If you call yourself a food lover, here is a checklist to see how well you score. Synonymous with the places they come from, these ten dishes are as high on history as on taste. Start sampling now!
1 Pandi Curry
This fiery pork curry also known as the Kodava Pandi Curry is a specialty of the Kodavas, or Coorgis, native to the Coorg district of Karnataka. The Kodavas love their meat, a choice dominated by their game-hunting in the forested Western ghats. Wild boar, deer and birds which were hunted by the menfolk were then cooked, smoked and preserved with local ingredients. Although the hunting has abated, the love for meat has not and Pandi curry remains a testament to this. A dish cooked for special occasions, it uses local ingredients like Malabar tamarind, or kachampuli, pepper and cardamom grown in the surrounding plantations and lots of chillis to flavour the fresh pork. The dish is best eaten with Akki Roti (rice rotis) or Kadambattu (rice dumplings). The experience of Pandi Curry should not be separate from a holiday in the beautiful plantation bungalows in Coorg.
Best at: Try at the Plantation Trails Bungalows in Polibetta (www.plantationtrails.net), Orange County in Siddapur (www.orangecounty.in) or wrangle an invitation to a Coorgi home for a sampling. Dakshin at ITC hotels does a decent Pandi Curry for city birds.
2 Doh Neiiong
When my body has meat cravings, I usually imagine chunks of succulent fatty pork cooked in the most divine black sesame seed gravy--the wonderful Doh Neiiong from Meghalaya, and the world seems better again. This is a must-try dish for all meat lovers and unlike some of the more adventurous flavours of the region which could be an acquired taste, this one is bang on--flavourful, hearty and interesting. Black sesame seed as a base for a curry is fairly unusual and it lends to the meat all its full bodied flavours. Some versions of this dish include some greens in the curry. Served with steaming hot rice, this dish sings a paean to your taste buds with every bite. The best Doh Neiiong can be found at the simple jadoh stalls (a local rice and meat shop, a bit like a dhaba) in Shillong.
Best at: Check out Jadoh, a small little restaurant in Don Bosco Square, Laitumkhrah or if you are in the mood for a fancier meal, you could head to the Royal Heritage Tripura Castle Restaurant, both in Shillong. You can also fulfil your Doh Neiiong desires in Delhi, at Yeti at Hauz Khas Village or the Meghalaya stall in Dilli Haat.
3 Neer Dosa
Karnataka (Dakshina Kannada)
This nearly weightless white dosa is nothing like its regular ghee laden, sambar dripping papery counterpart. If the kakori was created for the toothless nawab, the neer dosa must have been created for a great toothless king with a penchant for all things sweet. Closest to a crepe (even the Bengali pitha comes a close second), the neer dosa is prepared from a watery rice batter and is served with coconut milk or ravo (where grated coconut is added to melted jaggery and finished with some cardamom). This simple dosa is a perfect sweet ending to a simple meal and a light teatime snack. It is versatile enough to be eaten with coconuts chutneys or fish curries and is light enough to consume in copius quantities.
Best at: While in the land of the neer dosa, try Aditya Veg restaurant in Bangalore. Elsewhere in the country you could try a Naivedyam or a Swagath.
4 Nadru Yakhni
The beautiful lotus is our national flower and a popular motif in our country inspiring poetry, art and even food! In Kashmir, the lotus stem or Nadru is a local delicacy and an extremely versatile ingredient that is combined with other vegetables, greens and meat to serve up extremely unusual and delicious salads, entr?es and side dishes. The Nadru Yakhni or lotus stem in a creamy yogurt gravy is a delicious and notable Kashmiri dish and is part of the elaborate ritual of the Kashmiri Wazawan--a multicourse repast which is fit for royalty. While the Wazawan is biased towards the meats, this vegetarian dish shines due to the complexity of flavours and textures. Crunchy lotus stem and the tart creaminess of the yogurt curry make this a win-win dish that will inveigle its way into the tummies of sworn carnivores.
Best at: Try and worm your way into a traditional wazawan in a Kashmiri home, if that fails you can eat it at the famous Mughal Durbar Restaurant on Residency Road in Srinagar. In Delhi, you can try the Nadru Yakhni at any one of the numerous Kashmiri home cooked takeaways available in the capital or try the version available at Chor Bizarre in Daryaganj.
5 Daab Chingri
This Bengali delicacy is an exercise in innovation. Fresh tiger prawns (chingri) are marinated in a delicious green chilli and mustard paste and then inserted into fleshy and tender green coconuts (daab) and slow cooked till the prawns are tender and have absorbed all the flavours of the coconut. This dish cooked right is sophisticated, simple and just bursting with flavour. The mustard, prawn and tender coconut compliment each other to create a dish that is creamy golden sunshine with a taste of the sea. The early inventors would have no doubt been inspired by the Chingri Malai Curry (prawns cooked in a rich coconut gravy) to experiment and create a version which could only be described as its progenitor--albeit a more regal dish with greater show-off factor. Without a bias, the best daab chingri I have had is the one that my mother makes, where the prawns melt-in-your mouth leaving behind a symphony of chilli-laced mustard pungency and the sweetness of the tender coconut.
