India offers one of the most varied cuisines of any place on the planet. However, many visitors have not been exposed to the full variety of foods that are available in India and tend to stick to the same dishes they order in their favorite Indian restaurant at home. To help people break new ground in ordering, INDAX would like to offer some descriptions of regional specialties you can look for as you travel.
Also, since a lot of Westerners have a bit of difficulty with a constant diet of spicy foods, we've included a few suggestions on Western-style eating for those times you can't face another plate of curried something-or-other. Those unfortunates who have used cutlery all their lives might like to scan the instructions on the gracious art of eating with your fingers. Indian foods are best appreciated with nothing between you and the eating experience.
It is inaccurate to lump all Indian food together as each area has regional variations, though these distinctions are blurring. These days you will find North Indian dishes commonly available in the South, and South Indian specialties in the North. However, there are some distinctive foods commonly served in the South, and we'll try and describe them.
First, a word about restaurants. In India, only a fancy place would call itself a restaurant. Most Indian-style places call themselves "hotels". (Don't go looking for rooms at most of these hotels. You have go to a "Lodge" for that.) Sometimes they are called "cafes" (pronounced Kef), and they are not to be confused with European style cafes.
The most common Indian hotels, especially in South India, are strictly vegetarian. No meat, no eggs. There are non-vegetarian places, sometimes called "military hotels", and they will serve omelets or fried eggs, as well as veg and non-veg dishes. Most up-scale establishments offer both veg and non-veg cuisine.
In most Indian eating establishments, you do not linger once you've eaten. You order, you eat, you drink a coffee, and pay the bill and leave. In fact, coffee is so clearly the last step of eating that once you order it, you get the bill. This is a bit confusing to the Western traveler used to starting breakfast with a coffee, having another mid way, and then lingering over the final cup. Not done, unless you are in a place that serves Western type food.
If you want to linger - to read a book or newspaper, or leisurely chat with friends - you should try and find a place that allows that. Usually, it will be at least a bit up-scale and pricier. Same with smoking. You cannot smoke in a veg restaurant, though small tea shops will let you. In non-veg establishments it is usually okay. If in doubt, look about on the floor for butts. Ash trays are found only in fancy places.
Picking a good place to eat can be tricky, as it is any where in the world. The bigger the place you are visiting, the better the range of eateries. Busy, popular places are your best bet, and asking the locals for a good hotel usually pays off. You'll soon get an idea what kind of food is served in different kinds of establishments. Experiment with food and with restaurants. You'll be an expert in no time.
You cannot worry too much about dirt. Sanitation standards will not be what you're used to, but if food is freshly prepared and the surroundings regularly cleaned you should be okay. You can only control elements that affect you directly. Make sure the glass, plate and cutlery are clean. Wash your hands well. Carry your own water. If the place has to gleam spotlessly you'll be eating only at five star hotels.
India is one of the best countries in the world to travel as a vegetarian in, but if you eat meat, you may not want to miss some of the excellent meat dishes served here. However, it is wise not to consume meat on the scale that many do in the West.
India is a hot country, and in the traditional Indian medical thinking, some foods, including meats, heat your body. If you over-consume meat, especially in hot weather, you can create problems in your body. There is an affliction called "overheat" which is attributed to eating too much meat (say chicken twice in one day). There is no Western medical diagnosis that I have heard of, but having had overheat on a couple of occasions I would describe it as some kind of dehydration. You feel awful and your kidneys don't seem to function too well. To counter the effects of "heating" foods, take "cooling" foods, like yogurt and rice. And curb your meat and alcohol consumption in really hot weather.
South Indian Rice Meals
Traditionally for lunch and dinner Southerners eat rice meals - the famous thali which really should be eaten with your fingers. (See "The gracious art of eating with you fingers" below) You can still find it served on a banana leaf, though it is now most commonly served on a stainless steel platter, surrounded by small dishes of sauces, curries, and curd (yogurt). The heart of the thali is rice, though sometimes you get a few deep fried puris, followed by rice. The thali is always vegetarian, though in some non-veg restaurants you can order an extra meat side dish.
