Indian cuisine is lauded around the world for its complex flavors, diverse spices, and aroma. Traveling to India is a dream of many and much of the experience is trying local food from chicken tikka masala to homemade samosas. Traditional recipes have been handed down through the generations, which may explain why locals have got the use of spice down to an art form.
While other popular cuisines around the world may have a few amazing dishes, India’s culinary strength lays in the vast assortment of dishes and desserts. When traveling around India, or even cooking at home, you could try something new every day. To help direct you, here are our picks for the most popular Indian dishes. Before starting your adventures around India, check out our guide to essential items for your trip.
Best Indian Dishes to Try at Home or Abroad
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Whether you’re exploring India or playing along at home butter chicken aka murgh makhani is one of the most popular Indian dishes. In the land of spice, this dish tends to be on the milder side. The dish originated in New Delhi as a way to salvage leftover chicken. Butter chicken is made by combining onions, cream, and butter into a smooth tomato sauce, before adding in the cooked chicken.
Every household and local restaurant will have their own take on this Indian food, but if you’re up for an adventure, add in curry powder for a more powerful taste. This is a common Indian dish to make at home and is a great introduction to the overall Indian cuisine. Get this easy recipe to make it at home.
Indian food is full of flavor and zest and Tandoori chicken is one of the best examples. The yogurt-marinated chicken is mouthwatering and juicy, but it’s one of the Indian recipes that you’ll need to prepare for if you want to get it right.
Traditionally cooked in a clay oven, for us everyday chefs, a regular oven or even a grill will suffice. But before we get to this stage, it’s important to marinate the chicken in the refrigerator for at least six hours. The chicken is marinated with yogurt and spices like turmeric, coriander, garlic, and lime juice, among others. Once the marinating is done, fire up the oven and let the flavors continue to work their magic. Get the recipe here.
Chicken Tikka Masala
In order to successfully make your way around an Indian menu, it pays to know a few of the common terms. Masala is the Hindi term for spice blend and Tikka means small chunks. Put them together and you have one of the best traditional Indian foods.
Popular among locals and travelers alike, chicken tikka masala is another great choice for those becoming acquainted with Indian cuisine. It may be immensely tasty, yet the curry is mild. The chicken is first marinated in garam masala. This spice blend includes yogurt, coriander, cumin, cloves, and black pepper. Later, the chicken is roasted over charcoal before being added to a creamy gravy of paprika, red chili, and tomatoes. Make chicken tikka masala at home with this recipe
With roots in Northern India and Persian cuisine, Rogan Josh is a meat-centric Indian food. The name Rogan Josh translates to red lamb. Over the years, it has spread around the country to become one of the most popular Indian dishes. You can find the vegan version of Rogan Josh here.
The traditional Indian food comprises either lamb or goat, although chicken is a common choice. The meat is braised with a spice blend of cloves, cardamom and cinnamon, along with garlic and ginger. The meat tends to be feisty, yet is calmed somewhat by the addition of the gravy and sometimes yogurt. Visiting the North Indian city of Rishikesh? Check out the top things to do here.
Another major staple in North Indian cuisine is Korma. As one of the Indian dishes that has worldwide acclaim, it’s a common choice for travelers or those cooking at home. Read:The Best Things To Do In Rishikesh, India
Korma comprises braised meat, most likely to be beef or chicken, which is then slow-cooked in a thick, yet mild curry sauce. The sauce is made up of cream, coconut milk, or yogurt with the addition of several spices. Often the delicious garam masala. The delicious meal also has a vegetarian alternative. Here, the meat is switched out for a different protein with the addition of several vegetables and almonds. Make the vegetarian recipe at home
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South Indian lemon rice is a popular Indian dish simply because of how easy it is to make. During the busy week, locals can grab and go without missing a beat.
For this reason, lemon rice would be a great addition to your midweek cooking. You can have the zesty lemon rice on its own, but raita, kosambari salad, tamarind chutney, and yogurt are common additions. Add in your own vegetarian twist, or fry up some chicken or fish to round out the meal.
Hailing from South India, dosa is one of those famous Indian dishes that changes as you travel around the country. Not that this is a bad thing. Every Indian restaurant has its own wonderful twist on this delectable dish. Dosa is a thin pancake made from the batter of fermented rice. You could eat dosa as a standalone treat, however, you would miss out on many aromatic spices. Try it with chutney or sambar, or even spiced potatoes.
