What to eat in India
Indian cuisine is superb and takes its place among the great cuisines of the world. Most of the time you may find it good and spicy. There is a good chance that you’d have tasted “Indian food” in your country, especially if you are a traveller from the West, but what India has exported abroad is just one part of its extraordinary range of culinary diversity.
Indian food has a well-deserved reputation for being hot, owing to the Indian penchant for the liberal use of a variety of spices, and potent fresh green chilies or red chilies powder that will bring tears to the eyes of the uninitiated, and found in unexpected places like sweet cornflakes (a snack, not breakfast) or even candies. The degree of spiciness varies widely throughout the country: Andhra food is famously fiery, while Gujarati cuisine is quite mild in taste.
To enjoy the local food, start slowly. Don’t try everything at once. After a few weeks, you can get accustomed to spicy food. If you would like to order your dish not spicy, simply say so. Most visitors are tempted to try at least some of the spicy concoctions, and most discover that the sting is worth the trouble.
Cuisine in India varies greatly from region to region. The “Indian food” served by many so-called Indian restaurants in the Western hemisphere is inspired by North Indian cooking, specifically Mughlai cuisine, a style developed by the royal kitchens of the historical Mughal Empire, and the regional cuisine of the Punjab, although degree of authenticity in relation to actual Mughlai or Punjabi cooking is sometimes variable at best and dubious at worst.
North India is wheat growing land, so you have Indian breads (known as roti), including chapatti (unleavened bread), paratha (pan-fried layered roti), naan (made from refined wheat flour, and cooked in a clay tandoori oven), puri (deep-fried and puffed up bread), and many more. A typical meal consists of one or more gravy dishes along with rotis, to be eaten by breaking off a piece of roti, dipping it in the gravy and eating them together. Most of the Hindi heartland of India survives on roti, rice, and lentils (dal), which are prepared in several different ways and made spicy to taste. Served on the side, you will usually find spiced yogurt (raita) and either fresh chutney or a tiny piece of exceedingly pungent pickle (achar), a very acquired taste for most visitors — try mixing it with curry, not eating it plain.
A variety of regional cuisines can be found throughout the North. Tandoori chicken, prepared in a clay oven called a tandoor, is probably the best-known North Indian dish, innovated by a Punjabi immigrant from present-day Pakistan during the Partition. For a taste of traditional Punjabi folk cooking, try dal makhani (stewed black lentils and kidney beans in a buttery gravy), or sarson da saag, a yummy gravy dish made with stewed mustard greens, served with makke di roti (flatbread made from maize). There’s also the hearty textures and robust flavors of Rajasthani food, the meat heavy Kashmiri dishes from the valley of Kashmir, or the mild yet gratiating Himalayan (pahari) cuisine found in the higher reaches. North India also has of a variety of snacks like samosa (vegetables encased in thin pastry of a triangular shape) and kachori (either vegetable or pulses encased in thin pastry). There is also a vast constellation of sweet desserts like jalebi (deep-fried pretzel with sugar syrup- shaped like a spiral), rasmalai (balls of curds soaked in condensed milk) and halwa. Dry fruits and nuts like almonds, cashews and pistachio are used a lot, often in the desserts, but sometimes also in the main meal.
Authentic Mughal-style cooking, the royal cuisine of the Mughal Empire can still be found and savored in some parts of India, most notably the old Mughal cities of Delhi, Agra and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. It is a refined blend of Persian, Turkic and Subcontinent cooking, and makes heavy use of meat and spices. The names of some Mughal dishes bear the prefix of shahi as a sign of its prestige and royal status from a bygone era. Famous Mugha specialties include biryani (layered meat and rice casserole), pulao (rice cooked in a meat or vegetable broth), kebab (grilled meat), kofta (balls of mincemeat), rumali roti (flatbread whirled into paper-thin consistency), shahi tukray (saffron and cardamom-scented bread pudding).
In South India, the food is mostly rice-based. A typical meal includes sambhar (a thick vegetable and lentil chowder) with rice, rasam (a thin, peppery soup), or avial (mixed vegetables) with rice, traditionally served on a banana leaf as a plate. Seasoning in South India differs from northern regions by its ubiquitous use of mustard seeds, curry leaves, pulses, fenugreek seeds, and a variety of souring agents such as tamarind and kokum. There are regional variations too — the coastal regions make greater use of coconut and fish. In the State of Kerala, it is common to use grated coconut in everything and coconut oil for cooking, while someone from the interior could be surprised to learn that coconut oil, can in fact, be used for cooking. The South also has some great breakfast dishes like idli (a steamed cake of lentils and rice), dosa, a thin, crispy pancake often stuffed with spiced potatoes to make masala dosa, vada, a savory Indian donut, and uttapam, a fried pancake made from a rice and lentil batter with onions and other vegetables mixed in. All of these can be eaten with dahi, plain yogurt, and chutney, a condiment that can be made from practically anything. Try the ever popular Masala Dosa, which originated from Udupi in Karnataka, in one of the old restaurants of Bangalore like MTR and Janatha in Malleswaram or Vidyarthi Bhavan in Basavangudi. South Indian cuisine is predominantly vegetarian, though there are exceptions: seafood is very popular in Kerala and the Mangalorean coast of Karnataka; and Chettinad and Hyderabad cuisines use meat heavily, and are a lot spicier. Coffee tends to be the preferred drink to tea in South India.
