Traditional Dishes You Should Try on a Trip to India

by - April 09, 2014

Indian food has a richly deserved reputation as one of the great cuisines of the world. Stereotyped abroad as the ubiquitous "curry", the cuisine of the subcontinent covers a wide variety of different culinary styles. There are innumerable regional variations and specialties, from classic meats and Mughlai dishes through the ones served in banana leaf in the south.

The fundamental distinction in the food of India is between the cuisines of the north and the south. Food from North India (which is the style usually found in Indian restaurants abroad) is characterized by its rich meat and vegetable dishes. They are prepared with thick tomato, onion, and yogurt-based sauces, accompanied by thick breads.

Food from South India, on the other hand, is almost exclusively vegetarian. There are spicy chili peppers and coconut flavors and piles of rice served in its natural state or made in one of Southern's distinctive range of pancakes, such as the dosa, idli, and uttapam.

In particular, for vegetarians, Indian food is a complete delight. In the subcontinent the best food is meat-free. Even confirmed carnivores will find themselves eating delicious dals and vegetable curry with sauce. The religious minded people in the south do not eat meat or fish.

While some Orthodox Brahmins and Jains also avoid onions and garlic, which are thought to exacerbate the basest instincts. Veganism is not common, however. If you're a vegetarian, you'll have to keep your eyes open for eggs and dairy products. The terms used in India are "veg" and "non-veg".

You will also see "pure veg," which means eggs or alcohol are not served. As a general rule, while eating meat you should exercise caution in India. Even when meat is available, especially in larger cities, its quality may be poor, except in the best restaurants.

You will not have much on a plate anyway especially in cheaper canteens where it is mainly for flavorings. Many Hindus, of course, do not eat meat and Muslims reject pork. So you'll only find it in some Christian enclaves like the beach areas of Goa and the Tibetan areas. Keep in mind that what is called "lamb" on the menus is actually goat.

Where to eat

Broadly speaking, eating establishments are divided into three main types. There are cheap and unpretentious local cafes known variously as dhabas, bhojanalayas and udipis. Indian restaurants are destined to more prosperous places and tourist restaurants. Dhabas and bhojanalayas offer cheap coffees, where the food is basic but often good. It consists of vegetable curries, dal (a kind of lentil broth), Indian rice or bread (the latest standard in the north) and sometimes meat. They are often found along the sides of the roads in dhabas.

They traditionally cater to truck drivers. A way of telling a good dhaba is to judge by the number of trucks parked outside. Bhojanalayas are basic eating places, generally found in cities (especially in train stations and bus stands) in the north and center of the country. They tend to be vegetarians, especially those who signed up as "Vaishnavites". Both dhabas and bhojanalayas can be dirty - look at them before you commit. The same is rarely true of its southern counterparts. They offer cheap, delicious appetizers such as masala dosa, idli, vada and rice dishes. All are freshly cooked to order and served by uniformed waiters.

There are all kinds of Indian, veg and non-veg restaurants and cater to Indian businessmen and middle-class families. These are the places to reliably go for good Indian food at bargain prices. The more expensive Indian restaurants, such as five-star hotels, can be very expensive by local standards. They offer a rare opportunity to taste the excellent classic Indian cuisine. And still at cheaper prices than you would pay home - assuming you could find Indian food that is good.

Tourist restaurants are found throughout India, where there is a significant number of western visitors. They cater to foreign travelers, serving a stereotypical variety of pancakes, omelets, French fries, muesli, and Macedonia, along with a basic range of curries. The downside is that they tend to be relatively expensive, while the food can be very successful. International fast food, including burgers (with meat - usually chicken or lamb meat) and pizzas, is also available in major cities.

What Westerners call a "curry" covers a wide variety of dishes, each made with different masala, or a mixture of spices. Curry powder does not exist in India. The closest equivalent being garam masala is a combination of spices added to a dish in the last stage of cooking. Commonly used spices include chili, turmeric, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin seeds and saffron. These are not all added at the same time, and some (particularly cardamom and cloves) are all used, so be careful of chewing on them.

Chili is another key element in the cabinet of Indian spices, but the idea that all Indian food is hot is a total myth. Food from North India, in particular, tends to be very spicy, often more than Indian food at restaurants abroad. Food from South India may be hotter but not invariable. If you do not like hot food, there are soft dishes such as korma and biryani where meat or vegetables are cooked with rice. Indians tend to mitigate the effects of chili peppers with chutney, dahi (curd) or raita(curd with mint and cucumber, or other herbs and vegetables). Otherwise, beer is one of the best things to wash the chiles 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 in menus in English) with the names of their main ingredients, such as paneer (cheese), alu (potatoes), chana (chickpeas) or mutter (peas). Meat curries are most often given specific names such as korma or dopiaza, to indicate the type of masala used or the cooking method.

