Indian cuisine takes its place among the great cuisines of the world. Chances are you have tasted “Indian food” in your country, especially if you are a traveller from the West, but what India has exported abroad is only part of its extraordinary range of culinary diversity.
Indian food can be spicy: hot fresh green chillies or red chilli powder will bring tears to the eyes of the uninitiated and can be found in unexpected places like sweet cornflakes (a snack, not a breakfast) or even sweets.
To enjoy the local food, start slowly. Do not try everything at once. After a few weeks you can get used to the spicy food. If you don’t want to order your dish spicy, just say so. Most visitors are tempted to try at least some of the spicy dishes, and most find that the sting is worth the effort. Remember, too, that while “spicy” is a convenient shorthand for “chilli-laden”, the spiciness of food in India doesn’t always mean lots of chilli: The cuisine of India is frequently highly creative and flavourful, with a variety of different spices and other aromatic ingredients.
Cuisine in India
Indian cuisine 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 cuisine, particularly Mughlai cuisine, a style developed by the royal kitchens of the historic Mughal Empire, and the regional cuisine of Punjab, although it has been Britishised and the degree of authenticity in terms of actual Mughlai or Punjabi cuisine is variable at best and dubious at worst.
Northern India is a wheat-growing region, so there are Indian breads (known as roti), including chapatti (unleavened bread), paratha (pan-fried, layered roti), naan (cooked in a clay tandoor oven), puri (deep-fried and puffed bread) and many more. A typical meal consists of one or more gravy dishes along with rotis, which are eaten by breaking off a piece of roti, dipping it in the gravy and eating it together. Most of the Hindu heartland of India subsists on roti, rice and lentils (dal), prepared in various ways and seasoned to taste. As a side dish, there is usually spiced yoghurt (raita) and either fresh chutney or a tiny piece of an extremely spicy pickle (achar), which is a very acquired taste for most visitors – try mixing it with curry instead of eating it plain.
A variety of regional cuisines can be found throughout the North. Tandoori chicken, cooked in a clay oven called a tandoor, is probably the most famous North Indian dish, invented by a Punjabi immigrant from what is now Pakistan during Partition. For a taste of traditional Punjabi folk cuisine, try dal makhani (steamed black lentils and kidney beans in a buttery gravy) or sarson da saag, a delicious gravy dish of steamed mustard greens served with makke di roti (flat corn bread). Then there are the rich textures and intense flavours of Rajasthani cuisine, the meaty, rich Kashmir of the Kashmir Valley, or the mild and delightful Himalayan (Pahari) dishes of the higher altitudes. North India also has a variety of snacks such as samosa (vegetables wrapped in thin triangular dough) and kachori (vegetables or pulses wrapped in thin dough). There is also a wide range of sweet desserts such as jalebi (deep-fried pretzel with sugar syrup – in the shape of a spiral), rasmalai (curd balls soaked in condensed milk) and halwa. Dried fruits and nuts such as almonds, cashews and pistachios are used a lot, often in the desserts, but sometimes also in the main meal.
Authentic Mughal-style cuisine, the royal cuisine of the Mughal Empire, can still be found and enjoyed in some parts of India, especially in the old Mughal cities of Delhi, Agra and Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. It is a sophisticated blend of Persian, Turkish and subcontinental cuisine, using a lot of meat and spices. Some of the Mughal names of dishes carry the prefix shahi to signify their prestige and royal status in a bygone era. Famous Mughal specialities include biryani (layered meat and rice casserole), pulao (rice cooked in a meat or vegetable broth), kebab (grilled meat), kofta (balls of minced meat), rumali roti (wafer-thin swirled flatbread) and shahi tukray (saffron and cardamom-scented bread pudding).
