The food of India
[ back to Food Diary Index ]
These notes were made during a six week trip to India. These are just our food experiences and you may have a totally different experience depending on your budget, where you travel and where you eat.
Notes from November 2005
India is a very large country and the cuisine is very diverse. My records here are only for the places that I have traveled. I have listed specific food types and flavours from different areas, but will start with a summary of some of the common elements throughout.
Beef and pork are uncommon here, because of religious beliefs they are not eaten. Cows are holy to the Hindus and it is not permissible for muslims to consume pigs. Food in the south is mainly vegetarian, but as you travel further north more meat will appear on menus. Mainly chicken, mutton (goat) and fish. Seafood is more prevalent in the coastal towns. However, we tended to eat mainly vegetarian meals for food safety reasons. When you get a glimpse of the markets in India you may understand why! There are still many ‘pure veg’ restaurants in the north.
Also the further north you go the more culturally diverse cuisine that can be found. In most tourist areas you can find international cuisine, but it is often not very good quality. There are quite a few top quality international cuisine restaurants in Delhi. There are also many of the typical western takeaway chains.
Ghee is the main fat source used in cooking. It is clarified butter, and Indians call it butter to a westerner. I have used both words interchangeably below.
The tandoor oven is a special style of cooking mainly in the north. It is a very large hot oven – much like a wood fired pizza oven, but often with the opening facing upwards. The special naan bread is cooked by placing the dough on the side wall of the oven which crisps up due to the high heat.
Eating with the fingers are the main utensil used in India. As you get further north forks and spoons are used more often, especially in the tourist restaurants.
Rice is the staple of the south, while bread is the staple of the north, of course with some cross over. Environmental conditions support this trend; with the largest rice growing in the south and wheat grown mainly in the north. Dal, which is Hindi for lentil, is eaten all over.
Rice is eaten with most meals. Usually white and plain. Other varieties are ghee rice, masala rice, vegetable fried rice, and other spiced rice dishes like jeera rice. There are many different types of rice from short and sticky to long and dry. Some popular dishes made with rice include:
- Byriani – spiced fried rice with a side of curry made from vegetables, meat or soy based product. It is also served with the spiced rice and curry mixed together.
- Pulau – white rice stir fried with spices and vegetables, not as tasty as the byriani.
Bread is always unleavened and mostly wholewheat. There is a huge range of different styles but ‘Roti’ is a generic term for all the different types. Or chapatti. Naan is cooked in a Tandoor oven. Paratha is cooked on a hot plate with a little ghee. Parota is two pieces of flat bread fried with a filling, sometimes stuffed quite full it is more like a pie. Any of these types of bread can be done plain, garlic or with cheese (garlic and cheese is particularly delicious). Papa (or papadam in Australia) is very thin and crispy flat bread, having been deep fried. Puri is deep fried flat dough which puffs up like a crispy balloon, which can be small or large. Another variety in Rajasthan is a round ball of dough that is baked in the oven with a butter coating and also eaten with curries.
Dal means lentil in Hindi. A basic lentil curry, cooked until very soft with spices, chilli and tomato. It is much thicker, creamier and sometimes a little dry in the north, whereas in the south it is served with a much thinner consistency.
Wada (pronounced Vada) is made from lentil flour, it is the shape of a donut, but savoury, and deep fried. It is eaten for breakfast with dipping sauces.
Fruit and Vegetables
Common vegetables used in cooking; potato, onion, okra, green beans, peas, cauliflower, capsicum, carrot (which are red), mushrooms, eggplant, chilli.
I saw corn rarely, but during my last week in the north, I saw and ate a ‘spicy corn cup’. This consisted of a cup of fresh corn kernels mixed with butter, lemon juice, salt, chilli powder and cumin powder, what a hit for the taste buds.
Another quick snack are the carrots and radishes (the ones shaped like carrots), with a slice down the centre which is filled with lemon juice and cumin powder.
Singara is a vegetable that tastes a little bit like a water chestnut, has a black shell which is peeled to reveal white flesh inside with the texture of a broccoli stem. It is eaten raw, and cooked when the texture becomes more like a potato.
