Bengali or not, not many of us could have imagined that Panta Bhat, a home-cooked staple from the east, would be the internet’s new darling. Ever since Masterchef Australia finalist Chef Kishwar Chowdhury recreated the modest South Asian dish during the show’s recent finale, this watery, fermented rice preparation is enjoying its moment in the sun. Panta bhat’s global recognition was perhaps overdue and might even steer foodies to rediscover similarly lesser-known regional fare from the subcontinent. To start you off on that quest, we’ve listed some of our favourite local dishes that are ripe for their own breakout moments. As with panta bhat, all of the dishes on this list reflect their cultural, geographic and economic sensibilities, and aren’t limited by ingredients or preparation.
If gahat is the crowning glory of traditional Garhwali fare, urad is its versatile understudy. It’s savoured in remote hill villages and cherished in modern Garhwali kitchens, be it in the form of fritters, as one half of the ubiquitous dal-chawal combine, or as a savoury soup called the chainsoo. This protein-rich lentil is dry-roasted, ground and cooked with a tomato-and-garlic paste. The final honours are done with a ghee and jakhiya baghaar (tempering). The delicious soup thus rendered is ladled over stubby red rice and eaten with hands.
Dastuk is the rustic heart of a Ladakhi kitchen. The porridge—made of rice gruel, pepper, salt, butter and minced capers—is as warm as the people of this land. The ingredients are locally sourced, and the simple yet soul-nourishing fare is best eaten on a winter’s morning. Dig into a bowl of this rich, buttery breakfast for a cultural, culinary feast.
Made with rice gruel, pepper, salt, butter and minced capers, dastuk is perfect for a winter’s morning. Photo by: Pooja Naik
Lapsi, in its original form, is both filling and healthy. Add a few almond shavings before digging in. Photo by: Indian Food Images / Shutterstock
Khampti cuisine is something of a standout in Arunachal. And one item on the Khampti menu that combines taste and nutrition is paa sa, a fortifying soup that is tailor-made for any warrior’s diet plan. Raw freshwater fish is roasted, then minced into a paste-like consistency, and cooked with garlic, ginger, chillies, watercress, pee chim khim and locally sourced spiced leaves. A one-pot broth that does take quite a few cooks, it’s usually accompanied with khum-pat leaf juice, which is also added to the stock to balance the flavour of the raw fish.
A street delicacy born out of necessity, Rameshwaram pocket rice is a lunch favourite originally from the coastal pilgrimage town. Filling and palate-pleasing, these pockets of banana leaves with rice cooked in coconut milk inside, are handy to-go lunch pouches for local farmers. The accompaniments can vary, but they generally include mutton curry, boiled eggs, delicious fried chicken, and raw mango pickle for a unique kick. The assortment of flavours and textures can be often reminiscent of nasi goreng, and surely deserves more limelight.
Maize (top), after pearl millet, is Rajasthan’s most important crop; makai, no wonder, finds itself in both bread and curry, like in rabodi; In Andhra Pradesh, the monsoons are the perfect time to savour pulasa pulusu (bottom). Photos by: PradeepGaurs / Shutterstock (woman), Sudip Adhikary / Shutterstock (fish)
Now this is a solid nutritional supplement and warming wintertime snack from the northwest, where frosty winds heaving over the fields can turn nights teeth-chattering cold. Traditionally, the mix (semolina dry-roasted in desi ghee with fox nuts, walnuts, dry dates) was given to women who had just given birth—for better lactation and postpartum recovery. Just like others in this list, every household has its own version of panjiri; some even use phitkari for cosmetic purposes, while modern versions include oats and coriander for that extra kick of health.
The state’s reputation for culinary innovation (pit cooking, harvesting all parts of the ker tree, using chillies to cool off in the heat), driven mostly by the hot, dry climate and topography, is not only unmatched, but celebrated for both fulfilling the dietary requirements of its inhabitants and gratifying their taste buds. A Marwari specialty, rabodi is a fine example of how grain can serve not only as bread but as the core of curry: papad, or dried cornbread (they last long), is broken into crumbs and cooked with spring onions, in a thick, yoghurt-based gravy redolent with the united aroma of asafoetida, Mathaniya chillies, and cumin.
Kismuri, which has a hundred different variations and preparation styles, is made with cabbage, yam, bitter gourd, okra, carrot and fried-and-dried prawns—with a base made of coconut shavings ground together with tamarind, chillies and finely chopped (or fried) onions. Originally a Konkan specialty, the dish is now popular across Karnataka, and has several, community-specific interpretations.
It’s a tale as old as time—the warrior, who arrives famished at a humble matriarch’s doorstep, only to be rejuvenated by a life-affirming one-pot meal. Nearly every region in India has that one recipe associated with the trope. Lapsi is prepared and enjoyed equally in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Often mistaken for the much simpler north Indian sweet halwa, lapsi is made from dalia (broken wheat), jaggery and occasionally, ghee. Lapsi is both filling and healthy, and the original recipe is rustled up sans any elaborate garnishing.
Chainsoo, like most Garhwali dals, is tempered with desi ghee and jakhiya (wild mustard). Photo by: Tejal Pandya / Shutterstock
Hilsa, the hero of this dish, is beloved all across the peninsula, but thanks to the river Godavari colluding with mid-year rains, it’s a seasonal delight relished particularly in this state. Usually cooked with okra in a tomato-onion-garlic paste on a charcoal flame and in an earthen vessel, the pulusu is typically served with steamed rice.
Though most of Himachali fare, across the various regional dhams, adapts recipes from neighbouring states and gives them a hilly spin, the siddu is truly an uncommon offering. A breakfast staple said to have originated from Kullu, it’s basically dough pockets (steamed buns) that are enjoyed with ghee, pudina chutney, or even just dal. Nowadays, maida has given way to wheat flour, but the essence of the siddu lies in its aromatic filling made from poppy seeds, almonds and walnuts, and complemented by the pleasant fragrance of ghee-soaked buns.
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dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.
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