Indian food is always hot, spicy and rich, plus every dish is a curry. At least, that's what some people think.

But those who've travelled to this colourful destination, as well as those who haven't but who know a bit about the cuisine, will understand that the above notions are misconceptions. India is one of the world's most diverse countries, with over 40 languages and approximately 1600 dialects. Every state has its own traditions, culture, lifestyle and style of cooking. Even individual households differ in their preparation of the same dish. Most have their own secret recipes for the powders and pastes that form the backbone of these dishes. And for those who are scared off by Delhi belly tales from other travellers - all that's actually required for a trouble-free trip is wisdom about where and what you should eat.

From spices like cumin and turmeric to the much-used blend of garam masala, the ingredients in this cuisine are as exotic as they come. And the great thing about travelling in India is that everything is cheap and plentiful, whether you're dining in at a restaurant or grabbing something from a street vendor. Here's a sampler of just a few dishes for a glimpse into the heightened sensory experience that is India.

TEMPTING SOUTHERN SNACK FOOD
Kerala-style chicken fry
The southernmost state of India is best known for its lush tropical landscapes and the charming backwaters on which visitors can take a leisurely houseboat cruise. But it's also a place of alluring and delicious cuisine, and one of the favourites is the Kerala-style chicken fry.

This is a dish that's perfectly crisp on the outside and deliciously juicy on the inside. Chicken pieces or drumsticks are covered in a marinade that includes garam masala and cumin powder, then it's fried with onion, green chillies and curry leaves. The dish goes well with rice or roti as a main or side dish, otherwise it can be eaten as a simple snack.

A NORTHERN ONE POT WONDER
Balti chicken paneer
This dish takes its name from the thick flat-bottomed iron pot (the balti) in which it is both cooked and served. Balti refers to the general style of cuisine popular in northern India, which is prepared mainly in the Punjabi way and is mild yet rich. Paneer is a soft, crumbly cheese used in Indian cooking. Normally the balti is served with naan bread or flatbreads, pieces of which are torn off by hand and used to scoop up the hot curry sauce from the dish.
To make Balti chicken paneer, a paste made from yoghurt plus garam masala and other spices is combined with chicken pieces and paneer. This more-ish meal can be served with either rice or roti.


INDIA'S all time FAVOURITE RICE DISH
Biryani
Indians love their biryani - a delicious combination of basmati rice and exotic spices that can be served as a vegetarian dish, or with most types of meat. The rice is mixed with spices like cloves, cinnamon and cardamom. The most popular form of biryani in India is the Hyderabadi biryani, which isn't just limited to Hyderabad and is available around the country. One of the other favourites is the Kashmir mutton biryani.
Ingredients in the biryani can differ from state to state, but only slightly. The dish is usually served with plenty of onions, tomatoes, chillies and lime all mixed into yoghurt. Ľ

SEAFOOD LOVER'S DELIGHT
Goan fish curry
West India is the part of the country where you'll find the greatest diversity of cuisine - from Rajasthan's spicy vegetarian food to the rich Goan cuisine, which is strongly flavoured by coconut, chillies and vinegar. Goa's position on the coast means there's an abundance of seafood to be enjoyed.

Tangy and spicy, Goan fish curry is a staple food in this laid-back region. Tuna is especially good in this recipe but other species with firm white flesh are also used. Tamarind, tomato and chillies are a few of the base ingredients that make this dish such a hit.

ALL ROUND SWEET TREAT
Balushahi
Indians are very fond of their desserts - and they like them very sweet. There are plenty to choose from, such as the more commonly known lassi (drinking yoghurt) or burfi (condesnsed milk cooked with sugar), but one that's lesser known outside of India is Balushahi. Some call it an Indian doughnut, but that's not quite accurate.

While a doughnut is soft and spongy, this deep-fried fried Indian sweet is flaky. It's made from a dough containing white flour and fermented yogurt, rolled into small balls, deep fried, then dipped in a sugar syrup. While it's a favourite throughout the country, Balushahi is thought to have originated in North India. In southern India it's also known as badusha or padusha.

