49 Traditional Indian Foods to Taste in 2023
Coming from one of the most populous countries in the world, Indian food reflects the unique blending of cultures and regional identities found throughout the country. Shaped by its long and tumultuous history, Indian cuisine carries influences of colonizers from the East and the West as well as a range of religious beliefs and practices.
What makes Indian food so different? With distinct regional delicacies, a unique cultivation of cultural and religious influences and the signature aromatic spices, there is a lot to explore when it comes to Indian food. The iconic breads and curries widely recognized in Indian food outside of the country are enhanced by the bustling street food culture, celebratory dishes and ancient beverages that make up the vibrant world of Indian food.
To help guide those curious to try this bold and colorful cuisine, here are 49 traditional Indian foods to add to your foodie bucket list.
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- Get a Taste of Traditional Indian Foods
- Indian Breads
- Indian Street Foods
- Indian Appetizers
- Indian Dishes
- Indian Desserts
- Indian Drinks
- Indian Spices
Get a Taste of Traditional Indian Foods
One of the best ways to get to know a cuisine is to practice making it yourself. Learn how to recreate the iconic flavors of Indian food at home with hands-on cooking classes led by world-class chefs. Explore the influence of history, geography and culture of Indian food and how Indian food names and ingredients reflect its regional cuisines.
With Indian cooking classes in the Bay Area, Indian cooking classes in NYC and other cooking classes near you, talented chefs will teach you traditional techniques for building depth of flavor and balancing the signature spices to craft authentic Indian food. If you can’t find a class in your area, discover the distinctive stories and spices of this iconic cuisine virtually with interactive online Indian cooking classes.
As in many global cuisines, bread is a foundational element of Indian food. Although often similar in ingredients and appearance, different styles of bread popular throughout the Indian subcontinent are distinguished by distinct cooking techniques, textures or types of flours ranging from pillowy flatbreads or thin crêpes to stuffed dough or crisp puffs.
Integral to the Indian food experience, bread is eaten as an appetizer with various chutneys, dips or sauces as well as to accompany a snack or meal by soaking up the rich curries and gravies common to Indian food.
The most widely recognized Indian bread is soft, bubbly naan. This unleavened flatbread can be baked or fried and frequently appears as an accompaniment at Indian restaurants in the United States and around the world. Traditionally, naan is cooked in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay or metal oven with a high cooking temperature. The signature bread is served plain or with butter, garlic and/or chilies.
Chapati is an unleavened flatbread made of finely ground whole wheat flour mixed into dough with water and salt that is cooked on a tava, or flat skillet. This ancient style of bread gets its name from the Hindi word chapat, which means slap or flat. The word describes the traditional method of preparing the dough by wetting one’s palms and slapping the dough between them.
Chapati, known as roti in other parts of the world, is foundational to a number of other cuisines across Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean.
Paratha is another style of unleavened, whole-wheat flatbread and a quintessential Indian food. Thicker and more substantial than naan or chapati, paratha is prepared by coating the dough with ghee (a type of clarified butter) or oil and folding repeatedly, similar to making puff pastry, using a lamination technique.
Paratha might also be layered or stuffed with other ingredients such as spiced vegetables, potatoes, lentils or paneer, a soft Indian cheese. Layered and stuffed paratha is finished with a shallow fry and often enjoyed for breakfast or as an afternoon snack.
Papadam is a thin, deep-fried bread traditionally made with black gram bean flour that is either fried or cooked in dry heat until crisp. Perhaps more similar to a chip or tortilla, papadams are often served with Indian food accompaniments like chutneys, raita (a creamy vegetable dip) or toppings such as lime pickle, chopped onions or chilies and eaten as an appetizer or alongside a meal.
Indian Street Foods
Street food is central to Indian food culture, with each region, state and city having its own delicacies and local favorites. Many regional Indian foods enjoyed along its bustling streets can be found across the country under different names or spellings. Most street foods are simple, filling dishes that are easy to make and eat on the go but are still rich with the bold flavors and aromas of fried dough, savory vegetables and toasted spices.
