Indian food is particularly famous for its spices and flavors, rich color, distinct aroma, and wonderful taste. Traveling to India is embarking on your own culinary adventure. But before you go, it's a good idea to have in mind a few things you want to try.
India has such an array of dishes available that we cannot cover them all, but this guide will explain the 15 top Indian dishes that are great for people who are new to the cuisine and seasoned veterans alike.
If you have never tried Indian food before, then it"s a good idea to start with Butter Chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala, Biryani, Malai Kofta, and Palak Paneer. These are the dishes that are most-loved by westerners and are so creamy and delicious that they are hard to dislike.
What Makes Indian Food Special?
What makes Indian food special is that it breaks all the traditional rules of cooking. Instead of using a fork and knife, most Indian dishes are gravy-based and eaten with rice or bread. Unlike western food, Indian dishes are based on ingredients whose flavors don’t overlap and that come together to create a unique and complex taste.
On average, a traditional Indian dish has at least nine spices such as cumin, coriander, ginger, garam masala, turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, red chili powder, garam masala, and mustard seeds. When starting a dish, most of the spices are added to a pan with hot oil to help the spices "bloom" and bring out their full flavor profiles.
Not only is Indian food a joy to eat, but most of it is also pretty good for you. Although many dishes include ghee, or clarified butter, the main ingredients of most dishes are a combination of spices and veggies which are packed with vitamins and have many health benefits.
1. Chicken Tikka Masala (Chicken in an Orange Sauce)
Chicken tikka masala is a delicious dish with a thick and creamy sauce that is unforgettable after the first bite.
The chicken is marinated overnight, grilled, and then cooked in a spicy sauce. This sauce is made with a tomato-yogurt base and is then spiced with chili, garlic, ginger, and garam masala. This dish includes classic Indian spices, smells great, and is the perfect dish to try first for people who don"t have much experience with Indian cuisine.
Chicken Tikka Masala is often paired with basmati rice or naan bread as these two are perfect for soaking up the sauce.
2. Butter Chicken (Chicken in a Creamy Sauce)
Butter chicken is one of the most popular Indian dishes with westerners and Indians alike who love it for its creamy qualities and delicious flavors. This dish is usually not spicy but includes plenty of classic Indian flavors.
Butter chicken is very special to North Indians, Punjabis in particular. Comfort food like no other, nothing beats the satisfaction of lapping up the delightfully thick gravy with a crisp garlic naan while sipping on a cold beer.
The chicken included in this dish is traditionally cooked in a clay oven called a tandoor. A thick and rich gravy is then slathered onto the chicken to create this delicious dish.
3. Chana Masala (Chickpea Curry)
Sometimes called chole bhature, this much-loved street food and home-cooked dish is one of the most popular in the country. This dish can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or as an evening snack and is commonly sold in North India, especially Delhi.
While you"ll see chana masala being sold with bread at street food stalls, this dish is also served in restaurants across the country. Chana masala is a filling and decently healthy meal that delivers good flavors, vitamins, and protein.
This dish is often eaten with a type of puffed bread called a puri or bhature. To enhance the taste, chutney, pickles, and onions are given on the side.
4. Biryani (Spiced Rice with Meat)
Biryani is an all-time favorite food amongst Indians. This is because there are approximately a hundred types of biryani and every one of them tastes heavenly. Biryani is a combination of rice, spices, a variety of vegetables, meat, nuts, dried fruits, or paneer.
Biryani can be served vegetarian or with chicken, mutton, or fish. A blend of spices like garlic, turmeric, chilies, cardamom, coriander, and more are mixed into the rice to make the dish flavorsome. Meat and eggs are added as desired.
5. Masala Dosa (Thin Crepe Served with Sauces)
A dosa is a thin bread that is cooked similarly to a crepe. But, instead of the usual flour, its main ingredients are fermented rice and black lentils. Traditional dosas are served with a stuffing of potatoes or spices. Dosas are often eaten dipped in sauces called sambar (a veggie stew) and coconut chutney (a creamy coconut sauce).
Dosas are mostly eaten in South India, but this delicious treat has also spread to other parts of the country. Traditionally dosas are eaten for breakfast but also make great snacks and light meals.
6. Rogan Josh (Lamb Curry)
Rogan josh is a staple of Kashmiri cuisine and was originally brought to India by the Mughals. Rogan josh consists of braised lamb chunks cooked with a gravy made from browned onions, yogurt, garlic, ginger, and aromatic spices such as cloves, bay leaves, cardamom, and cinnamon.
The brilliant red color of the sauce comes from the liberal amounts of dried Kashmiri red chili powder that is added. The dish"s spiciness is one of fragrance rather than heat and it is often mild enough to be appreciated by western palates that may not be used to spicy tastes.
This dish is one of the most famous in North India and the Delhi region. You can also find other types of lamb curry across the country, but it"s hard to beat rogan josh for its delectable flavor and perfect combination of spices.
7. Palak Paneer (Indian Cheese in a Spinach Gravy)
Palak paneer is a dish that is popular in North India and beloved by travelers. The gravy of this dish is a deep green because it is made by cooking down spinach, onions, and tomatoes then blending them together into a tasty sauce. Paneer is a type of Indian cheese that has a mild flavor and firm texture.
This dish is a great choice for people who love Indian food but don"t want to eat dishes that are too spicy.
Palak paneer is great for its mild but wholesome flavors and is often eaten with Indian bread like naan, roti, or paratha. It can also be served with rice.