In South India, food consists mainly of rice. A typical meal includes sambhar (a thick vegetable and lentil porridge) with rice, rasam (a thin, peppery soup) or avial (mixed vegetables) with rice, traditionally served on a banana leaf as a plate. The southern region of India differs from the northern region in the use of mustard seeds, curry leaves, beans, fenugreek seeds and a variety of souring agents such as tamarind and kokam, which are commonly used. There are also regional variations – coastal regions use more coconut and fish. In the state of Kerala, it is common to use shredded coconut in everything and coconut oil for cooking, while someone from the interior might be surprised to learn that coconut oil can be used for cooking. The South also has some great breakfast dishes like idli (a steamed cake made of lentils and rice), dosa, a thin crispy pancake often filled with spiced potatoes to make masala dosa, vada, a savoury Indian donut, and uttapam, a fried pancake made of a rice and lentil batter with onions and other vegetables in it. All these dishes can be eaten with dahi, plain yoghurt, and chutney, a condiment that can be made from practically anything. Try the ever-popular masala dosa, originally from Udupi in Karnataka, at one of Bangalore’s old restaurants like CTR and Janatha in Malleswaram or Vidyarthi Bhavan in Basavangudi or at MTR near Lalbagh. South Indian cuisine is predominantly vegetarian, although there are exceptions: Seafood is popular in Kerala and on the Mangalorea Coast of Karnataka; and the cuisines of Chettinad and Hyderabad use a lot of meat and are much spicier. Coffee tends to be the preferred drink in South India rather than tea.
In the West, you will find a few major cuisine groups. While Gujarati cuisine is similar in some ways to Rajasthani cuisine, with its extensive use of dairy products, the difference is that Gujarati cuisine is mostly vegetarian and often sweetened with jaggery or sugar.Gujaratis make some of the best snacks like dhokla and 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 neighbouring states of Maharashtra and Goa are known for their seafood, often simply grilled, fried or poached in coconut milk. A notable feature of Goa cuisine is the use of pork and vinegar, a rare sight in the rest of India. Vindaloo has its origin in Goa and is traditionally prepared with pork. Despite its obvious popularity in Indian restaurants abroad, it is not common in India itself.
In the East, Bengali and Odishan food makes much use of rice, and fish due to the large river channels and ocean coastline in the region. Bengali cuisine is known for its complexity of flavour and bittersweet balance. Mustard oil, extracted from mustard seeds, is often used in cooking and adds a pungent, slightly sweet taste and intense heat to the cuisine. Bengalis prefer freshwater fish, especially the iconic ilish or hilsa: it can be smoked, fried, steamed, baked in young plantain leaves, cooked with curd, aubergine and cumin. It is said that ilish can be prepared in more than 50 ways. Typical Bengali dishes are maccher jhal, a bready fish stew that literally means “fish in gravy”, and shorshe ilish (cooked in a sauce made from mustard seed paste). East India is also famous for its desserts and sweets: rasgulla is a famous variant of the more familiar gulab jamun, a spherical morsel made from cow’s milk and soaked in a clear sugar syrup. It tastes great when eaten fresh or within a day of being made. Sondesh is another excellent milk-based sweet that can best be described as the dry equivalent of Ras Malai.
Many dishes have also been brought in from other countries. Indian Chinese (or Chindian) is by far the most common adaptation: most Chinese would hardly recognise the stuff, but dishes like Veg Manchurian (deep-fried vegetable balls in a chilli-soy-ginger sauce) and Chilli Chicken are very much part of the Indian cultural landscape and worth trying. The British have left behind fish and chips and some fusion dishes like mulligatawny soup, while Tibetan and Nepali food, especially momo dumplings, are not uncommon in northern India. Pizza has entered India in a big way, with chains like Pizza Hut and Domino’s Indianising it and introducing variations like paneer tikka pizza. Mumbai based Indian chain called Smokin Joe’s mixes Thai curry with pizza.
It is, of course, impossible to do full justice to the scope and diversity of Indian cuisine in this short section. Not only does each region of India have a distinctive cuisine, you will also find that even within a region, castes and ethnic communities have different cooking styles and often have their own recipes that you are unlikely to find in restaurants. The adventurous traveller is advised to sneak home invitations, try out different back alleys of the city and seek out food in unlikely places like temples and gurudhwaras in search of culinary nirvana.
Fruits in India
Although a variety of fruits are native to India, including chikoo and jackfruit, nothing is closer to the Indian heart than the juicy, ripe mango. Hundreds of varieties can be found in most regions of the country – in fact, India is the largest producer, growing more than half of the world’s production. Mangoes are in season during the hottest time of the year, usually between May and July, and range from small (the size of a fist) to some as big as a small melon. They can be eaten in ripe, unripe and also in baby form (the last 2 mainly in pickles). The best mango (the “king of mangoes” as Indians call them) is the “Alphonso” or Haapoos (in Marathi), which is in season in April and May on the west coast of Maharashtra. Buy them at a good fruit shop in Mumbai or at the Mahatma Phule Market (formerly Crawford Market) in South Mumbai. Dushheri mangoes are also popular in northern India. Other widely available fruits (depending on the season) are bananas, oranges, guavas, litchis, apples, pineapples, pomegranates, apricots, melons, coconuts, grapes, plums, peaches and berries.
