Beyond dal makhani and butter chicken: 7 must-try dishes from South Asia

Beyond dal makhani and butter chicken: 7 must-try dishes from South Asia

Traditional recipes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and more...

A list of dishes that are popular in their respective South Asian countries but could use some attention in the mainstream… Image Credit: Pixabay

When you think of food from the Indian subcontinent what comes to mind? While biryani, chicken tikka and dal chawal (lentil and rice) are very popular across the world – it's time that hundreds of other dishes get some recognition.

The countries that make up South Asia have varied food cultures, both across the region as well as within the states. 


For example, Bangladesh's riverine geography and history shapes the country’s cuisine. As a country with a tropical monsoon climate, where plenty of rice grows, the grain is a staple. Fish is also commonly eaten in most households, many Bangladeshis would attest that fish-based dishes are made several times a week. Often, fish and meat dishes are made in curry form and paired with vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines. A variety of spices and herbs, along with mustard oil and ghee, are used in Bangladeshi cooking.


In mountainous Bhutan, a landlocked country in the Eastern Himalayas, red rice, a variety that grows in high altitudes is a staple. Meats like chicken, beef, mutton and yak are also common. Bhutanese cuisine shares many similarities with Tibetan food.


India’s vast variety of different ethnic groups and geographical variations are evident in the food culture it preserves. Those who have explored the cuisine of the seventh largest country in the world, find that the dishes use an array of spices.

While chicken tikka, butter chicken and dal makhani are very well known across the world, the country that’s home to over 1.3 billion people, has plenty more to offer foodies.


The island state of Maldives heavily relies on their fishing sector and naturally, seafood is a major part of Maldivian cuisine. Tuna is one of the most commonly eaten fish.

The tropical country also produces ample of coconut, which in its various forms, is an essential ingredient in many curries and other dishes.


Unlike Maldives, which is surrounded by water, Nepal is a landlocked country with its unique food culture. While momos (dumplings usually served with tomato and chili chutney) come immediately to mind when thinking of Nepalese food, the mountainous state has a lot to offer.

The use of chillies in the food is very common as it adds colour and a kick to dishes like Thukpa (noodle soup), Gorkhali chicken or lamb curry and more.


Spicy food is also loved in the country of Pakistan. Due to its geographic location and cultural influences, Pakistan’s cuisine is a mix of South Asian and Central Asian food.

With a population of over 216 million people, Pakistan’s culinary diversity is clear as one travels from one state to another. While famous for likes of nihari, biryani and more, Pakistani food culture expands way beyond those dishes.

Sri Lanka

Similarly, Sri Lankan cuisine was shaped by historical and cultural factors as well. Foreign traders brought new food items and techniques to the island country and eventually formed what we know as Sri Lankan cuisine today. Influences from Malay and South Indian (Tamil) ethnic groups are prominent in the food.

So for those who are looking to explore South Asian cuisine beyond the pulaos and dals, here’s a list of dishes that are popular in their respective countries but could use some attention in the mainstream…

Hearty Dal Gosht

By Huma Arshad, Gulf News Reader

Dal gosht
Dal Gosht: A hearty curry made out of lentils and red meat. Image Credit: Shutterstock

This traditional, hearty curry is popular in Pakistan and northern India and it is usually made with chana dal (split chickpeas) and any kind of red meat such as lamb, mutton or beef. It is cooked in a base of fried onions and tomatoes, which is a typical cooking process of curries in the region, as well as a variety of South Asian spices.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Serves: 4


1 kg beef or mutton on the bone

250 gms split chickpeas

2 tbsp ginger and garlic paste (equal measures)

4 medium-sized onions

3 tsp chilli powder

1 tsp garam masala powder

1 tsp turmeric

2 tbsp coriander powder

1 tbsp salt

4 to 5 pieces whole green chillies

2 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves

3 medium-sized tomatoes

Chopped coriander to garnish


1. Heat cooking oil in a cooking pot, add meat, 3 of the sliced onions, the garlic and ginger paste, coriander powder, red chili powder, turmeric powder.

2. After sweating the onions, and roasting the spices and meat together, add half a cup of water and cook the meat until it is tender. This will take around 30 minutes.

3. In another pot, boil the split chickpeas and boil until it is halfway cooked.

4. Meanwhile, add the green chillies and chopped tomatoes to the meat and cook until the tomatoes soften.

5. Add the split chickpeas to the meat and add a cup of water, along with the dried fenugreek leaves and cook for another 10 minutes. (You can add more or less water depending on the thickness of the curry you like).

6. Heat half a cup cooking oil and slice one onion and fry it. Add that to the ready curry and garnish with coriander leaves. This dish is best served with naan (flatbread) or rice.