Food from North India

Indian northern cuisine has been influenced by various Muslim invaders who arrived in the subcontinent of Central Asia and Persia. They gave Indian cooking many of their most popular dishes and accompaniments. such as naan bread and biryani, as well as their higher emphasis on meat compared to the south. Influenced by the classic North Indian merger of natives and Central Asia (though it can be found as far south as Hyderabad) is the so-called Mughlai cuisine, the creation of the Mughal dynasty. The non-veg food is slightly spicy but extremely rich, using ingredients such as cream, almonds, raisins, and saffron. The classic korma sauce is the best-known example.

The other great northern style is tandoori. The name refers to the deep mud 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 can be served as tikka masala, a thick one with almonds (pasanda), or in a rich butter sauce (murgh makhani or butter chicken). Naan and roti is also baked in the tandoor oven.

The main dish may be a curry, but could also be a dry dish. The kebab or a tandoori dish without a masala - is usually served with a dhal (lentils) and naan bread as chapatis. Rice is usually an optional extra in North India and must be ordered separately. Also, many restaurants offer menus or Cadet. A thali is a stainless steel tray with a series of small plates. It contains a selection of curry, a spicy and sweet sauce. In the center, you can get bread and usually rice. In many places, the waiters will keep coming round with refills until you've had enough.

In northern India, food is usually served with bread, which comes in many varieties, all of them flatbreads instead of breads. Chapati is a generic term for breads, but tends to refer to the simplest, unleavened type. It is usually made from wheat flour. It is also generic, the term roti and a roti can be exactly the same as a Chapati, but the term usually refers more to a thick pan baked in a tandoor oven. Naan is a bread with yeast, thick and chewy and invariably baked in a tandoor oven.

It is one of the favorites in non-vegetable restaurants as it best accompanies rich meaty dishes. You can also come across fried breads like paratha. Parantha is unfolded, basted with ghee, folded over and pulled out several times before cooking. It is often stuffed with ingredients such as potato (alu paratha). It is popular for breakfast. Puris are little-fried vilanos. Poppadum (papad) is a crunchy wafer of lentil flour and is typically served as an appetizer.

There is a huge variety of regional cuisine in the north. Bengalis love fish and cook also mangsho curry (meat), as well as exotic vegetable dishes like mocha or cooked banana flower. They also like to include fish bones for added flavor in their vegetable curries - an unpleasant surprise for vegetarians. Tibetans and Bhotias from the Himalayas have a simple diet of thukpa (meat soup) and momo, as well as a salty tea made with any rangy yak butter (where available) or with common butter.

In Punjab and much of northern India, homemade cooking consists of lentils and vegetables along with roti and less rice than Bengalis. Food in Gujarat, mainly vegetables, is often cooked with a little sugar. Certain combinations are traditional and seasonally repeated, such as Makki ki roti (fried cornbread) with Sarson ka saag (mustard green leaves) around Punjab and other parts of northern India. Baingan bharta (roasted eggplant) is commonly eaten with plain yogurt and roti. In the good Muslim cuisine from the north, delicately thin rumali roti often accompanies rich meat and chicken dishes.

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Food from South India

The food of South India is a world away from the north. The southern cuisine also tends to use a significantly different repertoire of spices. There are sharper, simpler flavors with coconut, tamarind, curry leaves and lots of dried red and fresh chili peppers. Rice is king, not only eat in its natural form, but also made in regional staples such as idlis (steamed rice cakes) and dosas (rice pancakes-fermented dough).

There is the omnipresent masala dosa, with mashed potato wrapped in a crunchy lentil flour tortilla. The lavish naans, parathas, rotis and other breads that are so a feature of the cuisine of northern India are not generally available, apart from the small fluffy puri. Meat is relatively uncommon in the temple localities dominated by the Brahmins of Tamil Nadu. It is available through Kerala, where there are significant Christian and Muslim minorities.

Meals usually consist of a mound of rice surrounded by various vegetable seasonings, sambar dal, chutney, and curd. They are usually accompanied by puris and rasam, a fine, hot and spicy soup. They are traditionally served in a round metal tray or thali (also found in North India), with each dish in a separate metal container. Menus are sometimes served in a section of the banana leaf instead.

