India is rightly famous for its varied and delicious cuisine and in this post I will endeavour to explain a few of the dishes you will most likely come across and suggest a few things that you might want to search for when visiting the subcontinent.
The Thali is ubiquitous throughout India but it varies in quality and substance depending on where you are.
In the south it will most likely be advertised under the name “Meals”.
It is perfect for the indecisive diner like myself who just wants to try a bit of everything.
In the north you will usually be served the Indian food on a metal “Thali plate” with a portion of rice deposited in the largest section and then a dal and one or two curries in the other sections. The dal and rice will get topped up, usually without you having to ask although in a busy place you may need to give them a nudge. There might be a sweet dish – at the Golden Temple in Amritsar where they serve 70,000 people a day in their huge communal and free kitchens they served something akin to rice pudding. You may also get a chapati or papad but do not expect to get more for free!
We approached the large hall to the sound of scores of volunteers washing dishes in rows at the long sinks, the clatter and din rising into a cacophony of cleanliness. Getting nearer and making our way up the steps a volunteer presented us with fork and spoon, the ubiquitous thali tray and a bowl. Following directions to the next hall, either ground floor or upstairs, we filtered in with the groups of pilgrims sitting in long rows on the floor. Then there was a slight pause before more volunteers came around to slop dhal, beans, rice and “rice pudding stuff” into our trays, and drop chapatis into your waiting hands. There isn’t much hanging around, and although you can sometimes get refills, when the room starts to empty, the volunteers tip water on the floor and mop up, signalling it is really time to go.
Other than the golden temple I had great thali at Mamas, up in High Bank, Rishikesh, a totally backpacker centered enclave away from the pilgrims and temples by the river. She serves communally and is a total enabler (see Banoffee Pie, under desserts). The thali is simple but her pumpkin curry is one of the best things in India. Down on the way to Laxman Jhula bridge you can stop at one of the stalls and pay 30 rupees for a simple local variety, which, while not as sublime is a fantastic staple.
In the south it will most likely be served either on a round metal plate with smaller dishes inside and then a variety of curries, soups and dals in these dishes, or on a banana leaf. The size of some of these meals is truly amazing and you will often get a Gulab Jamun or dessert included.
My favourite Thali, and equally the most plentiful, was in Mangalore. It was a city that I visited briefly and almost entirely because of its reputation for Indian food and I was not disappointed. The place I went had everything you could ever want in a thali and more besides. I got a small bowl of tomato soup to begin with as a gentle opener. The main serving had three curries, two dhals, a thin soupy side, raita, naan as well as chapatti, a sweet lassi drink and a gulab jamun. Followed by ice cream. Incredible and at about 90 rupees.
Also worthy of a mention is Chennai’s chain, Saravanna Bhavan. While the menu is slightly baffling, especially given that the items on offer change at different times of the day, you can’t go wrong with the hugely varied Special Meals which are sensational.
In the south, particularly Kerala, you will find thali served on a banana leaf. Simply wash with a little water and wipe. After finishing fold the top down to the bottom for a genius, environmentally friendly and washing-up free plate. The servers come around with big pots of curry and ladle it on top of the rice which is often on the table to help yourself. Traditionally eaten with the hands, mix it all together like the locals and deliver a taste sensation.
One of the most memorable banana leaf thalis I ate was on the backwaters in Kerala. We were on a houseboat where we consistently had the best food in my time in the south and our hosts took us to a village wedding of the daughter of one of our crew. As foreigners and special guests we had a spot reserved in the large communal dining room; in that part of the hall the fans weren’t working but it seemed churlish to object. We sat sweltering waiting for the food and were like puddles when it arrived but what a delight when it did. We wanted to stay and eat as long as possible but were getting close to passing out, comfort and indulgence were the options but I figured: in for a penny…
Thali is almost always vegetarian, although you might have the option of a side dish of chicken or fish. Goan or Keralan fish thalis are sensational but the variety will come in the vegetables with one main fish dish.
This dish is simply Spinach (palak) and a type of Cheese (Paneer) which is firm relatively tasteless and used often in curry dishes in place of meat. Palak Paneer is common, particularly in the north and consists of pureed leaves along with the paneer and spices such as garlic.
