Food in India
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
|Know your vegetarians|
|Most Indians who practice vegetarianism do so for religious or cultural reasons – although the cultural taboos have their roots in ethical concerns. Indians’ dietary restrictions come in all shapes and sizes, and the two symbols (see right) do not capture the full range. The green dot means purely vegetarian. The red dot means non-vegetarian and includes only eggs (as in a fruit and egg cake). Here is a quick guide:|
Veganism is virtually unknown in many parts of India, where milk and honey are consumed with gusto by virtually everyone. However, there are burgeoning vegan societies in major cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, and products such as tofu, soya pieces (Nutrela brand) and soya milk are readily available in major cities as well as some smaller towns. Eggs are considered by many to be non-vegetarian, although you are very likely to find people who are otherwise vegetarian and eat eggs. These people are often referred to as “egg-tarians”. Apart from this, there are a number of dishes 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 Indian Chinese dishes. Dishes prepared with dairy products are usually labelled as such (especially with regard to the use of butter or ghee). Most restaurants are considerate of dietary restrictions and it is advisable to ask if a dish contains milk, butter, cream, yoghurt or ghee. However, virtually all Indian desserts are not vegan, with the exception of jalebi, an orange fried pastry that is widely available in western and northern India.
The strictest vegetarians are some Jains and some Brahmin sects – they not only swear off all kinds of meat and eggs, but also refuse to eat onions, potatoes or anything that grows under the ground.
Even meat-eating Hindus often follow special diets during religious days or during fasting. Hindu fasting does not involve abstaining from all food, but following a restricted diet – some only eat fruit.
A very small group of Indians are or were piscatarians – i.e. they count fish as a vegetable product. These include Bengali and Konkani Brahmins. Such people are increasingly rare, as most have switched to eating meat,
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.
|Menus in English… well, almost|
|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
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.
Drinks in India
One of the sweetest and safest drinks you can get is tender coconut water (naryal paani). You can almost always find it on any beach or other tourist destination in the south. In summer (March-July), you can get fresh sugarcane juice and even many fresh fruit juice varieties at many places.
India is famous for its Alphonso mango variety, generally considered the king of mangoes by connoisseurs. Frooti, in its famous tetra pack, is the most popular processed drink, followed by Maaza (bottled by Coca-Cola) or Slice (bottled by PepsiCo), both of which contain about 15% Alphonso mango pulp. Both cost about ₹30-50 for a 600 ml bottle.
When buying bottled water, make sure the seal on the cap is not broken; otherwise, this is a telltale sign of tampering or that unscrupulous sellers are reusing old bottles and filling them with tap water, which is usually undrinkable for foreign tourists without first boiling it. Bottled water brands such as Aquafina (by PepsiCo) and Kinley (by Coca-Cola) are common. Local brands such as Bisleri are also acceptable and perfectly safe. Taste may vary due to the mineral content of each brand. In semi-urban or rural areas, it may be appropriate to ask for boiled water as well.
Tea in India
Tea (chai in most North Indian languages) of one kind or another can be obtained anywhere in India. The most common method of making chai is to brew tea leaves, milk and sugar together in a pot and keep it hot until it is all sold. It is sweet and uniquely refreshing once you get a taste for it. Masala Chai, in addition to the above blend, has spices like cardamom, ginger or cinnamon etc. For some people, this takes a little getting used to.
While masala chai is popular in northern and central India, it is important to note that people in eastern India (West Bengal and Assam) usually consume the tea without spices, English style. This is also the part of India where most tea is grown.
Coffee in India
In South India, filter coffee is replacing tea as the standard drink. Indian filter coffee is a coffee drink made by mixing frothed and boiled milk with the decoction obtained by brewing finely ground coffee powder in a traditional Indian filter.
Alcohol in India
Drinking alcohol can either be frowned upon or openly accepted, depending on the region and religion of the area where you drink. For example, Goa, Punjab and Pondicherry are more permissive (and have low taxes on alcohol), while some southern areas like Chennai are less tolerant of alcohol and may even impose excessive taxes on it. Some states like Gujarat are legally ‘dry’ and alcohol cannot be bought openly there, although there is a substantial smuggling industry.
Popular Indian drinks include beer, especially the ubiquitous Kingfisher (a decent lager), and rum, especially Old Monk. Prices vary by state, especially for hard liquor, but you can expect to pay ₹50-100 for a large bottle of beer and somewhere between ₹170-250 for a 750 ml bottle of Old Monk. Mumbai tends to be the most expensive due to local taxes, which can be three times higher than in Meghalaya.
Indian wines, long something of a joke, have improved remarkably in recent years and there is a booming wine industry in the hills of Maharashtra. The good stuff is not particularly cheap (expect to pay around 500 ₹ a bottle) and the choice is mostly limited to white wines, but look out for labels from ChateauIndage or Sula.
Illegal liquor, called tharra when made from sugarcane and toddy when made from coconuts, is widely available in some states. It is cheap and strong, but very dangerous as there are no quality controls, and best avoided altogether. In the former Portuguese colony of Goa, you can get an extremely spicy liquor called fenny or feni, typically made from cashew fruits or coconuts.
Cannabis in India
Cannabis in its many forms – especially ganja (weed) and charas (hashish) – is widely available throughout India, but they are all illegal in most of the country, and the letter of the law states that simple possession can mean fines or years in prison, depending on the amount you possess.
In some states (notably Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Orissa), the only legal and socially accepted way to consume cannabis is bhang, an inferior preparation, sold in state-licensed shops and not only smoked, but also made into biscuits, chocolate and the infamous Bhang Lassi, an herb-infused version of the normally harmless yoghurt drink. Bhang lassi is usually available in different strengths, so be careful if you opt for the stronger versions. It is also occasionally sold as “speciality lassi”, but is usually easily recognisable by the ₹30-50 price tag (many times more than the non-speciality varieties). An important point to note is that the effects of “bhang” are slow and increase when consumed with something sweet. Also, first-time users should wait a while before consuming too much to test their tolerance.