Arguably the most popular street food in India, samosas are fried or baked pastry pockets with a savory filling such as spiced potatoes, onions and peas. With origins dating back to around the 10th century, versions of samosas with different shapes and fillings can be found throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The samosa has become an iconic Indian food recognized all around the world.
Chaat actually refers to an entire category of Indian food popular throughout the country in street stalls and roadside stands. Combining aromatic spices and tangy sauces, chaat blends elements that are sweet, salty, crunchy, spicy and savory into one dish bursting with flavor and texture sensations. Although every chaat may look a little different, versions of this unique Indian food usually share a similar design.
Begin with a starchy base such as samosas, puffed rice or fried bread. Next, add lots of vegetables such as raw onion, boiled potatoes or chopped tomatoes. A sweet, spicy or tangy chutney is then poured over the vegetables followed by a dusting of chaat masala spice blend to give the chaat its signature flavor.
Finally, finish the chaat with a sprinkle of something crispy or fried such as fried potato bits, crunchy chickpeas or deep-fried noodles. Aloo chaat is a popular potato-based version of this Indian food to look for if you want to give chaat a try.
7. Pani Puri
Pani puri is a unique Indian street food experience that goes by many names throughout the country depending on the region, but it is believed to have originated in the northeastern state of Bihar.
Enjoying pani puri is an interactive experience in which you use your thumb to poke a hole in one side of a round, hollow puri, a deep-fried crisp flatbread, which is then filled with a mixture of flavored water, chili powder, chaat masala, tamarind chutney, potatoes, chickpeas or onions — although spices and fillings vary across regions. Pop the entire puri in your mouth to experience an explosion of vibrant flavors and textures.
Bhelpuri is a crunchy snack made of puffed rice served in the style of chaat. It combines sweet, sour and spicy flavors with contrasting textures from a variety of chutneys, vegetables and crunchy toppings.
Another popular deep-fried Indian food that goes by many names is kachori. Similar to an empanada, kachori are made with a dough of fine flour stuffed with lentils, beans, vegetables or onions and spices with rich gravy or bold chutney.
10. Chole Bhature
A typical Punjabi street food, chole bhature, also known as chana bhatura, consists of chickpeas (chana) in a spicy sauce served with puffed, fried bread similar to a puri. This simple dish is often enjoyed for breakfast, as a street food snack or a complete meal accompanied by onions, pickled vegetables or chutneys.
11. Matar Kulcha
Another favorite street food from North India is matar kulcha. This simple snack consists of a soft flatbread served with spiced white pea gravy and is one of the most famous street foods in Delhi.
Dosas are an icon of South Indian food, with a legacy dating back to ancient times. Made from fermented lentil and rice flour batter, the thin pancakes or crêpes are served hot and either folded in half or rolled like a wrap. They are usually eaten with chutney or sambar, a South Indian lentil and vegetable stew. Variations of dosa contain different combinations of fillings and sauces with regional varieties of dough ingredients and preparation methods.
13. Vada Pav
Vada pav is a vegetarian street food dish native to the central state of Maharashtra, which is home to the city of Mumbai. The popular dish consists of a deep-fried potato dumpling inside a soft bread bun accompanied by chutneys and green chili peppers.
Vada pav, also called a Bombay Burger, was created in the mid-20th century as an affordable and nourishing dish for workers and holds an important place in the city’s culture and political history. World Vada Pav day is celebrated annually on August 23.
14. Misal Pav and Pav Bhaji
The soft bread roll, or pav, is an important element in several Indian street food dishes, including misal pav and pav bhaji. These Maharashtrian street foods consist of a lentil or vegetable curry paired with a roll for dipping the savory, spiced gravies. Both dishes can be found with a wide variety of pairings and presentations.
15. Kathi Rolls
Originally from Kolkata in the West Bengal state of India, kathi rolls began as a skewer-roasted kebab wrapped in paratha bread. Modern kathi rolls refer to practically any wrap with a filling folded in an Indian flatbread and containing ingredients such as eggs, chicken, mutton, chutney or chilies. The filled wrap is rolled up in paper for easy eating on the go.