Chickpea Curry from the Punjab region. A dry and moderately spicy dish usually, be aware that like with most Indian dishes you will sometimes find things spiced much more than you have had previously.
Aloo is potato, Gobi is Cauliflower so with that information I’ll let you figure out the ingredients of this tasty curry dish. It comes with a gravy and isn’t usually super-spicy but will probably contain cumin and is usually more dry than soupy. It usually also contains tomato.
Potato with thick gravy. This is apparently a Kashmiri dish although I found it in many places, particularly in the North of India. The traditional dish sees the potatoes deep-fried and then slow cooked in the rich sauce.
“Potato, was not on the high priority list of vegetables for the “Kulin Bangalis” in ancient times. Warren Hastings, the Governor general in 1790, received a basket of potatoes as a novelty gift from the Dutch, who takes the credit of introducing potatoes to Bengal. The Story goes that Lord Amherst, had potatoes planted in the “Park of Barrackpore”. Bengalis took to the root vegetable with much enthusiasm. The starchy softness of the potatoes worked well as a perfect contrast to sharp taste of mustard seeds and cumin used in Bengali cooking.” Source: Wikipedia
Paneer Butter Masala. (Paneer makhani)
This is a slightly creamy (buttery?) Cheese curry which comes close to the “English Indian” chicken tikka masala since the masala sauce is similar. It’s available all over, particularly in the North and is most common in this vegetarian version although you can get it with chicken.
Served as a thali but this is a veg version of the butter masala curry.
Grilled Fish – magic sauce
Fish in India should probably only be eaten when one is near to the coast or in particularly fancy restaurants (unless its river or lake fish of course). I’ve seen the way Indians transport ice; open to the elements on the back of a dirty truck and this suggests to me that freshness is only guaranteed somewhere you can see the fishermen.
The Andaman Islands, being close to Thailand and Burma and offering crystal clear water have perhaps the freshest and tastiest fish dishes and one place in particular on Havelock Island offered grilled fish in a banana leaf and served with “magic sauce” which was a tangy, tamarindy bit of sorcery for sure.
A tandoor is actually an oven, used to cook Naan bread and other dishes such as Tandoori Chicken, Paneer, lamb etc.
These dishes will come dry after being marinated in a spicy red sauce and cooked in the tandoor. On Havelock Island in the Andamans prawn tandoori was particularly delicious.
“Fruity” curry containing nuts.
This is a green curry, but not like the ones you get in Thailand. I first tried it in Jaipur at an amazing restaurant we stumbled across while searching for a random bus agency. We were in Jaipur as extras in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, a british production with Judy Dench and Bill Nighy among others, and the agency who arranged our work had found us lodgings in the skankiest guesthouse you can imagine (making the hotel in the movie look incredible). A group of us decided to do a side trip to Agra and one of the conditions of our deal on the film was that they would pay onward travel costs.It was all on the cheap though and so it was that we ventured to find the agency to pick up our bus tickets with little more than a name and the street. This street had hundreds of travel agencies and ours, of course, was one of the few that didn’t have its name written in English outside. During this search we walked past Bikaner Bhojanlaya and were immediately arrested by the delicious smells coming from the chef who was working away at the front of the shop. Once we picked up our sleeper bus tickets, which, by the way, were not in the bed compartments common to these buses but in seats, underneath the beds, we went back to the restaurant and had a feast.
The Navrattan Korma, and similar Navratan Curry were both fantastic here and never gotten close to whenever I tried it again. Apparently this is a Kashmiri dish and typically of food from that region it contains fruits to add a sweetness to the spice.
A rich, but not so sweet, dumpling ball of mostly thickened milk in rose syrup. It is often served at weddings or other special occasions and, like many Indian sweets, is worryingly moreish.
Often served hot with fruit, nuts and cinammon. Great for mountain regions where it gets chilly at night!
These deep-fried, bright orange, swirly desserts are neither as sticky, nor, usually, as sweet as they look like they should be. I didn’t find it easy to get a really great one of these little beauties but they look fantastic and could easily brighten up a table of dishes.