Smoky Dum Ka Keema

By Fatema Murtaza Zariwala, Gulf News Reader

Dam Ka Keema
Dum Ka Keema: A drier, minced meat dish with a smoky flavour using a unique cooking technique with coals.

This Pakistani dish, with its spicy, smoky notes, is best paired with crispy parathas (fried flatbread). The dish mainly consists of minced beef paired with ginger and mint. The distinct flavour comes from a technique using coal to infuse smokiness into the dish.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 30 minutes

Serves: 4


1 kg beef mince

Salt according to taste

1 tbsp ginger and garlic paste (equal measures)

4 medium onion, chopped

4 medium tomatoes, chopped

1/4 cup oil

2 to 3 green chillies

1 tbsp red chilli powder

1 tbsp kashmiri red chilli powder

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1 tbsp coriander powder

1/2 tbsp cumin powder

1 tbsp garam masala powder

Whole garam masala (2 to 4 black peppercorn, 3 to 4 cloves and 1 bay leaf )

For garnishing

1/2 tbsp chopped ginger

1 tbsp spring onion, sliced

1 tbsp coriander leaves


1. Heat oil in a wok and add finely chopped onion and sauté them until it gets translucent then add whole spices and mix it for 2 minutes than add chopped tomatoes, chopped green chillies and ginger and garlic paste and cook the mixture for 4 to 5 minutes, until it becomes pasty in texture.

2. Add beef mince, salt and all the dry ingredients and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, then add 1 cup of water and cover the pot and cook it till the water gets dry.

3. Once the beef mince gets ready, heat the piece of charcoal until it is red hot. Then create a small bowl-like shape using aluminium foil and place it on top of the beef mince and then place the hot coal on it. Drizzle oil over the coal and it will release smoke. Quickly place a tight lid on top of the wok and leave it on for 5 to 10 minutes for a deep smoky flavour.

4. Garnish the with some spring onions, chopped ginger and some coriander leaves and serve it with hot naan or any kind of roti.

The traditional Khichda from Uttar Pradesh

By Fakeha Atiq, Gulf News reader

Khichda is made up of goat meat, beef, lentils and spices, slowly cooked to a thick curry.
Khichda is made up of goat meat, beef, lentils and spices, slowly cooked to a thick curry. Image Credit: Shutterstock

While Haleem is quite a popular dish in India, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) we make a dish called ‘khichda’. While it has some similarity with haleem, one of the main distinctions between the two is that while the meat is mashed into a paste along with all the grains and lentils in the haleem, in a khichda, the pieces of meat still retain their shape. Also, unlike haleem which uses boneless meat, the meat that is used in the khichda is a mix of boneless meat and meat on the bones.

A dish best shared

In my ancestral hometown of Sahaswan, UP, we have a huge extended family, which could almost be described as a clan. Over 2,000 people have inhabited an entire area of this town over several generations. The cooking of khichda, then, would always become a big communal exercise, as the invites from my maternal grandfather’s home would be sent out early in the morning by our long-time househelp, Buddhu bhayya. That’s another thing about these traditions – whether it is a general celebration or even a wedding reception – invites are not sent by card. The househelp goes door to door, starting from one end of the neighbourhood and finding his way back home by covering every house on the guest list, verbally inviting each family.

He would also have to be very specific - telling them exactly who was invited. There would be days when the men were invited, days when women were invited, at times it would be the whole family on the guest list and then there would be a very special type of invite, referred to colloquially as the ‘chulha neyot’ – this meant that on that day, the kitchen in your house would remain closed. Everyone in your house, including any guest who may have come to visit you, was invited to the host’s house for lunch or dinner.

200 kilos of khichda

As a child, I would see my mother oversee the cooking of the khichda each year. We would make two big traditional cauldrons – called ‘deg’ in Urdu – of khichda. One deg would be to give away to the poor, while the other would be for all the members of the extended family. Each deg would have 21kilograms of meat and would ultimately yield 100 kilograms of khichda. Making food in that quantity required special utensils, the spoon to stir the deg would be 2 metres long, made of iron. It also meant that the day the khichda was being made, it was an all hands on deck situation. Not only were all the workers present at home the whole night, my aunts and uncles would also be involved, with the whole night spent getting the khichda ready, between jokes and jibes.

Work would begin right after the night (isha) prayers and our entire courtyard would be filled with vats of grain being soaked, or meat being cleaned or ingredients being chopped or sliced. The wheat and barley are crushed by hand, so that even after they are cooked, you still have a bite to the khichda. Apart from the grains and lentils, you also had many other ingredients being prepped.

This is because when you are enjoying a big bowl of khichda, you also get a whole platter of sides - julienned ginger, lemon, chopped coriander, fried onion, chopped green chili, chaat masala and sometimes even a bowl of yoghurt. Once you have taken a serving of the khichda, you can top up your bowl with all these options of sides and customise the taste to your preference.

