Creamy Keralan curries. Spicy samosas sold on street corners. Thalis served with mountains of fresh, fluffy chapattis. India is a foodie’s paradise catering to vegetarians and meat-lovers alike but it’s also a daunting place when it comes to deciphering menus, choosing street food that won’t leave you with disentry and navigating your way through the vast array of different curries on offer. This India food guide should point you in the right direction to sample the best of what this gastronomic melting pot has to offer.
‘Don’t eat salad in case it was washed in tap water’. ‘Go vegetarian for the duration of your time there’. ‘Avoid street food at all costs’. You’d struggle to eat anything at all if you listened to all the traveller warnings. The best approach is to embrace it and follow the lead of locals. Eat with your hands (far more fun and you’ll impress the locals sharing a train carriage with you), be adventurous (ask questions and go with whatever is recommended to you) and if you pass a street stand doing a booming trade or you see locals queuing out the door of a restaurant, join them.
Indian breakfasts are cheap, quick, filling but certainly not healthy! Fried food is prevalent but there are some healthier options available. Fruit and curd with honey is the healthiest but not the most exciting. Masala dosa is always a safe choice – a pancake-like dish with a dipping sauce and served with various fillings. Idli are also pretty good – soft pillowy steam lentil rice cakes served bowl of sambhar. But my personal favourite is paratha – a flat roti stuffed with paneer, vegetables or ‘mixed’. It’s always served with curd and a spicy dipping sauce. The best one I had was in Munnar at Sukh Sagar.
SIDE OF THE ROAD FOOD
I’m reluctant to call it ‘street food’ as it’s often served informally in a restaurant-like setting. I’m referring to the kind of cheap, authentic food you’ll find on long bus journeys or when your tuk tuk driver stops on a mountain pass in Munnar. My most memorable ‘side of the road’ food was on route to Top Station in Kerala. We saw a guy frying up tiny speckled quails eggs with spices and ordered a portion with a fluffy chiappati. It was incredible.
Cooking courses are offered all over India but the standards vary hugely. Zostel hostels offer free cooking courses, as do some restaurants but of course you have to buy the dishes you’re taught to make. We opted for the very professionally run Pushkar Cooking Art with the wonderful Mrs Shivani. It had rave reviews online and it’s easy to see why. We opted for the basic course which taught us how to make paneer palak, dhal, paneer masala, chapatis, various types of naans and a steaming cup of masala chai.
We spent a lovely afternoon in Shivani’s home, talking about her husband’s camel decorating hobby and her encyclopaedic knowledge of India’s varied cuisine. After learning to become good Indian wives, we sat and ate the fruits of our labour in her gorgeous home. When hearing we had a long train journey ahead of us the next day, she even offered to make us a picnic for the journey – it turned out to be a huge feast of vegetarian curries and our favourite dessert, the Indian rice pudding called Kher. Do NOT leave without trying her version. It is the best we had.
JUICE AND LASSI STANDS
You’ll find juice stands in mouthwatering abundance and for a few rupees, you can have freshly-squeezed season juices made in front of you. Pick from mango shakes, rosewater lassis and freshly sugar cane juice. In Rajasthan and Varanasi, you can even find places selling bhang lassis, a potent lassi made of hashish which isn’t for the faint-hearted…
Sign up for the fantastic Street Food Tour run by Reality Tours. The money you pay goes into their education projects run in Dharavi slum so it’s a socially responsible tourist activity to partake in. It’s a great way to familiarise yourself with the vast array of street food on offer and they take you to clean, hygienic places which are popular with locals.
If you don’t fancy a tour, seek out Bademiya restaurant near the Taj Palace Hotel and Gateway to India. It’s very accessible street food – kebabs and tikka rolls cooked in front of you and eaten on the pavement. There’s also a vegetarian only stand serving delicious vegetable and paneer skewers or if you’d rather sit down, find a table in their adjacent restaurant.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, the finest kulfi can be found at New Kulfi Centrenear Chowpatty Beach – I thought I’d died and gone to heaven after trying their mixed special, a rainbow plate of their most popular flavours including mango and strawberry. Yum.
Further north in the upmarket Juhu neighbourhood, try the privthi theatre cafe for falafel wraps and baked goods or head to cafe Mosche’s for breakfast or a health lunch/dinner. They do an insanely good chicken salad and their jacket potatoes and cakes are excellent too. Mumbai is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city so there are plenty of more upmarket restaurants when you want to treat yourself.
