It’s fair to say that 80-90% of the ”Indian restaurants” outside of India feature the cuisine of northern India (particularly the state of Punjab), Pakistan, and Bangladesh. And of course, they are really ‘South Asian’ restaurants since Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and others are individual countries. Just think of your favorites — tandoori chicken (New Delhi), butter chicken, saag paneer, and naan (Punjab and Chandigarh), biryani and kebabs (Pakistan and Bangladesh). There are far fewer restaurants showcasing the dishes of other regional Indian cuisines from many, many states – of course, you can sometimes find a few selected dishes on restaurant menus, particularly dishes from Goa (lamb vindaloo and chicken xacuti) and Tamil Nadu (dosa and idli). The joke in my South Indian family is “North Indians create wonderful restaurants abroad, while South Indians typically become engineers.”
In terms of geographic size, the Indian subcontinent is similar in size as continental Europe. There are 28 states in India and 50 countries in Europe. In many ways, Indian states are like individual countries, with their own unique languages, attire, and cuisines. Think about the sharp differences between Germany and Greece. (Now it’s making me think of the current Eurozone financial crisis. But I digress…back to the culinary geography of India). Over such a vast area of land, cradled by the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, with the Indian Ocean to its south, in India, geography, climate, vegetables, fruits, and herbs native to certain regional and local areas, all play a part. Just as grapes flourish in the champagne region of France and black truffles thrive in northern Italy, certain things are native to different geographic regions of India.
For instance, my mom was born in an historical fort city on the border of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in southern India (look down the map towards the bottom, slightly to the left). My grandparents grew tamarind trees, and mom remembers how my grandmother used every bit of the tamarind plant in her cooking. The tender green leaves were used as a souring ingredient in certain dishes; the tamarind fruit would form after it flowered and was a deep green color, at which point it was often pickled as a condiment; while, some of the fruit was left to mature until it was light brown in color, dried in the sun (imagine, sundried tamarind), and used in classic South Indian main dishes like tamarind rice.
Do I have a memory like my mom’s memory of her mom? Growing up in Canada, we didn’t grow tamarind trees in our back yard in Bramalea, but we did grow little plum trees, and in the summertime, my mom would always make fresh plum coffee cake that went just perfectly with afternoon coffee.
Check out this Indian Cuisine Map (courtesy of a wonderful site called Maps of India). Go ahead and click or push on it to enlarge it, so you can see the rich diversity of India’s many cuisines. Many cuisines within a cuisine.