Indian food has a richly deserved reputation as one of the world’s great cuisines. Stereotyped abroad as the ubiquitous "curry”, the cooking of the Subcontinent covers a wealth of different culinary styles, with myriad regional variations and specialities, from the classic creamy meat and fruit Mughlai dishes of the north through to the banana-leaf vegetarian thalis of the south.
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For vegetarians, in particular, Indian food is a complete delight. Some of the Subcontinent’s best food is meat-free, and even confirmed carnivores will find themselves tucking into delicious dhals and vegetable curries with relish. Most religious Hindus, and the majority of people in the south, don’t eat meat or fish, while some orthodox Brahmins and Jains also avoid onions and garlic, which are thought to inflame the baser instincts. Veganism is not common, however; if you’re vegan, you’ll have to keep your eyes open for eggs and dairy products. Many eating places state whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian either on signs outside or at the top of the menu. The terms used in India (and throughout our eating listings) are “veg” and “non-veg”. You’ll also see “pure veg”, which means that no eggs or alcohol are served. As a rule, meat-eaters should exercise caution in India: even when meat is available, especially in the larger towns, its quality can be poor, except in the best restaurants, and you won’t get much in a dish anyway – especially in cheaper canteens where it’s mainly there for flavouring. Hindus, of course, do not eat beef and Muslims shun pork, so you’ll only find those in a few Christian enclaves such as the beach areas of Goa, and Tibetan areas. Note that what is called “mutton” on menus is in fact goat.
Where to eat
Broadly speaking, eating establishments divide into three main types: cheap and unpretentious local cafés (known variously as dhabas, bhojanalayas and udupis); Indian restaurants aimed at more affluent locals; and tourist restaurants. Dhabas and bhojanalayas are cheap cafés, where food is basic but often good, consisting of vegetable curry, dhal (a kind of lentil broth), rice or Indian bread (the latter more standard in the north) and sometimes meat. Often found along the sides of highways, dhabas traditionally cater to truck drivers – one way of telling a good dhaba is to judge from the number of trucks parked outside. Bhojanalayas are basic eating places, usually found in towns (especially around bus stands and train stations) in the north and centre of the country; they tend to be vegetarian, especially those signed as “Vaishno”. Both dhabas and bhojanalayas can be grubby – look them over before you commit yourself. The same is rarely true of their southern equivalent, udupi canteens, which offer cheap, delicious snacks such as masala dosa, idli, vada and rice-based dishes, all freshly cooked to order and served by uniformed waiters.
There are all sorts of Indian restaurants, veg and non-veg and typically catering to Indian businessmen and middle-class families. These are the places to go for reliably good Indian food at bargain prices. The more expensive Indian restaurants, such as those in five-star hotels, can be very expensive by local standards, but offer a rare chance to try top-notch classic Indian cooking, and still at significantly cheaper prices than you’d pay back home – assuming you could find Indian food that good.
Tourist restaurants, found across India wherever there are significant numbers of Western visitors, cater specifically for foreign travellers with unadventurous taste buds, serving up a stereotypical array of pancakes, omelettes, chips, muesli and fruit salad, along with a basic range of curries. The downside is that they tend to be relatively pricey, while the food can be very hit and miss – Indian spaghetti bolognese, enchiladas and chicken chow mein can be every bit as weird as you might expect. International-style fast food, including burgers (without beef – usually chicken or mutton) and pizzas, is also available in major cities.
The basic distinction in Indian food is between the cuisines of the north and south. North Indian food (which is the style generally found in Indian restaurants abroad) is characterized by its rich meat and vegetable dishes in thick tomato, onion and yogurt-based sauces, accompanied by thick breads. South Indian food, by contrast, is largely vegetarian, with spicy chilli and coconut flavours and lots of rice, either served in its natural state or made into one of the south’s distinctive range of pancakes, such as the dosa, idli and uttapam, although coastal areas serve plenty of fish dishes.
What Westerners call a “curry” covers a huge variety of dishes, each made with a different masala, or mix of spices. Commonly used spices include chilli, turmeric, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander – both leaf and seed – cumin and saffron. Garam masala (“hot mix”) is a combination of spices often added to a dish at the last stage of cooking to spice it up.
