Indian food is very different from western food and can seem a little intimidating from an outside perspective. If you're planning to visit India or just want some more information about Indian food before visiting your local restaurant, then this article can help.
Indian food usually consists of a gravy dish with meat or vegetables that is eaten with rice or bread depending on what you prefer. There are also dry Indian dishes called sabzis which are typically eaten with bread. Although Indian food can be spicy, not all of it is and any dish can be ordered spicy or non-spicy to suit your preferences.
Indian Food Basics: 10 Good to Know Facts
1. India is called the Land of Spices not necessarily because the food is spicy, but because almost every dish contains 10 or more different spices like turmeric, cinnamon, and cumin.
2. Most Indian dishes are eaten with either bread or rice. For many dishes, you can choose which you would prefer. Often dishes with thicker gravy are eaten with bread.
3. Although it is traditional to eat with only the right hand, this is not required and you will see many Indians using both hands to eat on a regular basis. It is also common among the middle and upper classes to use forks and knives to eat.
4. Indian food is heavily influenced by Persian food which can be seen in India's delicious tender kebabs and aromatic lamb curry. Indian food is also influenced by the Portuguese, English, and Greek food.
5. Not all Indian dishes are curries. In fact, there are only 5 types of curries including chicken curry, mutton curry, egg curry, vegetable curry, and fish curry. The flavor of these dishes will vary by region.
6. The most popular Indian gravy dishes among westerners are Chicken Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken. If you are looking for a delicious dry rice dish, then try biryani which is meat cooked in rice and aromatic spices.
7. The reason behind some visitors getting an upset stomach in India is not because of unsanitary food preparation but because of the inclusion of more vegetables and spices and far less dairy in most dishes.
8. Foreign food is very popular in India and you will find many restaurants that serve western food particularly Italian, American, and British dishes as well as restaurants that serve other Asian cuisines such as Chinese and Thai.
9. Around 40% of Indians are vegetarian and it is extremely easy to find great-tasting vegetarian food in India and at Indian restaurants abroad.
10. Some popular Indian drinks include chai which is a black tea mixed with milk and sugar and lassi which is a sweet yogurt drink.
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How Spicy is Indian Food?
One of the biggest reasons that people hesitate to try Indian food is that they've heard its really spicy. While it's true that some Indian dishes are very spicy, most range from mild to medium heat.
The spiciness of an Indian dish is based on the number of fresh chilis and the amount of red chili powder that is added by the chef. This means that it is easy to customize the heat level of a dish according to individual preference. So if you don't like spicy food, make sure you tell the waiter that you want your dishes to be mild.
In India, many restaurants will automatically make dishes less spicy for western guests. So if you love spicy food, make sure to mention that you like a little heat when ordering so as to not get the mild version.
Great Mild Dishes
Indian cuisine includes plenty of non-spicy dishes that are perfect for travelers who prefer mild food. One of our favorite mild dishes is korma. Korma is a dish with gravy that is made from cashews. This dish is light, creamy, and mild served without fresh or dried chilies.
Another great mild option is palak paneer. This dish has a creamy spinach sauce that is typically served without any red chili. This is also a vegetarian dish and includes paneer, a type of Indian cheese.
Butter chicken is another good option as it includes a lot of cream and yogurt and is usually served mild. This is one of the most popular Indian dishes abroad and is a great one to try if you are new to Indian food.
Samosas, the famous Indian appetizer, are also pretty mild. These fried pyramids are typically stuffed with potatoes, peas, and other veggies that are lightly seasoned.
Great Spicy Dishes
If you are looking for spicy food, then India has plenty of great options. One of the most famous spicy dishes in the country is pork vindaloo. This gravy dish was created in Goa and is influenced by Portuguese flavors. It includes plenty of red chili powder to get your mouth watering.
Another famous spicy dish is laal maas which is from Rajasthan and directly translates to "red meat". The gravy in this dish is a bright red and is made with mathania red chilies from Jodhpur. This is a non-vegetarian dish and often includes mutton.
Lastly, let's talk about piro aloo, a famous spicy vegetarian dish that originated in Nepal. This dish is extremely popular in India and is a potato gravy dish that packs a punch.