Available fruits include apples, oranges, mandarins (which they call oranges), bananas, mango and pineapple.
Peanuts are sold nearly everywhere - usually roasted with the shell in a wok with sand, and sold in old newspaper packaging.
- Stuffed Paratha - flat bread stuffed and fried in a little butter, usually with aloo (potato) or gobi (cauliflower).
- Aloo Puha - This dish is made from ‘flakey rice’. Rice flakes are made from cooked rice that is flattened and dried again. When cooking Puha you reboil the rice then fry up with onions, spices, and some potato and/or other vegetables. It is quite a dry dish, and is commonly eaten by Indians for breakfast.
Most curry based dishes as we know in Australia are from the north. There is an infinite array of different style curries, with differing vegetables or meat. Usually when eating a curry, locals will have a riata or curd with the dish to tone down the chilli. Riata is mildly spiced yoghurt with cucumber, carrot and tomato pieces. Some of the more common curry dishes I will explain below:
- Masala - The basic curry. Masala spices make the base curry for all different vegetable, egg and meat combinations.
- Korma - slightly creamy curry which is not too spicy. Usually chicken or vegetable.
- Stuffed Vegetables - Tomato, capsicum or occasionally mushroom; usually stuffed with a cottage cheese mixture and served with a curry gravy.
- Vegetable Frezy - a dry curry with a barbecue flavour
- Veg Manechurian - a sweet curry with pineapple, banana, cashew nuts and coconut gravy
- Kofta - means a meatball but is usually vegetarian;
- Malai kofta – cottage cheese and potato dumpling cooked in a rich cashew nut and onion curry sauce,
- Nargisi kofta – grated vegetable dumpling with a tomato based gravy,
- Navaratan kofta - chilli and ginger gravy
- Malai kofta – cottage cheese and potato dumpling cooked in a rich cashew nut and onion curry sauce,
- Palak paneer - spinach and unfermented cheese. The spinach is well cooked and blended with spices to make the sauce for the cheese.
- Raja aloo - roast potato in a curry sauce
- Dum aloo Kashmiri - potato pieces filled with dried fruit and mashed vegetables
- Vindaloo - rich thick and very spicy curry sauce, usually made with pork. The added vinegar makes it all the more fiery!
- Kholapuri - red spicy curry
This is a meal that dominates many restaurants in India. It is different all over the country with regional specialties. The basis of a thali is bread and/or rice served with a combination of curries, chutney, curd, samba and occasionally dessert. Great when you can’t decide what to order!
Loads of snack foods cooked on the street side. Majority of the snacks are deep fried Some of them are described below:
- Samosa - curried potato and onion deep fried inside a pyramid shaped pastry.
- Bajhi - grated vegetables, often spinach, potato, onion and green chillies, fried in a thin round shape. Served with papadams or other bread.
- Pakora - pieces of vegetables battered with besan flour and deep fried, other varieties include bread
- Pakoda - mixed grated vegetables formed into small balls and batteed and deep fried
- Pan puri - mini puri (puffed crispy bread) filled with a chickpea curry and sauces added to it. Usually four or five eaten at one sitting as a snack.
- Bhel puri - more like puffed rice with very thin crispy noodle pieces tossed in a salad with onion, tomato, cucumber, lentils, coriander, and lemon juice. This dish is famous in Mumbai.
- Finger chips - a little like prawn crackers, but deep fried in a cylindrical shape
- Burgers - occasionally seen, often in the more touristy areas. A favourite is the mashed potato burger, in a chapati with cabbage and fresh tomato is a treat.
- Upma - cracked wheat cooked with spices, tomato and onion.
- Edible tree trunk - a 25cm diameter tree trunk sliced thinly across the trunk. It is pale in colour, a little sweet with a very woody texture.
- Masala dosa - a very thin and large rice flour and coconut milk crepe rolled with a large dob of potato curry in the centre, served with chilli samba and coconut chutney dipping sauces. There are lots of varieties of this meal some using different flour to make the crepe, or using different fillings on the inside. One of my favourites was the ‘Mysore Dosa’ which had chilli paste spread on the crepe before rolling.