Chilli is another key element in the Indian spice cabinet but the idea that all Indian food is fiery hot is a complete myth. North Indian food, in particular, tends to be quite mildly spiced, often more so than Indian food in restaurants abroad. South Indian food can be hotter but not invariably so. If you can’t take the heat, there are mild dishes such as korma and biryani where meat or vegetables are cooked with rice. Indians tend to assuage the effects of chilli with chutney, dahi (curd) or raita (curd with mint and cucumber, or other herbs and vegetables). Otherwise, beer is one of the best things for washing chilli out of your mouth; the essential oils that cause the burning sensation dissolve in alcohol, but not in water.
Vegetarian curries are usually identified (even on menus in English) by the Hindi names of their main ingredients, such as paneer (cheese), alu (potatoes), chana (chickpeas) or mutter (peas). Meat curries are more often given specific names such as korma or dopiaza, to indicate the kind of masala used or the method of cooking.
North Indian food
North Indian cooking has been heavily influenced by the various Muslim invaders who arrived in the Subcontinent from Central Asia and Persia. They gave Indian cooking many of its most popular dishes and accompaniments, such as the biryani and the naan bread, as well as its relatively greater emphasis on meat compared to the south. The classic north Indian fusion of native and Central Asian influences (although it can be found as far south as Hyderabad) is so-called Mughlai cooking, the creation of the Mughal dynasty. Mostly non-veg, the food is mildly spiced but extremely rich, using ingredients such as cream, almonds, sultanas and saffron – the classic korma sauce is the best-known example.
The other big northern style is tandoori. The name refers to the deep clay oven (tandoor) in which the food is cooked. Tandoori chicken is marinated in yogurt, herbs and spices before cooking. Boneless pieces of meat, marinated and cooked in the same way are known as tikka; they may be served in a medium-strength masala (tikka masala), one thickened with almonds (pasanda), or in a rich butter sauce (murg makhani or butter chicken). Breads such as naan and roti are also baked in the tandoor.
A main dish – which may be a curry, but could also be a dry dish such as a kebab, or a tandoori dish without a masala – is usually served with a dhal and bread. Rice is usually an optional extra in north India and has to be ordered separately.
Bread, which comes in a number of varieties, all of them flatbreads rather than loaves. Chapatti is a generic term for breads, but tends to refer to the simplest, unleavened type. It’s usually made from wheat flour. The term roti is likewise generic, and a roti can be exactly the same as a chapatti, but the term tends to refer more to a thicker bread baked in a tandoor. In good Muslim cooking, delicately thin rumali roti (“handkerchief” bread) often accompanies rich meat and chicken dishes. Naan is leavened, thick and chewy, and invariably baked in a tandoor; it’s a favourite in non-veg restaurants as it best accompanies rich meaty dishes. You may also come across fried breads, of which paratha (or parantha) is rolled out, basted with ghee, folded over and rolled out again several times before cooking, and often stuffed with ingredients such as potato (alu paratha); it’s popular for breakfast. Puris are little fried puffballs. Poppadum (papad) is a crisp wafer made from lentil flour and is typically served as an appetizer.
Many restaurants also offer set meals, or thalis. A thali is a stainless-steel tray with a number of little dishes in it, containing a selection of curries, a chutney and a sweet. In the middle you’ll get bread and usually rice. In many places, waiters will keep coming round with refills until you’ve had enough.
There’s an enormous variety of regional cuisines across the north. Bengalis love fish and cook a mean mangsho (meat) curry as well as exotic vegetable dishes such as mo-cha – cooked banana flower. They also like to include fish bones for added flavour in their vegetable curries – a nasty surprise for vegetarians. Tibetans and Bhotias from the Himalayas have a simple diet of thukpa (meat soup) and momo (meat dumplings), as well as a salty tea made with either rancid yak butter (where available) or with ordinary butter. In Punjab and much of northern India, home cooking consists of dhal and vegetables along with roti and less rice than the Bengalis. Food in Gujarat, predominantly veg, is often cooked with a bit of sugar. Certain combinations are traditional and seasonally repeated, such as makki ki roti (fried corn bread) with sarson ka sag (mustard-leaf greens) around Punjab and other parts of north India. Baingan bharta (puréed roast aubergine) is commonly eaten with plain yogurt and roti.