In the more traditional restaurants, you can eat as much as you want, and staff circulates with spare items of everything. In the south even more than in other places, eating with your fingers is de rigueur and cutlery may not be available in cheap restaurants. Wherever you eat, remember to use only your right hand and wash your hands before you start. Try and avoid the food in the palm of the hand by eating with the tips of the fingers.

Snacks and food on the street

India abounds in snacks and food on the street. Chana Puri, a chickpea curry with a puri (or sometimes another type of bread, a kulcha) to dip, is a big favorite in the north. The idli sambar - lentil and vegetable sauce with rice cakes for dipping is the equivalent of the south. Street finger-food includes bhel puris (a specialty of Mumbai consisting of a mixture of puffed rice, deep fried noodles, potato and crispy puri with Tamarind sauce), panipuris (the same puris dipped in spicy and spicy water - only veterans), bhajis (fried vegetable pies in chickpea flour), samosas (vegetables or occasionally meat in a puff pastry triangle, fried) and pakoras (vegetables or potatoes dipped in chickpeas dough and fried flour).

In the south, you will also come across the always popular vada, a spicy fried lentil cake that looks more like a donut. Skewers are common in the north, most often seekh kebab, lamb grilled on a skewer, but also shami kebab, small chops of minced lamb. Kebab rolled onto the pan-fried griddle, known as Kathi rolls, originated in Kolkata but is now available in other cities. With all the snack streets, however, remember that food left there attracts germs - make sure it is freshly cooked. Take special care with snacks with water, such as pani puris and cooking oil, which is usually recycled. In general, it is a good idea to acclimate to Indian conditions before you start eating street snacks.

You will not find anything called Bombay mix in India, but there is no shortage of dry spicy snack mixes, often referred to as chanachur. Yaca chips are sometimes sold as a tasty snack - although they are quite bland - and cashew nuts are a real bargain. Peanuts, also known as "crazy monkey" or mumfuli, usually comes roasted and peel.

Non-Indian food

Chinese food is widely available in any urban area. It is generally cooked by Indian chefs and not exactly equally authentic, except in the few Indian cities, notably Kolkata. It has large Chinese communities, where you can get very good Chinese cuisine. Tourist restaurants and backpacker cafes across the country offer a fair choice of Western food, from small unpretentious bakeries serving cakes and snacks to smart tourist restaurants serving up well-Italian cuisine on the candlelit terraces.

However, the quality is variable. Delhi and Mumbai are also home to a range of specialist non-indigenous Tex-Mex, Thai, and Japanese restaurants offering Italian and French cuisine - these are usually found in luxury hotels. In addition to these places, international fast food chains such as Dominos, KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds serve the same standard fare as in other parts of the world at much cheaper prices.

Sweets

Most Indians have quite sweet and Indian sweets, usually made from milk, can be very sweet made. The most solid type, Barfi is a type of dulce de leche that has been boiled and condensed, varies from moist and delicious to dry and dusty. It comes in several flavors of the creamy white plain track (Pistachio) in livid green and sold often covered with silver leaf (what you eat).

Soft texture, round peda and fine diamonds of Kaju katli, more humid Sandesh and the most difficult paira, popular in Bengal, are among many other boiled milk sweets or chhana. Crunchy mesur is made with chickpeas. Numerous types of gelatinous halwa, not the Middle Eastern variety, include the rich gajar ka halwa with carrots and cream.

Jalebis, circular orange tubes made of fried molasses and dripping with syrup, are as sweet as they seem. Gulab jamuns, fried dumplings soaked in syrup, are just so mouthwatering. Another popular sweet is made of sugar, buffalo butter and flour, although the ingredients may vary from region to region.

Among Bengali sweets, widely regarded as the best is Rasgullas, cream cheese balls flavored with roses floating in syrup. Ras malai, found throughout northern India, is similar but soaked in cream instead of syrup. In the south, payasam - a dessert rice or noodles flavored with cardamom, saffron, and nuts - is a popular dessert, with special versions served during important festivals.

Chocolate is improving rapidly in India and you will find various Cadbury and Amul bars. None of the indigenous several brands of Swiss and Belgian imitation chocolates are worth eating. Among the suppliers of large ice cream, highlights Kwality (now owned and branded as the wall), Vadilal, Gaylord, and Corone. Uniformed men push ice cream carts around and the larger companies have many imitators, they are usually quite obvious.

