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Indian and Pakistani Cuisine: What Are the Salient Differences?

Just read a thread on the Texas Chowhound forum about Indian restaurants, and there were several mentions of restaurants that were a combination of Indian and Pakistani. Now I'm a bit of an Indian food/restaurant connoiseur and I've never encountered this combination. And it got me wondering just how closely related the cuisines are and what are their differences?

In the words of H. Ross Perot, I'm all ears.

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  1. Pakistani cuisine is a (small) subset of Indian cuisine. For most of history, the area known today as Pakistan was a part of India. The term "Pakistani" cuisine is simply jingoism on the part of restaurant owners of Pakistani origin. Anyone else selling / eating the same food would simply call it Indian food.

    1. I would agree that Pakistani food is really a subset of Indian food--which is a hugely diverse set. The spices and ingredients in Indian and Pakistani food are the same, but the preparations vary widely. The kind of food you would find cooking in a South Indian home--dal, rasam, sambar, pachadi--is light years away from Pakistani kababs or the naans, curries, and meats that are served in Indian restaurants.

      1. From my experience throughout the region, India has many cuisines ranging geogrphically from Burma to Pakistan. Pakistani food, however, shares more with the foods of the western Asian countries (Afganistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the rest) than with India.

        1. While it might be completely incorrect, in my experience, here in Chicago, is that when someone says Pakistani, in regards to food, they pretty much mean "they serve meat."
          Usually, here, A Pakistani joint will have a meat focused menu, while an Indian joint will have more vegetarian options. An Indo-Pak joint will usually have a balance of the two. Along those lines, again, in my experience, the Paki joints will have veggie options that are just ok, whike the strictly vegetarian joints will have (usually) better vegetarian options.

          Like I said, it might be completely incorrect, but that's how ppl in Chicago describe the diff. Paki usually means more meat dishes, or at least more of a focus on meat dishes.

          1. India's a big place. It used to be even bigger, encompassing the areas that are now Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Burma. So the notion of "Indian food" is a bit imprecise in the first place. And "Pakistani Cuisine" is also pretty vague; Pakistan didn't even exist until 1947.

            To answer your question, the difference between Indian Punjabi food and Pakistani Punjabi food is pretty much nonexistent. But there's a huge difference between that meat-intensive cuisine and the vegetarian food commonly found in Gujerat. Describing any food as "Indian" or "Pakistani" is just too imprecise. Cuisine is regional and local, not national. Especially in a place as big as India.

            There are two major factors that play into the cuisine of any area in the subcontinent: geography and culture. As to geography, there's everything from some of the highest mountains in the world to expansive sea-level plains; places where there's snow on the ground year-round and places characterized by tropical heat; grasslands, forests, and deserts. So the lamb and walnuts you'll find in Kashmiri food are not a part of the cuisine near the Bay of Bengal, where you're more likely to find seafood and coconuts.

            Even within a given geographic area, cultural differences can make for dramatically different diets among the residents. India has 22 languages spoken by more than a million people, and religious traditions represented by everything from Hindus to Muslims to Christians to Sikhs to Buddhists to Jains to Zoroastrians. Various religious traditions prohibit the consumption of beef, pork, or shellfish, and others forswear meat altogether. Some cuisines eschew garlic and onions, while others seem to be built around those ingredients.

            6 Replies
            1. re: alanbarnes

              I completely disagree with the above poster who said that labeling food as Pakistani is "jingoism." Pakistan is a 60 year old nation and has definately developed a distinct national identity and is continuously evolving in culinary tradition, though obviously much of that tradition stems from a shared history with India. Implying that Pakistani food is simply Indian food labeled "Pakistani" would simply indicate lack of familiarity with Pakistani cuisine.

              alanbarnes has a much more accurate explanation. To start out with, there is what is thought of as Pakistani cuisine in a general way and these foods are part of a generic Pakistani culinary identity: biriani, pullao, haleem, nehari, kabaabs, etc. and the sorts of the foods for which you can find Shan Masala. A side note is that I believe Shan Masala's existance has done a lot in terms of homogenizing what foods fall under the umbrella of generic Pakistani cuisine (though hasn't had much affect on regional cuisine).

              Then you have the regionality issue. Pakistan is very regional. The foods of the various Northern ethnic groups are not similar to Indian food so much, and overlap more with Afghan and Central Asian cuisines. There are places in Pakistan near to China where the people eat home made flat noodle broth soups with shredded meat and fresh herb garnish...like "dodo" in Hunza and Gilgit...I mean, the land is really really diverse.

              You have special foods specific to Southern regions as well, the Sindhis with their own cuisine, the Punjabis with theirs, the Saraikis in the middle, the Urdu speaking muhaajirs bringing in other culinary traditions from their Indian heritage, they are also from a wide variety of places in India, so you have your Dillawis, Lucknavis, Biharis, Hyderabadis, etcs. each with very distinct culinary traditions. The copywrite to many of the Urdu speaking and Southern Pakistani dishes is indeed Indian in a sense. Take Nihaari, a classic example of Pakistani cuisine: it is thought to have originated in Dehli. In India however, it is only available as a breakfast food in specialty restaurants, and in Indian cookbooks one finds mutton and chicken nihaari recipes. In Pakistan, nihaari is still preferred in beef and can be purchased at any time of the day, and it is a staple holiday dish. I have seen chicken nehaari from Pakistanis only for health-weight loss reasons. Otherwise people prefer beef. So nihaari has taken on a life of its own in Pakistan. Also, nehaari is more famous of Karachi where there are more muhaajir people, and not as popular and widely available in Punjab. In India, certain "Mughlai" dishes have taken on a life of their own in Indian restaurants and are prepared in ways that make them unrecognizeable to the Pakistani recipes based on the same Mughlai origin foods.