South Indian food
The food of south India is a world away from that of the north. Southern cooking also tends to use a significantly different repertoire of spices, with sharper, simpler flavours featuring coconut, tamarind, curry leaves and plenty of dried red and fresh green chillies. Rice is king, not only eaten in its natural form, but also made into regional staples such as idlis (steamed rice cakes), idiyyapams (steamed rice-noodle cakes) and dosas (fermented rice-batter pancakes), such as the ubiquitous masala dosa, a potato curry wrapped in a crispy lentil-flour pancake. An alternative to the dosa is the uttapam, which is thicker, often with onions or another vegetable fried into its body. The lavish breads that are such a feature of north Indian cooking aren’t usually available, apart from the fluffy little puri. Meat is comparatively uncommon in the brahmin-dominated temple towns of Tamil Nadu, but available throughout Kerala, where there are sizeable Christian and Muslim minorities.
Set meals are another common feature in the south, where they are generally referred to simply as “meals”. They generally consist of a mound of rice surrounded by various vegetable curries, sambhar dhal, chutney and curd, and usually accompanied by puris and rasam, a thin, hot, peppery soup. Traditionally served on a round metal tray or thali (also found in north India), with each side dish in a separate metal bowl, set meals are sometimes presesnted on a section of banana leaf instead. In most traditional restaurants, you can eat as much as you want, and staff circulate with refills of everything. In the south even more than elsewhere, eating with your fingers is de rigueur and cutlery may be unavailable in cheap restaurants.
Wherever you eat, remember to use only your right hand, and wash your hands before you start. Try to avoid getting food on the palm of your hand by eating with the tips of your fingers.
Snacks and street food
India abounds in snacks and street food. Chana puri, a chickpea curry with a puri (or sometimes another type of bread, a kulcha) to dunk, is a great favourite in the north; idli sambhar – lentil and vegetable sauce with rice cakes to dunk – is the southern equivalent. Street finger-food includes bhel puris (a Mumbai speciality consisting of a mix of puffed rice, deep fried vermicelli, potato and crunchy puri with tamarind sauce), pani puris (the same puris dunked in peppery and spicy water – only for the seasoned), bhajis (deep-fried cakes of vegetables in chickpea flour), samosas (vegetables or occasionally meat in a pastry triangle, fried), and pakoras (vegetables or potato dipped in chickpea flour batter and deep-fried). In the south, you’ll also come across the ever-popular vada, a spicy deep-fried lentil cake which looks rather like a doughnut.
Kebabs are common in the north, most frequently seekh kebab, minced lamb grilled on a skewer, but also shami kebab, small minced-lamb cutlets. Kebabs rolled into griddle-fried bread, known as kathi or kaati rolls, originated in Kolkata but are now available in other cities as well. With all street snacks, though, remember that food left lying around attracts germs – make sure it’s freshly cooked. Be especially careful with snacks involving water, such as pani puris, and cooking oil, which is often recycled. Generally, it’s a good idea to acclimatize to Indian conditions before you start eating street food.
You won’t find anything called “Bombay mix” in India, but there’s no shortage of dry spicy snack mixes, often referred to as channa chur. Jackfruit chips are sometimes sold as a savoury snack – though they are rather bland – and cashew nuts are a real bargain. Peanuts, also known as “monkey nuts” or mumfuli, usually come roasted and unshelled.
Chinese food is widely available throughout India. It’s generally cooked by Indian chefs and isn’t exactly authentic, except in the few Indian cities, most notably Kolkata, that have large Chinese communities, where you can get very good Chinese cuisine.
