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Is your food southern or northern Indian; and if so, what are the basic differences?!

Every new customer who comes into my restaurant starts off by saying, “We have heard a lot of good things about your food, but where does it come from, the north or the south?”

Well, it is a valid question since the only two dishes that the whole world knew for a long, long time were masala dosai which comes from the south (mind you, there are at least 100 different versions of dosai) and tandoori chicken which comes from the north, mainly from the Punjab.

chicken tandoor in nilgiri's tandoor

But really, Indian food is not just about dosai or tandoori chicken. These are just two dishes – so let’s leave these two dishes for the moment and get a larger picture of some of the main differences.

masala dosai

Let’s start with the north, which includes all states above the city of Nagpur, which is predominantly a bread eating region, apart from Kashmir where the staple diet is rice.

The fact that wheat is the main base means the dishes that accompany the breads, which can be as diverse as roti (which is made from wholemeal flour) or naan (which is made using plain flour), must be thick enough to be picked up or scooped up by the bread.

naan bread

Examples of a thicker dish are dal makhani or aloo mutter (potato and peas), hence the phrase gaada or slightly thick. To get to this gaada or slight thickness, ground nuts are added as the necessary thickening agent, and in some cases even ground caramelised onions are used.The south includes all regions south of Nagpur and it is predominantly inhabited by people of the Dravidian race. The region is full of rice paddies, and as such the staple diet is rice.This means that the accompanying ‘dishes’ must be slightly thin to soak up the ‘sauce’. Hence southern chefs prefer to stay away from thickening agents like ground nuts, but they do use coconut to ‘hold’ the sauce together. The only exception to this practice is the Hyderabadi style of cooking that uses both kinds of nuts (peanuts and desiccated coconut).In the northern style of cooking, the most commonly used spice when starting to cook a dish is cumin. On the other hand it is black mustard seeds that take the top spot in the south.

In days gone by, the medium of cooking in the north, especially in Kashmir, was mustard oil whilst in the south it used to be sesame oil (called gingelly oil).

In other parts of the north, most people would use peanut oil as the cooking medium. The myth that all dishes are cooked in ghee is just a myth as ghee was used only on special occasions and to cook some very special desserts like sooji halwa and jalebis or sakara pongal.

So, we’ve covered the main differences between the north and south for spices, oil and the carbs but what about spice mixes?

Well, spice mixes in the south are generally ground into a paste as in Coondapur masala, whilst in the north the meat is often marinated before being cooked as in palak murgh which uses garam masala as a marinade.

Even in the prevention of flatulence there are different methods used: south Indian food uses asafoetida with its lentils as an anti-flatullent whereas fenugreek is used in the north for the same purpose!

Kari-patta, also called curry leaf, is an integral part of the southern diet and is used in many forms. It is used in tempering, in spice mixes, chutneys and pickles. In fact my chef, Reddy, makes a ‘kariapakthokku which is full of flavour and if added to a simple dal it takes that dal to ‘outer space’!

Southern ‘biryanis’ generally use the absorption method wherein the soaked rice is added to the partially cooked spiced meat. The rice is allowed to cook in the ‘sauce’ till all the moisture has been absorbed. The pot is then sealed and kept on burning firewood for dum.

biryani

Northern style biryanis, however, use the ‘draining’ method of cooking the rice wherein the partially cooked spiced rice is layered upon partially cooked meat with herbs and spices. The lid is put on the pot and then placed in an oven for dum.

Since the staple diet of a southern Indian is rice, the preferred variety is called Sona Masoori, an unpolished grain, whereas northern Indians prefer to eat basmati rice, a polished grain, on special occasions.

Southern style cooking uses tamarind as the souring agent. Again, more differences occur as yoghurt and tomatoes are used in the north.

And the differences continue as dry chillies are used as ‘firing agents’ in the south whereas fresh chillies (a.k.a green chillies) do the same in the north.

Rice and lentils cooked together in the north are called khichadi and are tempered with cumin and crushed garlic with fresh chillies which are added right at the end of the cooking. The southern version is called pongal and is cooked with whole peppercorns and tempered with, yes, you’ve got the idea by now, black mustard seeds, asafoetida and etc….!

And just as you are getting the idea, both styles of cooking use turmeric. So, I guess there are no issues here as north and south both agree that turmeric is an integral part of, to use an umbrella term, ‘Indian food’ whether it’s from the south or north!!

There are many more subtle differences but I’m writing a blog not a thesis, but to sum up, the most significant difference is that in southern Indian cooking chick pea lentils and white lentils (urad) are used as a spice during the tempering which is something that is unique to the south and is never seen in the northern style of cooking.

Well, as for the cooking in my restaurant. We change our menu every month and so each month we travel gastronomically around India going from one region to another which we then serve to you!

So, one month it could be northern style dishes that we serve and the next, southern style. Or to put it another way using spices: dried chillies, mustard seeds and curry leaves could be used one month whilst fresh chillies, cumin and yoghurt and nuts are used the next!

dried red chillies

Or it could be a bit of both! The ‘Hyderabadi’ style of cooking has absorbed, and uses, the best that the north and south have to offer!!

Well, whatever the combinations are, be assured that our chefs, who are all proud of the different regions they come from, are always trying to show off their India and its vast array and highly intricate range of dishes of which I’ve managed to share a few with you.

Also, I know, I know, there’s the central part of India, east and west and the coastal areas but that’ll have to wait for another time, folks!

In the meantime, sticking with our north and south friends, see for yourself how different the dishes can be.

The following recipes I’ve chosen are classic dishes that represent well the north and south of India, respectively: palak murgh (a Punjabi chicken and spinach dish which marinades the chicken in garam masala) and kane gasi a southern-style fish dish that uses Coondapur masala and is made in Mangalore.

Anah daata sukhi bhava!!!

About Ajoy Joshi

i've been a chef for over three decades now! i trained in chennai and started off with the taj hotel group. i've owned nilgiri's indian restaurant in sydney for over 15 years. i'm on a mission to dispel the myth that indian food is no more than a 'curry in a hurry'! come with me as i try and educate. indian food is my passion (alongside cricket!) and i'm enjoying exploring the new social media and as well as having published cookery books i'm now moving into videos. simple and easy to follow that don't go on for hours like some Bollywood movies!

4 responses »

  1. gr8 insights given,Horse!! Kudos!
    Nicky

    Reply
  2. prema michael

    Love the blog. Love the smile in all posts. I’m a mangalorean married to an allahabadi living in namma bengaluru. Mostly north Indian cooking is followed in my kitchen but nothing can beat a kane ghassi. Thanks.

    Reply
  3. Hi Ajoy,
    As much as I would love to eat Mangalorean, I dont cook it, since no one (my kids turned out to have north indian taste) in the house likes seafood(staple mangalorean catholic meal). But I so much want to share with you my cousin sisters recipe of Kube Mutli which is Mangalorean yum food that I think maybe only a mangalorean can enjoy. Enjoy this link http://ruchikrandhap.blogspot.com/2011/01/sunday-special-kube-mutli-cockles-in.html.

    Reply

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