Flavours of the Indian Subcontinent
May 3, 2010 11:47 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand the differences between Pakistani, North Indian and Hyderabadi (Indian) curry flavours.

Just to clarify, by North Indian food, I mean the regular North Indian food you get at buffets in Indian restaurants in the US and I will refer to it as "regular" hereafter. The Hyderabadi (Indian) food tastes very different from "regular" food, apart from being more "hot" as well. But the spices or the way the food is cooked with the spices is very different, such that the end result tastes very different. Ditto for Pakistani food. I mean, there are only so many spices and so many ways to cook it. What is it then? The type of spices, the way of cooking the spices or the proportion of spices that is different.

I have really pathetic taste-buds so I cannot identify what's in the dish without reading the ingredients. And I can cook decent "regular" food- standard protocols. But I want to be able to cook fancy stuff like Hyderabadi and Pakistani foods. Even dishes prepared with the ready-made spices (eg the brand Shan) taste different but the ingredients look all like the ones for "regular" stuff. For the sake of simplicity, lets just say we want to prepare yellow lentils. I don't want to know about specific non-veg stuff- I want to learn the basics- why are those three fundamentally different so that I can use the fundamental technique and build up on that. Apart from wanting to be able to cook well, it is also killing me that I can't figure out why they are so different when the ingredients are all the same.

Thank you for reading and responding!
posted by xm to Food & Drink (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have space to get into specifics, but a great cookbook that exhaustively illustrates the different spices and typical ingredients for different subcontinent cuisines is Neelum Batra's 1,000 Indian Recipes. It's the kind of cookbook that lists twelve variations on a single recipe, explaining that here they use this spice, but there they use that spice instead, and in this city they substitute x for the typical y, and so on.
posted by gyusan at 12:07 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know that the differences in flavors between northern Indian versus Pakistani U.S. "Indian" restaurants are really that wide. I would say the restaurants based more on southern Indian cuisines are noticeably different -- hotter spices, use more rice-based biryani dishes (as opposed to a slate of meats in various curry sauces), and have more coconut, nuts, and seafood as ingredients (and definitely a wider assortment of vegetarian options as well).

It also seems to me that one has to be in a large city to find specialized restaurants that really make the Indian regional distinctions noticeable, however - in smaller markets the Indian restaurants tend to give the standard northern Indian dishes because that's what most U.S. diners expect.
posted by aught at 12:27 PM on May 3, 2010

Even dishes prepared with the ready-made spices (eg the brand Shan) taste different but the ingredients look all like the ones for "regular" stuff

Freshly ground spices taste more intense than ready-made. Find an Indian grocery, buy whole cloves and other spices, and also get an extra coffee grinder to grind them. You'll get a different flavor with the same ingredients.
posted by zippy at 12:30 PM on May 3, 2010

You'll get a different flavor with the same ingredients.

I know we're getting out of the range of the question, but you can also bring back the flavor of many spices by briefly dry-roasting (no oil) whole or powdered spices in a skillet (be careful not to burn them - you can go from perfect to burned very quickly).
posted by aught at 2:20 PM on May 3, 2010

I suspect what you need is a great cookbook and/or a great Indian/Pakistani cooking class. Madhur Jaffrey is a great cookbook writer for Indian and vegetarian food.
posted by theora55 at 2:34 PM on May 3, 2010

The "regular" north-Indian food that most restaurants serve is called Mughlai -- of the Mughals. For me (I grew up in north India) there is no difference between north Indian and Pakistani food.

South Indian food is quite different from Mughlai, and there are many varieties of south Indian food. Hyderabadi (usually called Andhra, for the state that Hyderabad is in) is quite distinct from Tamil food (e.g. from Madras), which is distinct from Kerala's cuisine. Andhra food is typically the hottest; Keralite cooking uses a lot of coconut and fish.

If you're making a lentil stew (daal), in the Mughlai style you'd use a lot of butter (or ghee); in the Tamil or Keralite style you'd make a sambar, which is lighter; you'd use different spices. In short, many ingredients are different between north and south India. A decent cookbook will go into all that. Or, if you have a large international university close by, find some Indian students who I'm sure will be happy to demonstrate it all....
posted by phliar at 3:30 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

The first big distinction for me between South Indian/Hyderabadi and North Indian food is the extensive use of coconut, peanuts, and sesame, as noted above. Another is the use of more sour flavours. Take the daal example that phliar mentions: Usually dried mango, or tamarind would be added in Hyderabadi food, while this would be the exception rather than the rule in North Indian food.

Pakistani restaurants and Indian restaurants serve quite different food (at least to my palate: born in the US, raised in Pakistan by father from Northern India, mother raised in Southern India) if they are catering to their indigenous clienteles.

OP, you say that there are "only so many spices." Actually, there are a LOT of spices, and when you change how you mix them, or which you choose to use, the flavours change considerably. A "basic" desi kitchen uses at least: salt, red pepper ginger, garlic, ground coriander, ground turmeric, cumin, caraway, cloves, black pepper, cardamom, fenugreek seeds, kalaunji, onion seed, and bay leaves. Then there's the herbs: curry leaves, coriander, mint, fenugreek leaves. And I'm not even getting into things like tamarind, pomegranate seed, etc., etc., etc.

A lot of the Pakistani restaurants that I frequented in the US serve more typically Pakistani Punjabi or Peshawari food. The Afghan/Pathan influence is quite marked.

Sort of a digression, but my foolproof test for whether I was at an authentic Pakistani restaurant (not sure if this applies to authentic Indian restaurants; it might) in the US is that you get chilled water in your glass, with little or no ice. The Indian restaurants that are catering to Western diners will serve the more typically American glass of ice with some water added to it.

Lastly, restaurant food and the kind of food served in a Pakistani/Indian home are altogether different beasts. Most of the English cookboooks I've seen are giving you recipes for making restaurant food at home (although they don't put it that way). As far as basic techniques go, they probably don't vary so much from region to region. What you need to learn are the typical combinations of spices, and which spices are typically used with which food.

So, take from that what you will. I hope it's been at least a little helpful.
posted by bardophile2 at 1:35 AM on May 11, 2010

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