Whether it be from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or any other Desi country, the food is always diverse and filled with color and intricate flavors that create a unique experience. I’ve always grown up with Indian food, so perhaps I’m biased by my experience, but I’m here to argue my point to the ground –  Desi foods are some of the greatest joys in life. From samosas to paneer butter masala, there is a huge variety of foods in the Desi region. You could spend your life attempting to try them all, so here are 11 of the most impactful Desi foods to get you started.

1.Chicken Karahi

Chicken Biryani with a side of Chicken Karahi
Chicken Biryani with a side of Chicken Karahi

Chicken Karahi is a notable Pakistani dish deriving out of a line of several chicken dishes, including Chilli Chicken, Chicken 65, Butter Chicken, Chicken Tikka Masala, Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Lollipop, and more. The dish is cooked typically in a karahi, or heavy, usually cast-iron, pan. A rich red tomato sauce is used for the base of the dish, and the most authentic kind will have a fiery, full-bodied flavor. The dry curry is perfect with naan or roti and is a cherished favorite in the Desi region.

This dish is one of my personal favorite Desi foods as its flavor has depth and creates a sweet, but also spicy taste. If you’ve been to Pakistan or India, and haven’t tried Chicken Karahi, you’re missing out. The dish introduces you to a whole new texture and variety of making chicken, that we simply don’t have in the western world. 

2.Gobi Manchurian

Image of a plate of homemade Gobi Manchurian via Srilekha Cherukuvada
Image of a plate of homemade Gobi Manchurian via Srilekha Cherukuvada

This Indo-Chinese dish is cherished across the entire desi region for its bright red color and crunchy texture. When made right, Gobi Manchurian can be crispy and bursting with bold flavors and a slightly sour sensation. The dish can be made with several different options including, chicken, fish, and more popularly– cauliflower. The chosen base is typically coated in batter, fried, and mixed with some soy sauce and red sauce. 

Gobi Manchurian has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The first time I tried Gobi Manchurian was at a family friend’s party and I just fell in love. Since then, it’s become a family tradition to make it together; we always take some pretty photos because of its beautiful coloring.

3.Pani Puri

Several pani pooris lined up in a circle around a small cup of green sauce.
Several pani pooris lined up in a circle around a small cup of green sauce.

Pani Puri is one of the most beloved Desi snacks. The snack is also accessible in the US; most Indian grocery stores have a Pani Puri set, which includes the pooris, and the two sauces (tamarind and green) used in the dish. The base of the snack is the puri, which has a hole in the top to fit all of the ingredients inside. Often, the dish includes small diced potatoes, cilantro, onion, chickpeas, cilantro, and more. Pani Puri is very popular street food, and once filled with the light green sauce, must be eaten in one bite.

This snack has a special place in my heart as well. Eating Pani Puri on the side of the street or even at home was something special. Engulfing the puri as a whole is always my favorite part because as soon as you bite into all of the different ingredients, everything tangles together to create a complex flavorful adventure. Pani Puri taught me to live life on the edge with its new, unique flavors.

4.Sambar

Sambhar with a side of Idlys and green coconut chutney.
Sambhar with a side of Idlys and green coconut chutney.

This is one of the most popular Indian dishes around. Sambar is a soup-like dish consisting of lentils, tamarind, mixed vegetables, spices, and herbs, as well as a special Sambar powder that is mixed in to give it a distinct taste. Sambar is perfect for any occasion, from parties, to dinners on a Saturday night. Not only is it healthy, but its delicious flavor and herbal aroma is a one-of-a-kind experience that is not to miss.

My experience with Sambar has always been my mother or my aunt making it at home. Whenever I visit India, my relatives always make Sambar at least once a week. It’s a staple dish and is typically eaten with rice, Idli, or Vada. Sambar is always made with love, whether it comes from my mother, aunt, or grandmother.

5.Haleem

Image of Haleem topped with a slice of lime.
Image of Haleem topped with a slice of lime.

Haleem is a very popular dish in the Muslim community in the Desi region. It is especially eaten during the months of Ramadan and Muharram. The dish consists of slow-cooked meat, wheat, and rice or barley. It is a pretty hard dish to cook, however, it is done so with passion and love. It is incredibly nutritious and has a full-bodied rich flavor.

Although I have never personally tried Haleem, as I don’t prefer to eat Mutton– the meat often used in Haleem– I can affirm that it will definitely change your life. Not only is it healthy, but it has rich flavors that you won’t find anywhere else. 