Common variations for dosa include Set Dosa, Masala Dosa, Paneer Dosa (cheese). As they’re small and thin, pair them with other popular Indian dishes, such as chickpea curry.
Naan (Leavened Flatbread)
Speaking of food that goes perfectly with curry, we have naan, one of the most famous Indian dishes or, should we say, snack. Similar to a pita yet fluffier, naan is usually baked in a tandoor (clay) oven. Beyond the delectable taste when straight out of the oven, naan is the best ‘tool’ for finishing off your tasty curry.
Types of naan change wherever you go and you’ll likely create your own twist at home. Aside from plain naan, common alternatives include melted garlic butter or the addition of rosemary leaves placed inside.
Now that you know your naans from your dosas, it’s time to explore a popular Indian curry. For geographical reasons, fish curry is most common in South India and features fish marinated in a tangy tamarind sauce. The fish is then added to curry to create a flavorful Indian meal. Rather than try the fish curry as it’s presented, add some basmati rice. Better yet, grab a side of dosa or naan to soak up all the goodness. If you want to make the curry yourself, firm whitefish will be perfect for the job. Options include halibut and cod.
When it comes to popular street food in North India, you won’t be able to go far without running into vendors making papdi chaat. Chaat is a general term for savory Indian cuisine found in street carts. Papdi refers to the crunchy dough that serves as the base. Check out our guide to traveling through Northeast India.
Creating the north Indian food begins by making the papdi and forming thin circles. After deep frying the dough, add in boiled potatoes and chickpeas before topping it off with a tangy sauce. Papdi Chaat is a superb choice for your next get-together. The small bites are easy to make and will add a wonderful point of difference. Read this step-by-step guide to make Papdi Chat at home.
Chana Masala (Chickpea Curry)
Chana or chole is the common Hindi word for chickpeas. Chana masala is essentially a curry made with chickpeas and cooked in a sauce made of garlic, ginger, and onions. Recipe here.
The curry is then mixed with garam masala, creating one of the best Indian dishes and is most commonly found in northern India. The burst of typical Indian flavors packs a punch and following traditional recipes can lead to one heck of a spicy dish. Alongside your curry, you will find bhature, a soft flaky Indian bread. If you’re cooking at home, however, you can’t go wrong with naan.
Vindaloo is a mix of Portuguese and Indian cuisine. Hailing from the south Indian town of Goa, where Portugal established a colony, the vindaloo curry has grown to become a well-known Indian food. The dish got its name from the mispronunciation of a prominent Portuguese dish, carne de vinha d’alhos.
Bursting with flavors and incredible fiery, a vindaloo curry is most commonly made with pork, chicken or lamb. Just like the original version from Portugal, the meat in the popular Indian food first marinates in a combination of wine, vinegar, and garlic. Make chicken vindaloo at home with this recipe
One of the best Indian vegetarian dishes is Aloo Matar. Although you’ll likely find meat options on your travels through India, it’s a simple and delicious vegan dish you can make at home. Aloo Matar is essentially potatoes and peas and hails from the Punjab region at the tip of northern India. Many versions of the dish simmer the potatoes and peas in coconut milk while others cook them in a spiced tomato sauce.
The beauty of this easy dish is the ability to tailor it to taste and add in your own style along the way. But to keep up some tradition, serve with basmati rice or masala dosa. Get this easy recipe from AllRecipes.
The popular Indian food is a rice-based dish with an extensive history. Biryani has connections to the Mughal Empire, which was established towards the beginning of the 16th century! This classic meal is one of those favorite Indian dishes that you can try all over the country. Inevitably, you’ll also want to recreate it at home.
Cooking biryani has multiple layers. The basmati rice and meat (or vegetables) are prepared on their own, then later combined. The dish is then slow-cooked in the oven, creating what you could call a ‘dry dish’, quite different from the typical Indian cooking featuring creamy sauces.
The popular Indian dessert is the king of post-dinner treats all around the country. To create this sweet Indian food, milk solids are first grounded into powder before being mixed with milk and turned into dough.
The dough is rolled into a series of small balls before being deep-fried until golden brown. From there, the Gulab Jamun is dipped into a sugary syrup and left to absorb. Once the deep-fried dough is soft and juicy, you know it’s time to tuck in and devour the delicious treat.
