India may not be as big as Australia but it is still a very large country and quite a melting pot of various regions, sub cultures and diverse cuisines. When it comes to food, there is a huge north-south divide with north Indian food being very different, very distinct from its southern counterpart. Most patrons love both north Indian and south Indian dishes but also get confused between the two. So we bring you some key information on various differences between the two.
Here we go.
• Wheat and Rice
Down south, rice is the staple grain. Up north, wheat is. Southern Indian cuisine has innumerable rice based delicacies like dosa, idli, appam, uttapam, puttu (all made from fermented batter with rice in it). Apart from the ubiquitous plain boiled and differently tempered rice dishes like tamarind rice, curd rice and lemon rice.
On the other hand, north Indian food has loads of wheat based breads like roti, chapatti, naan, poori, kachori, paratha and bhatura to name just a few. It’s not as if north Indians don’t like or eat rice; they just prefer it as one of the dishes rather than as the main carb in their meal. The north Indian thali (platter with several small helpings of different dishes) usually has a small portion of rice that’s normally eaten with dal (a liquid legume preparation). North Indians love pulao and biryani though, two sumptuously rich rice dishes that came along with central Asian invaders hundreds of years ago and were adapted beautifully to Indian palate. One more thing, south Indian cuisine mostly uses parboiled rice whereas in North, the fragrant and long grained basmati is the king of all rice.
• Oils and tempering
Up north, mustard, peanut and soybean oils rule the kitchen. Down south, it is coconut and sesame oils as the major cooking mediums. Both north and south use ghee or clarified butter as well.
In north Indian tempering (a type of fat based hot seasoning that’s either the starting point of cooking for a dish or which may also be poured onto a ready to serve dish) varieties, the first thing to go into hot oil is usually cumin followed by chilli powder. South Indian ones, on the other hand, begin with black mustard seeds followed by whole red chillies into hot oil. There is a special south Indian tempering that’s unique in the sense that it roasts small quantities of pulses (split legumes) in the fat. North Indian cuisine has no tempering to match it.
• Seafood and non-vegetarian
Southern region of India is a peninsula with a long coastline, and regions like the Malabar Coast have a vast range of seafood dishes. Majority of South India food is predominantly vegetarian though.
In contrast, north Indian food has a large variety of non-vegetarian meat based dishes like kebabs, rogan josh, chicken tikka, butter chicken, mutton nihari and more. As north India is landlocked, mostly freshwater fish is cooked and consumed. One such north Indian fish dish is Machchi Amritsari that’s also served at Tandoori Flames.
• Coconut and curry leaves
Coconut is revered both up north and down south as an auspicious religious symbol. However its use in north Indian cuisine is limited. Mostly it is the desiccated coconut that’s used in desserts. The same goes for the deliciously fragrant curry leaves, used but in limited dishes and limited quantities.
In contrast, coconut is omnipresent in the tropical and majorly coastal southern Indian cuisine. Savouries or desserts, main dishes or side ones, coconut rules the kitchen. The most popular south Indian dish is dosa (a flat, thin and crisp pancake) that’s invariably served with spicy dry potatoes, thin and watery sambhar and loads of coconut chutney.
• Thickness and richness of curries
Northern dishes are thick (so as to be scooped easily by breads), creamy and rich. The base of curry in north India is usually made of ginger, garlic, onions and tomatoes, or sometimes of nuts like cashew, poppy and watermelon seeds.
Southern curries are watery (so as to get soaked up by rice) and extra spicy-tangy in flavour. Southern gravies are based on fresh roasted spices and coconut.
When it comes to desserts or mithai as these are called, north Indian cuisine outscores its south Indian counterpart in terms of sheer variety. North Indian desserts are sumptuous and usually made from milk, khoya (a kind of evaporated milk), nuts, saffron, Indian cottage cheese, clarified butter and other exotic ingredients.
South Indian desserts on the other hand are low on milk though heavy on clarified butter and nuts.
Actually Indian sweets are a different experience altogether. Try the hot gulab jamun, malpua or the cool pista kulfi at Tandoori Flames to get the amazing taste of north Indian sweets which is totally unlike western desserts (many find them much tastier, actually).
• External influences
North India saw repeated invasions from central Asia who brought their myriad influences like the use of tandoor, predominance of meats, kebabs and generally rich and sumptuous foods. South was relatively insulated and evolved its cuisine and cooking methods separately.
South India’s hilly slopes are the spice growing region for majority of Indian spices like cloves, black pepper and cardamom. In contrast, the very expensive saffron is one spice that’s grown only at one place – Kishtwar in Kashmir – in north India.
While the spices used in both cuisines are roughly the same (turmeric, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaf and asafoetida etc), the difference lies in their proportion and usage. Down south spices are roasted, often with coconut and dry pulses, and ground fresh before every session of cooking. Up north, dry masala blends are more popular which are made in advance by pounding together dry spices (cumin and coriander especially) and stored in glass bottles. There must be a thousand different masala blends to be found all across India!
Of course, there are loads of similarities as well between these two cuisines. Both are absolutely delicious and wow people. You can experience their flavours and celebrate their differences at Tandoori Flames. As they say in India, ‘Swagatam ‘, you are welcome to our restaurant to discover both these wonderful cuisines at leisure.
Tandoori Flames 15 Vernon Street, South Kingsville and 583 Barkly Street, West Footscray