 

Why Brits in India are given buckets
By Nury Vittachi

Warning: the following posting is extremely controversial and may result in rioting, looting of embassies, or international tension between nuclear powers. Or it just may make you feel hungry.

Whatever. You have been warned.

First, many thanks to all the readers who wrote to me about curry. Clearly this is a subject of the utmost importance, unlike trivialities such as the world financial crisis or global warming.

West-east versions of curry have a long history, readers said. "English curry, a yellow-brown gloopy substance eked out with raisins and sugar, was on my grammar school menu in 1953," wrote Neil Thomson from Australia.

And Jane Austen mentions curry in Mansfield Park, first published in 1812, he added.

But the saddest letter came from curry-loving British tourist Sam Yeung who visited India last year. "It was amazing. There was almost nothing on the menu in any restaurant that I recognised. No balti curries, no chicken tikka masala, and not one of the waiters knew what a vindaloo was," he said.

I can see that the time has come to tell the whole truth.

None of the popular international curries are from India.

Those "Indian curry houses" that you see in every town in Britain are not Indian at all. The vast majority of them (in 1998 it was 85 per cent) are Bangladeshi.

Staff come from a specific district of Bangladesh. Sylhet in the northeast of that country actually specialises in breeding British curry house waiters.

Another myth: Vindaloo is a super-hot Indian curry.

Fact: Vindaloo is not Indian. It's Portuguese. Sailors from that country arrived at the Indian city of Goa with a pork dish called vinha d'alhos, which means wine and garlic stew. The natives, filled with pity for people living on bland European food, fixed the recipe and shortened vinha d'alhos to vindaloo.

The Portuguese agreed that the revised version was way better than the original and spread it around the world.

But it wasn't good enough for India. Even today, asking for vindaloo outside Goa produces a diagonal head-sway, which is an Indian body-language for: "I don't know what you're talking about, idiot foreigner."

Myth three: The top Indian curry dish is chicken tikka masala.

Fact: itís not Indian at all, but from Glasgow in Scotland. A drunken Scotsman ordered chicken tikka (a dry dish) instead of chicken curry (a wet dish) and demanded that curry sauce be poured over it.

Brits particularly like an Indian dish called balti.

But there's no such food in India. Bangladeshi restaurateurs in the British city of Birmingham started serving food in tiny iron woks so they could serve less and charge more.

Having no word for wok, they called it balti (bucket) curry. Believing this to be an exotic import, UK diners went crazy for it.

The result is that vast numbers of British tourists go to India and have the following conversation.

"I'd like a balti curry please."

"You want a bucket curry?"

"A balti curry."

"Yes sir. Would you like your bucket on the bone or off the bone? Mild, medium or hot?"

Several readers said their families discovered authentic curry thanks to products from an Indian goods export firm called Sharwoods.

Actually, Sharwood's products come from the north of England and the company was started by a man named Jim.

You may now riot.

NURY SAMJAM VITTACHI was born on the island of Ceylon on October 2, 1958. This was considered auspicious, as it was the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, a famous acquaintance of the family. (His grandfather was standing next to Gandhi when he was assassinated.

Vittachi says: "Knowing our family's luck, it's amazing we weren't blamed for it." His father's name was Perera, and his mother's Da Silva. Deciding that it was faintly ridiculous for Ceylonese people to have European names, they adopted the name of an ancestor: Vittachi.

The parents contacted the Javanese guru they followed, a man named Pak Subuh, who told them the baby must be called Nuryana.
 In the year of the child's birth, the communal tensions on the island spiralled out of control and turned into a civil war.

In 1960, when the family found itself directly targeted by the country's rulers, they made a midnight dash to the airport, leaving their possessions behind.


The family lived a nomadic existence for a while, with Malaya and London being their main homes, before splitting up and spreading across the world.

Nuryana Vittachi chose Hong Kong, and became a writer using a variety of bylines. He became famous in journalism under the Chinese name Lai See and as a children's storyteller under the name Sam Jam.


In recent years, he has become a well-known author, with books published in Asia, Europe, America and Australia. He teaches writing and screenwriting in Hong Kong.

Read more from Nury at www.misterjam.com