              It is true that the foods of Indian and Punjabi Hindus and especially Sikhs overlaps with the foods of Pakistani Punjabis, especially the Southern regions of Pakistani Punjab. With the obvious exception that Muslims eat beef and Sikhs and Hindus do not. There are other differences, like Sikh and Hindu Panjabis eat a lot more paneer than Pakistani Panjabis, so you wouldn't find some staple Punjabi paneer dishes in Pakistan. But the seasoning preferences, the type of oil, the styles of daal and vegetable preparations and some meat dishes like aloo gosht, bhuna gosht, daal gosht and veg. plus gosht combos etc. are the same. Because demographically, Pakistan is +/- 45% Punjabi, this overlap with Indian Punjabis is important. I would emphasize again, though, that the cross national Punjab regions have a lot of similarities, and that they are not exactly the same. People who are actually from there would accuse me of over generalizing; Panjabi Hindus would point out that their food is not at all as similar to Sikh food as I imply, and not anything like Pakistani Southern Punjabi food, perhaps. So I am just speaking generally.

              Then you have the fact that the Indian foods that are shared with Pakistan in that they are cooked with the same masala and prepared in the same way, are limited to very specific parts of India, especially Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (and once again I am saying in a general way, Punjabis wouldn't say their food is at all like U.P. food). The foods of Pakistan do not resemble the foods of Bengal. Note that I specifcy masalas and also preparation, i.e. Bengalis have meat stews and varieties of pullao and such but they are seasoned much differently in UP, Punjab and Southern Pakistan than they are in Bengal. Gujarati food is seasoned totally differently than typical Pakistani food. (although there are Gujarati ethnic groups in Pakistan who still cook their Gujarati type foods at home). So Pakistani foods overlap with certain Indian food...once cannot say "Pakistani food and Indian food are the same thing" because various Indian regional cuisines diverge very far away from a great lot of Pakistani food, not just sambhar and dosa. "Southern Pakistani foods are quite similar to foods of Indian Punjab and U.P." would be a much safer generalization.

              If you want some very concrete GENERALIZATIONS that don't require a lot of insider knowledge, I would say that you could conclude that some main differences bewteen Indian cuisine and Pakistani cuisine would be:
              1. Pakistani cuisine relies heavily on meat, especially red meat
              2. Indian food relies more on vegetable dishes
              3. Indians use more mustard seeds, curry leaves, and hing than Pakistanis

              Beyond that, it gets too complex because of the regionality issues...anyway, Pakistani home cooking does include a lot of vegetables, many, many Indians love meat, including red meat...not to mention the huge population of Indian Muslims---not far behind the entire population of PK in numbers, who do eat beef. and certainly count as Indians!!! Pakistanis DO use hing, curry leaves, and mustard seeds...heck there are Pakistanis originally FROM Chennai and other Southern Indian regions who make dosa and sambhar! You can eat dosa in Karachi at a few Hyderabaadi owned establishments!!! I mean, it gets too complex for generalizations.

              1. re: luckyfatima

                Didn't the Partition have a big impact on cuisine, especially public, restaurant cooking?

                Almost overnight Delhi flipped from being a mostly Muslim city to one with with Hindu refugees from what is now Pakistan. The whole tandoori restaurant business developed as those refugees tried make a new life for themselves.

                1. re: paulj

                  I don't know what the pre-partition Dehli demographics were to say that it was mostly a Muslim city before partition. There are still a large amount of Muslims in Dehli. But yes, the refugees from what became Pakistani Punjab totally changed the demographics of Dehli. The Punjabi influence there is very strong. I believe Madhur Jaffrey, a Dehli native, discusses this in some of her books.

                2. re: luckyfatima

                  Funny that you should mention Shan masalas. A couple recently opened an Indian (Pakistani?) grocery near my home. It has the typical assortment of rices, dals, spices, etc. But the woman who runs the place is a HUGE advocate of Shan masala.

                  I haven't quizzed them about where they're from, but assumed it was a function of convenience and profit margin. (I typically grind my own spices.) But maybe there's also an aspect of homogenization at work, too.

                  The folks who ran the Indian grocery where I used to shop really didn't have much in the way of spice mixes. They were from Kolkota. Curiouser and curiouser...

                  1. re: alanbarnes

                    In India there are also mass produced spice mixes which are widely used. I don't know if Shan is sold in India. But in Dubai and in the US I know many Indians who use Shan Masala.

                    Shan masala is more appealing to North Indians (those U.P. and Punjab type variations I mentioned before). It doesn't have the right spice combo or ingredients for people who are making Bengali or South Indian or other Indian regions' dishes. I don't know about for Bengalis, but there are Indian brand masala mixes that are designed for different types of Southern Indian cooking, like from Chennai or Kerala. There are even masala mixes special to Mumbai. Those have a flavor unique to their own regions and the Shan Masala crowd wouldn't like them, unless the happen to have some interest in whatever regional Southern food.

                    Some people, Indian and Pakistani, are very anti-masala mix, though.

                  2. re: luckyfatima

                    Thanks, luckyfatima, your post had EXACTLY what I needed to know about Pakistani cuisine vis-a-vis Indian, having traversed & eaten at various Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cities myself.
                    What a great post!!