To the West, you will find some great cuisine groups. Gujarati cuisine is somewhat similar to Rajastani cooking with the heavy use of dairy products, but differs in that it is predominantly vegetarian, and often sweetened with jiggery or sugar. Gujaratis make some of the best snack items such as the Dhokla and the Muthia. Mumbai is famous for its chaat, as well as the food of the small but visible Irani and Parsi communities concentrated in and around the city. The adjacent states of Maharashtra and Goa are renowned for their seafood, often simply grilled, fried or poached in coconut milk. A notable feature of Goan cooking is that pork and vinegar is used, a rare sight in the rest of India. Vindaloo originated in Goa, and is in fact traditionally cooked with pork, and in spite of its apparent popularity in Indian restaurants abroad, it is not common in India itself.
To the East, Bengali and Odishan food makes heavy use of rice, and fish due to the vast river channels and ocean coastline in the region. Bengali cooking is known for its complexity of flavor and bittersweet balance. Mustard oil, derived from mustard seeds, is often used in cooking and adds a pungent, slightly sweet flavor and intense heat. Bengalis prefer freshwater fish, in particular the iconic ilish or hilsa: it can be smoked, fried, steamed, baked in young plantain leaves, and cooked with curd, eggplant and cumin seeds. It is said that ilish can be prepared in more than 50 ways. Typical Bengali dishes include maccher jhal, a brothy fish stew which literally means “fish in sauce”, and shorshe ilish (cooked in gravy made from mustard seed paste). Eastern India is also famous for its desserts and sweets: Rasgulla is a famous variant of the better-known gulab jamun, a spherical morsel made from cow’s milk and soaked in a clear sugar syrup. It’s excellent if consumed fresh or within a day after it is made.Sondesh is another excellent milk-based sweet, best described as the dry equivalent of ras malai.
A lot of food has also filtered in from other countries. Indian Chinese (or Chindian) is far and away the most common adaptation: most Chinese would barely recognize the stuff, but dishes like veg manchurian (deep-fried vegetable balls in a chilli-soy-ginger sauce) and chili chicken are very much a part of the Indian cultural landscape and worth a try. The British left fish and chips and some fusion dishes like mulligatawny soup, while Tibetan and Nepali food, especially momo dumplings, are not uncommon in north India. Pizza has entered India in a big way, but chains like Pizza hut and Domino’s have been forced to Indianize the pizza and introduce adaptations like paneer-tikka pizza. Remarkably, there is an Indian chain called Smokin Joe’s, based out of Mumbai, which has gone and mixed Thai curry with Pizzas.
For those with picky appetites, fast food is also offered.
It is, of course, impossible to do full justice to the range and diversity of Indian food in this brief section. Not only does every region of India have a distinctive cuisine, but you will also find that even within a region, castes and ethnic communities have different styles of cooking and often have their signature recipes which you will probably not find in restaurants. The adventurous traveller is advised to wangle invitations to homes, try various bylines of the city and look for food in unlikely places like temples in search of culinary nirvana.
While there are a wide variety of fruits native to India such as the chikoo and the jackfruit, nothing is closer to an Indians’ heart than a juicy ripe mango. Hundreds of varieties are found across most of its regions — in fact, India is the largest producer, growing more than half the world’s output. Mangoes are in season at the hottest part of the year, usually between May and July, and range from small (as big as a fist) to some as big as a small cantaloupe. It can be consumed in its ripe, unripe as well a baby form (the last 2 predominantly in pickles). Other fruits widely available (depending on the season) are bananas, oranges, guavas, lychees, apples, pineapple, pomegranate, apricot, melons, coconut, grapes, plums, peaches and berries.
Most Indians who practice vegetarianism do so for religious or cultural reasons — though cultural taboos have their roots in ethical concerns. Indians’ dietary restrictions come in all shapes and sizes.
Veganism is practically unknown in many parts of India, because milk and honey are enthusiastically consumed by virtually everyone. But major cities, such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, do have budding vegan societies and items such as tofu, soy chunks (branded Nutrela), and soy milk are readily available in major cities, as well as some minor ones. Eggs are considered non-vegetarian by many, though you are very likely to find people who are otherwise vegetarian eating eggs. These people are often referred to as eggetarians. That said, there are a number of foods that are vegan by default in India, including standard restaurant dishes such as aloo gobi, channa masala, various types of dal, dosas, and the vast majority of Indo-Chinese dishes. Dishes made with dairy products are usually denoted as such (referencing their use of butter or ghee, in particular). Most restaurants will accommodate dietary restrictions and it is advisable to ask if a dish contains milk, butter, cream, yogurt or ghee. Virtually all Indian desserts, however, are non-vegan, with the exception of jalebi, orange-colored fried dough commonly found in western and northern India.