Best at: A close contender would be the Daab Chingri at Kewpie's (2, Elgin Lane, Kolkata. Off Heysham Road and behind Netaji Bhavan) run by ace chef Rakhi Purnima Dasgupta. The Oh! Calcutta chain of restaurants (currently in Kolkata, Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and Pune) also makes a fairly competent version of the same.
This Konkani cooler is the perfect summertime refresher, an all weather appetiser and a post-meal digestive. Many swear by its health benefits say that it refreshes the body as well as the mind in the hot summer months. Brimming with goodness and exotic flavours, this deceptively simple looking drink combines coconut, chilli and kokam--that wonderfully tart fruit which imparts a unique flavour and body to whatever it touches and is pretty much a staple in Konkan households. Derived from the Konkani word 'sol' which means kokam, solkadhi is consumed in homes across parts of Maharastra, Goa and Mangalore. Seafood and Solkadhi are conjoined twins and coexist in perfect harmony. Gomantak or typically Konkani seafood restaurants offer this combination and are found in some abundance throughout the Konkan region.
Best at: Try the Konkan Highway Gomantak (44/2179, Gandhi Nagar, Highway Service Road, Bandra (E), Mumbai) and the Swagath Chain in North India for a glassful of pink curry for the soul!
7 Whole Mango Kulfi
This is another winner of a dessert and is the stuff of sheer ingenuity. This Delhi specialty is truly a magical dessert and one of the best things I have eaten in this city. The whole mango is sliced, deseeded, stuffed with kulfi and put back together. When it is served later, the mango is peeled and you get delicious chunks of fruit with your creamy and icy mango flavoured kulfi. This dessert could give many exotic ice creams a run for their money and combines the best things about summer--mangoes and ice creams in one fell sweep.
Best at: Try it at Roshan di Kulfi in Karol Bagh, Kudamal in Shahjanabad and Kaleva at Gole market in Delhi. In Mumbai the Parsi Dairy Farm's packaged kulfi discs which are rich, creamy and full of bits of fresh alphonso mangoes.
This is a simple and uncompromising dessert. Custard apple or sitaphal and cream served together with some sugar and a dash of vanilla. Yet this simple and absolutely delicious dessert is as rare as rare gets. A juice wallah came up with this divine concoction and it has flown of his counter since then and has not been replicated elsewhere. While the custard apple ice cream is common enough, the fruit cream is a rare dish fit for the gods themselves and could inspire the same rapture as a well cracked cr?me brulee.
Best at: If you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Haji Ali, do stop by at Haji Ali Juice Centre at Haji Ali Circle and feast on this dessert. Delhi folks can also try genius chef Manish Mehrotra's version of the humble sitaphal cream at the Indian Accent, at The Manor hotel in Friends Colony.
9 Amritsari Machchi
On first sight, cubes of fried boneless fish tinged an orangey red and named Amritsari machchi does not seem all that appealing. Yet like the old adage of not judging the book by its cover, one cannot decide the merit of a dish by its colour or its name alone. One bite into this 'Fish of Amritsar' and you will realise why this dish alone of all its other equally delicious chicken, mutton and vegetarian counterparts has been given the honour of being the representative dish of the city. The delicate flavours of ajwain, red chilli and ginger-garlic and lime are absorbed into the fish which is then lightly batter-fried. In simplicity lies the sheer genius of this dish. The recipe is versatile enough to work with most river fish fillets although Sole is the preferred fish. The final fried or grilled fish can be eaten as main course or a delicious snack sprinkled with chaat masala and lime. Most restaurants, dhabas worth their white butter serve a competent version of this dish.
Best at: Makhan da Dhaba or Makhan Fish and Chicken Corner at Lawrence Road in Amritsar has been making Amritsari Machchi for nearly six decades now and has perfected the art of the spice mix, the batter and the frying of it. However, Punjabi by Nature (the north Indian restaurant chain in Delhi and Bangalore) also does a decent version of this in their dish, Amritsari Fish Tikka.
10 Sai Bhaji
This typically Sindhi dish is healthy, spicy and pungent with unusual greens like Indian sorrel (khatta) and potato forming the base flavours with an assortment of spices and veggies bringing up the top notes. Although this community left their homes and lives behind in the wake of the partition, they carried to India their distinct food and culture which was to become markers of their identity. Sai Bhaji is one such well-known and much loved dish which you have consumed courtesy your friendly neighbourhood Sindhi aunty. Every family gives this simple and sparkling vegetarian dish its own touches, making each dish of Sai Bhaji distinct from the next. Thus the best place to eat this dish is truly in a Sindhi household. That failing try out local restaurants in the Sindhi areas of Mumbai like Chembur or Ulhasnagar and the Sindhi camp area in Pune.
Best at: Kailash Parbat restaurant in Andheri, Mumbai offers a competent Sai Bhaji but my advise would be to unearth your phone book, look up your friend list and find that Sindhi laddie or lass you used to know and reconnect to get a taste of a good sai bhaji. Ritu Dalmia's latest book Travelling Diva also has a good recipe for the same. So if you can't manage any of the above, maybe you can create it in your kitchen.