Similar to a kathi roll is the frankie, a street food wrap popular in Mumbai. Also called a Mumbai or Bombay Burrito, these hearty wraps are filled with fresh or cooked vegetables, spiced potatoes, chickpeas, pickled onions and sauces and then rolled in a soft, thin flatbread.
Sometimes overlapping with snacks and street foods, Indian appetizers start the meal with tantalizing spices, contrasting textures and a nod to the diverse cultural influences and legendary creations that make up this unique segment of Indian cuisine.
Pakora, also known as bhaji among other names, are spiced vegetable fritters deep-fried and eaten as a snack, street food or appetizer. These crispy fritters are often accompanied by tamarind sauce, chutney or raita and are a popular food at Indian weddings.
18. Gobi Manchurian
Gobi Manchurian is an Indo-Chinese appetizer commonly found on menus at Indian restaurants at home and abroad. The word gobi in Hindi means cauliflower, while Manchurian refers to the Chinese style of cooking adapted to create the signature sweet and sour sauce as it made its way into the Indian subcontinent — especially in the West around cities like Kolkata.
This popular appetizer of deep-fried cauliflower drenched in spicy, sticky sauce is a classic vegetarian dish that represents this particular style of Indian food.
19. Chicken 65
Although its origins remain awash with myths, the renowned Chicken 65 is well established as the invention of A.M. Buhari, named for the year of its creation in 1965. The spicy, deep-fried chicken dish appeared on the menu of the Buhari Hotel in the state of Tamil Nadu. The menu later added versions of the dish called Chicken 78, Chicken 82 and Chicken 90, some of which are still served at the historic hotel today.
Momos are steamed dumplings hailing from Eastern India and areas of China, Tibet and Nepal. These hearty dumplings are typically filled with minced meat or tofu with vegetables and served with spicy chutney or a clear noodle soup called thukpa.
The South Indian lentil-based vegetable stew, sambar, is often cooked with pigeon peas and tamarind broth. The dish is often enjoyed with rice, dosa or idli, a type of savory rice cake made by steaming a fermented batter of rice and lentils.
22. Medu Vada
Medu vada is a savory fried snack typically made of spiced black lentils in the shape of a small doughnut. This Indian food is soft on the inside with a crispy exterior and is generally eaten for breakfast or as a starter in South India, although it can be found across the country. Medu vada is often served with sambar and coconut chutney.
Cooking styles and techniques for preparing Indian food vary greatly amongst the Northern, Western, Eastern and Southern regions of the country. The result of history, geography and migration, each region has signature styles and dishes that differentiate these unique types of Indian food from one another.
Northern Indian food can be identified by its use of dairy products like yogurt, ghee and paneer, fried snacks such as samosas, rich stews and curries and cooking in tandoors. Western Indian food is largely influenced by geography, with the Goa area drawing from its historic connections to Portugal, the Gujarat region being prominently vegetarian with a strong Chinese influence, and the state of Maharashtra relying on the sea, with fish and seafood curries cooked in coconut milk.
Eastern India is known for its desserts and influence from Tibetan and Nepali cuisines, while Southern Indian food is very diverse with bright curries and tangy sauces as well as the iconic dosa and South Indian thali. Northern Indian food is the style of Indian food most commonly found in Indian restaurants outside of the country, though other regional styles are beginning to gain international recognition.
When deciphering the names of Indian food dishes, keep in mind that masala means a blend of spices, and curry refers to a spiced sauce usually named to reflect the main ingredients such as aloo (potato), dal (lentil), chana (chickpea) or saag (spinach).
An iconic food from India, dishes labeled tandoori are typically breads or meats that have been seasoned and cooked at high temperatures in a tandoor oven. Tandoori chicken is probably the most well-known dish of this style. It consists of chunks of chicken marinated in spiced yogurt and available in a variety of heat levels.
24. Tikka Masala
You might be interested to learn that the iconic chicken tikka masala, one of the most popular Indian dishes, did not originate in India, but is believed to have been popularized by Indian cooks living in Great Britain drawing inspiration from butter chicken. This widely recognized dish usually features roasted and marinated boneless chicken in a creamy, bright orange, tomato-based curry made with coconut milk and a blend of spices.