- Uttapam - a rice flour pancake thick with simple toppings, like a pizza but with no cheese. Served with the regular dipping sauces.
- Idli - made from ground rice, which is mixed with water and steamed in small round patties. Eaten as a snack with dipping sauces above.
- Mirchi Vada - a whole green chilli covered with spiced mashed potato, with a chickpea batter encasing, deep fried. Very filling for its size.
- Govind gatta - besan flour paste formed into balls then cooked in masala spices. Very doughy and heavy.
- Makahania - saffron flavoured lassi. Thick and delicious, this drink is like a meal and is famous around India!
- Pizza - like a paratha (stuffed chapati) with sauteed vegetables, tomato, chilli sauce, and deep fried.
Coconut milk is used in many of the dishes in this region. Being on the coast seafood was always fresh. Seafood curries were a delight here, rich thick and very tasty. One special meal we ate was a whole fish cooked in the tandoor oven with spices, served with rice and salad.
Desserts are not very popular in Indian culture. However there is a strong tradition for an after meal sweet. After all meals you are presented with a plate full of aniseeds to chew on. They can be plain, but occasionally come with small sugar pieces mixed together, or sugar coated aniseed in the more fancy restaurants. A tradition I quickly got used to.
- Rava - semolina cooked with sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, and other spices, with added peanuts
- Peeled plum look-a-like - Looks like a peeled plum but is nothing of the sort. It is a type of thick sponge in a small round ball, soaked in purple coloured sugar syrup.
Agra specialty - like a crumbly shortbread
- Jalebi - super sweet batter cooked in a circular but squiggly shape, deep fried on low heat to absorb extra oil, then soaked in sugar syrup. It tastes like fatty sugar sticks, not very appealing at all!
- Honey on a thorn tree - one day we saw a young girl selling what looked like a branch off a thorn tree, and in fact it was but with a piece of natural honey comb around it.
- Rice pudding with nuts
- Chai - National drink of India! Indians drink chai by the bucket load. It is tea made very strong, very milky and very sweet, and served in a very small cup. True chai tea is leaf tea with spices added to it. Often there is the choice of regular tea or chai. A drink that you get used to very quickly as there is no other option, however by the end I quite liked it.
- Lassi - yoghurt based drink, plain, sweet, with fruit or even savoury.
- Fruit juice - tropical flavours in large containers sold on the street. Mango was very common. More than likely mixed with local water, so I didn’t try many of these.
- Sugar cane - freshly squeezed from the sugar cane, often mixed with lime juice.
- Lime and soda – a very refreshing drink on a hot day, bottled soda water with a dash of fresh lime juice, occasionally with some added sugar.
- Masala soda - bottled soda water with mixed spices and lime juice.
- Wine - this is actually whisky and water, with or without ice
- Knockout beer - beer is not very common in India as most Hindu’s are not allowed to drink. When we did come across some beer, the name gave it away that it was rather potent, a massive 8%.
In the more touristed regions it is possible to eat a range of international foods. Usually a restuarant that tries to serve western food, try to serve every type of cuisine. So you will get restuarants that have the longest menus ever, with Indian, South Indian, Italian, Israeli, Tibeten, American, and many more. Often the food leaves a lot to be desired!
There are only a handful of western takeaway stores, and most of then in Dehli. McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Subway, and Wimpies. At certain busy times there are cues to get into McDonalds and Pizza Hut. They are very formal dining restuarants with a porter at the door, and you have to be seated by a waiter in Pizza Hut!.
McDonalds menu items
The McDonalds in India had many more vegetarian options that meat options, however to aline with Indian dietary fat intake most of the burgers are deep fried. (see also McDonald's around the world)
- McAloo tikka burger - a spicy potato pattie
- Chicken Maharaja Mac - Maharaja is a great ruler!
- McCurry Pan; chicken or paneer - levened bread cooked like a pizza
- Veggie pizza McPuff - looks like the apple pie, but has a saucy curried filling
- Paneer and salad wrap - deep fried unfermented cheese with salad in a flat bread wrap
- Mexican chicken wrap – not sure why?