Chef Luke Nguyen on the 8 Dishes You Have to Try When in India

best indian dishes idli

Vietnamese-Australian chef and restauranteur Luke Nguyen drove over 1,000km from the city of Bangalore in south India to the backwaters of Kerala. The road trip took him two months and was all captured on SBS’s ‘Luke Nguyen’s India’, which premiered on Thursday, 5 October. During those two months he was able to get a taste of some of the most popular Indian dishes and a thorough understanding of the area’s cuisine.

“Indian cuisine is so incredibly diverse,” says Nguyen. “I even found the flavours changing within the regions of southern India. The food in northern India is so different. I discovered that the food of the south is much lighter with more varieties of spices used.

With its harsh winters, the north part of India has adapted its cuisine to include more meat and spices with a deep depth of flavour, Nguyen says. Meanwhile, because the south is a peninsula, its cooking features a lot of fresh seafood, like fish, crab, and prawns, with garnishes of coriander and mint.

“I was fortunate to discover new ingredients that I hadn’t come across before and absolutely loved using them,” says Nguyen. “Kokum and black stone flower, to name a couple. Other southern ingredients that you may be familiar with include coconut oil, coconut flesh and cashew paste.”

Ahead, Nguyen shares some of the most popular Indian dishes he says are must-tries on your next visit to India, along with where they originated from or where you’ll find the best versions of the dish.

Mutton Biryani – Bangalore

“This dish is made up of long grain rice, perfectly cooked together with goat meat and an array of spices. The large pot is cooked over charcoal with the rice taking on the flavours and colour of saffron, tomato, coriander and caramelised onion. Biryani is eaten with your right hand, accompanied with samba and chutney.”

Chicken Mappas – Thrissur

“Chicken Mappas is a chicken curry that tastes quite similar to a Vietnamese curry, as it uses similar aromatics such as turmeric, chilli, ginger, red shallots, and even coconut milk. This spicy chicken curry is eaten with your hand, scooping up its delicious curry sauce with appam.”

Mutton Keema Meatballs – Coimbatore

“Mutton is minced and blended with turmeric, curry leaves, chilli, ginger, garlic, caramelised onion and spices. Deep-fried until golden brown and crispy. Use your right hand and eat it with a delicious flatbread, called paratha. This dish is a good reason to travel to Coimbatore, it’s incredibly morish.”

Idli – Across southern India

“Idli is one of the most healthiest and popular South Indian breakfast dishes. These are soft, light, fluffy steamed round cakes made with a batter made from fermented rice and lentils. I would have a few most mornings, eaten with coriander and chilli chutney.”

popular indian dishes idli
Image: Getty Images

Fish Puttu – Thrissur

“Puttu is widely available in Tamil-nadu state and is prescribed as a folk medicine for cold and cough. The fish used is commonly kingfish and the fish is deboned and cooked until flaky in many spices; kokum, tomato and a fish broth. It is then combined with ground rice then steamed until cooked. It is also known as a fish scramble, so many people eat it for breakfast. A very light, healthy, flavourful dish.”

First Class Railway Mutton Curry – Kochi

“The story behind this curry is that an English army officer became ravenously hungry while travelling on a train.

“He followed his nose to the pantry car where a spicy mutton curry was simmering. He was offered a taste, whereupon he found all of the chilli & spices too overwhelming for his palate. The kind, accommodating chef then decided to cook another batch and reduce the heat by using less chilli and spices and adding some coconut milk.

“From that day on, this curry has been served in all first-class compartments of Indian trains. Can be eaten with pappadams or paratha.”

Vada – Across southern India

“Medu Vada is a popular South Indian breakfast snack of doughnut-shaped lentil fritters that are fluffy, crispy, soft and delicious. It is made with black gram lentils, spices and herbs. Traditionally paired sambar & coconut chutney. Vada’s make for a comforting, filling and satisfying breakfast or snack, eaten with a hot cup of chai tea.”

Vada popular indian dishes
Image: Getty Images

Banana Floret Fritter – Pondicherry

“Banana florets are combined with chickpeas, chili, onions, fennel seeds and cumin seeds, curry leaves and flash-fried until crispy. A great snack to be eaten with a cold Kingfisher Beer.”

Related: Sydney’s Curry Chronicles: Where to Find the City’s Top Indian Restaurants

Related: The Head Chef of Sydney’s Latest Indian Restaurant Says This Is the Dish to Order

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