(If the thali is served on a banana leaf, it is good hygiene to sprinkle just a little of your bottled water on the leaf and carefully wash it with your fingers. Do not rub against the veins of the leaf, or it may tear. Then tip the water off onto the table or floor. Watch others around you for the technique.)
The size and quality of the thali varies with the restaurant. "Limited meals" come with a fixed portion of rice and are cheaper, these days around Rs 15 - 20. They may include curd, and you can usually get more of the curries and sauces, but not more rice. "Full Meals" are just that. All you can eat. More rice, more curries, and they will always include curd and often a sweet for dessert. Usually, however, you will only get one papadum, a disappointment to many Brits. Full meals range from Rs 25 up to Rs 40 or so in the fancier places. As a rule, the more you pay, the better the selection of curries and extras you get with the meal.
Normally, the curries that come with a thali are spicy, but not unbearably so. Try them all, and don't eat ones that you find too spicy. All thalis will include a small amount of spicy pickle. This is usually very red, and very pungent. Be warned. You may also want to avoid the white, milky "buttermilk" that comes with a meal, since this is usually a curd and water mixture. The water may not be safe. That is about the only thing on your thali that will not be cooked.
With the Full Meals, start off with a medium amount of rice and ask for a bit more as you finish that. You can ask for as many servings as you like so pace yourself and try not to leave too much unfinished food. Besides being wasteful, it is also a bit rude.
Don't mix all the elements of the thali together. The thali offers great variety of flavours which should be savored in different combinations, as your taste buds decide. The normal order of eating a thali is to start with the curries and perhaps a dhal. Mix different amounts of these with the rice and try them. Then you can graduate to the thicker sauces, usually presented in small bowls. You can cleanse the palate with some rice and rasam, the thinnest sauce almost like a soup. Your final amount of rice is mixed with the curd, possibly salted, and eaten with bits of the spicy pickle. Dessert, if provided, can follow. (The dessert is often a sort of custard or pudding put in a bowl similar to the curries. It might be distinguished by a spoon stuck in it. Mixing this into the rice would advertise that you don't eat thalis very often.)
South Indian Breakfast & Snacks
Southern cuisine offers much in the way of vegetarian snack foods, commonly called "tiffin". These are eaten for breakfast, and at any other time of day, though some tiffin is only available in the morning and other things usually at night. Tiffin dishes are usually served with a pair of teaspoons, and the idea is to use both to eat with (one in each hand). This is not mandatory, and you may use your fingers, though some dishes could get messy with your fingers. Follow your instincts here.
Try as many things as possible, especially when you find a restaurant that cooks them well. Unfortunately, these days, I find the quality of tiffin in many places is not what it once was. The cost of labour or ingredients makes some establishments cut corners. However, when you find a good place, here are some items to look for.
Iddli The ubiquitous South Indian breakfast food. These are fat little cakes of a rice/lentil mixture that are fermented overnight and then steamed. They are served, like almost all tiffin, with a thick tomato/lentil sauce (sambar) and a spicy coconut chutney. Commonly served in the mornings, they are unpretentious, nutritious, and cheap. A Cornell nutritionist once described the humble iddli as the most perfect food - low in fat, balanced in nutrition, and low cost.
Dosa or dosai Made with a similar batter to the iddli, these large, thin crepes are fried golden and served with sambar and chutney. The famous masala dosai is filled with potato curry.
Vada or Vadai This looks like a donut, but it isn't sweet. It's made from an urad lentil batter, with onions, spices, and often ginger bits, then deep fried. Ordering "iddli-vadai" will usually get you a plate with two iddli and one vadai.
Thyre Vada or Dahi Vada These are vada soaked in thick yogurt sauce. Great for breakfast.
Pongal Common breakfast food. This is rice, cooked to a mush, with light spices. Another good breakfast.
Uppama Similar to Pongal, but made with semolina, or cream of wheat.
Bonda Lentil batter with a filling, usually potato curry, deep fried.
Bhaji Lentil batter coating on various vegetables often potato slices or plantain, sometimes green chillies.