As you venture North, there will be more Tibetan and Nepali influences. In Mcleodganj, home of the Dali Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees, you will find the food you’ve craved throughout your time in India – healthy vegetable soups, noodle broths and light, steamed dumplings. Such a treat after all the ghee heavy food of Punjab, tandoori naans and oily curries served with carbs in every variation. Fried food becomes part of your daily diet in India but Tibetan cuisine is infinitely healthier. That said, fried momos were my preference over the steamed ones – filled with vegetables, chicken, cheese and spinach or even chocolate! Mmmm… did you say momos?
Keralan curries are famous worldwide and found all over India. They definitely top my India Food Guide. Not dissimilar to Sri Lankan curries, they are light, fragrant and often coconut based. The fish curries are often superb and you’re likely to be eating fish caught that day. The best food I had in Kerala was on a house boat in Alleppey’s backwaters where our own private chef prepare this feast of fried river fish, okra curry and rice…
EAT CLEAN IN GOA
Thanks to it’s hippie community, you’ll find an array of vegan and raw food restaurants in Goa. In Arombol, eat ‘raw ice-cream’ on the beach (sugar free flavours) or head to Shantaram cafe for chai porridge, wheatgrass and spurlina shakes and zucchini pasta with pesto.
For fresh seafood, Goa is hard to beat. There’s tough competition between beach-front restaurants, all touting their produce and cooking it fresh on open air grills – tuna, red mullet, sea bass, tiger prawns and lobster are all on offer. But it’s the Goan curries I loved the most, which are palatable for even the mildest of tastes. My personal favourite is the Chicken Xacuti, a light and fragrant curry best eaten with a buttered naan bread cooked in a tandoori oven. The best one I had was at Laughing Buddah in Arombol but they’re found far and wide.
FINE DINING IN DELHI
Each region of India has its unique street food and Delhi is no exception. I’d highly recommend doing a street food tour with Reality Tours whose India food guide will demystify markets and menus. Reality Gives is a wonderful NGO who plough the money they make from street tours back into education projects for India’s most underprivileged children. On their tour, they’ll take you to their favorite vendors in Old Delhi for you to try the local specialties chole bature, dahi bhalla and aloo chat, as well as parathas, lassi and the very sweet but delicious jalebis.
But if you want something fancier, head to the dining mecca that is Connaught Place. My absolute favourite spot is Tamasha’s, which often has guest chefs and serves up an enticing menu of sharing plates fusing Eastern and Western influences like Butter Chicken Burger and Lamb with pistachio.
I couldn’t write an India Food Guide without mentioning the food from North India. It’s generally rich and they tend to cook with a lot of ghee so it can be too much for some people’s palates. The best North Indian food I had was actually in Rajasthan was at Gulaal Hotel’s rooftop restaurant in Jodhpur and Charcoal in Udaipur.
Jodhpur is renowned for it’s sweets but I wasn’t a fan – far, far too sweet and sickly for my taste and too overladen with strong, soapy flavours like rose water. But do try them – some people adore them. For sweet things in other regions, try the sweet but delicious jalebis in Delhi.
This is the place to try meat and home of one of India’s most famous dishes – butter chicken. Amristar isn’t just known for the Golden Temple, it’s also the foodie capital of India but personally, the ghee-heavy, oily food of Punjab didn’t do it for me. If you’d like to sample it for yourself, head to Kesar, the city’s most famous restaurant which has been going over 200 years.
INDIA FOOD GUIDE TO SEASONAL FRUITS
Juicy pomegranates, ripe mangoes, enormous papayas and pyramids of tangerines. When carb-heavy Indian food gets too much, visit a fruit stall on the street and you’ll get bags full of produce for just a few rupees. Just be sure to wash everything thoroughly in filtered water or if in doubt, stick to things that need peeling! Lots of bus stands and markets will also sell pre-prepared plates of fruit salad with cocktail sticks for about 30 rupees.
For the ultimate culinary experience, try and blag an invite to an Indian wedding where food of every type will be in abundance and you’ll get the experience the fun of a big banquet. We gatecrashed a Muslim wedding in Old Delhi where we feasted on a mind-boggling array of veg and non-veg cuisine as well as street food delicacies including pani puri, a snack of puffed crispy hollow fried balls stuffed with a variety of vegetable/lentil mix, dipped into a spicy-tangy minty water (pani) and popped into the mouth. Highly addictive. But the best part was the Rugby scrum for a plate of fried chicken… hundreds of hungry guests surged forward with their empty plates every time a new batch was ready. It definitely beats the formal sit-down wedding breakfasts we have back home!