Eating Habits and Dietary Restrictions
Around 40% of Indians are vegetarians for religious reasons. Hindu vegetarianism is a little different from the western version and most Indian vegetarians will not eat eggs, garlic, or onions. Hindu vegetarians, however, are not vegan and do eat dairy products like milk, butter, and yogurt.
Hinduism also bans the consumption of beef. In India, the killing of cows is taken very seriously. Although beef is served in certain communities it is often difficult to find. Instead, most Indians who are not vegetarians will eat mutton, fish, and chicken. Hindus can also eat pork, but it is not as common as the other three types of meat.
Around 20% of India is Muslim which is another reason why pork is not as common in the country. Muslims are not allowed to eat pork and the meat they do consume should be halaal.
Both Hindus and Muslims practice religious fasting during different times of the year. Fasting in India is seen as a way to show commitment to religion and bring luck to the family.
Popular Meat Dishes
Although many Indians are vegetarian, meat dishes are still very popular in the country, especially among young people and men. Besides butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, one of the most popular meat dishes is rogan josh. This is a spicy lamb curry that is served in northern areas such as Kashmir and Delhi.
Another great meat dish to try is biryani. Biryani is loved all over India and is a dry rice dish that is made with butter, spice, and meat. This dish is very aromatic and often comes with mutton that is so tender it falls off the bone.
Chicken 65 is a spicy dish that includes pieces of fried chicken glazed in a delicious sauce. This is a dry dish that gets its name from the 65 different spices that are used to make it.
Lastly, if you are a meat lover, you can't miss out on India's kebabs. There are many different types of kebabs from chicken tikka to lamb kebabs. Kolkata is particularly famous for its kebab rolls that feature delicious chunks of meat with lemon and chilies wrapped in bread.
Popular Vegetarian Dishes
India is probably the best country in the world to visit for vegetarians due to the large variety and great flavors of the vegetarian dishes that are made here. Most menus at Indian restaurants are separated into "veg" and "non-veg" sections and the veg section often has just as many dishes as the others.
One of the most commonly served vegetarian dishes eaten by both veg and non-veg people alike is dal. Dal is a stew-like dish that is made using lentils. The lentils are cooked and combined with onion, tomato, and spices such as turmeric and asafoetida. Dal is served at least once a day in most Indian households and is eaten with rice.
Another great veg option is aloo gobi. This is a potato and cauliflower dish that is dry and often eaten with bread. Aloo gobi is a staple in many North Indian homes.
Chole or chana masala is a gravy dish made with chickpeas. This dish is good for you and for your tastebuds. It's not too spicy but includes many earthy spices that come together to make an excellent meal. Chole is often eaten with a thin puffed bread called puri.
How to Eat Indian Food for Beginners
Although Indian food can be intimidating at first, it's actually quite simple once you know a little more about it.
Most Indian food is eaten family-style meaning that multiple main dishes are ordered and everyone at the table shares. If you have two people eating you'll want to order at least three dishes, not including the bread or rice.
Your main dishes can be gravy dishes or dry dishes. Each dish will come in a bowl from which everyone will scoop some of each onto their plates. You can choose to eat your food with either rice or bread. Sometimes it's a good idea to order both.
There are many types of Indian breads but most people like naan which is a flatbread often coated in garlic and butter, paratha which is thinner and flakier than naan, and roti which is the thinnest of them all.
If you are eating with rice, then just mix your rice in with the sauce of the main dish and eat it together with a fork or spoon. If you are eating with bread, then you can rip off a piece of the bread with your hands then use it to pick up meat or veggies from the main dish. You can also use the bread to wipe up any sauce on your plate.
The most important thing to remember about eating Indian food is to not worry too much whether you are eating correctly or not. You can choose to eat Indian food however works best for you whether that's with utensils, with your hands, or a mixture of both.
India's Regional Cuisines
India is a large country that is made up of what once was many separate kingdoms. Because of this, Indian food varies greatly from region to region.
In the north, the food is heavily influenced by Persian flavors. In the east, the food is spicier and has Portuguese influences. In the west, you can expect more mustard seeds and mustard oil. In the south, many dishes include coconut milk as a sweetener and tamarind as a souring agent.
North Indian Food
North India is the part of the country that most people visit when they travel to India. Places like Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Jodhpur, and Varanasi are all located in North India. Most Indian restaurants also serve North Indian food so if you've had Indian food before it was most likely the North Indian version.