Pesarottu Green lentil batter, fried like a pancake with onions and spices.
Uttapam Dosai batter, cooked into a thick pancake. May be cooked with onions or tomato slices.
Aappams A Kerala speciality, hard to find elsewhere. Rice batter is fried, similar to a dosai, but delightfully different.
Iddli Appams Another Kerala treat - a nest of rice noodles steamed like iddlis.
Potthu A typical Keralite breakfast served in special shops. Rice flour, sometimes with grated coconut, is steamed inside a tube. It is usually served with papadums, or you may want to try it with the egg and onion curry the Keralites make so well.
Chapatti Wheat flour dough is rolled flat and fried on a griddle. You can ask for dry-fried, of oil fried. These may be served with veg or non veg curries.
Parotha Wheat flour is rolled very flat, in oil, and pressed into a multi-layered variation on chapatti. These are most common with non veg fare.
Puri Made like a chapatti, but deep fried. The best ones arrive at your table puffed up like soccer balls. Careful, the steam inside is hot. Usually served with a potato curry.
Samosas Here you are getting into food more commonly found in non-veg restaurants, though samosa can be filled with a veg or non veg filling.
Biryani or Pulao Rice, spices, and vegetable or meat cooked up together. Tasty, but a bit heavy.
North Indian Vegetarian
North Indian cuisine, particularly "Mughlai or Moghul Style" cooking, has made strong inroads into South India over the last 20 years. This is the predominant cuisine in Indian restaurants overseas, and most cities and larger towns in the South will have at least some establishments offering veg and non-veg dishes. The following Hindi terms will help you negotiate the menu.
Bhendi: Okra (Lady Fingers)
Paneer: Mild farmer's-style cheese
These are ordered a la carte, and can be served with rice, chapatti, puri, or parotha, and also with naan and roti, special breads baked in the clay Tandoor oven.
North Indian Non-vegetarian
North Indian non-veg cooking relies a lot on the tandoor oven. Marinated and baked meats are usually eaten with the breads also cooked in the ovens. Here are some terms that might help.
Kheema : Minced meat
Kababs : usually ground meat, sometimes chunks, cooked on skewers
Tikka : pieces of boneless meat or fish, sometimes paneer, marinated and cooked on skewers in the tandoor.
Tandoori Chicken : Jointed pieces of chicken, marinated and cooked on skewers in the tandoor.
Western Style Food
There was a time when Western food was hard to find. These days there is quite a bit more available, and sometimes it is okay, sometimes even good. Unfortunately it is rarely excellent, except maybe in the fancy 5-star hotels. The standard menus borrow heavily on British boarding house cuisine - palatable but uninspired. Cutlets, fish and chips, sandwiches, soups, soggy pastas and the inevitable custard pudding.
Chinese food, now commonly available, isn't much to write about either. It usually consists of fried rice and red, pre-packaged sauces, and may be spiced considerably for the Indian palate. Pizza has hit India, and can be ordered in many major centres now, even arriving by scooter at your home or hotel. Results range from mediocre to adequate, but improving all the time. If you've been overdosing on curries you may be pleasantly surprised, but be careful you don't accidentally order some curry flavored toppings.
What most Westerner travelers seem to miss the most is a good breakfast. For many, curry in the morning just doesn't make it. Toast and eggs can be found (at a non veg place), but usually it means sweet white bread, eggs dripping with oil, bubble gum flavored jam, and weak instant coffee. So, once in a while, if you've reached the point where you cannot look another iddli in the face, maybe its time to consider the buffet breakfasts most fancy hotels in the major cities offer. These are usually the most reasonably priced meals they serve, varying from Rs 100 to 200, and they give you a lot. Start with juice and fresh fruit, move on to croissants and pastries, order some eggs any way you like them, and drink all the coffee or tea you want. They usually have a few newspapers to look through as you munch your sausages. It's a good feed, and not bad economy, as, after a late breakfast you may not want lunch. Plus it is nice to be pampered once in a while. Make it an occasional ritual.