Some do not have scruples - Stay away from water ice creams unless you have a seasoned constitution. Ice cream salons selling concoctions including ice cream have taken Connaught Circus in New Delhi has several. Be sure to try kulfi, a sweet pistachio and frozen cardamom-flavor that is India's answer to ice cream. Bhang made with marijuana (popular during the Holi festival) is mixed with cannabis and has a strong interest, but must be approached with caution.

What fruit is available varies with the region and season, but there is always a good choice. Ideally, you should peel all fruits, such as apples, or soak them in strong iodine or potassium permanganate solution for half an hour. Highway sellers sell fruit that they often cut and serve sprinkled with salt and even masala - do not buy anything that looks like it has been for a while.

Mangoes of various types are generally on offer but not all are to be eaten fresh - some are used for pickles or curries. The Indians are very demanding with their mangoes, which they feel and smell before buying. If you do not know the art of choosing the fruit, you could sell the leftovers. Among the species that appear at different times of the season, which lasts from spring to summer, beware of Alfonso and Langra. Bananas of one kind or another are also for sale all year round. Oranges and tangerines are generally easy to come by, such as sweet melons and refreshing watermelon.

Tropical fruits such as coconut, papaya (pawpaws) and pineapples are more common in the south. While things such as lychees and pomegranates are very seasonal. In the north, temperate fruits of the mountains can be so much so in Europe and North America, with even milder strawberries, apricots, and apples available in season.

Among less family fruit, the Chiku, which looks like a kiwi and tastes a bit like a pear, is worth mentioning, like the watermelon-sized yaca, whose prickly green exterior includes sweet, slightly gummy yellow segments, each containing a seed. The individual segments are sold in posts on the road.

Non-alcoholic beverages

India sometimes seems to run in tea or chai, grown in Darjeeling, Assam and the Nilgiri mountains and sold by chai wallahs on every corner of the street. Tea is usually made by putting the leaves of tea, milk, and water in a saucepan, boiling everything, filtering in a cup or glass with a lot of sugar and pouring back and forth from one cup to another to stir.

Ginger or cardamom is often added. If you're fast outside the brand, you can make the sugar. Sometimes, especially at tourist sites, you could have a European-style pot "tray" tea, usually consisting of a tea bag in warm water. Better stick to the Indian pukka variety, unless, that is, you're in a traditional area of tea cultivation.

Instant coffee is becoming increasingly common and in some cases, it is more popular than tea, especially in the south. In the north, most coffee is instant. Although a growing number of coffee shops and restaurants are now investing in the appropriate coffee machines, especially in resorts. Coffee society has finally arrived in major cities. Kolkata, Delhi, and Mumbai now have a fair share of coffee shops serving espresso and real cappuccino.

In the south, coffee is only as common as tea and much better than it is in the north. One of the best places to get it is in establishments of the Indian Coffee House chain found in all the towns in the south and occasionally in the north. An entire ritual joins the Kerala coffee with milk drink, in particular, poured in extravagant radical movements between tall glasses to cool it down.

Soft drinks are ubiquitous. Coca-Cola and Pepsi returned to India in the 1990s after being expelled from the country for seventeen years and have now largely replaced their old Indian counterparts such as Campa Cola and Thums Up, although you'll still find the Limca. All contain a lot of sugar but little else. None will quench your thirst for long.

More recommended is treated water or boiled tap water or bottled water (although quality may be suspect). You will also find cartons of Frooti, Jumpin, Réal and similar brands of fruit juice drinks that come in mango, guava, varieties of apple and lemon. If the cardboard is destroyed at all, it is better not to touch it as it may have been recycled. In the larger stations, there will be a stand on the platform selling Himachali apple juice.

Better yet, green-colored coconuts, common in coastal areas, especially in the south, are cheaper than any of these and sold on the streets by vendors. They cut the top for you with a machete and put straw for absorbing the coconut water (then remove the meat to eat it). You will also find street vendors selling fresh sugar cane juice. They are delicious and not in fact very sweet, but they are not always as hygienic as you would like.

India's largest soft drink, lassi, is made with curd and drunken shake or sweetened with sugar, salted, or mixed with fruit. It varies widely from soft and delicious insipid and Aguado, sold in virtually every café, restaurant and cafeteria in the country.

Freshly made smoothies are also commonly available in establishments with blenders. They also sell to you what they call a fruit juice, but which is usually fruit, water and sugar or liquefied and strained salt. In addition, street vendors sell fresh fruit juice after adding salt and garam masala. With all these drinks, however appetizing they may seem, you should be very careful in deciding where to drink.

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