Eastern India's favourite seasoning is panch phoron, a blend of whole spices like fenugreek and nigella seeds, popped in hot oil and plunged into bubbling curries. The citizens of India's east also have a passion for sweets. Wind your way through industrial Hoppers Crossing to unearth Sweet India, which specialises in subcontinental sweets. The eastern Indian varieties are particularly delicate and are only available on weekends. Grab a deli counter-style ticket and wait patiently to order malai burfi. This moist sweet of pure milk is reduced until it is the consistency of fine-grained cottage cheese is cloud-like and luscious, with hints of rosewater and cardamom and a fine dusting of crushed pistachios.
Sweet India, Factory 9, 1-3 Kilmur Road, Hoppers Crossing, 9369 6694; sweetindia.com.au.
Northern India's cuisine is often lavish. Spikes of chicken tikka are plunged into tandoors with a flourish and curries are adorned with swirls of cream and ghee. India's north is dotted with exquisite palaces, plus the exquisite Taj Mahal. Indian Star's dining room evokes this royal heritage, decorated with delicate yet imposing wooden carvings and intricate tapestries. Sunil Tyagi's signature dish is balti chicken malai, his delicious, northern Indian-style creation. Chicken breast is marinated in cashew paste and cooked in the tandoor until tender and tantalisingly smoky. It luxuriates in a vibrant, chunky tomato sauce made with fresh tomato and sprinkled with diced red capsicum.
Indian Star, 254-256 Maribyrnong Road, Moonee Ponds, 9375 1113; indianstar.com.au.
Varun Chhabra is on a mission to prove Indian cuisine is more than butter chicken and rogan josh. The menu at his vegetarian eatery is quite unlike that of most Indian restaurants. He specialises in Gujurati food from western India, where the majority of the population is vegetarian, and food has a balance of sweet, sour and spicy flavours. The Gujurati thali is the best way to experience this healthy nourishing fare. This feast boasts 13 different components, from vegetable curry sweetened with jaggery (unrefined sugar) to kadhi, a hot and sour yoghurt soup. Also included is chewy wholemeal roti bread and cooling buttermilk to drink.
Gujju's, 1/141 Waverley Road, Malvern East, 9571 1188 and 2/1-13 Watton Street, Werribee, 9741 1178; gujjus.com.au/about_us.html
The stars of the southern Indian table are crisp dosa pancakes and thin, tangy sambar soup. Vanakkam offer these regional classics, but its specialty is another southern favourite altogether. Owner Jagadish Venigalla hails from Hyderabad and has spent many years perfecting his Hyderabadi biryani. Chicken or goat is marinated in yoghurt, ginger and garlic and carefully layered in a pot with basmati rice. Then begins the tricky process of steaming the rice and meat together, ensuring both components are perfectly cooked at precisely the same time. Vanakkam's version nails it, with tender, tasty meat and fragrant, fluffy rice. Dress it up with plenty of raita and tasty tamarind and cashew sauce.
Vanakkam, 359 Barkly Street, Footscray, 9687 7224; vanakkamindianrestaurant.com.au.
At Golden Joy, appearances are deceiving. The clash and sizzle of frenetic wok cooking can be heard in the kitchen, while the stereo warbles Bollywood show tunes. Just as many Chinese restaurants in Melbourne serve a menu that aims to cater for Australian tastes, the Chinese in India have created a style of cooking that tickles the local palate. While Australianised Chinese can be insipid and bland, Indian-style Chinese is a riot of spice and flavour. Jimmy Chiu, the owner of Golden Joy, is Indian-born Chinese and hails from Calcutta. One of his signature dishes, Manchurian gobi, sees chunky, battered cauliflower florets in a thick sauce richly flavoured with plenty of garlic and dark soy.
Golden Joy, 34 Douglas Street, Noble Park, 9574 1008; goldenjoy.com.au.