The Belly of India


One of the first things that people ask us about our time in India inevitably has something to do with food.  Yes, we love food – we travel for food, we spend most (all, sometimes) of our money on food and dining experience sand we love to geek about it often and hard.  It would be remiss, therefore, for us to not blog specially about the food in India.IMG_5179

Now most of us that are not from India have probably experienced some form of Indian food in the form of a butter chicken, a korma or *shock horror* tikka masala, rumoured to have been invented actually in Britain.  We are the first to admit that we had rather limited knowledge of the breadth of Indian cuisine and the differing regional palates and this leads us now to what we think is the best way to introduce you all to the food of India – by region that we visited.  Each place had its own totally unique cuisine, some of which we loved and some of which we could take or leave.  This is by no means an extensive guide to the entirety of Indian regional food but we’ll do our best to take you to the places we’ve been by way of the food that we think best represents our experiences there.  And for those of you who are wanting to travel India via your kitchen while waiting for your chance to get there in real life, we’ve included a link to a recipe (or two) for each place.

Without further ado, we present the Waterfallsandcaribous Guide to Yum Indian Food – and don’t forget to click on the links to enjoy your own homemade piece of authentic, edible India.

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North India leans toward a vegetarian diet, with the exception of the Muslim population who favour meat (too right, haha!).  Saffron, coriander, cumin, black cardamom and a variety of dried red chilli (Kashmiri chilli) feature heavily providing a rich balance of spice and heat.  Garam masala is a mix of aromatic powered spices used as a finishing spice and each family seems to have their own unique blend.  Beans and lentils play a major role in the diet, as does ghee (clarified butter).

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North India – Rajasthan

First stop on our travels was the north of India, where we were introduced to the flavours of Rajasthan.  Predominantly vegetarian, it was the expected introduction to India but what wasn’t expected was how easy it was to eat delicious food that didn’t make us feel like we were missing out on too much.  Yes, we went straight for the beef burger we accidentally stumbled upon when we hit Agra but prior to that we hadn’t whinged too hard out.  What is interesting is that Rajasthan, being a largely arid region (funny that, its a desert!) has little in the way of fresh vegetables…which probably isn’t ideal if you’re a vegetarian!  However, the cuisine has developed its own unique flavour using the simplest, most basic of ingredients and generally loads of ghee.  Funny how butter makes everything much better!

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Any talk of food in Rajasthan would be incomplete without talk of Dahl Baati, a delicious, rich dish of bread and lentils.  Our guide for much of our travels in the North appeared to eat solely this dish.  Like seriously, we never saw him ingest any other item other than beer.  In the vegetarian stronghold of the north this is a meal that you will come across time and time again everywhere from the most humble homes to the most touristy of restaurants.   For us, this dish defines Rajasthan cuisine.

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North India – everywhere

Another favourite go-to dish of ours in the north was Palak Paneer.  Also called Saag Paneer, “spinach cheese”, this dish (as well as its more meaty variants  when we could find them!) quickly became one of our go-to dishes in the strongly vegetarian climes  There’s something really vibrant about the gorgeous green colour and it makes you feel like you’re eating some proper vegies!

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Practically Popeye

North India – Uttar Pradesh

Hmm…well our first stop in Uttar Pradesh was Agra, where we stayed only for a night and managed somehow to eat kimchi dapbap, which is Korean, birthday cake and a beef burger.  This is probably our least shining example of Indian cuisine.  Thankfully, we somewhat made up for upon reaching Varanasi where we struck by an overwhelming abundance of street food.  The memory that sticks out for us the most clearly was the delectable lassi we drank.  In a variety of flavours with differing levels of sweet, tart and creamy lassi is probably the most recognisably ‘Indian’ drink outside of India.  The Varanasi hood also offered a particularly unique style of lassi, known as the Bhang Lassi or Thandai.  Definitely an adults only drink, we actually never tried it but have heard that it kicks your butt!

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North India – everywhere

Staying with the beverage theme for a moment, we’ll end our reminisces of the north with the cuppa that whet our lips at every given opportunity, Masala Chai.  A flavoured tea beverage, made milky, sweet and spicy, one of our most endearing memories of our travel in the north is hearing the chaiwallahs hawking their wares at any given time of day.  Train travel in India would not be the same without the constant chirping of “chai, chai, chai” at dawn, at five minutes past dawn, at ten minutes past dawn, at twenty minutes past dawn…you get the picture.

