Eating Indian Food in India

A typical selection of Indian foods: biryani, potato curry, chapathi, chicken, rice.

A typical selection of Indian food: biryani, potato curry, chapathi, chicken, rice. Photo by Mohans1995.

Indian Food in India

Although fancy hotels in India serve the usual international cuisine, most Indian food revolves around carbohydrates (rice in the south, bread in the north) with spicy vegetables and a some scraggy protein if you’re lucky.

Naturally big towns sport the usual fast food joints and a better selection of alternative eateries, but tourists beware, if you don’t like Indian food in your own country it won’t improve a lot when you get here, though vegetarians will be laughing all the way to the loo.

On the upside eating in Indian joints is incredibly good value, or you can acquire a substantial club sandwich in superb surroundings at most first class hotel cafés for a few rupees more.

Kaati roll paratha, Indian food, India

Kaati roll paratha. Photo by Dhanwanthkurup.

Indian Food and Drink

For the traveller, particularly vegetarians and/or lovers of Indian food, one of the great joys in India is to enjoy the sub-continent’s cuisine at its authentic best. In terms of availability and normal custom there are some points that are worth bearing in mind.

The north of India is more wheat oriented with a splendid choice of breads, whilst rice dominates in the south. What is less well appreciated is that soya bean oil is used in northern cooking compared to coconut oil in the south.

Water is served with meals throughout India but with an interesting variation in temperature – in the north, the food is warm and the water cold; in the south, the food is lukewarm and the water tepid. Southerners argue that the latter combination is better for the digestion and the statistics apparently show that they suffer from fewer bowel problems and have a longer life expectancy.

Vegetable cutlets, Indian food, India

Vegetable cutlets. Photo by Kanikatwl.

Sub-regional differences also exist in home cooking – in the north west people will prepare one curry (a pulse dish, or a vegetarian dish or a meat dish) to eat with bread; in the north east a pulse dish plus either a vegetarian or a meat dish will be put on the table, accompanied by bread and rice. The food is claimed to be spicier in the north though personally I find the Indian food in countries like Malaysia much hotter, probably because more chilli is added there.

Although many Hindus are vegetarian, meat is widely available and prices range from mutton (most expensive) through chicken to beef (least expensive). The last is to be found in the so called Mughlai restaurants that are frequently encountered in the north for instance, inspired by the food of Central Asia that came to India during the Mughal Dynasty.

Goat meat can also be found (a whole goat roasted in a tandoor oven is a carnivore’s delight). Seafood is plentiful in the west, east and south (near the coast) but only river fish will be found inland.

Curried lotus roots, Indian food, India

Curried lotus roots. Photo by AntanO.

For vegetarians, the mere fact that appetising non-meat options are always available without having to be requested (and true veggie dishes with no confusion over the status of eggs for example) is a real pleasure, and the pulse dishes in particular can be excellent.

Indian Food downsides

However, there are a couple of potential downsides to this curried cornucopia. The first is that, for some, after a while an unending diet of Indian dishes can pall or, less agreeably, the relentless spice onslaught can provoke an internal reaction not far from the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome – discomfort, bloatedness, fast and frequent trips to the loo and so on.

Relief can be found in eating less – which is the fate of many millions in India – or in more upmarket restaurants, often attached to large, international hotels, where tourists can re-set their stomachs with a Club sandwich or a Western buffet if they are feeling a little more prosperous.

Breakfast may also help as even lower to mid range hotels usually have something of an occidental offering – tea, toast, eggs etc.

South Indian crab curry, Indian food, India

South Indian crab curry. Photo by Evensab.

For the uninitiated new arrival a bout of ‘Delhi belly’ is certainly on the cards. It is not just about hygiene but also the different bacteria that are encountered. In fact, on the hygiene front there can be a trade off between cleanliness and tastiness.

The most delicious Indian meal that I ate on a recent trip to Rajasthan was in a less than salubrious establishment outside Fathepur Sikhri whilst a curry lunch at the Lake Palace hotel did not have half the flavour – with no negative after effects in either case.

I suspect that some of the food at the top end can be dumbed down and have much of the taste chilled out of it. Unsurprising when lobster bisque, foie gras and Calcutta fish are offered in five star eateries in Udaipur!

– Water is normally served at mealtimes; the novice tummy should aim for bottled and check that it has not been opened and unscrupulously refilled.

Cheese paneer spring dosa, Indian food, India

Cheese paneer spring dosa. Photo by Kaushik AP.

– Alcohol, which is relatively expensive as a result of taxes, may be found in some restaurants whilst at others it is possible to send out for beer. Kingfisher beer is ubiquitous in the north and quite palatable, and locally brewed Foster’s can also be found; other brews such as Indus Primus are rather bitter. Incidentally, beer was not available in the sub-continent until the middle of the 19th century when Indian Pale Ale was imported from the UK – its alcohol and hop content was higher to withstand the voyage.

– Indian wine can be ordered relatively easily in the better restaurants of the main cities and has improved significantly of late (wine has been made for thousands of years in India though commercial grape production probably only dates back to the 1980s), but the connoisseurs will argue that it is impossible to grow quality grapes given the latitude and climatic conditions. Sula produces some very quaffable whites, as does Seven Hills. The wines from Grover tend to be a little oaky. Either way, the local wine production is priced quite high, just below the better known imported branded offerings.