Indian

The Differences Between Northern & Southern Indian Food

May 13, 2015

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.

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.

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.

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32 Comments

Antje D. November 2, 2016
I cook Southern Indian recipes and keep a well-stocked spice box. Do I have to get another spice box now to cook Northern Indian recipes?
 
Alexandra K. July 28, 2016
While both Indian cuisines sound equally delicious, I can honestly say I don't think I've ever had anything remotely Southern Indian. I did however, save an idli recipe after watching a documentary in which a tourist in the South of India thought all the locals were saying 'Italy.' Haha.
 
Chef D. November 12, 2015
the thing I love most about Indian food is the Nanna bread you get with curries :)
 
PRNJ July 7, 2015
In the southern state of Kerala people usually prefer the short grained parboiled Rice ( Matta variety) which has a unique nutty flavour and nutritious than polished white long grain rice. Coconut Oil is used for all cooking purposes. Traditional breakfast consists of dishes like Puttu, Aappam, Pathiri (North Malabar) and also boiled and seasoned tapioca with fish curry. Fresh seafood is a staple on all days along the coast. Mussels ( Kallummakaya) is a delicacy in Nort Malabar. these are but a few facts about Kerala cuisine.
 
I_Fortuna July 7, 2015
PRNJ - Hello, I wanted to add this info so people know the differences in rice. I found this info which supports your statement that red or matta rice is more nutritious than some others.<br />"Response from: Sangeetha Perumal, <br />Registered Member on Ammas.com<br />Source: This information comes from my own knowledge.<br />Its a good question you have asked here which helped me also to learn what exactly is the difference between these rice<br /><br />As per the various websites I gone thru I came to the following conclusions<br /><br />1)Matta rice and kerala red rice are same 2)Brown rice is unmilled, has only the husk removed, and retains 100% of the bran. Red rice is semi-milled, with the husk and some of the bran removed. White rice is milled and polished to remove the husk and all the bran. Unlike white rices, brown/red rices are high in fibre, have a wonderful array of nutrients, and possess properties that help control blood lipids, and blood sugar levels. 3)Similar to brown rice, red rice has undergone minimal processing, still has its bran layers and takes 45-50 minutes to cook. Brown and red rice are somewhat chewy, fiber-rich and chock-full of B vitamins— thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. Red rice also has a nutty flavor, but many find it more savory than brown rice.<br /><br />The caloric density for red rice is similar to that of brown rice, so one-third cup has about 80 calories. Whether your rice is brown, red or white, one-third cup counts as one diabetic exchange—the amount of a particular food that contains about 15 grams of carbohydrate such as 5 crackers, a slice of bread or 3 cups of salad greens. But highfiber, high-carbohydrate foods like brown and red rice have been shown to improve blood lipids, blood glucose and glycated hemoglobin (Hemoglobin A1C), a longer-term measure of blood sugar control. Both have more to offer than their white rice counterpart."<br />http://www.ammas.com/topics/Nutrition/a137937.html
 
susan H. May 17, 2015
leaving for two weeks in south india in november. i have a long love affair with american versions of classic indian dishes, and your article increases my enthusiasm about my up-coming trip by a factor of ten! many thanks.
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. May 18, 2015
Thanks so much Susan and enjoy your trip! I also have a list of places to eat while in Bangalore: http://www.seriouseats.com/2013/02/snapshots-from-india-vegetarian-eats-in-bangalore.html
 
djamilahv May 17, 2015
I absolutely loved this concise and clear article! I'm from Chile, and here we have a few Indian restaurants but they all offer the same. I always wondered about the differences in the complex and rich Indian cuisine, and this is a very educating first approach. Your article insinuates that there even other cuisines, and in spite of not explaining them, it leaves me with the interest to read your next writing about west, east, etc kind of cooking. Thank you! I hope to find your book in my country.
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. May 18, 2015
Thanks so much! Chile is on my lists of places to visit one day:)
 
I_Fortuna May 17, 2015
I can't think of an Indian food I don't like. It is all good! I had enjoyed it regularly before I met my hubby. Unfortunately he is really picky and his palate is not educated to Indian, Thai or Japanese foods all of which I love and he does not.<br /> Thank you for the recipes and I hope to make these for myself at least.<br />The best ?curry? I ever had was in the 70's at a small takeout in Palo Alto, CA. It was a red and rather hot chicken curry and was the most delicious of any I ever had to date. Was it a butter curry? I think it had tomatoes and was creamy. Do you have a recipe for this as I have described it? I would love this recipe.<br />Thanks for posting this interesting article, I praise your courage for enduring the critics. : )
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. May 18, 2015
Hmm what you are describing sounds like chicken tikka masala, which was actually invented in the UK, but it was closely based on a butter chicken curry from North India.
 