Vegetarian in India
Vegetarians discover a culinary treasure here that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Thanks to a large number of strict vegetarian Hindus and Jains, Indian cuisine has developed an astonishingly rich menu that does without meat and eggs. The Jains in particular practice a strict form of vegetarianism based on the principles of non-violence and peaceful coexistence: Jains generally do not consume root vegetables such as potatoes, garlic, onions, carrots, radishes, cassava, sweet potatoes and turnips, as the plant must be killed before the end of its normal life cycle in order to obtain them. At least half of most restaurants’ menus are dedicated to vegetarian dishes, and by law all packaged food in India is labelled with a green dot (vegetarian) or a red dot (non-vegan). Veganism is not a well-understood concept in India, however, and vegans may have a harder time: dairy products such as cheese (paneer), yoghurt (dahi) and clarified butter (ghee) are used extensively, and honey is also often used as a sweetener. Milk is not usually pasteurised in India and must be boiled before consumption.
Even non-vegetarians will quickly realise that beef is not generally served due to Hindu religious taboos (except for the Muslim and Parsi communities, Goa, Kerala and the north-eastern states) and that pork is also not commonly available due to the Muslim population. Chicken and mutton are therefore by far the most common meats, although ‘buff’ (water buffalo) is occasionally served in backpacker joints. Seafood is of course ubiquitous in coastal India, and some regional cuisines use duck, venison and other game meats in traditional dishes.
Dining Etiquette Tips For India
In India, eating with your hand (instead of cutlery such as fork and spoon) is very common. There is one basic rule of etiquette that you should follow, especially in non-urban India: use only your right hand. The left hand is reserved for unhygienic purposes. Do not put either hand in the communal serving bowls: Instead, use the spatula with your left hand to help yourself and then reach out. Of course, it is advisable to wash your hands thoroughly before and after eating.
For breads of all kinds, the basic technique is to hold the piece with your index finger and tear off pieces with your middle finger and thumb. The pieces can then be dipped in sauce or used to pick up bites before you pop them into your mouth. Rice is more challenging, but the basic idea is to mix the rice in the curry with four fingers and form it into a small ball before popping it into your mouth with your thumb.
Most restaurants provide cutlery and it is quite safe to use this instead of your hand.
Eating by hand is frowned upon in some “classier” places. If you are provided with cutlery and no one else around you seems to be doing it, take the hint.
Restaurants in India
Indian restaurants range from roadside shacks (dhabas) to posh five-star restaurants where the experience is comparable to anywhere else in the world. Away from the major cities and tourist spots, mid-range restaurants are rare and the choice of food is limited to local cuisine, Punjabi/Mughlai, ‘Chinese’ and occasionally South Indian.
The credit for popularising Punjabi cuisine across the country goes to the dhabas that line India’s highways. Their patrons are usually the truckers, who are predominantly Punjabi. The authentic dhaba serves simple but tasty seasonal dishes like roti and dhal with onions, and diners sit on cots instead of chairs. Hygiene can be a problem in many dhabas, so if one doesn’t meet your standards, seek out another. In rural areas, dhabas are usually the only option.
In South India, “hotel” means a local restaurant serving South Indian food, usually a thali – a complete plate of food, usually containing some kind of bread and a selection of meat or vegetarian dishes – as well as ready meals.
Although you are given an extensive menu, most dishes are only served at certain times, if at all.
Menus in Indian restaurants are usually written in English – but with Hindi names. Here’s a quick decoder key to help you understand common dishes like aloo gobi and muttar paneer.
– aloo or aalu – potato
– baigan or baingan – aubergine/ aubergine
– bhindi – okra
– chana – chickpeas
– dal – lenses
– Gobi – cauliflower (or other cabbage)
– machli – fish
– makkhan – butter
– matar – green peas
– mirch – chilli pepper
– murgh or murg – chicken
– Palak or Saag – spinach (or other greens)
– Paneer – Indian cottage cheese
– subzi – vegetables