When it comes to Indian food found all around the world, Samosas are another that immediately spring to mind. Such is the popularity of the pastry that you can find them in the frozen aisle at any local grocery store.
While you can’t beat samosas at an authentic Indian restaurant, they’re a lot of fun to make. A samosa is either a baked or fried pastry item filled with peas, onions, and spiced potatoes. If you want to add in meat, the common options are beef, chicken and ground lamb. For dipping sauces, try chutney or mint.
The Hindu name for lentils, dal, is a prominent part of a lot of Indian food. Most typically lentil soups. Traditionally, the lentils are mixed with salt, turmeric, and water before your local chef adds his or her own twist.
Popular dals in the Indian subcontinent include Tadka Dal, complete with mustard seeds and cumin seeds. The flavor tends to be mild by Indian standards. Another is Dal Makhini, featuring varieties of lentils and beans cooked with cream for added richness along with an assortment of spices. Dhaba Style Dal, is dal from food joints found on the side of highways. The street food version became so popular that recipes found their way into several Indian restaurants.
Saag Paneer (Palak Paneer)
Palak Paneer is a dish made from paneer (cheese), and Palak (spinach). Paneer is a cheese made from curdled milk and it a main dish in India for substituting meat. The cheese is first cubed and then fried. Make it at home with this easy to follow recipe on the Food Network.
Aag Panner is also known as Palak Paneer and is a delectable curry with the saag (spinach) cooked with a variety of popular Indian spices. The spinach is also mixed with coconut milk or cream. It’s also common to see the spinach replaced with other green vegetables such as chopped broccoli. As a popular side dish, saag paneer can also be ordered with rice for a hearty vegetarian lunch or dinner.
Not as creamy as butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, madras curry packs a punch and is one for those that love their spice. Chicken is the most common addition to this curry, which is why you’ll see Chicken Madras at many Indian restaurants. The intense colors of the dish arise from the chili peppers used, giving it a darker texture than other dishes. Remember to add on a side of white rice and your choice of naan or bhature.
Although not Indian food, Masala Chai belongs on this list because no cuisine experience in India would be complete without it. Masala Chai is spiced black tea with milk later added and the tea has roots spanning back thousands of years.
Flavors can vary depending on the region you try it, but generally, the masala is a blend of cloves, green cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper. If you’ve had chai at home, expect a more vibrant, herbal and spiced beverage.
What To Know About Traditional Indian Food
India has a well-earned reputation for being home to one of the best cuisines on earth. Eating your way around India is as adventurous as it is delicious. Beyond the typical curries, as you can see from above, India has an immense variety of dishes on offer. All of which change depending on the regions and local produce. No day is ever like the last.
By now, I’m sure you’ve also heard that getting sick while experiencing the local cuisine is common. In fact, it’s par for course for the majority of people who want to dive into local culture. Being prepared for these interruptions, often caused by the strong flavors and spices, will help you better navigate India’s food scene. Read: Top 10 Tips for Healthy Travel and Best Travel Snacks – Tip for Staying Healthy on a Flight
Restaurants in India
Generally speaking, there are three types of places to eat in India. They begin at local cafes and street carts and extend all the way to tourist restaurants.
Local cafes and street carts are cheap and often good. If the streetcart has a line, you can feel confident about it. These places are called dhabas, udupis and bhojanalayas. Come here for your dals, Indian bread, veggie curries, dosas and biryanis.
Traditional restaurants cater to the middle-class and come with consistently delicious food. Although not as cheap as dhabas, the restaurants in India won’t break the bank.
Vegetarian Food in India
Vegetarians won’t have a hard time traveling around India. Some of the most popular Indian dishes are meat-free from Aloo Matar to Saag Paneer. Many religious Hindus and south Indian residents don’t eat meat or fish, opening the door for some amazing vegetarian cuisine.
Indian restaurants will usually warn guests whether or not they serve meat, on their menu and sometimes on the signs outside. The quality of meat isn’t consistent in India, leading to a lot of travelers embarking on a vegetarian experience while roaming the country.
With endless dishes to try, especially as your palate gets used to the spices, you may never get bored with Indian food. Throughout the country, you will discover an abundance of different culinary styles that add a fresh take on popular dishes. Back home, many Indian meals are easy to recreate owing to both their simplicity and presence within our shopping aisles.
Whether you’re cooking up a butter chicken or treating yourself to some Gulab Jamun, your Indian culinary journey is one of a thousand steps.