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Our last note about the north of India is that meals are predominantly eaten with bread as a side dish, rather than rice.  This is a very general statement but our recollections feature copious amounts of delicious, fresh chapati and dripping, glistening butter naan. Mmm…

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Moving further down the country we hit something we hadn’t seen for a long time – the coastline!  With this shift of topography naturally comes a shift in cuisine with seafood and fish making a sudden and welcome addition to the menus.  The estuary of the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers provide a wealth of river fish as they flow into the Bay of Bengal and accordingly they also started flowing into our bellies.  Rice starts to feature more here too becoming the default carb of choice over the more northern bread inclusions.  Our defining meal of West Bengal was a stunning Bengali Fish Curry eaten on our only night in this province, on the river shores of Kolkatta.  For a couple of Kiwis used to the spoils of a seafood and fish laden coastline, this was a pretty superb moment!

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South India

The shift in tastes and texture is quite marked in the transition from the north of the country to the south.  Southern states have a primarily rice-based diet and the staple breakfast foods dosa (rice crepe type thingys) and idli (steamed rice cakes) were to be found in each of the states we visited and usually served with a lentil and vegetable stew called sambhar and a chutney.  Seafood, fish, fermented rice, and coconuts play a large part in the diet.  The south is tropical in nature and in cuisine, creating quite a contrast to the dry desert-y (no, not desSerty!) dishes of the north.

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South India – Tamil Nadu (Chennai)

If truth be told, the first time we ate masala dosa in India was actually in Delhi at a local street food stand that stood out as being cheap and authentic in a particulary over-priced and touristy area.  It was delicious and set us up for great expectations of the southern cuisine.  Dosa are a paper thin rice and lentil crepe, either partially stuffed with delicious potatoes or eaten plain with coconut chutney and sambhar.  Traditionally a breakfast food in India, they have become all-day, anytime snacks.  They were definitely one of our favourite foods in the South.

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South India – Tamil Nadu (Kerala)

Out on the dreamy backwaters of Kerala, we were able to taste Indian home cooking at its finest.  A multitude of ingredients are utilised, both meat and non-meat, though the enduring memory for us is of coconuts.  We slept by coconuts, walked through coconuts, toured the coconuts and sure enough coconut  reared its hairy little head in a lot of the cuisine be it in the form of coconut kernel, coconut cream or coconut milk.  If you don’t like coconut, you’re gonna be pretty sad round these ways!  Our fav?  The coconut chutney.  While we would probably dream of technicolour coconuts if we ate it everyday like the locals, it will forever conjure up a little taste of tropical paradise.

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We have to include a second dish here that stands out in our food obsessed little minds.  Also on the table of our kind hosts was a fantastic egg curry.  Having seen such curries on menus before both in India and back home, we had never actually tried one because it sounds, well, kinda odd, not to mention the fact that no matter how damn good eggs are its pretty hard to pick it over a lamb curry in NZ.  However, when sat down to feast and an egg curry was part of the pickin, it seemed silly not to try it…and by gum, we’re glad we did!  We’re sold and now actively seek out egg curry far and wide.  Yum!

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South India – Karnataka

A cousin to the dosa is idli, a fluffy steamed rice cake which is served with the same accompaniments of sambar and chutney.  We were presented with them time and time and time again in the south and sadly, this is one of the dishes that stands out for us not for being tasty but rather monotonous and repetitive.  You can’t win them all!  In saying that, south Indians love ’em and talk of the south would not be a rounded conversation without including these little white discs of fermented rubber.  Yum?

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West India – Goa

Prior to arriving in our final destinationof Goa, we had been told that we want for absolutely nothing and this so true.  Any meat, any vegetable and in fact food from any region/nationality cuisine was available in this large, abundant state.  However, Goa has a long history of Portuguese rule and blended with the tropical breezes and the Indian flavour, the traditional Goan scene is quite a unique one.   Food always tastes better when you’re constantly by (and in) the ocean but to be honest, the food here doesn’t need much assistance to be just plain old tasty.  Famous for its use of garlic, dried red chillies and cumin, these are often made into a paste with vinegar, an ingredient introduced by the Portuguese and combine to create the signature flavour of Goa.  Also thanks to the Portuguese, pork is a popular meat.  Put it all together and you have one of the most famous not just Goan but potentially Indian dishes abroad, the Vindaloo.

“But what about dessert?”