25. Butter Chicken
Traditionally known as murgh makhani, butter chicken is a luscious dish originating in the 1950s in Northern India. Marinated chicken is cooked in a tandoor before being served in a rich, spiced tomato and butter sauce. Vegetarian versions of this dish can also be found on Indian restaurant menus with paneer instead of chicken.
Korma is a style of curry that is creamy and fragrant, with meat or vegetables braised in a mixture of coconut milk, yogurt, spices and often almonds or cashews. Navratan korma is a vegetarian korma made with either vegetables or paneer.
27. Malai Kofta
This North Indian comfort food is made with kofta, fried potato-paneer dumplings, served in a rich, creamy sauce. The dumplings can come in a variety of sizes with either a lightly colored cream sauce or a spicier orange curry with tomatoes and red chilies.
The notoriously spicy vindaloo curry originated in the Goa region of India, drawing from a Portuguese dish of garlic-marinated pork. Traditionally made with pork marinated in vinegar and garlic, this fiery Indian food can be made with meat or prepared vegetarian, but it always includes lots of spices and hot chilies.
29. Rogan Josh
This aromatic curried meat dish from Kashmir, in the far north of India, traditionally features braised lamb, mutton or goat along with warm spices and bold Kashmiri chilies. To develop its rich, signature color, rogan josh should be stewed low and slow to ensure tender meat and an intense depth of flavor.
30. Karaikudi Curry
Karaikudi curry, also known as Chettinad curry, is a unique South Indian food often prepared with mutton and grated coconut, although it can be made with chicken, fish, paneer or vegetables as well. The distinct use of coconut, chilies and freshly ground spices in the Tamil Nadu region gives this South Indian food its signature heat and depth of flavor.
Saag sets itself apart from other Indian food dishes by eschewing the bright oranges and reds of many Indian curries for a deep, distinctive green provided by its signature ingredient: spinach. Other leafy green vegetables such as fenugreek, mustard greens, collard greens or dill help round out the flavor of the dish. As with other styles of curry, popular versions of saag are made with meat, fish or vegetarian paneer.
32. Dal Tadka
Dal tadka is a cozy Indian food made of hearty lentils tempered in ghee or oil and spices. The comforting simplicity of dal tadka makes it one of the most popular Indian dishes. With a largely vegetarian population, Indian food incorporates many legumes such as lentils and chickpeas as a source of protein and nutrients, making dishes like these Indian food staples.
33. Chana Masala
This iconic Indian food is a North Indian curry dish made with white chickpeas simmered in a spiced tomato and onion gravy. This vegetarian dish is commonly enjoyed on its own or soaked up by rice or naan. Dry versions of chana masala (without gravy) are also eaten as a snack or street food.
34. Aloo Gobi
Aloo gobi is a simple Indian food of spiced potatoes and cauliflower. This everyday dish can be found in a variety of styles from dry to curried, with each family and restaurant having its own recipe for the vegetarian staple.
Biryani is a classic Indian dish popularized by Muslim communities across India. It is similar to Persian pilaf or pulao. The spiced rice dish can be found with many variations, though generally, it consists of meat, fish and/or vegetables and rice cooked separately before being layered and cooked together so that the gravy can be absorbed into the rice.
Regional and seasonal versions of this traditional Indian food may include rich or sweet ingredients such as nuts or fruit and may be accompanied by a selection of chutneys, raita, pickles or salad.
This staple Indian food has roots across many cultures, with dozens of cuisines from South Africa to the Philippines sharing a version of the mixed rice dish.
36. Kadai Chicken
A kadai is a deep, rounded vessel for cooking Indian food. It is similar to a wok with two looped handles for easy transport. To make this North Indian food, marinated chicken is cooked in the kadai with onions, tomatoes, bell peppers and spices, then finished with fresh cream.
Thali refers more to a style of eating than a particular Indian food, but it holds an important place in traditional Indian cuisine. A thali is a round platter used to serve food in South Asia and the Caribbean. It is also the name for an Indian-style meal made up of a variety of dishes served together, sometimes designated for ceremonial purposes.