A bowl full of memories

It has been many years since such a massive feast has been made at our ancestral home … my grandparents have since passed and all the uncles and aunts have settled in different parts of the world. Today, when khichda is made in our homes, it is at a much smaller scale – just for the family, may be for a few neighbours and friends. But taking a bite into this hearty dish, even today, immediately brings back the memories of happier times.


200 gms whole wheat, crushed by hand

200 gms whole barley, crushed by hand

200 gms chana dal (split chickpea lentil)

100 gms moong dal

100 gms masoor dal

125 gms Urad dal

125 gms rice


3 large onions, sliced

250 ml cooking oil

1 kg mutton with bones

4 tbsp ginger and garlic paste (equal measures)

2 tsp turmeric powder

8-10 tsp coriander powder

2 tsp red chili powder

2 tsp salt (this can be adjusted as per taste)

1-1.5 lwater (can be adjusted for consistency)

3 tsp cumin powder

1-2 tsp garam masala powder

3-4 bay leaves


Chaat masala

2 inch ginger, julienned

3-4 green chili, sliced

Fresh coriander, chopped

1 medium onion, sliced and deep fried


1. Wash the grains well and soak all the grains and lentil overnight and then drain the water. Add all of them together in a pot and slow cook it for 3 to 4 hours. Then, mash them to a slightly granular consistency, using a potato masher.

2. For the gravy, heat the cooking oil and add the sliced onion. Fry until they are a light golden brown. Add the mutton and stir it for a minute over a low flame. Add the ginger garlic paste and roast it for another 1 to 2 minutes. When the meat starts to cook a little, add salt and turmeric, coriander and red chili powder.

3. Roast it for another 4 to 5 minutes, add the water and cover and cook until the meat is tender – this should take around 40 minutes to one hour over a low flame.

4. Once the meat is 90 per cent done, add the mix of grains and lentil to this gravy and mix well. After this stage, you would need to constantly stir the pot to make sure that the grain and lentil mix does not stick to the base of the pot.

5. Add the cumin powder and garam masala powder. Mix well. At this stage, you can check the taste to add salt, if needed.

6. Next, add some chopped ginger, green chili and coriander, and mix well. Add the bay leaves and continue stirring the pot from time to time.

7. Cook for another 20 to 30 minutes over a low flame and the khichda should be ready.

8. Fry the sliced onion separately, until it is golden brown. This is meant to be served on the side.

9. Serve the khichda in a bowl, with sides of julienned ginger, sliced green chili, coriander, chaat masala and fried onion. You can also add a bowl of plain youghurt to this platter of sides.

- The writer is a home-based caterer from Uttar Pradesh, India

Chettinad mutton curry

By Surabhi Vasundharadevi, Social Media Reporter

chettinad mutton kulambu
This chettinad mutton kulambu is a delicious curry made using freshly roasted spice mix or masala. Image Credit: Shutterstock

When it comes to South Indian cuisine, I am a big fan of the Chettinad recipes, said Srilatha Radhakrishnan, a homemaker from Chennai, capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

For her, Mutton Kulambu (Kulambu in Tamil refers to a kind of coconut gravy) is a Chettinad recipe that stands out. “It is a real deal for meat lovers,” she said.

Whenever I make this curry, my house is filled with the aroma of roasted spices.

The mutton pieces are cooked in thick masala-based coconut gravy, giving a divine aroma to the curry. The fragrance, unique blend of spices and flavours of the Chettinad cuisine are precisely what I love.

In Chettinad cuisine, the ingredients are dry roasted and coarsely powdered to get the perfect masala. Chettinad cuisine is known for its intense flavour and spiciness. However, you can always tone down the spiciness.

This cuisine's secret ingredients are Kalpasi (black stone flower) and dried flower pods.

She added that traditionally the ingredients are hand-ground in a pestle. “Even though I have the stone pestle at home, I use the dry grinder to save time. But if you can, then grind the spices in the pestle for the most authentic taste of the Chettinad mutton curry recipe,”

Here is a famous Chettinad mutton kulambu recipe that will delight you with its unique earthy flavour.

Serves: 3 to 4

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Preparation time: 20 minutes


For cooking mutton

1 kg mutton on the bone

200 gms shallots

250 gms tomato

4 tsp ginger and garlic paste (equal measures)

3 tbsp chilli powder 

2 tbsp coriander powder

1 tsp cumin powder

1 tsp turmeric powder

3 cups water

1 tsp salt

Spice mix (roast all spices without the oil)

2 tsp black pepper seeds

½ tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp fennel seeds

6 whole cloves

6 whole green cardamom

1 inch cinnamon stick

2 star anise pieces

1 tsp Kalpasi (black stone flower)

1/4 tsp nutmeg

tsp cumin seeds

4 tbsp fresh grated coconut

(After grinding spices, in the end, add coconut and grind again)


1. Boil mutton along with all the ingredients mentioned in a pressure cooker until about 4 to 5 whistles, or until its completely cooked.