Tourist restaurants and backpacker cafés nationwide offer a fair choice of Western food, from unpretentious little bakeries serving cakes and sandwiches to smart tourist restaurants dishing up fine Italian cooking on candlelit terraces. However, quality is variable. Cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are also home to a range of specialist non-Indian restaurants featuring Tex-Mex, Thai, Japanese, Italian and French cuisines – these are usually found in luxury hotels.
In addition to these places, international fast-food chains such as Pizza Hut, Domino’s, KFC and McDonald’s serve the same standard fare as elsewhere in the world at much cheaper prices.
Most Indians have rather a sweet tooth and Indian sweets, usually made of milk, can be very sweet indeed. Of the more solid type, penda i, a kind of fudge made from milk which has been boiled down and condensed, varies from moist and delicious to dry and powdery. It comes in various flavours from plain creamy white to pista (pistachio) in livid green and is often sold covered with silver leaf (which you eat). Smoother-textured, round penda and thin diamonds of kaju katli, plus moist sandesh and the harder paira, both popular in Bengal, are among many other sweets made from chhana (boiled-down milk with whey). Crunchier mesur is made with chickpeas; numerous types of gelatinous halwa, not the Middle Eastern variety, include the rich gajar ka halwa made from carrots and cream.
Jalebis, circular orange tubes made of deep-fried treacle and dripping with syrup, are as sickly as they look. Gulab jamuns, deep-fried spongy dough balls soaked in syrup, are just as unhealthy. Another popular sweet is the round ladoo, essentially made from sugar, ghee and flour, though the ingredients may vary from region to region. Among Bengali sweets, widely considered to be the best are rasgullas, rosewater-flavoured cream-cheese balls floating in syrup. Ras malai, found throughout north India, is similar, but soaked in cream instead of syrup. Down south, payasam – a rice or vermicelli pudding flavoured with cardamom, saffron and nuts – is a popular dessert, with special versions served during major festivals.
Chocolate is improving rapidly in India and you’ll find various Cadbury’s and Amul bars. None of the various indigenous brands of imitation Swiss and Belgian chocolates are worth eating.
Among the large ice-cream vendors, Kwality (owned and branded as Wall’s), Amul, Gaylord and Dollops stand out. Uniformed men push carts of ice cream around and the bigger companies have many imitators, usually quite obvious. Some have no scruples – stay away from water ices unless you have a seasoned constitution. Ice-cream parlours selling elaborate concoctions are very popular; Connaught Circus in Delhi has several. Be sure to try kulfi, a pistachio- and cardamom-flavoured frozen dessert which is India’s answer to ice-cream; bhang kulfi (popular during the festival of Holi) is laced with cannabis and has an interesting kick to it, but should be approached with caution.
What fruit is available varies with region and season, but there’s always a fine choice. Ideally, you should peel all fruit, including apples, or soak them in strong iodine or potassium permanganate solution for half an hour. Roadside vendors sell fruit which they often cut up and serve sprinkled with salt and even masala – don’t buy anything that looks like it’s been hanging around for a while.
Mangoes of various kinds are usually on offer but not all are sweet enough to eat fresh – some are used for pickles or curries. Indians are very picky about their mangoes, which they feel and smell before buying; if you don’t know the art of choosing the fruit, you could be sold the leftovers. Among the species appearing at different times in the season, which lasts from spring to summer, look out for Alphonso and Langra. Bananas of one sort or another are also on sale all year round, and oranges and tangerines are generally easy to come by, as are sweet melons and thirst-quenching watermelons.
Tropical fruits such as coconuts, papayas (pawpaws) and pineapples are more common in the south, while things such as lychees and pomegranates are very seasonal. In the north, temperate fruit from the mountains can be much like that in Europe and North America, with strawberries, apricots and even rather soft apples available in season.
Among less familiar fruit, the chiku, which looks like a kiwi and tastes a bit like a pear, is worth a mention, as is the watermelon-sized jackfruit, whose spiny green exterior encloses sweet, slightly rubbery yellow segments, each containing a seed. Individual segments are sold at roadside stalls.
