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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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!!!
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.
5. Just get to India and eat. You’ll be glad you did.
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.