What is the Difference between Northern and Southern Indian Food?

I love Indian food of all kinds, and my brother actually lived there 2 different times. But being a westerner, I’ve wondered what is the difference between Northern and Southern Indian food?

Here’s what I’ve learned from eating, cooking, and studying it for decades:

Northern and Southern Indian food flavors are similar, but the north tends to have more vegetarian cuisine while also using more dairy products. The north also uses more wheat-based bread products than the south, whereas the southern Indian food tends to be spicier than the north.

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 it’s 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.

Which food dishes are popular in South India?

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.

Some common south Indian dishes include:

  • Dosa – lentil and rice crepes
  • Idli – steamed lentil rice cakes
  • Saaru/Rasam – lentil, tamarind, and tomato soup
  • Huli/Sambar – a spicy lentil and vegetable stew
  • Thali – a large plate with several small bowls of food
  • Vada – crispy deep-fried lentil donut
  • Kozhikode Biryani – chicken and rice with southern spices

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.

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 their culinary influence coming from the Arabs and Persians.

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.

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

As a review, you can get a quick glimpse of the differences between the two regions here.

  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

Is South Indian food healthier than North Indian food?

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 described as spicier than North Indian. 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.

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.

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

Did I cover all you wanted to know about the differences between northern and southern Indian food?

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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