Don’t worry, we weren’t going to leave you completely hanging.  Far and wide, from the northern most point of our travels to the most southern tip we (okay, H-J) ate the same incredible, indulgent, mouth-watering treat possibly known to man…Gulab Jamun.  Fried cheese dumplings (not as weird or as cheesy as they sound) soaked in delicately flavoured sugar syrup, these probably accounted for about 5kgs of extra travel weight and we don’t mean in our luggage.

We hope you’ve enjoyed your vicarious trip through the regions of India that we made it too.  This is by no means an all encompassing guide but merely our highlights and our take on what made each place special in terms of its food.  We’ll leave you with a few tips for eating in India, garnered by much, much practice…which we’re always happy to undertake!

1. Take or buy quickly on arrival a pair of what we coined “buffet pants”.  We’ll leave you bright sparks to figure that one out.  Elastic is your friend.

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2. Don’t be frightened to try things and YES that includes street food.  Its not all going to kill you, in fact, its probably going to be some of the tastiest food, most authentic and cheapest food you’re likely to try.  The basic rules to follow are to choose items that are hot, cooked fresh to order and preferably from a vendor (wallah) who has lots of people coming and going.  If you choose to eat yoghurt that has been sitting outside under the blaring Indian sun for a day then you probably deserve to lose a few days over the toilet.  Otherwise, take it from us, you’ll be fine.  Just remember: hot, fresh, busy.

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Which leads nicely to the next point:

3. “Delhi Belly” is NOT inevitable.  In fact, of all the people we travelled with and/or met while travelling India, very few people had anything that could be considered food poisoning.  Also, sickness doesn’t just come from food – remember, you’re touching a lot of different stuff that literally millions of other people have touched too.  You’re more likely to get ill from handling money than you are from a hot samosa off the street side.  Carry tissues, sanitiser and some wet wipes with you and life is pretty sanitary.  No excuses – get thee to some fried goodies!!!IMG_3157

4. Take note – if you meet locals who share their food with you, they’ll more than likely be even happier to share their recipes and techniques with you.  We’ve certainly found that the best things we’ve eaten have been made with love in someone’s kitchen, or an unassuming little hole in the wall stall.

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5.  Just get to India and eat.  You’ll be glad you did.

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6. Yes, we did go to McDonalds in India out of curiosity to see what would be on offer in a largely vegetarian country.  The McSpicy Paneer burger is the bomb.  KFC in India, however, sucks.  A single svisit to McDonald’s/KFC to check out the idiosyncratic Indian delights during a trip of any substantial time is okay; however, going there straight off the plane/in lieu of trying anything ‘scary’/ordering chicken nuggets/visiting daily is not okay.  We’ll hunt you down and force feed you gulab jamun if we have to.

...its the one on the right.  The Maharaja Mac (a chicken 'version' of the Big Mac) is blech.

Happy Eating.

Categories: Categories, Food, India, TravelTags: , , , , , , ,

46 comments

  1. I absolutely love all the pictures. How exciting!

  2. Love this post. Now I’m craving for some palak paneer! Gulab jamun will be my downfall one day.. just watch and wait. Love that you went to MacDonald’s to check it out. The offerings at MacD’s are not the same the world over – Malaysian MacDonald’s serve congee on the breakfast menu, and the ones in Paris sell macarons!

    • Yeah McDonald’s can totally be one of the interesting places to check out when travelling, as it give you insights to the little idiosyncrasies of a country. We were particularly intrigued to see what a heavily vegetarian area would have on offer. The ones here in Hong Kong always have Asian specials, like the rice bowls, Kimchi burgers, weird rice bun things…mind boggling, haha. For us though, its definitely a One Free Pass event, then its local food all the way 🙂 Gulab jamun to rule the world!

  3. Thank you for your explanation of Indian food in each region as well as the photos. I’ve never been to India before and I’ve never tried Indian food in my country even though we have some. However, I wanna try some after reading your post. Also, thanks for the tips to the belly of India. Hopefully, I will be there someday.

  4. Love this post! I’m still at the point where I can start to differentiate north and south, but this post really adds deeper insight and explores the subtleties of the regions.

  5. Great post and love the photos. Baby Lady and I love Indian food and I love Kerala fish curry. DFW has a pretty large Indian population, especially in the area we live. So, finding Indian grocery stores and restaurants around here is pretty easy. Good to see you enjoying your travels and the food. 🙂

    • Fish curry is awesome and one of my favourite dishes too. We actually had a really good one here in Hong Kong a couple of weekends ago and it made us super nostalgic for India 🙂 Luckily, there are plenty of amazing places to eat and keep us connected.

