Indian Food for Breakfast?
British Indian cuisine isn’t necessarily the first thing you think of when you rise from your bed – sauce laden curries, fiery chillies, huge portions of rice and buttery naans. Delicious, but not always the sort of thing you reach for as soon as the alarm clock sounds.
However, Indian cooking in the form of our beloved UK curry houses and restaurants is only one small sliver of a broader culinary tradition, a segment that has evolved and adapted to contemporary British tastes over several generations but which does not necessarily reflect the variety and breadth of authentic Indian food.
Traditional Indian breakfast is a joy waiting to be discovered by all those whose experience of Indian dining has so far been limited to dinner from the local takeaway. What’s more, unlike some of the heavier breakfast plates you’ll find in the West – bacon, eggs, sausages, all fried in oil! – Indian breakfasts can be surprisingly light, refreshing, and nutritious.
How Does It Differ From a Western Breakfast?
Compared to their Western counterparts, traditional Indian breakfast dishes tend to be more versatile, with foods that can be enjoyed in the morning as well as later in the day. When we look at British dietary habits, it would be highly unusual (though not impossible!) for a traditional lunch to include a bowl of porridge, or marmalade on toast. It would be less unusual for an Indian household to have a serving of dal for breakfast as well as for dinner.
This wholesome versatility is one of the joys of Indian breakfast food – it’s good enough to be eaten at any time, so why not start with it bright and early? What’s more, it means that whatever you cook in the morning (or in the evening) can often be re-used or re-fashioned to form a future meal, unlike those soggy cornflakes you didn’t get round to finishing.
So if you’re looking to cut down on animal products, or just looking for a more interesting alternative to endless bowls of muesli, then you’ve come to the right place.
Indian breakfasts, as with much of the nation’s food, vary significantly depending on the region they originate from, though there are some national favourites that can be relied upon up and down the country. We’re about to embark on a whistle stop tour of accessible, simple, and deeply delicious Indian breakfast ideas that you can make and enjoy at home.
We start with a popular breakfast item across much of South India and a dish that has spread the length and breadth of the country.
Idli are traditional, savoury cakes made from a batter of fermented lentils and rice, steamed in an idli maker. The slight fermentation gives them a delectable but subtle sourness, lifted by their light and airy texture.
Usually served hot, these can be dipped into sambars, chutneys, or sauces of your choosing. Try with coriander and mint dips seasoned with lime or lemon for a tangy lift, or pair with chutneys such as mango or tomato if you’re looking for something a little sweeter to start your day.
Another southern speciality, appam is a thin pancake made from rice batter and coconut milk, with yeast added to bring about a fermentation process. The yeast also gives the appam its distinctive patterning and taste.
It is also possible to add a fried or poached egg to the pancake for a protein kick, or sweeten things by adding condensed milk or palm sugar. If left as a more savoury dish, the appam can be eaten with dal, yesterday’s curry, or chutneys.
Appam, or hoppers as they are sometimes called, are common throughout South India as well as in neighbouring Sri Lanka, where they form a traditional breakfast for millions of families.
Sticking with Southern-style breakfasts for the time being, the dosa is a hearty, crispy, no-nonsense meal to kick start your day, and one whose popularity has allowed it to travel around the world and back again. (It also happens to be my personal favourite on this list!)
Paper thin savoury pancakes, made from a batter consisting mainly of lentils and rice, with delicious potato or vegetable fillings and coconut sides. You’ll find these at roadside eateries up and down India, as well as at traditional Indian restaurants in the UK as well.
Their feather-light crust also means that they can be spread out several feet across and still be tackled by a single diner – a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach!
But what if you want something earthier, something wheat-based? Paratha is another traditional favourite, versatile, extremely affordable, and filling.
It’s a flaky, multi-layered, golden brown flatbread made from whole wheat flour baked in ghee (Indian clarified butter). It is often served in various geometric shapes, such as squares, triangles, or neat circles.
Although they can be dipped into anything you like, you will also find them stuffed with various spices, vegetables, paneer, or pickles.
In the Punjab region in the north of India, paratha can often be paired with lassi, a yoghurt based drink.
If you’re someone who craves a smoothie first thing, or if the thought of solid food as soon as you wake up is a bit too much to stomach, then why not opt for India’s favourite drink? Lassi is traditionally made from a blend of yoghurt, water, and sometimes fruit, depending on the flavour you want to achieve.
Load it up with sugar, rosewater, or fruit juice if sweetness is what you crave in the earlier hours. If you want to opt for the original, traditional drink, you can prepare it by blending yoghurt with salt and water.
The sourness of the yoghurt and clarity of the salt combine to give a surprisingly refreshing and revitalising draught with enough energy to see you through the morning. For the full taste sensation, make sure you serve it chilled!
6. Aloo Puri
Aloo puri, like many traditional Indian dishes, is a perfect combination of textures as well as tastes. A potato curry, deeply seasoned and lightly spiced with cumin, mustard seeds, turmeric, and more, is served alongside lighter-than-air puri, a form of fried bread which seems to almost float upon the dish it arrives on. Watch as the steam puffs out when you first break it open!
The earthiness of the aloo (potato) and the lightness of the puri (bread) are as fine a match as you could hope for – simple but also deceptively accomplished, this is a simple and hearty dish to get you going for the day.
