Indian cuisine is superb and takes its place among the great cuisines of the world. 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 well-deserved reputation for being hot, owing to the Indian penchant for potent green chilis that will bring tears to the eyes of the uninitiated. You can even find sweet cornflakes with a spicy edge and Indian candies with a piece of chili inside. 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 restaurants around the world is North Indian, also known as Mughlai (the courts of the Mughal emperors) or Punjabi (the people who popularized it). Mughlai dishes make heavy use of spices and has been heavily influenced by Central Asian cooking, hence you will find pulao (rice cooked in broth), kebab (grilled meat), kofta (balls of mince) etc. Tandoori chicken, prepared in a clay oven called a tandoor, is probably the best-known North Indian dish, but for an authentic Punjabi dining experience, try sarson da saag, a yummy gravy dish made with mustard greens, with makke di roti, a roti made from maize.
North India is wheat growing land, so you have Indian breads (known as roti), including chapatti (unleavened bread), paratha (stuffed chapatti), naan (cooked in a clay tandoori oven), puri (deep-fried and puffed up), 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 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 cuisines can be found throughout north India, like the savory Rajasthani dishes, more akin to the Gujarati cuisine, or the mild yet gratiating Himalayan (pahari) cuisine found in the higher reaches. North India also boasts of a variety of snacks like samosa (triangular stuffed pastry) and kachori (stuffed ball of dough). There is also a vast constellation of sweet desserts like jalebi (deep-fried pretzel with honey), rasmalai (a ball of curds soaked in honey), halwa, etc. Dry fruits like almonds, cashews and pistachio are used a lot, often in the desserts, but sometimes also in the main meal.
South India, in contrast, uses fewer spices and the food is mostly rice-based. They also make greater use of pulses. The typical meal is sambhar (a watery curry) with rice, or avial (mixed vegetables) with rice. There are regional variations too — the coastal regions make greater use of coconut and fish. In the coast, it is common to use grated coconut in everything and use 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 savoury Indian donut, and uttapam, fried idli 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. South Indian cuisine is predominantly vegetarian, though Chettinad and Keralan cuisine use meat heavily and are a lot more spicier too.
To the West, you will find some great cuisine groups. Gujarati cuisine is mostly vegetarian, sweet, and makes heavy use of milk products. Gujaratis make some of the best snack items such as the Dhokla and the Muthia. Rajasthani cuisine is similar to Gujarati, but somewhat spicier. Maharashtra and Goa are famous for their seafood.
To the East, Bengali food, like South Indian, makes heavy use of rice and fish, though Bengalis prefer freshwater fish. The iconic Bengali dish is Maccher jhol, a spicy fish curry. Bengal is also famous for its sweets, and sondesh is yummy.
A lot of food has also filtered in from other countries. The British left fish and chips and some fusion dishes like mulligatawny soup, while Tibetan 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. Indian Chinese' is far and away the most common adaptation: most Chinese would barely recognize the stuff, but dishes like veg manchurian (vegetable balls in a chilli-soy-ginger sauce) and chilli chicken are very much a part of the Indian cultural landscape and worth a try.
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, different 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 bylanes 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, the true Indian loves his mango. India produces hundreds of varieties across most of its regions. The season typically is the hottest part of the year, ranging between May and July. Mangos range from small (as big as a fist) to some as big as a small cantelope. It can be consumed in its ripe, unripe as well a baby form (the last 2 predominently in pickles). Other fruits widely available to travellers are bananas, oranges, guavas, lychees, apples, pineapple, pomegranate, apricot, melons, coconut, grapes, plums, peaches and berries. Some of them are, however, available only in certain times of the year.
Most Indians who practise 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 and the two symbols (see right) do not capture the full range. Here is a quick guide:
Veganism is practically unknown in India, because milk and honey are enthusiastically consumed by virtually everyone. But 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.
The strictest vegetarians are some Jains and some Vaishnava sects - they not only abjure all kinds of meat and eggs, they also refuse to eat onions, potatoes or anything grown under the soil. While such dietary restrictions were common earlier, they are rarely practised by the young. These restrictions may still apply during fasts, etc.
Even meat-eating Hindus often follow special diets during religious days or during fasts. Counter intuitively, Hindus while fasting do not really give up all food, but eat a restricted diet — some take only fruits. What is acceptable during fasts varies from region to region and is a fascinating topic that is sadly out of the scope of this guide.
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.
Most Hindus do not eat beef and Most Muslims do not eat pork, but you already knew that.
Visiting vegetarians will discover a culinary treasure that is found nowhere else in the world. Owing to a large number of strictly vegetarian Hindus and Jains, Indian cuisine has evolved an astonishingly rich menu that uses no meat or eggs. 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). Vegans, however, will face a tougher time: milk products like cheese (paneer), yogurt (dahi) and cream 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 basically not served, and pork is also uncommon due to the Muslim population. Chicken and mutton are thus by far the most common meats used, although beeflike "buff" (waterbuffalo) is occasionally served in backpacker establishments.
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: Use only your right hand. 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 pack a little ball, which can then be dipped into curry before you pop it in your mouth by pushing it with your thumb.
Most of the restaurants do provide cutlery and its 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.
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.
aloo — potato
chana — chickpeas
gobi — cauliflower (or cabbage)
machli — fish
makhan — butter
muttar — green peas
mirch — chilli pepper
murgh — chicken
palak — spinach
paneer — Indian cottage cheese
subzi — mixed vegetables
Indian restaurants run the whole gamut from roadside shacks to classy five-star places where the experience is comparable to classy five-star places anywhere in the world. But away from the big cities and tourist haunts, mid-level restaurants are scarce. That is probably because over much of the country, the culinary adventures of the middle-class have only begun, and eating out is just catching on. Outside the major metros, there isn't much variety in what the restaurants serve — in addition to the local cuisine, you get Punjabi/Mughlai, "Chinese" and occasionally South Indian.
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 is rather plain, but it serves up a tasty dish of roti and dhal with onions, and diners sit on cots instead of chairs. However, the dhaba's excellence in taste is not matched by its standards of hygiene. The popularity of the dhabas has meant that many restaurants serving Punjabi cuisine have a "Dhaba" as part of their name and some even try to capture the ambience.
If you are uncomfortable about the hygiene of a particular place, it is best to avoid it. Check if there's another one on the opposite side of the street. Fruits that can be peeled such as apples and bananas, as well as packaged snacks are always a safe option. Do not eat grapes unless you wash them nicely.
In Southern India, "Hotel" means a local restaurant serving south Indian food, mostly Thali -- a full plate of food that usually includes a kind of bread and an assortment of meat or vegetarian dishes -- and prepared meals.
Like everything in India, the English names of dishes are spelled differently in different places (sometimes in two neighboring restaurants) owing to the various ways in which Indian names can be transliterated into English. Not so different from the multiple spellings of Chinese dishes in restaurants all over the Western hemisphere.
Although you might get a big menu, most dishes are served only in specific hours.
A 10 percent tip after the meal is acceptable, but often a service charge is added to the bill.
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