Kheer or payasam is an ancient Indian dessert, a creamy rice pudding that is made in several versions across the country. It is a common dish at numerous Indian ceremonies, festivals, and celebrations, although it can be consumed any time of year.
Kheer is made by boiling rice, wheat, or tapioca with milk and sugar, and it can be additionally flavored with dried fruits, nuts, cardamom, and saffron. It is believed that the dessert originated 2000 years ago in the Lord Jagannath Temple in Orissa.
Originally, it was prepared as an offering to the gods, a practice that spread to other Hindi temples where the recipe was slightly changed. Today, it is said that a wedding is not fully blessed if kheer is not served at the wedding celebration, and the tradition is still being practiced by the newlyweds.
Whether Indians are enjoying tandoori chicken or aloo paratha, no meal is complete without the flavorful chutneys – India’s national condiments. These fresh homemade relishes consist of pickled or stewed fruit and vegetables that are cut into small chunks, then delicately seasoned with a variety of spices such as cumin, cardamom, tamarind, ginger, and turmeric.
They are typically served in small, round bowls and consumed along with the main dish. Chutney’s role is to cool the palate and bring even more flavors and colors to the table. Most families take great pride in their homemade chutneys, their houses decorated with rows upon rows of jars that were left to mature in the sun on windowsills.
It is common to serve more than one chutney, so a hostess is often judged by the number and variety of chutneys she serves to her guests. Mint chutney is the most popular variety, traditionally eaten with samosas and consisting of fresh mint leaves, onions, garlic, and lemon juice. Coconut chutney, another favorite, consists of grated coconut, ginger, kari leaves, chiles, and garlic.
Other types of chutney can be made with green mangoes, tomatoes, sour cherries, coriander, peanut, and apples, all of them with vivid colors, sweet, spicy, and sour at the same time. Chutney got its name from an Anglicized version of the Sanskrit word chatni, which literally translates to licking good, and it is obvious to anyone who tried it that it lives up to its name.
Tandoori chicken is one of the most popular dishes in Indian cuisine, its name derived from the Persian word tannur, meaning fire. The dish consists of chicken meat that is marinated in yogurt, seasoned with tandoori masala, nutmeg, and cumin, then placed on skewers.
It is a unique dish because of the way it is prepared – traditionally, it is cooked at high temperatures in cylindrical clay ovens called tandoor, resulting in succulent meat with a smokey flavor. One popular theory suggests that it was invented by a man named Kundan Lal Gujral in his restaurant Moti Mahal (Palace of Pearls).
He wanted to make a new dish, so he tried cooking the chicken in the tandoor, which was mostly used for baking the famous Indian bread called naan. The dish was an instant hit with the hungry customers, and the crispy, yet succulent chicken dish even caught the attention of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharial Nehru, who often ate at the restaurant and made it a regular dish at official banquets.
The aforementioned theory belongs to the recent past, but historians claim that tandoor-cooked chicken actually dates back to the Mughal period, when the dish was merely a part of gigantic Indian feasts at the time. Tandoori chicken’s fame led to many derivatives such as chicken tikka masala and butter chicken, both of them commonly found in restaurants across the country.
Biryani is a group of classic dishes which date back to the Mughal Empire. It is believed that Mumtaz Mahal, Emperor Shah Jahan’s queen inspired the dish in the 1600s. The word biryani is derived from the Persian word birian, meaning fried or roasted, and it is believed that the dish made its way from Persia to India via groups of traders and immigrants.
The main ingredients of biryani are rice (ideally basmati), spices, a base of meat, eggs, or vegetables, and numerous optional ingredients such as dried fruits, nuts, and yogurt. Over time, the popularity of biryani spread throughout India and other countries, so there is a huge variety of biryanis today, such as sindhi biryani (made with yogurt), Bombay biryani (with lots of spices and kevra), or Lucknowi biryani (made with a special technique of cooking the meat and rice separately, then together until fully cooked).
What was once a dish reserved for royalty is today served in almost every Asian restaurant as one of their specialty dishes, seasoned with cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, coriander, or mint leaves, giving it a unique flavor and making biryani a top choice for many customers around the world.
Roti is a flat and unleavened bread made with wholemeal flour. It is traditionally cooked on an iron griddle called tava, an important vessel in the Indian cuisine. In Indian cuisine, roti is as essential as rice. There are several theories regarding its origin.
One says that it was invented in Persia, when it was made with maida and was much thicker than today’s rotis. Another theory says that it traveled to India from East Africa, where unleavened bread was a staple and the production of wheat was abundant.
The Ayurveda dates it back to India’s Vedic period. Regardless of the origin, roti is nowadays popular throughout the world, in countries such as Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, South Africa, and South Asia. Its name stems from the Sanskrit word रोटिका, meaning bread.
