griddle is used. It is normally served with a mixed lentil dish like panchmel dal (made with five types of lentils), a red-chilli and garlic chutney, or a hearty meat stew that complements its rustic flavours.
KHOBA ROTI (SERVES 2)
• 200 gm coarse wheat flour
• 120 ml of water
• An iron griddle to bake the khoba roti
• Tongs to do the final baking over an open flame
• Mix the flour and water and knead to make a pliable dough.
• Let the dough rest for 10 minutes.
• Divide the dough into two parts, make smooth balls, and roll out a thick disc-like roti, about half an inch thick.
• Lift the roti and slap it on to the hot griddle.
• Wait till the base layer gets half cooked, flip it, and pinch the roti in a circular design while the other side cooks.
• After pinching the whole surface, lift the roti with tongs and roast it directly over the flame till it is cooked through. Repeat to make the second khoba roti.
• Serve the khoba roti with a generous drizzle of ghee. The unique pattern on the roti is meant to let it soak up the ghee.
Spirit of Gujarat
With the vast salt pans of the Rann of Kutch, the pottery village of Khavda, the traditional weaves of Bhujodi and Patan, and the numerous step-wells sprinkled across the state, there is plenty to choose from in Gujarat. The destinations range from an expansive coast to riverine plains and various degrees of desert regions. The cuisine of Gujarat reflects the artistic flair of the tribes who inhabit the arid inland regions. Traditional pit ovens are still used in some parts, but Gujaratis have also devised various types of ovens that replicate the flavours of the traditional dishes.
Use of drought-resistant millets, chickpeas, and buttermilk is very common, and there are undercurrents of sweet, sour, and spicy flavours in the cuisine. The savoury cake called handvo is a nourishing mix of grains, lentils, vegetables, herbs, and seeds, traditionally baked in a special oven that results in a Bundt-shaped savoury cake. You can also bake handvo on a stove.
HANDVO (SERVES 4)
(To be soaked overnight)
• ¾ cup of rice
• ½ cup skinned black lentils
• ½ cup skinned and split black gram
(To be arranged at the time of baking)
• 1 cup grated squash
• ½ tsp soda bicarbonate (baking soda)
• 12 sprigs of fresh curry leaves
• 4 tbsp sesame seeds
• 6 dried red chillies, crushed and deseeded
• 1 tbsp black mustard seeds
• 1 tsp green chilli paste
• 1 tsp ginger paste
• 1 tsp red chilli powder
• 1 tsp turmeric powder
• 1 tsp cumin powder
• 1.5 tsp salt
• ½ cup peanut oil
• A round or square flat-base frying pan with lid
• A smaller pan to prepare the tempering
• Blend the rice and lentils together with minimal water to make a batter of smooth consistency. Add salt to the batter and let it ferment in a warm place for four to eight hours.
• Make a tempering in a small pan with some oil, one teaspoon mustard seeds, green chilli and ginger paste, and the spice powders heated together till fragrant. Add this to the fermented batter. Add the grated squash and soda bicarbonate, and mix well, and adjust consistency to match a cake batter.
• Now heat half of the remaining oil in the pan, add the remaining mustard seeds, dried red chillies, curry leaves, and sesame seeds, and let everything splutter. Lower the flame and take out half of the tempered mix in a metal bowl.
• Now pour the handvo batter in the hot pan, level the surface, and spread the reserved tempered mix on top. Cover with a lid, increase the heat to medium and let it bake till the top layer looks firm and a skewer comes out clean.
• At this point, place a large plate over the pan and invert it so that the baked handvo unmoulds onto the plate. Now slide the inverted handvo into the hot pan again, so that the top layer also becomes crisp.
• Once done, invert the handvo on a platter, cut into pieces, and serve warm for breakfast or as part of an elaborate meal.
Taste of Meghalaya
The seven states of Northeast India, viz. Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram, are together called the Seven Sisters.
The landscape in these parts is a beautiful mashup of mountain ranges, waterfalls, forests teeming with wildlife, and sacred groves. It is also home to tribes who have preserved the ancient knowledge of building bridges with trees and stilted houses with bamboo. When it comes to food, Northeast India largely follows traditional methods of cooking. Use of wild herbs, fruits, and vegetables is very common, as is free-range poultry and meat. Cooking methods are simple, and the local markets are full of locally grown and foraged produce. The dishes are characterised by minimal use of oil and masala. Rice, meat, bamboo shoots, lemon, local chillies and other spices are used generously.
Black sesame pork or dohneiiong is a Khasi tribal recipe from Meghalaya, cooked in the simplest of ways with local black sesame seeds. The ginger and chillies used in this recipe are also of the local variety, but one can use regular chillies and ginger to recreate the magic of flavourful black pork or chicken curry.