The idea behind thali is to present all of the six different flavors together on one single plate: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy. According to Indian food customs, a meal should balance all six flavors. Thali dishes vary across regions and are usually served in small bowls on a tray or banana leaf. Typical dishes might include rice, dal, vegetables, roti, yogurt, chutney or pickles, and something sweet.
An exploration of Indian food would not be complete without a selection of signature sweets and desserts.
38. Gajar Ka Halwa
Like so many Indian foods, halwa draws inspiration from the nation’s history and neighboring cuisines, with several varieties found across the country. Gajar ka halwa is a simple dessert made from grated carrots simmered in milk and cardamom before being fried in ghee and sugar and garnished with dried fruit. This colorful dessert is often enjoyed during both Hindu and Muslim festivals throughout India.
Sometimes called traditional Indian ice cream, kulfi is a frozen dairy dessert that comes in a variety of flavors. The dense, creamy custard is slow to melt in the Indian heat and comes in flavors ranging from saffron and mango to vanilla and rose.
When it comes to dessert, Indian food is well known for its variety of sweetened milk puddings, with kheer being perhaps the most beloved among them. Kheer is made by boiling rice with milk and sugar. It is then garnished with coconut, saffron, cardamom, dried fruits and nuts.
41. Gulab Jamun
Gulab jamun is a classic Indian dessert made from deep-fried milk solids, or khoya, which is milk that has been reduced to the consistency of a soft dough. The fried balls are soaked in a sweet syrup flavored with cardamom and rose water and sometimes garnished with almonds or cashews. This syrupy sweet Indian food is a popular dessert for festivals, birthdays and major celebrations.
42. Ras Malai
Ras Malai is a famous Indian food from West Bengal often attributed to the renowned Bengali confectioner, Krishna Chandra Das from Kolkata. This dessert consists of creamy flattened dough balls made of Indian cottage cheese soaked in a thick, sweetened condensed milk. The dish is typically flavored with cardamom or rose water and finished with saffron, almonds or pistachios.
The base of this sweet Indian food is made up of just two ingredients: milk powder and sugar. The ingredients are cooked down until the mixture solidifies into a dense treat that can be cut into shapes and flavored or decorated with fruits, spices or rose water. Popular flavorings include cardamom, coconut, pistachio and mango.
44. Mysore Pak
A popular treat from South India, Mysore pak is a traditional dessert made with gram flour, sugar and lots of ghee. It is similar to a dense, buttery cookie, but with a signature porous texture. This unique Indian food, said to have been created to impress the Maharaja of Mysore, is often shared at weddings, baby showers and other festivals and celebrations.
Some of the must-try Indian foods are not foods at all, but instead beverages. From cool and creamy fruit drinks to warm, spiced tea, classic Indian drinks are the perfect complement to traditional Indian dishes.
This refreshing beverage is the perfect addition to a spicy Indian meal. The creamy, yogurt-based lassi, often blended with fruit such as mango, banana or strawberry, is a delicately sweet and tangy way to cool down on a hot day.
46. Masala Chaas
Also known as spiced buttermilk, masala chaas is the halfway point between a lassi and masala chai with its unique blend of creamy dairy and a bite of spice. This cooling, yogurt-based beverage is mildly spicy with green chilies, ginger and black peppercorns and a refreshing, minty finish.
47. Masala Chai
Possibly the best known Indian beverage is a hot masala chai. Tea is beloved across India, with one of the most popular being this distinctive black tea mixed with Indian herbs and spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and black peppercorns. This spiced tea blend is mixed with milk to make a warm, creamy cup of classic masala chai.
48. Jal jeera
Jal jeera is a popular summer drink similar to lemonade. Bright green in color, jal jeera is flavored with a spice blend known as jaljira powder, which consists of cumin, ginger, black pepper, mint, black salt, fruit powder such as mango or citrus, and chili or hot pepper powder. Jaljira is an ancient blend originating along the banks of the Ganges river and is said to have medicinal properties that aid digestion and cooling.
49. Aam Panna
Another drink known for its cooling properties is aam panna. This refreshing, chilled beverage is made from unripe mangoes, spices and mint leaves that give it a yellow or light green color. The ingredients in this sour, thirst quenching drink have been known to help prevent loss of nutrients and excessive sweating in the intense summer heat. They also serve as a tonic against upset stomach and other ailments.
