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The Differences Between Northern & Southern Indian Food

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Chitra Agrawal teaches us about the differences between North and South Indian cuisine by way of two variations on a traditional Indian side: South Indian-influenced Radish Yogurt Raita and North Indian-influenced Kale Yogurt Raita.

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I am often asked to clarify the difference between North and South Indian cooking because my mother is from Bangalore in the South and my father grew up in Allahabad and Delhi in the North. They have what is referred to as a “love marriage” in India—one that is not arranged. They met at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore in 1963 and have been inseparable ever since. Although they are both Hindu, they are not of the same caste (my mother is Brahmin and my father is Vaishya) and do not share the same mother tongue (my mother’s is Kannada and my father’s is Hindi). As a result of these differences, my parents’ cooking styles are quite distinct from one another, besides the fact that they are both lifelong vegetarians. 

Since I can remember, my parents have been cooking together. My father is in charge of making the breads, yogurt, and some North Indian dishes, while my mother cooks all of the South Indian foods and dabbles in North Indian as well. What makes things amusing, though, is that there is a friendly North/South rivalry in their kitchen. They are both so attached to the cooking they grew up with and, as a result, I have become attached to both of these cuisines. Here, I'll break down how the two types of cooking differ.

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What you’ll find in the North:

  • Prominent dishes: You’ll find lots of breads and curries in the North. Much of what you eat in the restaurants in the West—such as naan breadrotis, samosas, curries such as palak paneer (spinach and cheese) and aloo ghobi (potato and cauliflower), and the like—is North Indian. 
  • Spice mixture and powder: Garam masala is the predominant spice mixture used.
  • Sour ingredient: Sourness is a prevalent flavor in Indian food. Amchoor (dried mango powder) is used as a souring agent in curries.
  • Dried herb: In the North, some sauces are accented with the use of dried fenugreek leaves.
  • Hot drink: In the North, you finish a meal off with tea or chai.

What you’ll find in the South:

  • Prominent dishes: Generally speaking, South Indian cooking is based around rice, lentils, and stews. Dishes such as dosa (a lentil and rice crêpe), idli (steamed lentil rice cakes), saaru/rasam (tomato, tamarind, and lentil soup), and huli/sambar (spicy lentil and vegetable stew) are all from the South. 
  • Spice mixture and powder: Huli pudi (sambar powder) is often used to spice dishes.
  • Sour ingredient: Tamarind is used in stews.
  • Dried herbs: Dried curry leaves flavor some of the soups. 
  • Hot drink: You’d finish off the meal with a special type of coffee made with chicory.  

Of course, this comparison of North and South Indian cooking does not even scratch the surface of the diversity of the country’s cuisine. We shouldn’t forget about West and East India: Western India—which includes Goa and Gujarat—and Eastern India—including West Bengal—all have their own distinct and rich cuisines, too. This is why studying the foods of India is so fascinating: There is always something new to learn. 

The nuances in Indian cuisine are even clearer when comparing the preparations of similar recipes from neighboring states, and even within communities from the same state. For instance, my mother hails from Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. What she calls huli, a spicy and sour vegetable stew, is also referred to as sambar and differs slightly in other South Indian states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

To go a step further, recipes for the same dish also vary between households in Karnataka. The foods we enjoy in our home are specific to my mother’s community of Hoysala Karnataka Brahmins, who lived in present-day Mysore and date back to 950 A.D. This style of cooking is heavily influenced by a “satvic” or “yoga” diet and is strictly vegetarian, comprised of fresh produce, grains, legumes, dairy, and no onion or garlic. It’s a wonder that these food traditions dating back so long ago have survived and remain strong in Indian households to this day. In a way, history is being retold every day in kitchens across India and in other parts of the world where Indians have settled, including in my own kitchen in Brooklyn, New York.

To give you a sense of some of the recipe variations, and how the regions differ, I’ve prepared two yogurt raitas, one that's inspired by Northern India and one that's inspired by Southern India. Raita is a traditional Indian side made in different ways from region to region.

 

My Kale Yogurt Raita is a spin on the dish that my relatives in North India make. My great aunts and father make their raita with beaten yogurt and a diced or grated vegetable, flavored with red chili powder and roasted cumin powder. Sometimes they will add a dash of kala namak (black salt) or ground black pepper.  

Kale Yogurt Raita

Serves 4

2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 garlic clove, minced
4 kale leaves, stems removed and chopped well
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3 cups plain yogurt, whisked
3/4 teaspoon cumin powder, plus more for garnish
1/4 teaspoon red chili powder, plus more for garnish
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon cilantro, chopped, plus more for garnish

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

My Radish Yogurt Raita with Fresh Coconut and Fried Spices is a South Indian version I learned from my mother. This style of raita is prepared by mixing the yogurt with grated radish and coconut. The dish is finished by frying black mustard seeds, asafoetida (a spice reminiscent of onion), dried red chili peppers, and curry leaves in hot oil and then pouring them over the yogurt mixture. You then garnish the raita with chopped cilantro.

Radish Yogurt Raita with Fresh Coconut & Fried Spices

Serves 6

For the raita:

4 radishes, grated in large shreds
1/2 plum tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons frozen fresh grated coconut, thawed
16 ounces plain yogurt
Salt, to taste
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

For the tempering spices:

1 teaspoon safflower, canola, or sunflower oil
1 pinch asafoetida or hing
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
3 fresh curry leaves
1 dried red chili pepper

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos of raita by Bobbi Lin; naan by Carey Nershi; sambar by Chitra Agrawal; and lentils by James Ransom.


Tags: Indian, South Indian, North Indian, raita