Key Differences Between Northern and Southern Indian Food


I love Indian food of all kinds and have eaten it for decades. But I’ve wondered what are the differences between Northern and Southern Indian food?

Here’s what I’ve learned from loving it for decades:

Southern Indian food tends to have more vegetarian and seafood options than northern and uses less ghee and more coconut milk. Northern Indian food tends to use more dairy products, goat or chicken, and wheat-based bread products such as naan bread. But southern Indian food tends to be spicier than northern.

Indian food is about more than just curry. After all, you can find curry and dishes similar in content and flavor in both Thai and Nepali cuisine.

The flavors of India are so diverse across the country that you really can’t pin Indian food down to one thing, just like you can’t say there is one particular food that is American.

It all depends on the region.

But one area is known more for its vegetarian food, whereas another is known to be the spiciest! Let’s take a detailed look at what truly makes these two regions different when it comes to their signature dishes.

Here is a quick glimpse of the differences between the two regions:

North India South India
Staple Ingredient Wheat (i.e. naan, roti) Rice and lentils
Spice Mixture Garam masala Huli Pudi (sambar powder)
Sour Component Amchoor (dried mango powder) Tamarind
Accent Herbs Dried Fenugreek Curry leaves
Hot Drink of Choice Tea or chai Chicory coffee
Main Dish Curry Stew

What is authentic south Indian food?

Common south Indian dishes include Dosa – a lentil and rice crepe, Idli – steamed lentil rice cakes, Saaru/Rasam – lentil, tamarind, and tomato soup, Huli/Sambar – a spicy lentil and vegetable stew, Vada – a crispy deep-fried lentil donut, and Kozhikode Biryani – chicken and rice with southern spices.

South India has a more tropical climate than north India.

This makes it a great place to grow rice, which happens to be the staple food in South Indian cuisine. South Indian food also heavily relies on lentils as a base.

When it comes to southern curry, the consistency tends to be more on the saucy, runny side so that it easily pours over rice. They cook with higher water content and use a lot of coconut oil and milk in their recipes.

There is a distinct spiciness and sometimes bitterness or sourness associated with southern Indian food.

Both north and south use a lot of the same spices, but south Indian food will often use the whole curry leave as an accent and to add more spice to a dish. They also employ tamarind as their means of sourness.

As you can see, there are many vegetarian dishes served in south India, which heavily rely on rice, lentils, stews, tomatoes, and coconut.

There are a few exceptions that include meat, but most “meat-based” dishes are composed of seafood. But what about nearby Nepal?

In fact, there are several similarities between north Indian and Nepali food as well.

You can read more about in this recent article. In it, I get into all the ways they are similar, but also the 1 crucial way in which they differ.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

What is the famous food of North India?

If you were to go to an Indian restaurant, most likely they will be serving north Indian dishes.

North Indian cuisine is often characterized by its use of spice, dairy products, and wheat-based staples, with much of its culinary influence coming from the Arabs and Persians.

Unlike the south where rice is the staple product, the north heavily relies on wheat. They make heavy use of the tandoor oven for baking things like naan bread and the Tawa griddle for making roti, which is like a flat, round, wheat crepe.

Because bread accompanies many of their dishes, they tend to make their curry much thicker so that it can be scooped. They also use a lot of dairy products, like yogurt, milk, ghee, and paneer (cheese) to flavor and thicken their sauces and curries.

Some common North Indian dishes include:

  • Samosa – a fried dumpling stuffed with spicy potato
  • Palak Paneer – a curry made with spinach and cheese
  • Aloo Gobi – a curry made with potato and cauliflower
  • Chole Bhature – a curry made with spicy chickpeas
  • Butter Chicken
  • Kulfi – frozen dairy dessert
  • Dahi Bhalla – curd dish made with a mix of sweet and spicy flavors

Is South Indian food healthier than North Indian food?

South Indian food is healthier than northern Indian food as it offers more vegetarian and seafood options and uses less ghee (clarified butter). Southern Indian food also uses more vegetables and less bread such as naan bread.

It really depends on what you classify as “healthy.” They both include a lot of healthy ingredients.

In fact, 40% of all Indians are vegetarian. So no surprise that vegetables make up a big part of their cuisine, especially in the north where more of the vegetarians reside. (source)

The reason some may think that South Indian food is healthier is that there is not as much dairy used.