2. Make sure to add water until the level of the mutton. After its done leave it to cool down.

3. Take a wok, add sesame oil then add bay leaves, fennel seeds, spice mix and curry leaves to splutter.

4. Add the sliced shallots, green chillies, ginger and garlic paste, and sauté until the shallots are golden in colour and you can smell the aroma of roasted spices.

5. Add the cooked mutton along with the water in the wok. Add salt if needed, and cook for another 10 to 20 minutes in the medium flame or until the oil separates from the curry.

6. To garnish add chopped coriander leaves and curry leaves.

Maacher Jhol or Fish curry from Bangladesh

By Jannat-Ul-Firdus Fakhi, Gulf News reader

Bangladeshi fish curry
Bangladeshi fish curry called Maacher Jhol, is a dish cooked in almost all households in the country.. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Maacher means "fish" and kalia or jhol means "in curry or gravy” in Bengali. This soupy curry features fish as the star of the dish and it often has potatoes and tomatoes in it. This dish is eaten in most households and it is often made using Rohu fish, a type of fish found in the rivers of South Asia. Kabeer Ahmad, a Bangladeshi resident living in Dubai, said: “This dish is eaten around three to four days a week. I used to have it at my mother’s home and now that I have a family of my own, my wife makes it for my children and me.”



1 kg Rohu fish

½ kg potatoes

2 medium sized tomatoes

2 medium sized onions

1 tbsp ginger and garlic paste (equal measures)

½ tsp cumin powder

2 tsp red chilli powder

1 tsp turmeric powder

2 tsp salt


1. Cut the potato into large pieces and fry using cooking oil until the edges are slight brown and set aside.

2. Then heat some oil and slice the onions and add to the pot and add cumin powder, the ginger and garlic paste, turmeric, salt and chili powder and cook until the aroma of the spices is strong and the onions sweat.

3. After the onions are done, add chopped tomatoes and cook the mixture for five more minutes and then add six cups of water and bring it to a boil.

4. Cut the fish into 2 inch-sized pieces. Add the fish, cooked potatoes, and on a low flame simmer the mixture with the lid on for 20 minutes. Taste the gravy and add more salt at this stage, if needed.

5. When serving, sprinkle fresh coriander and chopped green chillies.

Mas Huni - A well-kept Maldivian secret

By Anupa Kurian Murshed, Senior Digital Planning Editor

Mas Huni
Mas Huni is a typical Maldivian breakfast dish, comprises tuna, onion, coconut, and chili. Image Credit: Shutterstock

I discovered this dish at a Maldivian resort buffet – an unassuming, quiet preparation that is just waiting to surprise you with its layers of textures and flavours. I am talking Mas Huni, a tuna, coconut, and onion preparation. Maldivian cuisine is focused on being sustainable and utilises more of seafood, coconut and locally available spices. A breakfast preparation, Mas Huni has been certified by the an international non-profit Marine Stewardship Council as Certified Sustainable Seafood.

Previously, Maldivians prepared it using cured fish but over time it has transitioned to canned tuna. In fact, when fish is not available, it can be substituted with collard greens, pumpkin cooked and gently mashed or the soft flesh of steamed drumstick.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Serves: 2


1 can of canned tuna, white meat steak in brine

¼ cup freshly grated coconut (you can increase as per taste)

1 green chili, sliced (optional – as per preference)

½ tsp lime juice

1 onion, minced


1. Drain the tuna, squeeze out the water well. Flake it using a fork.

2. Add the coconut and onion, along with the chilies. Mix it well.

3. Finally add the lime juice, mix and check for seasoning. If needed added some salt, lemon juice and chilies – as per taste.

4. Eat with rice, warm flatbread or as is.

Curry leaf chutney

By Ann Sanjeewanie Nilushika, Gulf News Reader

Curry Leaves Chutney
This Sri Lankan-style sauce is made using curry leaves. Image Credit: Supplied

Sri Lankan cuisine uses curry leaves abundantly – especially in dishes inspired by South Indian food. Curry leaves are highly aromatic and have a unique flavour with notes of citrus. Due to their strong flavour, they are ideal in chutney (sauce) form to go along with main dishes. This chutney is usually eaten with meat dishes and rice.


1 bundle of curry leaves

1 onion

1 to 2 cloves of garlic

½ tsp pepper

1 to 2 green chillies

1 tsp salt

1 lemon


1. Take all of the ingredients and blend using a blender.

2. Once blended into a puree form, add a squeeze of lemon. Enjoy with rice-based dishes.

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