(A generalized term denoting an Asian or Asian-inspired dish that contains “curry spices,” which usually, but not always, include: turmeric, chili powder, coriander, cumin and ginger.)
Indian cuisine is diverse. Every regional, social or cultural group has its own way of cooking. Even within states and regions, the food is variegated, creating a tapestry of diverse curry dishes unique to India. Because of the diversity, it is difficult to generalize, even within specific Indian states. This guide attempts to do just that, so keep in mind that for each region of India there are exceptions to the patterns of spice blends and ingredients used in the curry dishes.
West India Curry Spices – Gujarat, Maharashtri, Konkan, Goa
(Ajwain seeds (a.k.a carom seeds), asafoetida (a.k.a devil’s dung), bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, chili powder, chilies, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek, ginger, mustard seeds, paprika, pippali, red chilies, sesame seeds, tamarind and turmeric.)
Western Indian cuisine is highly diverse. Coastal parts of Western India eat a variety of fish and seafood. Interior regions rely heavily on grains and cereals for their proteins and nutrition. In generally, most Western Indian cuisines put a lot of importance on sweets, but curries are also a staple of the diet.
- Gujarat – In Gujarat, sugar and salt are used more heavily than in other parts of India, producing a cuisine that is simultaneously spicy, salty and sweet. A pinch of sugar is added to most dishes. The region is primarily vegetarian, and there are a variety of local “shaak” dishes – vegetable dishes. These include potato curry, eggplant curry, squash curry, okra curry and sev tomato curry, to name a few. These dishes are usually served with dal, a type of Indian lentil soup.
- Maharashtri – In Maharashtrian cuisine, fiery seafood and mutton curries prevail, but milder curries are also popular. Curries are often served with yogurt dishes called “koshimber,” of which raita – yogurt cucumber sauce – is a famous example.
- Goan – Goan curries usually contain a masala spice blend, often consisting of chilies, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and coriander. Goan curries often center around seafood. They are notorious for being spicy. Goan is home of the vindaloo, one of the spiciest Indian curries featuring black pepper and lemon juice.
- Konkan – Along much of the west coast of India sits the Konkan region. Many aspects of the culture and food are very similar to Goan. Here, curries often have a coconut base and make use of tamarind and curry leaves, and are mostly pesco-vegetarian (excluding all meat except for fish.)
North India Curry Spices – Kashmir, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi
(Anise seed, bay leaves, black pepper, cardamom, cassia (a cinnamon-like bark), chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, garlic, ginger, mace, nutmeg, red chilies, saffron and turmeric.)
North Indian cuisine is the type of Indian food most common in the United States. It consists of a variety of curries that are often served with breads such as naan – a fluffy bread – or kulcha – a bread made out of fermented dough. The curries contain a variety of meats, vegetables, fruits and nuts, as well as dairy products like cream, yogurt and ghee – purified butter. Many North Indian curry dishes contain paneer, a fresh cheese that is made by curdling milk with lemon or lime juice. Examples are the matar paneer (pea curry with cheese) and paneer butter masala, also known as paneer makhani (cheese in a creamy butter cashew sauce).
- Kashmir – Kashmiri curry features sweet flavors and mild spices, cooked with lychees and bananas. Another popular dish in Kashmir is the rogan josh, a medium-hot curry with lamb or chicken in a tomato base.
- Uttar Pradesh – Awadhi curries hail from Uttar Pradesh and are distinct for their use of expensive spices like saffron, as well as for several distinct dishes such as malai kofta – curried vegetable balls – or samosa – fried pastries filled with curry spiced potatoes, onions, peas and lentils.
- Delhi and Punjab– In Delhi, the curries often feature meatballs, korma sauce and paneer. Punjabi curries are similar to those found in Delhi and make generous use of masala spice blends as well as cream.
- Rajasthan – Curries are a main staple of Rajasthani cuisine and often contain paneer or yogurt sauces. One famous Rajasthani curry is the kadhi, which features fried chickpea and vegetable balls known as pakoras in a yogurt-based curry sauce.
Northeast India Curry Spices – Assam, Sikkim, Tripura
The cuisine of Northeast India is distinct from other regions of India. Northeast Indian cuisine is largely influenced by Burma, Tibet and Nepal. Popular meats include fish, shrimp, yak, chicken, pork, duck, pigeon, frog and even turtle. In some areas, beef is also eaten. Although common Indian spices like turmeric, fenugreek and cardamom are used, they are used less often and in moderation. The dishes in Northeast India tend to be more savory than spicy, relying heavily on onions for extra flavor.
- Assam – Assam curries rely on fresh vegetables and exotic herbs for their flavors. One popular curry in Assam is the tenga curry. It features lentils and fish, which may be fried in mustard oil or pickled with gourds. The tenga is made sour with the use of lemon.
- Sikkim – Sikkimese curries are often served with rice. They may feature tomatoes, onions and gundruk – leaves of the mustard oil plant. A popular curry served with Sikkimese dishes is potato curry.
- Tripura – Tripuri curries are usually heavy in chilies and fish. Chicken curry and curry containing bamboo shoots are also popular in Tripura. One unique aspect of Tripuri cuisine is the use of berma – dried, fermented puthi fish. It is present in most Tripuri dishes.
East India Curry Spices – Bengal, Orissa, Bihar
(Asafetida, black mustard, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, fenugreek, green chilies, kalonji, poppy seeds, red chilies, turmeric and yellow mustard)
In general, Eastern Indian cuisine is subtle in its use of spices. Curries in Eastern India often come in the form of fried curry (bhaja curry) or curry cooked to a paste (bata curry). Other curries may be mild (chochchoree curry) or they may be spicy with a thin sauce (jhol curry).
- Bihar – Bihari cuisine features heavily spiced, calorie-rich foods. They use a variety of legumes, beans and chickpeas in their cooking.
- Bengal and Orissa – In both Bengal and Orissa, panch puran, a blend of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, mustard seed and nigella seed, is in heavy use for flavoring vegetable curries, while garam masala and turmeric are often used to flavor meat or fish curries. However, Bengali and Oriya cuisines differ in that curries in Oriya tend to be less spicy and more subtle in flavor.
South India Curry Spices – Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu
(Saffron, coriander, lemon, curry leaf, ginger, sesame seeds, chili powder, mustard, asafetida, tamarind, fenugreek, turmeric, chili peppers, black pepper, clove, mustard seed, cilantro, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg and rosewater)
South Indian curries were developed by the Dravidians and are largely based on chilies and lentils. They mostly vary in their levels of spiciness. A popular dish that is unique to South India is the dosa – a crepe that is often stuffed with curried vegetables. One of the most widespread crepes is the masala dosa, which hails from Karnataka.
- Andhra – In Andhra cuisine, curries are very spicy and feature abundant chili powder. Most Andhra dishes are vegetarian. One unique food item found in Andhra is the gongura leaf, a sour leaf from a stalk-like plant that is served in curries or pickled.
- Karnataka – In Karnataka, curries are much milder than in most of South India and are largely vegetarian. Lentils are used often. The masala dosa – a popular crepe filled with potatoes curried in a masala spice blend – is said to originate from a region of Karnataka.
- Kerala – Kerali cuisine is one of the most diverse of South Indian cuisines. Kerali curries usually feature heavy use of coconut oil, coconut milk or grated coconut, which combats the spiciness to create medium-hot dishes.
- Tamil Nadu – Tamil curries are usually very spicy and are largely vegetarian. They are often served on banana leaves. The word “curry” is derived from the Tamil word for sauce – “kari.”