There are many variations of the basic roti, such as chapati, makki di roti, tandoori roti, and roti canai. It is commonly used as an accompaniment to various dishes, including curries, and on the Caribbean, it is commonly used as a sandwich wrap and consumed as street food.
Probably the best known of all Indian dishes, butter chicken, also known as murgh makhani, is a staple dish at most Indian restaurants. The dish originated in Delhi during the 1950s, when a man named Kundan Lal Gujral opened his restaurant called Moti Mahal.
The restaurant’s cooks combined leftover marinade juices with tomatoes and butter, and then stewed the tandoor-cooked chicken in it, without even knowing that they have accidentally stumbled upon one of the most loved dishes ever and a future international delicacy.
Moti Mahal became one of Delhi’s attractions, and soon after, butter chicken spread throughout the world. With a combination of roasted meat, plenty of spices, a rich gravy made with cream, tomatoes, and butter, this dish is best accompanied by naan bread and garnished with even more butter, coriander, or green chilis.
Due to their crunchy texture and a variety of different flavors, samosas provide a perfect introduction to the world of Indian cuisine for newcomers. These deep-fried, triangular pastries are filled with a variety of ingredients ranging from vegetables to meat, such as onions, lentils, spiced potatoes, peas, or ground meat.
It is said that the popular, golden-brown snack travelled to India along the old trade routes from Central Asia. These savory triangles are typically served hot and accompanied with chopped onions, yogurt, or fresh, homemade Indian chutneys made with a variety of ingredients such as mint, coriander or tamarind.
However, not all samosas are savory – some versions can contain a number of sweet ingredients such as pomegranate, mango, and raisins. Sweet or savory, they can be found throughout India at numerous street stalls and roadside eateries, freshly made and traditionally paired with masala chai tea.
Korma is a creamy meat stew (although it could also be made in a vegetarian version) with a mild flavor, made with saffron, yogurt, and various spices such as coriander, ginger, cumin seeds, chiles, and turmeric. It is believed that it originated in the royal kitchen of Akbar during the mid-1500s as a fusion of Persian and Indian cuisine.
The dish got its name after one of the tribes of the Rajputs, a warrior clan of western India. It is recommended to serve kormas with flatbreads such as chapati, paratha, or naan. There are three main bases of korma: North Indian korma with almonds, cashews and yogurt (there are two subgroups of this korma: Mughalai (with reduced milk) and Shahi (with cream)), korma Kashmir with almonds, cashews, yogurt, milk, and dried fruits, and South Indian korma with coconut, coconut milk, almonds, cayenne peppers, and fennel seeds.
This flavorful and highly nutritious national dish of India is especially popular in southern parts of the country, but it can also be found in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Dal is a stew with the main ingredient of black or yellow lentils—the most consumed ingredients in India—but it can also be prepared with peas, chickpeas, or mung beans.
Inexpensive and easy to make, dal was an ideal food for the working class as it provided lots of energy for a full day of labor. While yellow lentils are most commonly used, black lentils are the most prized variety when making dal. Hulled and split, the slightly nutty lentils are slowly simmered with a variety of spices such as caraway, coriander, onions, garlic, chiles, and ginger until they break apart, and are then mashed into a smooth purée.
In the northern Punjab region, black mung beans are among the most popular choices for dal and they are typically cooked with ghee (clarified butter), yogurt, onions, tomatoes, and a variety of spices until the dish develops its distinctive aroma and reaches the desired thickness.
There are numerous types of dal, each with a different spice combination and flavors. The dish can be served either as a main meal or as a side, and it is traditionally served over rice, accompanied by naan or other Indian breads.
Naan is a unique and popular flatbread with a chewy texture that has its roots in India. The first documented traces of naan are found in the 1300 AD notes of Amir Kushrau, an Indo-Persian poet. Its name comes from the Persian word for bread. Naan was originally made in two versions at the Imperial Court in Delhi – naan-e-tunuk (light bread) and naan-e-tanuri (baked on the stone walls of a tandoor oven).
It consists of white flour, yeast, eggs, milk, salt, and sugar, baked in a tandoor oven. Its typical tear-drop shape is achieved by the way the dough droops as it cooks on the tandoor walls. Many Indian villages had a communal tandoor, placed in the middle of the village so that all the locals could bake naan.
There are also many varieties of naan, such as kulcha (the flatbread is stuffed with a filling of nuts and raisins, potatoes, or onions) and garlic naan, topped with butter and crushed garlic. Traditionally, naan is served hot from the oven, slightly charred, brushed with ghee – Indian clarified butter, and it is usually consumed as an accompaniment to a variety of dishes.