  6. Ive printed off all the recipes and once Im skinny for my trip to Hong Kong will start to cook them, one by one, wonderful blog baby girl and darling dan 🙂

  7. awesome report, great pictures! I leave for India on August 12th! (thanks for your help)

  8. So much interesting food, and I am sure, gorgeous.

  9. Excellent blog guys! Love the pics of the foods, your shots make it look real good! I have to admit I am curious of India and what it offers as your adventures through there are very interesting…now to convince my girlfriend though : P Also I do exactly what you gus do whenever in a foreign land…goto a McDonalds. My favs are McPork and McTeriyaki in Japan and the HK McDonald’s “local” breakfast of elbow macaroni with spam and egg in broth is just plain weird…even weirder…a hashbrown comes with it…barf.

  10. They all look so yummy. But I fear I wouldn’t have much luck. My body rejects chilli making me feel rather ill. Yet chilli seems to be in almost everything over there.
    Wouldn’t mind trying the Gulab Jamun thou.

    • Gulab jamun are chilli free and the best thing possible to eat anyway, hehe. Wash them down with some chai and you’ve got yourself the perfect Indian meal! Alternatively you could try something like the palak paneer, leaving out the chilli and just enjoying the gorgeous green sauce in a milder form. Yum.

  11. OMG – there is nothing here that I don’t crave right now! Have been watching Rick Stein’s India programme and now that I’ve seen this post I feel a big curry making session coming on 🙂 Great, great photos!

  12. Ah-MAZING!!
    Oh man, I’m SO hungry now! 😀
    Too funny – > “these probably accounted for about 5kgs of extra travel weight and we don’t mean in our luggage.”
    I love your tips at the end and I love the different flavors in each region. These posts are making India move on up to the top of the list rather quickly. We really want to wait until we’re both in Uni jobs so that we can go for at least 5 weeks or so. It seems like the type of country you’d want to invest some serious time into.
    It’s a real relief to hear your thoughts (and avoidance) of Delhi Belly, one always seems to hear about it when talking about India. It’s refreshing to hear a brave (and rewarding) approach to the street foods. I wouldn’t be able to stay away from the delicious street food.
    Awesome and delicious post!
    ~Andrea<3

    • Prior to travelling in India most people mentioned something along the lines of Delhi Belly so we were utterly relieved too to find it was actually a given. It seems too, too, TOO sad to miss out on all the yummy food lining the streets for fear of a bug so we’re glad we learned the few tips that seemed to keep us safe.

      Do give India due time – 5 weeks sounds really good! We spent just under two months but went to way too many places, spending only 2 or 3 nights maximum in most places. See a few places really well as the travel can be exhausting and really eat away at your time.

      • You both did the ultimate India trip for sure. 😀
        The greatest advice I’ve ever heard for India has come from you guys!
        -Stretchy pants – Street food: hot, fresh, busy – Masala Chai is a must – Keep Goa for the end and chill – see fewer places but thoroughly – And take you guys along to capture the most beautiful photos EVER!!!:D

  13. I just drooled all over my computer. Somehow, Namaskar just doesn’t look the same! 😀

  14. Chicken Maharaja Mac and Paneer Passion?!! I always wondered about what they’d serve instead of Big Macs at Indian Maccas hahaha. This seriously has to be your best India post yet. The food looks stunning and I love all your tips – esp. the buffet pants/street food does not equal Delhi belly 😉

  15. One word…YUMMY! thanks for sharing! now I better run off to wipe my salivating mouth…

  16. PIctures are perfect! Makes me so hungry 😦

  17. Loved this! My mouth was salivating and now, I have an insatiable craving for a good Masala Dosa, which is about 50 mins away from me and I have to go to work, (cue sad face!)

    My bestie has travelled over India twice now, she makes a lot of the incredible dishes which you mentioned. I’ve no doubt your recipes will be remarkable too and I love the variety of dishes like the egg curry and coconut sambal on offer, v delicious!

    Love the maharaja chicken from Mc, funny as!

  18. Trolling through your archives, and LOVED this post. Even though I’m Indian, I enjoyed reading about your culinary journey. And those tips at the end are awesome 🙂 BTW, though palak paneer and saag paneer are generally used interchangeably, saag is actually a specific type of preparation of (generally) green leafy vegetables (not just spinach).

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