Whether you realise it or not, you’re probably already a bit of an expert when it comes to South Asian cuisine. Every time you look at an Indian takeaway menu, or decide to sprinkle some spice into your evening meal and make a curry, you’re exploring the textures and tastes familiar to almost everyone who calls the sub-continent Home.
Of course, it is Indian cuisine with which we are most familiar, so much so that Chicken Tikka Masala is often said to be our national dish. India’s own national dish is not so easy to pinpoint, however, for its sheer size means that foodstuffs and flavours vary from north to south, east to west, making impossible any comprehensive classification.
Like any country, India is a magnet that attracts ideas and influences from beyond its borders, blending elements of other sub-continental cultures into its own varied heritage. Similarly, South Asia itself is a cultural patchwork that stretches across several million square kilometres of the Earth’s crust, sharing with its neighbours and within itself in a perpetual exchange of customs and traditions.
An idea of how this affects the sub-continent’s vast culinary breadth can be ascertained by focussing on its geographical extremities, the cardinal points that are South Asia’s cultural gateways. In the same way that Chicken Tikka Masala embodies the cultural kinship between England and India, the national dishes of South Asia’s outlying countries help to paint of picture not only of South Asian cuisine, but of the broad cultural relationships that unify each country within the sub-continent’s borders.
North: Dal Bhat
Dal Bhat is more than a national dish in Nepal: it is a national diet. Eaten twice a day, seven days a week, it is fundamentally simple (lentil soup with rice), but offers almost limitless variations in the form of Tarkari, small vegetable side dishes that vary from meal to meal. Because it’s such a ubiquitous dish, and kitchens always have it on the go, the Nepalese treat it with something of an all-you-can-eat attitude, and it’s common to ask for extra portions until your hunger is sated.
What to order: Tarka Dal, a classic lentil dish available in every decent curry house.
Unlike most of South Asia’s constituent nations, the Maldives don’t have neighbours with whom to exchange cultural quirks, but that doesn’t mean they are any less influenced by what goes on beyond their borders. Garudiya is a fish broth that boils Maldivian food down to its rawest fundamentals: fish (the most popular of which is Skipjack Tuna) and rice, best served with a side of crystalline waters and floury white sand. Many dishes also include coconut, just to make sure all the paradisiacal island boxes are ticked.
What to order: anything with fish in it, and try to imagine you’re lying in a hammock. Alternatively, any dish from Kerala, a state in the southwest of India, is likely to be similar to Maldivian cuisine.
East: Ema Datshi
Bhutan’s national dish uses chillies not as a spice but as a vegetable, which means Ema Datshi is way beyond what most palettes can handle. In the brittle climate of the Himalayas, however, heat is exactly what you’re looking for, which is what makes this dish is so popular. It translates directly as chilli cheese – the latter ingredient typically made from the milk of a yak – and, in its most authentic form, this is literally all it is.
What to order: a Vindaloo, just so you know what it feels like to chew on fire.
West: Ghormeh Sabzi
If you read my last blog post, you’ll know that Iran is so far west that some people don’t consider it to be South Asian at all, and this is evident in its cuisine. Ghormeh Sabzi is a Persian dish that makes use of green herbs rather than the spices you’ll find throughout the rest of the sub-continent, and includes kidney beans where you might otherwise find lentils or rice. Nevertheless, it demonstrates why you might come across various Middle Eastern inflections as you move further into South Asia’s culinary landscape.
What to order: Biryani, a popular fried rice dish that was created in Iran before being brought over to India by travellers and merchants.
Come along to our Taste of India food market which takes place across both weekends during Alchemy. Cooking demonstrations, advice from top chefs plus authentic food and fashion from India and South Asia.