North Indian cuisine reflects a strong Mughal influence. It is categorized by a high use of dairy such as milk, yogurt, paneer (an Indian mild cheese), and ghee (clarified butter). Complex spice mixes and tandoori-oven baked dishes are also hallmarks of Northern Indian cooking.
Because wheat is commonly grown in North India, restaurants here typically offer an array of oven-baked breads including naan, roti, and paratha.
Famous North Indian dishes include samosas, dal makhani (lentil stew with a thick tomato sauce), palak paneer, and korma.
Eastern Indian Food
In the east, cuisine varies from the meat-heavy dishes of the inland region to the fish and seafood of the coastal region and the Tibetan and Nepalese influenced dishes of the Himalayan region. Most dishes in this area are flavored more subtly than other parts of India.
Mustard seeds, poppy seeds, and mustard oil are favored ingredients as they give dishes a slight pungency.
Popular eastern Indian dishes include momos (Tibetan dumplings), lamb curry, and Bengali fish curry.
Western Indian Food
Western India includes popular travel destinations like Goa and Mumbai. The cuisine in western India is varied, ranging from simple vegetarian dishes to complicated seafood dishes. Here you'll find plenty of different types of fish curry and prawn curry.
As once a major trade port and colony of Portugal, Goa's cuisine has a distinctive and unique blend of Indian and Portuguese culinary elements. Pork and beef are also more heavily used here than in other regions.
Popular western Indian dishes include Goan fish curry, pav bhaji (buttered bread with a vegetable gravy), and pork vindaloo.
South Indian Food
South Indian food is the most different from the rest of the country. South Indian dishes are more likely to use coconut milk and coconut instead of cream or yogurt.
Rice is the staple carb here and is eaten much more than bread, partly because the climate is hot and humid year-round. Most South Indian dishes that look similar to bread, like idli and dosa, are actually made from rice.
The most important spices produced in South India are cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper. The region is famous for a wide range of spicy foods with each state differing in common dishes, spices, and methods of cooking.
During the period of the British colonization of India, tea was taken from China and planted in large areas of the Indian hills. Although it was first brought to the county by the British, India has become a true tea country with most people choosing it as their favorite hot beverage over coffee.
The most common tea drink in India is chai. Chai is just the Hindi word for "tea" and is made by boiling black tea in equal parts milk and water and then adding spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and saffron.
Another popular Indian drink is lassi. Lassi is a yogurt drink that is used to cool the stomach after spicy meals. There are two main types of lassi including salty and sweet. Many restaurants also serve other varieties such as mango lassi.
Other popular drinks in India include fresh-squeezed juice, soda, and beer. The Indian alcohol of choice is whiskey.
Staying Safe While Eating Street Food
Indian street food has gotten a bad reputation in recent years for unsanitary cooking conditions that cause upset stomachs. While it is true that some street vendors aren't very clean, most of the popular ones work hard to make sure their food doesn't cause problems.
When visiting India, it's still possible to try out some of the country's delicious street food by following a few simple rules. Firstly, you should never consume water from street food vendors because it may be tap water which will almost always cause stomach upsets.
Likewise, avoid consuming ice or raw vegetables from street food vendors.
When trying street food, make sure to ask for recommendations from your guide or hotel staff. They will be able to point out the safe and popular places to buy from. Only buy from vendors that are popular and that allow you to watch your food being prepared.
Finding Good Restaurants in India
India is full of restaurants. Some good, some great, and some mediocre.
When looking for a restaurant, a good place to start is by asking your hotel staff or guide. They will be able to give you some recommendations for popular restaurants in the city.
You can also easily look for restaurants online. Indians typically use the app Zomato to order food or take a look at nearby restaurants and their menus.
What if You Visit India and Don't Like the Food?
One of the biggest fears for travelers visiting a new country is not finding anything they like to eat. This fear is valid as Indian food is quite different from western food, but India is such an international country that most people will have no problem finding food they enjoy. Even if they don't like Indian cuisine.
Many 4-star and up hotels offer both continental and Indian breakfast options. Major cities in India are full of international restaurants serving all types of cuisine from British and Italian to Chinese and Thai.
International chains such as Dominos, McDonalds, KFC, and more are also all over the place and can make for a good meal for travelers who are a little overwhelmed by the local cuisine.
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