An essential element of traditional Indian dishes that set them apart from other cuisines is the adept use of a wide variety of Indian spices and aromatics. The seven fundamental spices of Indian food include cardamom, cumin, clove, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon and fenugreek, although many more commonly appear throughout the diverse range of classic Indian dishes.
Types of Indian food from different regions utilize herbs and spices in unique ways that distinguish them from other areas of the country. While some spices such as garlic, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper are generally familiar in the West, the delicately balanced blends of regional spices are what give Indian food its distinct depth of flavor.
Common spices of India include:
- Turmeric: a brightly golden-hued spice known for its warm, peppery notes and earthy undertone.
- Ginger: sweet, warm and spicy with earthy citrus notes.
- Garlic: a strong aromatic related to onions with a sharp spiciness and sulfuric undertones. Sometimes chopped or made into a paste. Cloves of garlic may also be fire-roasted.
- Cumin: an earthy, warm and aromatic member of the parsley family that can be used ground or as whole seeds. Widely used in Indian food and spice blends.
- Cardamom: both green and black cardamom have a strong fragrance and are commonly used in Indian food. Black cardamom has a smoky aroma with a cooling sensation similar to mint.
- Saffron: crimson threads from the Crocus sativus flower with notes of metallic honey and grass or hay. Imparts a rich, yellow hue.
- Coriander: imparts a tart, citrus or nutty taste sometimes interpreted as reminiscent of dish soap. Fresh coriander is often used for garnish on a wide variety of popular Indian dishes. Also known as cilantro, both the dried seeds and fresh leaves are used in Indian food.
- Garam Masala: a blend of ground spices widely used across Indian cuisines, with ingredients differing according to region. Usually consists of coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg, among other common Indian spices, adding warmth and sweetness as well as floral notes and a touch of heat to classic Indian dishes.
- Asafoetida: a pungent, gum-like substance exuded from the tap root of perennial herbs in the celery family. Enhances savory flavors in vegetarian dishes and helps balance flavors in popular Indian dishes such as rogan josh.
- Fenugreek: can be used as an herb, spice or vegetable and has a distinctive maple syrup scent, with a wide range of applications across Indian cuisines.
- Tej Patta: also known as Indian bay leaves, with a strong aroma reminiscent of cinnamon and clove.
- Fennel: used across different types of Indian food from Kashmiri to Bengali, with a strong anise aroma similar to licorice. Sometimes used as a breath freshener.
- Star Anise: used to prepare traditional Indian dishes such as biryani and masala chai, with a strong anise aroma.
- Nutmeg/Mace: pungent aroma with a warm, slightly sweet taste. Mace is made from the reddish covering of the nutmeg seed and is similar, but more delicate in flavor.
- Clove: highly aromatic spice of the evergreen family often paired with other warm spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and star anise to lend flavor to curries, marinades or desserts.
- Carom: also known as ajwain, highly fragrant with a scent similar to thyme with bitter notes reminiscent of oregano and anise with earthy, minty undertones.
- Mustard Seed: commonly added to spicy fish dishes and Indian pickles, with a robust, tangy flavor and aroma.
- Indian Red Chilies: varieties can be used fresh or dried, whole or ground into a powder to amplify the heat level in traditional Indian foods such as curries, pickles and chutneys.
- Curry Leaves: widely used in South and West Indian cooking, with a pungent, bitter flavor similar to asafoetida with undernotes of citrus leaves and lemongrass.
- Mint: an aromatic herb used in Indian food and drinks with a distinct fragrance and cooling sensation.
For those new to Indian food, branching out into Indian cuisine at restaurants or buffets can feel a bit intimidating. With some insight into the historical and cultural context of Indian food, along with how to decipher some Indian food names, trying new and different food from India can be fun and exciting rather than daunting. From distinctive breads and deep-fried street foods to rich curries and cooling beverages, Indian food is brimming with an alluring array of colors, textures and aromatic spices to discover.
For even more fun ways to explore food, check out other experiences happening on Cozymeal.