India sometimes seems to run on tea, or chai, grown in Darjeeling, Assam and the Nilgiri Hills, and sold by chaiwalas on just about every street corner. Tea is usually made by putting tea leaves, milk and water in a pan, boiling it all up, straining it into a cup or glass with lots of sugar and pouring back and forth from one cup to another to stir. Ginger and/or cardamom are often added. If you’re quick off the mark, you can get them to hold the sugar. English tea it isn’t, but most travellers get used to it. Sometimes, especially in tourist spots, you might get a pot of European-style “tray” tea, generally consisting of a tea bag in lukewarm water – you’d do better to stick to the pukka Indian variety, unless, that is, you are in a traditional tea-growing area.
Coffee is becoming increasingly popular, with a growing number of cafés and restaurants now investing in proper coffee machines, especially in the major cities and tourist centres. There are now hundreds of branches of chains – Café Coffee Day (CCD) is by far the biggest, followed by Barista – and a growing number of independent outlets. In the south, coffee is just as common as tea, and far better than it is in the north. One of the best places to get it is in outlets of the Indian Coffee House chain, found in every southern town and occasionally in the north. A whole ritual is attached to the drinking of milky Keralan coffee in particular, poured in flamboyant sweeping motions between tall glasses to cool it down.
Soft drinks are ubiquitous. Coca-Cola and Pepsi have now largely replaced (or bought out) their old Indian equivalents such as Campa Cola and Thums Up, although you’ll still find the pleasantly lemony Limca. All contain a lot of sugar but little else: adverts for Indian soft drinks have been known to boast “Absolutely no natural ingredients!” None will quench your thirst for long.
More recommendable is water, either treated or boiled tap water or bottled water (though quality may be suspect). You’ll also find cartons of Frooti, Jumpin, Réal and similar brands of fruit juice drinks, which come in mango, guava, apple and lemon varieties. If the carton looks at all mangled, it is best not to touch it as it may have been recycled. At larger stations, there will be a stall on the platform selling Himachali apple juice. Better still, green coconuts, common around coastal areas especially in the south, are cheaper than any of these and sold on the street by vendors who will hack off the top for you with a machete and give you a straw to suck up the coconut water (you then scoop out the flesh and eat it). You will also find street stalls selling freshly made sugar-cane juice: delicious, and not in fact too sweet, but not always safe healthwise.
India’s greatest cold drink, lassi, is made with beaten curd and drunk either sweetened with sugar, salted, or mixed with fruit. Varying widely from smooth and delicious to insipid and watery, it is sold at virtually every café, restaurant and canteen in the country. Freshly made milkshakes are also commonly available at establishments with blenders. They’ll also sell you what they call a fruit juice, but which is usually fruit, water and sugar (or salt) liquidized and strained; also, street vendors selling fresh fruit juice in less than hygienic conditions are apt to add salt and garam masala. With all such drinks, however appetizing they may seem, you should exercise great caution in deciding where to drink them.
Prohibition has been making something of a comeback in Modi’s India and in 2016 Bihar joined Gujarat, Nagaland and Manipur in having a total alcohol ban for the general public. Other states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and some other states retain partial prohibition in the form of “dry” days, high taxes, very restrictive licences, and health warnings on labels.
Alcoholic enclaves in prohibition states can become major drinking centres: Daman and Diu in Gujarat, and Puducherry and Karaikal in Tamil Nadu are the main ones. Goa, Sikkim and Mahé (Kerala) join them as places where the booze flows especially freely and cheaply. Interestingly, all were outside the British Raj. Liquor permits – free, and available from Indian embassies, high commissions and tourist offices abroad, from tourist offices in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, at airports on arrival and even online – allow those travellers who bother to apply for one to evade certain restrictions in Gujarat.
Beer is widely available, if rather expensive by local standards. Price varies from state to state, but you can usually expect to pay around ₹100–240 for a 650ml bottle. A pub culture, not dissimilar to that of the West, has taken root among the wealthier classes in cities like Bengaluru and Mumbai and also in Delhi. Kingfisher, King’s Black Label and Foster’s are still the leading brands, but there are plenty of others, and microbreweries are increasingly making their presence felt in some metropolitan areas. The mainstream lagers tend to contain chemical additives, including glycerine, but are still fairly palatable if you can get them cold. In certain places, notably unlicensed restaurants in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, beer comes in the form of “special tea” – a teapot of beer, which you pour into and drink from a teacup to disguise what it really is.