DOHNEIIONG (SERVES 3)
• ½ kilo pork or chicken on the bone, with fatty portions
• 1 onion, chopped
• 2 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
• 1 tbsp green chilli paste
• ½ tsp red chilli powder
• ½ tsp turmeric powder
• ½ cup black sesame seeds, roasted and powdered
• 2 tbsp mustard oil
• Salt to taste
• Heat the oil in a pan and add onions to fry.
• Once the onions are golden-brown, add the paste of ginger, garlic, and chillies.
• Mix and cook for two minutes, and then add the meat and the remaining spices.
• Toss and stir, cover with a lid, and let the meat cook on a medium flame for 30 minutes.
• Mix the sesame powder with ½ cup water and pour into the curry once the meat is done.
• Simmer for a minute, and serve hot with plain boiled rice.
Flavours of Kerala
Kerala is a narrow strip in southern India with a vast coastline and beautiful mountain ranges, a combination that gives the state tropical rainforest weather. The state offers a vast array of experiences, ranging from spice plantations to backwaters, hill stations, fishing colonies, and calm beaches. Kerala is a biodiversity hotspot, and this reflects in the state’s culinary repertoire.
The cooking utensils used here are mostly made of black terracotta, soapstone, or bronze. Food is traditionally cooked on fire using coconut fronds, and the use of coconut in the sweet and savoury dishes is phenomenal. Spices and several varieties of chips—banana, jackfruit, yam, potato, and other vegetables and fruits—are staples. Seafood occupies the centre stage, but there is also an abundance of wild herbs and greens in Kerala’s dishes. The staple grain is rice, which is commonly mixed with coconut to make several types of pancakes, crêpes, and steamed or fried dumplings.
Puttu (rice flour and coconut cake) and kadala curry (spicy black chickpea curry) is a breakfast favourite in Kerala that deserves accolades for the simple flavours and the absolute nourishment it brings to the body and soul. Usually, banana and ghee are served along with this breakfast. So the crumbly puttu can be consumed in two ways—either with the spicy kadala curry, or with mashed banana, freshly scraped coconut and ghee.
PUTTU (SERVES 2)
• 1 cup short-grain rice or purple rice or forbidden rice, rinsed and soaked for 10 minutes
• 1 cup freshly-scraped coconut
• ¼ tsp salt
• 2 tsp oil for greasing the bowls
• 200-ml bowls
• A steamer
• Strain the water from the rice and grind it to make a coarse powder. Note that we need even-sized particles, almost like semolina.
• Add salt and half of the scraped coconut into the rice powder and mix well by rubbing between your fingers. The mix should look crumbly.
• Grease a few bowls, sprinkle about 1 tablespoon scraped coconut on the base of each bowl, then fill each with the crumbly rice mix. Layer a tablespoon of coconut on top and place them in the steamer for 10-15 minutes. The rice cakes should hold together when cooked and should be light and fluffy.
• Serve them hot with kadala curry, or ripe bananas, more coconut, and ghee.
• To make the spicy kadala curry that pairs well with the puttu, you can use boiled black chickpeas and a paste of onion, garlic, ginger, red chillies to taste, some garam masala, and coconut milk, all stewed together till the flavours mix.
Magic of Madhya Pradesh
Travellers arrive in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh for the famous temple complex of Khajuraho, architectural wonders such as Padavali and Bateshwar near Gwalior, cenotaphs on the bank of River Betwa, the astounding fort complex of Orchha, the ruins of Mandu, white marble rocks along River Narmada in Jabalpur, and its soulful food.
The rural way of life in the state is still fairly undisturbed, thanks to its protected forests and tiger reserves. So, the produce available in local markets is either locally grown or locally made. Since Madhya Pradesh was home to many royal families in pre-colonial times, the cuisine of the royals is a well-preserved treasure. Here is a royal recipe from Bhopal called rezala, which is made with chicken or mutton, a generous dose of fresh coriander leaves and green chillies, and finished with a hint of roasted cumin powder. It is cooked with copious amounts of ghee, yet it’s quite light on your system. It is said that the generous use of coriander leaves was prescribed by royal Ayurvedic doctors to combat the digestive distress caused by the hard water of Lake Pali, which has been supplying water to the city for centuries.
BHOPALI REZALA (SERVES 3-4)
• ½ kilo mutton on bone or chicken on bone
• 1 cup ghee
• 1 cup slit green chillies
• 1.5 cups sliced onion
• ¾ cup fresh curd (cultured yoghurt)
• 1 cup freshly cleaned and chopped coriander leaves
• 3 tbsp shredded ginger
• 1 tbsp garlic paste
• 1.5 tbsp salt
• 1 tbsp roasted and powdered cumin seeds
• A thick-bottom pot
• Heat ghee in the pot.
• Mix all the other ingredients together and add to the pot.
• Place a heavy lid to seal the pot, and cook on low flame for one and a half hour.
• Serve hot with flatbread.
• This recipe works very well in a slow cooker too. Just mix everything and slow cook for five to six hours on very low heat, and the flavours will be just as good.