8. Dal (Lentil Stew)
Dal is probably the most commonly eaten food in India. The word dal just means "lentils" and refers to a variety of lentil stews. Dal is eaten almost once a day in most Indian households.
There are three different types of dal including yellow dal (the most commonly cooked at home), mung bean dal (moong dal), and red/black dal (often called dal makhani in restaurants). Every type of dal dish tastes slightly different but is delicious in its own way.
If you are looking to try traditional home-cooked Indian food, then definitely try yellow dal. This dish often has a thin consistency and is eaten with rice. If you are looking for a dish that is delicious, creamy, and restaurant-quality then look no further than dal makhani.
9. Tandoori Meats (Marinated Meat Cooked in a Tandoor)
A tandoor is a cylindrical clay oven that can reach temperatures up to 900°F on the inside and is often used to cook meats, veggies, and bread. Tandoors give food a pleasant smokey flavor that can"t be achieved when cooking with gas.
Although there are many dishes cooked in tandoors, it would be a sin to miss out on trying the tandoori meats the most famous of which is Tandoori Chicken. Tandoori Chicken is first marinated in yogurt and spices overnight then given a smoky flavor when cooked in the clay oven.
The tenderness and flavors of meats that are cooked in a tandoor are unparalleled.
10. Chicken 65 (Marinated with 65 Spices)
Chicken 65 is a fried chicken dish that is famous for its heat and ample flavor. This dish is said to have gotten its name from the 65 different spices that are used in the recipe and originates from a famous hotel in Chennai, India.
To make the dish, the chicken is first marinated in spices like red chili powder, turmeric, ginger, and garlic for at least an hour. Afterward, it is coated in an egg and cornflour batter and deep-fried. As soon as the chicken is finished frying, it is removed from the hot oil and plunged into a spicy yogurt sauce before serving.
11. Aloo Gobi (Potato and Cauliflower)
Aloo gobi is a classic Indian dish that is served in most North Indian homes. This is one of the few dishes that is dry and doesn"t include a gravy. But don"t worry, no gravy doesn"t mean no flavor. This potato and cauliflower dish still includes plenty of spices and flavor without red chilies or heat.
Aloo gobi is commonly eaten with Indian breads like parathas which are used to grab the pieces of potato and cauliflower and soak up any extra spices.
12. Malai Kofta (Veg Meatballs in Sauce)
Malai kofta is a very popular dish with a mild flavor that includes meatballs in a pleasant and creamy sauce. The kofta or meatballs in this dish are almost always vegetarian and are typically made from potatoes, mashed vegetables, or paneer.
The sauce in this dish is rich and flavorful but not too spicy and is made from tomatoes and onions. Malai kofta is often topped with cream and goes well with Indian breads like naan and cumin rice.
13. Fish Curry (Fish in Red Gravy)
Fish curry is often served in coastal regions and is especially popular in Kerala and Goa. Goan fish curry is usually made with white fish and incorporates both North Indian and South Indian ingredients. South Indian fish curry has a more tangy flavor and may include coconut milk as one of the main ingredients.
Every part of India uses different ingredients in its fish curry so if you visit a coastal region, a great way to enjoy fresh seafood is to indulge in the local version of the dish.
14. Pav Bhaji (Spiced Veggie Mash on Bread)
Pav bhaji is a traditional Mumbai street food but has become so popular that it is served at Indian restaurants and even cooked at home by many families. Pav bhaji is made from a mixture of mashed vegetables that are flavored with typical street food spices like red chili powder, cumin, chaat masala, and turmeric.
The veggie mixture is then served on buttered and toasted buns along with another slice of butter on top. While it"s not the most healthy meal, pav bhaji is irresistibly delicious.
15. Matar Paneer (Pea and Indian Cheese Curry)
Matar paneer is a frequently ordered vegetarian dish that consists of peas and paneer that are served in a tomato-based sauce. This dish is typically not spicy but packs flavor in its slow-simmered onion and tomato sauce.
Matar paneer is also a great dish for kids or others who don"t like strong flavors as it can be cooked without onion or garlic.
Great Indian Starters and Sides
Now that you know all about the top dishes to try on your trip to India, let"s talk about what to get as a side dish. In India, there are plenty of options for sides and it all depends on what kind of addition you would like for your meal.
If you want to eat in truly authentic Indian fashion, a great side to order is raita. Raita is a yogurt dish that is mixed with veggies and spices and served cold. This side is meant to help cool your stomach after eating spicy food.
Another great addition to any meal is Indian kebabs. There are many different varieties of kebabs from meats like lamb and chicken to vegetarian versions like paneer, vegetable, and hara bhara which is a kebab made from mashed green veggies that are rolled into balls.
If you want a more filling side then you can order samosas which are fried triangles stuffed with spiced veggies. Samosas are a favorite street food in India and are often served as appetizers in restaurants.
Visit India with Asia Highlights
Asia Highlights welcomes the chance to help you design your perfect trip to India. Check out the following links to learn more about our tours and get a head start on planning your hassle-free vacation today!
Why Travel with Asia Highlights
- Tailor-made experience: All of your ideas/needs will be carefully considered to create your ideal trip.
- Worry-free planning: Every step of your trip, you will be looked after by your 1:1 travel consultant based in Asia.
- No-risk booking: We refund as much as we can and adapt flexibly to unexpected changes.
More Travel Ideas and Inspiration
Get Inspired with Our Sample Itineraries
At Asia Highlights, we create your kind of journey — your dates, your destinations, at your pace. You can have any trip tailor made for your travel.