6.Biryani

Image of Hyderabadi Chicken Biryani
Image of Hyderabadi Chicken Biryani

Biryani is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. From Hyderabadi Dum Biryani, to Pakistani Chicken Biryani to Kacchi Biryani, you just can’t go wrong with this dish. There are so many unique combinations of flavors and ingredients. Although it takes quite a bit of effort to make, biryani bursts with flavor, with the juicy tender meat wrapping the dish together.

Anytime that I visit India, my aunt has to make Chicken Biryani at least once. It’s one of my most favorite rice dishes and the airy and fresh flavoring fills you right up. With the correct amount of balance of spice and cooling ingredients, it’s a perfectly balanced dish for those slightly less adventurous foodies.

7.Samosa

Image of five samosas with sides of green chutney and red sauce.
Image of five samosas with sides of green chutney and red sauce.

If you don’t know what a Samosa is, then pay attention. This is literally the best snack dish you will ever find in the Desi region. Period. The snack consists of a crispy, flaky outer layer made with all-purpose flour, stuffed with a potato-pea mixture on the inside. This fan-favorite creates a spicy, tangy flavor, with the crispy outside texture adding the overall aroma and taste of the dish. Samosa is a beloved dish not only in India, but it’s well-known around the world.

To me, Samosa is a family favorite. If we’re going to have a party, we know we can depend on Samosa because everyone just loves them. The dish represents reliability to me and I can’t imagine a world without it. 

8.Naan

Image of Garlic naan bread via Pexels
Image of Garlic naan bread via Pexels

Naan is another very popular Desi dish eaten all around the region. In the US, Naan can be found at pretty much any Indian restaurant. It’s essential in Southern and Central Asia and can be eaten with a lot of different curries. Naan is an oven-baked flatbread, similar to chapati and poori, but distinct in its buttery delicious taste. It can be made with butter, garlic, or other herbs to create a unique flavor each time.

9.Paratha

Image of flaky paratha bread
Image of flaky paratha bread

This dish is especially popular in North India. Paratha is a layered, flaky flatbread made primarily out of flour, salt, ghee, and water. The bread is simple but still bursts with an immense passionate flavor. There are all sorts of Paratha, from stuffed to plain, in triangles, squares, and circles. The soft, full-bodied, fluffy texture and flavor are not to be missed. Out of all the Desi foods, Paratha definitely stands out as one of the best.

My mother used to make Paratha every Monday after school. The dish always reminds me of my childhood. Even its flavor reminds me of running home from the bus stop to sniff the aromatic scent of the flatbread. Paratha doesn’t only represent India and my childhood, but its flavor will open you up to a variety of Indian flavors that don’t center around spice. 

10.Jalebi

Image of bright orange jalebi
Image of bright orange jalebi

Desi foods also include the best sweets and desserts around– and Jalebi is one of the most popular. Often, Jalebi can be found in a boisterous, bright orange color and a sweet, syrupy flavor with a crispy, juicy texture. The spiral-shaped dish is made out of fermented deep-fried batter, which is then soaked in sugar syrup. 

I used to hate Jalebis, and I guess that’s why they’re so memorable to me. The flavoring was just too tangy and sweet. When I tried them again, years later, from a Middle Eastern shop in Michigan, I changed my mind – the flavor wasn’t too sweet or bland. It had the perfect combination of every flavor a dessert or snack should have. 

11.Gulab Jamun

Image of spherical gulab jamun stacked on top of each other via Venkata Narasimha Cherukuvada
Image of spherical gulab jamun stacked on top of each other via Venkata Narasimha Cherukuvada

Gulab Jamun is an exceptionally popular dessert/sweet in India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and more. The dish is a milk-based solid, soaked in a sugary sweet syrup. When eating, Gulab Jamun oozes with the juicy syrup engulfed during the soaking process. The ball itself is typically light, airy, and fluffy. Overall, Gulab Jamun is one of the best Desi foods, so addictive, and I can’t imagine going through an Indian festival without it.

Like the aforementioned Gobi Manchurian, it has also become a tradition in my family to make Gulab Jamun together. We would roll the dough into tiny balls and help my mother fry and soak them in the sugar syrup. Gulab Jamun always represented trust in my family. The dish reminds me of all of the memories we’ve made together and how important that bond is. 


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Srilekha Cherukuvada

By Srilekha Cherukuvada

Editorial Fellow