7. Vada Pav
Perhaps not the lightest of breakfasts, but one whose taste and popularity is undeniable, the vada pav is a Maharashtran fast food dish consisting of a deep fried potato dumpling inside a bread bun. This is usually balanced out with a coriander chutney and fiery chilli.
The dish originated as affordable street food in Mumbai and, when placed next to some of its venerable and ancient culinary cousins, appears comparatively youthful. Although some may debate the exact circumstances of its birth, the most common theory is that it was invented in Central Mumbai in the 1960’s, becoming instantly popular as a cheap, carbohydrate rich snack for hungry cotton mill workers in the district.
Now, the Maharashtran capital is said to have over 20,000 stalls selling variations of this hugely successful dish. There’s even a World Vada Pav Day – August 23rd!
Not to be confused with vada pav – and not to be confused with western-style donuts, though some versions may appear similar – vada is a relatively broad term referring to a type of savoury fried snack commonly enjoyed as a get-up-and-go breakfast item in India and beyond.
Various types of vadas are made from different ingredients, but some of the most common and popular are those made from lentils. In such cases, the lentils are soaked in water before being ground to a batter, which is subsequently mixed with spices, onion, curry leaves, salt, black pepper, or any other seasoning. Ginger and baking soda can also be added to add levity to the texture and to improve fermentation in larger batches.
When the mixture is then shaped and deep fried, the result is a crispy outer edge with a delicious, fluffy core, perfect for dipping in chutneys, dals, condiments, or just having on the road.
Thepla is another form of traditional flatbread, this time originating from the Gujarat region of India, and another of the nation’s breakfast favourites.
Its base is often made from wheat flour, gram flour, fenugreek (methi) leaves, and other spices, and differs from chapati in that chapati dough is traditionally formed of whole white flour on its own. Thepla can also be bound in a stiffer dough by using milk instead of water, which increases its shelf life – perfect if you’re batch cooking and want some in the weeks ahead.
Delicious when prepared traditionally with fenugreek leaves and other herbs, this bread also pairs wonderfully with yoghurt, providing a refreshing as well as filling first meal of the day.
What if the thought of going without a sturdy bowl of porridge oats in the morning is enough to make you fear hunger before it’s even set in? Not to worry – upma is a traditional porridge dish common in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and other states of Southern India, made from dry-roasted semolina or coarse rice flour.
A real store of energy, this meal is guaranteed to keep hunger pangs at bay until your next feed, but it can also come packed with nutrition. A wide range of vegetables, herbs, nuts, and beans can also be included, resulting in a vibrant, savoury, and more exciting version of its rather sodden and uninspired British cousin.
11. Sali Par Eedu
Another breakfast for those who need something substantial to kick start their day, sali par eedu is a traditional Parsi dish formed of fried eggs served atop crispy potato sticks. These have in turn been cooked with tomatoes, pepper, spices, and herbs, often coriander and sometimes parsley. Overall, you have a hearty, warming dish that faintly resembles a Middle Eastern Shakshuka with its baked egg and tomato base.
12. Indian-style Omelette
Still craving something that resembles your usual breakfast fare? You can’t go wrong with an omelette and in the hands of a nation as culinarily blessed as India, this classic dish really sings.
Fresh coriander and mint are often chopped up and mixed with the egg before it’s fried, along with spices and fresh chilli.
You can also add ginger to the medley if you want to introduce some further warmth, garnishing the whole lot off with chilli sauce or a zing of lime to give it a final lift. Eggs won’t ever look the same again once you’ve prepared them like this.
Poha is a very popular rice-based breakfast originating from Maharashtra state. It is made with flattened or beaten rice, which essentially involves parboiling and then flattening the grains, resulting in a staple food which crumbles and cooks more swiftly. You may find this pre-prepared and sold at traditional Asian grocery stores.
When this flattened rice is mixed with potatoes, onions, spices, nuts, herbs, or peas, it becomes poha, a surprisingly light meal that works perfectly as a brunch or quick supper, or as a hearty way to welcome the dawn! Try topping it with shaved coconut to bring levity and freshness to the dish, and garnish with lemon zest to add acidity.
Last but not least, we have a bubbling rice dish popular in Tamil Nadu and other parts of Southern India, as well as in neighbouring Sri Lanka. It comes in sweet or savoury varieties and can be served at breakfast alongside fried vada and chutneys.
The rice is often cooked with moong dal to give it a creamy texture, whilst also adding protein to the meal, though the ratio of rice to dal is really chef’s choice. A temper of spices and curry leaves can be added to the top for additional flavour, although the hearty base of the dish is tasty enough to stand alone, and filling enough to keep you going until lunch.
We hope we’ve piqued your culinary interest with some of these fresh, hearty, and flexible breakfast ideas rooted in Indian cooking.
The beauty of these meals is not merely in their flavour and nutritious base, but in their versatility. Why not wrap last night’s curry in some fresh paratha? Why not churn some vada batter and dip it into the condiments you usually only get out for lunch or dinner? Why not look up a traditional Indian eatery near you and see what they might be serving for morning diners?
Whatever takes your fancy, we’re confident that once you start exploring the breakfast options that Indian cuisine opens up, it won’t just be the most important meal of the day, it will be the one you look forward to the most!