Jessin N. May 17, 2015
cuisines of all south indian states are very different. im from kerala, my husband is half tamil..both the cuisines are different..for breakfast malayalees do eat appam, puttu, idiyappam...all rice dishes....its not all about idli n dosa n sambar..
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. May 18, 2015
Hi Jessin, Thanks for reading and for your comment! I am very conscious of the differences in South Indian cuisines, which is why in my article I write: "Generally speaking, South Indian cooking is ...."
 
ame May 15, 2015
I'm Indian, I'm from Kerala and I really appreciate this effort to highlight the diversity of Indian cuisine. It's impossible to get everything in such a short space. I follow Food52 regularly, it's such a treat to see a post on Indian cooking.
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. May 18, 2015
Thanks so much Ame!
 
Ren May 15, 2015
South India extends to kerala and tamil nadu. It doesn't stop at Karnataka. I hope you will make better effort next time.To all the viewers of this article, the cuisines of india varies from state to state.
 
Amisha G. May 15, 2015
This article explains cuisines of India in a short and concise, easy to understand way. We all know that cuisines vary from state to state, and its quite complicated, but to be able to articulate it in a short article, Chitra has done her best to explain/clarify it shortly.
 
Vel May 17, 2015
Ren -- did you read the article all the way through? Chitra states: "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."<br /><br />I am from Tamil Nadu, and I found the article to be a great introduction for someone completely unfamiliar with the cuisine! Thanks Chitra.
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. July 24, 2015
Oh wow just saw this! Thank you Amisha and Vel for clarifying
 
Gina V. May 15, 2015
You article is not entirely accurate! You are planning to publish a book on Cooking !
 
Amisha G. May 15, 2015
Just trying to understand, which part is not accurate?
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. July 24, 2015
Thanks Amisha as I just saw this!
 
Anna F. May 14, 2015
I enjoyed the simplicity of this informative, and delicious, article. So often the diversity of Indian cuisine is lost on Americans who sum up "Indian food" as tikka masala and nana, which, as you mentioned in your article, is only the food of one region. We need more informed articles about the finer points of the cuisines of the world that get lost on the United States as part of a stereotype. I like that you included the two recipes as an illustration of how two dishes can be made different ways depending on the region. Thank you for writing this!
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. May 14, 2015
Thanks so much Anna!
 
Angela G. May 14, 2015
My new Indian friends invited me over for dinner last week when they heard how much I loved Indian food. They're vegetarian, and although I couldn't tell you the name of the dish that was made (even though they said it several times), I will say OH MY WORD, I'm so happy they are my friends (and so is my tummy)! I'm excited to learn more about their culture, and their cooking!
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. May 14, 2015
Thanks Angela!
 
Bec May 13, 2015
Great article! I'm lucky to have Indian friends from the north and south, so I had a fair idea of the difference but this was well explained! It's all delicious :)<br /><br />www.cultivatebeauty.com.au
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. May 14, 2015
Thanks for reading Bec!
 
Amisha G. May 13, 2015
well put Chitra! Nice article!!
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. May 14, 2015
Thanks Amisha!
 
Ann L. May 13, 2015
I love practically all Indian dishes I've had and enjoy learning more about the cuisine in this article. Would you also say northern cuisine is more dairy-based and southern more reliant on coconut/coconut-milk?
 
Author Comment
Chitra A. May 13, 2015
Thanks so much for your comment! Dairy is used in both cuisines, but I have noticed that yogurt is included in many more dishes that my South Indian family cooks than my North Indian family. In South Indian cooking from Karnataka where my mother is from we use more fresh coconut and no coconut milk really. Coconut milk is used more in Kerala-style cooking. And yes you're right coconut is rarely cooked with in North India traditionally.