A cheaper, and often delicious, alternative to beer in Goa and Kerala and other southern states is toddy (palm wine). In Bengal it is made from the date palm, and is known as taddy. Sweet and nonalcoholic when first tapped, it ferments within twelve hours. In the Himalayas, the Bhotia people, of Tibetan stock, drink chang, a beer made from millet, and one of the nicest drinks of all – tumba, where fermented millet is placed in a bamboo flask and topped with hot water, then sipped through a bamboo pipe.
Spirits usually take the form of “Indian Made Foreign Liquor” (IMFL), although the foreign liquor industry is expanding rapidly. Some Scotch, such as Seagram’s 100 Pipers, is now being bottled in India and sold at a premium, as is Smirnoff vodka, among other known brands. Some of the brands of Indian whisky are not too bad and are affordable in comparison; gin and brandy can be pretty rough, while Indian rum is sweet and distinctive. In Goa, feni is a spirit distilled from coconut or cashew fruit. Steer well clear of illegally distilled arak (araq) however, which often contains methanol (wood alcohol) and other poisons. A look through the press, especially at festival times, will soon reveal numerous cases of blindness and death as a result of drinking bad hooch (or “spurious liquor” as it’s called). Licensed country liquor, sold in several states under such names as bangla, is an acquired taste. Unfortunately, Indian wine – despite the efforts of a few pioneering vineyards in Maharashtra and Karnataka such as Sulu and Grover Zampa – is still generally of a poor quality, and also expensive, while foreign wine available in upmarket restaurants and luxury hotels comes with an exorbitant price-tag.
You may be relieved to know that the red stuff people spit all over the streets isn’t blood, but juice produced by chewing paan – a digestive, commonly taken after meals, and also a mild stimulant, found especially in the northeast, where it is fresh and much stronger.
Paan consists of chopped or shredded nut (always referred to as betel nut, though in fact it comes from the areca palm), wrapped in a leaf (which does come from the betel vine) that is first prepared with ingredients such as katha (a red paste), chuna (slaked white lime), mitha masala (a mix of sweet spices, which can be ingested) and zarda (chewing tobacco, not to be swallowed on any account, especially if made with chuna). The triangular package thus formed is wedged inside your cheek and chewed slowly. In the case of chuna and zarda paans, you should spit out the juice as you go.
Paan, and paan masala, a mix of betel nut, fennel seeds, sweets and flavourings, are sold by paan-wallahs, often from tiny stalls squeezed between shops. Paan-wallahs develop big reputations; those in the tiny roads of Varanasi are the most renowned, asking astronomical prices for paan made to elaborate specifications including silver and even gold foil. Paan is an acquired taste; novices should start off, and preferably stick with, the sweet and harmless mitha variety, which is perfectly all right to ingest.
What about the water?
One of the chief concerns of many prospective visitors to India is whether the water is safe to drink. Tap water is best avoided, even though locals happily gulp it down, but many hotels and restaurants have modern filtration systems that remove most of the risks. Bottled water, available in all but the most remote places, is an even safer bet, though it has a major drawback – namely the plastic pollution it causes. Visualize the size of the pile of plastic you’d leave behind after getting through a couple of bottles per day, imagine that multiplied by millions and you have something along the lines of the amount of non-biodegradable landfill waste generated each year by tourists alone.
The best solution as regards your health and the environment is to purify your own water. Chemical sterilization using chlorine is completely effective, fast and inexpensive, and you can remove the nasty taste it leaves with neutralizing tablets or lemon juice.
Alternatively, invest in some kind of purifying filter incorporating chemical sterilization to kill even the smallest viruses. An ever-increasing range of compact, lightweight products are available these days through outdoor shops and large pharmacies, but pregnant women or anyone with thyroid problems should check that iodine isn’t used as the chemical sterilizer.