The strictest vegetarians are some Jains and some Brahmin sects – they not only abjure all kinds of meat and eggs, they also refuse to eat onions, potatoes or anything grown under the soil.
Even meat-eating Hindus often follow special diets during religious days or during fasts. Hindu fasts do not involve giving up all food, just eating a restricted diet — some take only fruits.
A very small group of Indians are, or used to be piscatarians — i.e. they count fish as a vegetable product. Among these are Bengali and Konkani Brahmins. Such people are increasingly rare as most have taken to meat-eating.
Visiting vegetarians will discover a culinary treasure that is found nowhere else in the world. Owing to a large number of strictly vegetarian Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, Indian cuisine has evolved an astonishingly rich menu that uses no meat or eggs. The Jains in particular practice a strict form of vegetarianism based on the principles of non-violence and peaceful co-operative co-existence: Jains usually do not consume root vegetables such as potatoes, garlic, onions, carrots, radishes, cassava, sweet potatoes and turnips, as the plant needed to be killed in the process of accessing these prior to their end of life cycle. At least half the menus of most restaurants are devoted to vegetarian dishes, and by law all packaged food products in India are tagged with a green dot (vegetarian) or red dot (non-veg). Veganism however is not a well-understood concept in India, and vegans may face a tougher time: milk products like cheese (paneer), yogurt (dahi) and clarified butter (ghee) are used extensively, and honey is also commonly used as a sweetener. Milk in India is generally not pasteurized, and must be boiled before consumption.
Even non-vegetarians will soon note that due to the Hindu taboo, beef is generally not served (except in the Muslim and Parsi communities, Goa, Kerala and the North-Eastern states), and pork is also uncommon due to the Muslim population. Due to its high unpopularity, travellers are strongly urged not to order beef even in areas where it is offered because of how can offend and cause controversy. Chicken and mutton are thus by far the most common meats used, although “buff” (water buffalo) is occasionally served in backpacker establishments. Seafood is of course ubiquitous in the coastal regions of India, and a few regional cuisines do use duck, venison and other game meats in traditional dishes.
In India eating with your hand (instead of utensils like forks and spoons) is very common. There’s one basic rule of etiquette to observe, particularly in non-urban India: Use only your right hand. The left hand is only used for dirty things, like cleaning up in the toilet. Don’t stick either hand into communal serving dishes: instead, use the left hand to serve yourself with utensils and then dig in. Needless to say, it’s wise to wash your hands well before and after eating.
For breads for all types, the basic technique is to hold down the item with your forefinger and use your middle-finger and thumb to tear off pieces. The pieces can then be dipped in sauce or used to pick up bits before you stuff them in your mouth. Rice is more challenging, but the basic idea is to use four fingers to mix the rice in curry and pack a little ball, before you pop it in your mouth by pushing it with your thumb.
Most of the restaurants do provide cutlery and it’s pretty safe to use them instead of your hand.
Eating by hand is frowned on in some “classier” places. If you are provided with cutlery and nobody else around you seems to be doing it, then take the hint.
Indian restaurants run the gamut from roadside shacks (dhabas) to classy five-star places where the experience is comparable to places anywhere in the world. Away from the big cities and tourist haunts, mid-level restaurants are scarce, and food choices will be limited to the local cuisine, Punjabi/Mughlai, “Chinese” and occasionally South Indian.
Menus in English… well, almost
Menus in Indian restaurants are usually written in English — but using Hindi names. Here’s a quick decoder key that goes a long way for understanding common dishes like aloo gobi and muttar paneer.
The credit for popularizing Punjabi cuisine all over the country goes to the dhabas that line India’s highways. Their patrons are usually the truckers, who happen to be overwhelmingly Punjabi. The authentic dhaba serves up simple yet tasty seasonal dishes like roti and dhal with onions, and diners sit on cots instead of chairs. Hygiene can be an issue in many dhabas, so if one’s not up to your standards try another. In rural areas, dhabas are usually the only option.
In Southern India, “Hotel” means a local restaurant serving south Indian food, usually a thali — a full plate of food that usually includes a kind of bread and an assortment of meat or vegetarian dishes — and prepared meals.
Although you may be handed an extensive menu, most dishes are served only during specific hours, if at all.
Prices listed on menu at fancier restaurants typically do not include the taxes, that may add up to 15-30% of total bill. At local eateries, practice is to show the actual price on the menu itself.
Tipping in small denominations is usually acceptable though not mandatory, usually done by leaving small banknotes/ coins. At fancier restaurants where 10% tip is appropriate, though it is commonly included in bill labelled Service Charge.
The cow is a highly revered animal in India. Due to this restriction, you will find that the Western fast food chains in India generally do not serve beef. This means that the hamburgers people from Western countries are used to in fast food restaurants are generally absent in India. Also cow slaughter is banned in several states. But the above restrictions are found only in North, Central and Eastern India, and beef is common in Southern states and North Eastern parts of the country. States like Kerala have beef dishes in almost all of the Non Vegetarian restaurants.
India also has a sizeable Muslim minority, and in the major cities, halal food can be found at one of the many Muslim stalls.