While a lot of Indians are vegetarian, they are not typically vegan. So where you do see large pockets of vegetarians, you tend to also see higher usage of milk and dairy products.

The south relies heavily on coconut products (milk, oil, etc.) whereas the north uses a lot of yogurt, butter, and cheese.

So, as far as fat content and possible food sensitivities, the south may be considered healthier.

South Indian food is almost completely vegetarian, or at least pescatarian as they do use seafood in quite a few dishes. You can still find several vegetarian dishes in the north, but you will also find meat a bit easier up there as well.

Is South Indian food spicier than North Indian?

As a general rule, South Indian food is spicier than North Indian cuisine. Northern Indian food uses the milder garam masala, a spice blend of cinnamon, cloves, coriander, mace, and nutmeg. In the south, they tend to use sambar powder which is similar but contains dry red chilies

It can be easy to think that this is due to an increase in spices used or even differences in the types of spice utilized in their dishes.

This may be partially true.

South Indian dishes do use the curry leaves more often, and the garam masala spice blend used in the north does tend to have a sweeter taste. However, there aren’t too many flavoring differences between these two regions.

Perhaps one of the biggest contributing factors to the difference in spice level between the north and the south is due to the dairy content.

Additional milk, yogurt, or other dairy products can tame down the spice level in those northern dishes, whereas the south tends to use more water or thinner coconut milk.

But if you like spicy curry, you should definitely go with Thai food.

In a recent article, I do an in-depth comparison between Indian food and Thai food, including a few of the key differences between each of their curries.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

Is tandoori North or South Indian?

Tandori chicken, made in a clay oven called a tandoor originated in northern India in the state of Punjab. The origins of this dish and oven date back to 3000 BC.

But it did eventually make its way to New Delhi and beyond.

And, of course, it’s become a staple in the United States at almost every Indian restaurant regardless of whether the owner’s ancestry is northern or southern.

It’s been in the US since the 1960s and was supposedly a favorite of Jackie Kennedy.

Is tikka masala North or South Indian?

Tikka masala is more northern than southern Indian food. However, to a large degree, it is a British invention dating to when the UK occupied India. It is served far more in the UK and the US than it is in India. But the origins of the dish can be traced to Punjab in the north.

So it’s a complicated answer.

But like a lot of so-called ethnic cuisines served in the West, it’s not exactly what you would find in the native country. And the west’s obsession with occupying countries around the globe has forever altered the cuisines of the world.

Luckily it’s not all bad, as I love, for example, the French influence on Vietnamese food.

So you’ll most certainly find chicken tikka masala at every Indian restaurant in the US and UK, no matter whether the owner’s lineage can be traced back to northern or southern India.

Just don’t expect it too much if you’re traveling to India.

Is biryani North Indian or South Indian?

Biryani is a classic Indian meal. It can’t be classified as northern or southern because there are so many different varieties served across the country.

The exact origin of the dish is unknown. However, the name biryani itself is taken from the Persian language. It could have either been taken from a word that means “rice” or “to fry, to roast.”

Because the name has Persian origin, the dish may have started in north India. However, since the staple of biryani is rice, it is more likely that the dish is of southern origins.

Regardless of its origins, the dish has been adapted many times over the years and now has variations that are served in both north and south India.

Here are a few of the biryani variations by region:

North South
Lucknowi Hyderabadi
Awadhi Bhatkali
Tehri (Vegetable) Coorgi Mutton
Mughlai Mangalorean Fish
Assamese Kampuri Kozhikode

Final thoughts

We hope this clarifies everything you wanted to know about North Indian versus South Indian food.

While some of the basic flavors may be similar, there are some distinct differences between the two regions. North India uses more dairy products like yogurt, milk, ghee, and paneer, and their curries and sauces tend to be thicker.

They also use a lot more bread since wheat is a staple crop. South India relies on coconut a lot more and tends to have spicier dishes with rice as a base.

Jeff Campbell

Jeff was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades and is now a recovering foodie. When he's not spending time in the kitchen, he can usually be found with his wife & 3 daughters, he can usually be found practicing martial arts, making music, or blogging on his other sites. Click to learn more about me

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