India is known for its diverse and flavoursome cuisine. It is a huge country with a lot of people, so the cuisine varies greatly by region, with different local traditions. The cuisine is characterised by the use of aromatic spices, herbs and different types of vegetables, meat and grains.
The cuisine is strongly influenced by different ethnic, social and religious groups. For instance, the Muslim population don’t eat pork and the Hindu population in certain areas don’t eat beef. This explains why vegetarianism is so common in India. There are many tasty vegetarian dishes such as chana masala, which is made with chickpeas in a spicy tomato-based sauce. And palak paneer, a dish made with spinach and paneer cheese.
India is a huge country with different culinary traditions and specialities. Each region has its own unique flavours, ingredients and cooking techniques. Below is a brief overview of the main regional cuisines in India:
North Indian cuisine
When India became independent, it was mostly people from the Northern provinces who came to Europe. What is often considered ‘Indian’ here in the Netherlands is in fact more a representation of North Indian cuisine. For instance, dairy products such as ghee, paneer and yoghurt are widely used. And North Indians generally prefer wheat, flour and grains. From which they make tandoori roti, naan, rumali roti and paratha, which are eaten for breakfast and dinner. It is also known for its rich and flavoursome meat dishes like chicken tandoori and butter chicken.
South Indian cuisine
South Indian cuisine is mainly vegetarian. Key ingredients include coconut, curry leaves and tamarind. It is also a cuisine that contains many spicy and herbal flavours. And while in the north many breads are served with dishes, in the south rice is the basis of many dishes. Populair South Indian dishes that incluse rice are dosa (kind of pancake made of lentils and rice), Idlis (steamed rice cakes) and appams (kind of pancake made of fermented rice batter and coconut milk). Another popular dish is vada (deep-fried savoury doughnuts made from legume flour).
East Indian cuisine
East Indian cuisine contains many fish dishes, due to its location by the sea and its many rivers. Freshwater fish such as shrimp, salmon, hilsa and carp are particularly common. Other important ingredients are mustard oil, fenugreek and rice. Popular dishes include machher jhol (fish curry) and chingri malai curry (shrimp curry made with coconut milk).
West Indian cuisine
This cuisine is heavily influenced by the cuisine of Gujarat, the fifth largest Indian state. Here, many people have a vegetarian diet. Vegetables such as potatoes and lentils are therefore often the main ingredient of a meal. Popular dishes include dhal (dish made with lentils), thepla (spiced flatbread made with fresh fenugreek ‘methi’ leaves and whole wheat flour) and dhokla (savoury steamed cake made from chickpea flour). Goa, a small coastal region in the west, on the other hand, eats a lot of fish and seafood. Here you can see many Portuguese influences, still from the time of the voyages of discovery. Portuguese introduced the red chilli pepper, beef and pork. A famous dish is Vindaloo, a tasty curry with chillies.
Central Indian cuisine
Central India’s cuisine is influenced by the Mughal empire and includes dishes like biryanis and various types of kebabs. The cuisine is also known for its use of millet, a grain commonly grown in this region.
Northeast Indian cuisine
This cuisine is influenced by neighbours China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. In fact, it lies even further east then Bangladesh, as a result, it falls a bit outside the rest of India. A relatively high amount of meat and fish is eaten compared to the rest of India. Chinese influence can be seen in noodles, dumplings and fermented foods such as bamboo shoots. Towards the Myanmar border is the Nagaland region where the Naga Jolokia pepper comes from, this is one of the hottest chilli peppers in the world. Popular dishes of Northeast Indian cuisine include momos (steamed dumplings stuffed with meat or vegetables) and thukpa (hearty noodle soup).
Chilli peppers are an essential part of Indian cuisine and are used in all kinds of dishes to add spiciness and flavour. There is a wide range of chilli peppers, from mild to very hot varieties. Chilli peppers are often used in Indian cuisine to balance the flavours of other ingredients in a dish, such as the sweetness of coconut milk or the fullness of ghee. They also have health benefits as chillies contain capsaicin, a substance that has been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
One of the most commonly used chilli peppers in Indian cuisine is the green chilli, which is used both fresh and dried. Green chilli peppers are often added to curries, stews and chutneys, and are also used in pickling and in marinades for meat. Red chilli peppers also come in various forms, such as dried whole chillies, chilli powder or chilli flakes. They are often used in spice blends such as garam masala, as well as in meat dishes and vegetable dishes.
Another important chilli is the Kashmiri pepper. This is a mild chilli often used in Indian cuisine for its vibrant red colour, mild spiciness and its unique flavour, fruity and a slightly smoky aroma. It is named after the region of Kashmir in northern India where it is traditionally grown. They are oblong in shape and have a wrinkled, shiny skin. They are usually dried and ground into a fine powder, which is used as a flavouring and colouring agent in various dishes, especially in Kashmiri cuisine.
The Naga Jolokia comes originally from India, also known as bhut jolokia or ghost pepper, and is one of the hottest chilli peppers in the world. Because of its intense heat, it is used sparingly to little in dishes and is really for those who love super spicy food.
One of the most popular dishes in Indian cuisine is curry, a spicy sauce usually served with rice or bread. There are many different types of curries, each with their own unique blend of spices and ingredients.
Curry leaves, also known as Karipatta, Sweet neem leaves or in Indonesian Daun Kari, is an important ingredient in Indian cuisine, especially in the south and west of the country. They have an aromatic fragrance with many warm notes and are necessary in many dishes on Indian and Sri-Lankan cuisine because of their authentic flavour. The leaves release their full aroma when fried and soaked in oil, and are rarely called for as a raw garnish as they become bitter and tough.
Curry leaves are perfect for preparing curries, but despite the name, they have nothing to do with curry powder. This is a mixture of a variety of spices such as cumin, coriander and fenugreek.
Besides their culinary uses, curry leaves are also known for their health benefits. They are high in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties, and are said to help regulate blood sugar and digestion.
One of the most popular drinks in India is chai, a mixture of tea, milk and spices such as ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Often drunk in the morning and evening, chai is a social drink that brings people together.
Another popular Indian drink is lassi, a refreshing yoghurt-based drink. It comes in different flavours, such as mango, rose and mint, and is often drunk as a cooling drink during the hot summer months.
Thandai is a traditional Indian drink often consumed during the festival of Holi. It is made by mixing milk, almonds, fennel seeds and cardamom, and is a sweet and flavourful drink served chilled.
Besides these traditional drinks, India also has various fruit juices and alcoholic beverages. Coconut water is a popular drink in southern India, while bhang is a cannabis-infused drink consumed during the festival of Holi.
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