Otherwise known as peanut brittle this was one of my staples for long bus journeys since you could almost always find it near bus stands across the country. They are sometimes made with ground peanuts and sometimes with whole ones for a more satisfying crunch. Incredibly sweet, incredibly moreish and incredibly satisfying.
There are some desserts (and dishes) which aren’t necessarily Indian in origin but which are found often in India, particularly on the traveller circuit and I wanted to write about a few of them here as well!
Just where does this dessert come from? A combination of banana and toffee done in a million different ways (but again, the best being at Mama’s in High Bank Rishikesh.) Is it Italian (Ban-offi pai!)? American? No one really seemed to know when I was travelling but after a bit of research I find it actually derives from two Englishmen who adapted an American recipe for “coffee toffee pie” in 1971. Anyway, it’s hugely popular among traveller types and quite delicious.
Bhagsu Cake. (Kudle Beach Cake)
In Bhagsu, up the hill from Mcleod Ganj in Dharamsala there are a string of German Bakeries competing with each other in sales of a backpacker treat that is well worth the walk. A little like Millionaire Shortbread but way better; Bhagsu Cake has a biscuit base topped with a layer of caramel and a crispy chocolate topping.
In Karnataka, the up and coming young beach pretender, Gokarna, with its ancient temples and string of slowly developing beaches has a strange echo. Many of the people running businesses in the North in the warm summer months will move down here in the winter when the season is in full swing at the beach. The veritable Vijay for example who teaches his Universal yoga in both Arambol, Goa and Mcleod Ganj. In Gokarna this makes for an interesting conversation with the restaurant owner as he tries to explain what “Kudle Beach Cake” is exactly. He gives up pretty soon with the hopeful “Bhagsu Cake?” and while, maybe, it doesn’t keep quite as well in the sweltering south, it is essentially the same cake.
Hello to the Queen/King
This certainly is a royal dessert although I still am none the wiser which King or Queen it refers to… I’m pretty sure it isn’t Lizzie and although many people think this originates from England, it doesn’t. It seems most popular among Israeli travellers, although that could be the munchies kicking in and they certainly don’t claim ownership of the concept.
It consists of a bowl filled with biscuit crumbs, topped with banana, usually lightly fried, and then oodles of ice cream and chocolate sauce. It may have raisins, cashews, pomegranate seeds and the like on the top as well but these aren’t core ingredients. You will get as many different variations on Hello to the Queen as there are restaurants but when you find a good one (like in the Oasis cafe Rishikesh) you will most likely go back again and again.
Hello to the King is the same as Hello to the Queen but topped with Bhagsu Cake for the full OMG experience.
I don’t know which came first, the Knickerbocker Glory or this, a massive glass full of naughty goodness. The Falooda is a long glass with fruit and maybe a bit of ice cream and the Royal Falooda takes it up several notches by adding cream, sprinkles, loads more ice cream and loads more fruit. The Cool Bars in Port Blair, Andaman islands, serve these up to thirsty and steaming locals and visitors alike, an indulgent alternative to a coffee break.
The yoghurt drink. Perfect when your curry is a little more spicy than anticipated to calm down the palate and good for digestion as well. Various fruit varieties are on offer with banana being the most common but in more local places you will probably just get the option of Sweet or Salty. The best sweet lassis are flavoured with just a hint of cardamom for a deliciously subtle taste. At first the salty lassi is a difficult thing to appreciate but when you have been suffering from a dose of dodgy Indian belly for several days it has a wonderful calmative effect.
The Saffron Lassi, available most famously in Jodhpur where they claim to have the best in the country, is another variety which gives a subtle flavour to the drink.
Often served in Kulhars or clay mugs you destroy after use making them hygienic and fun!
You may know them as Poppadoms and will possibly order way too many at your local Indian restaurant as a starter to eat with a variety of dips. In India, however they are more often served as part of a Thali or as a snack in their own right on street stalls. You will often see street vendors frying them up enticingly and Masala Papad are considerably more spicy than the plain variety we most commonly find in the west.
The standard bread that you will find everywhere around India. Cooked in a dry frying pan or over coals and without yeast it is flat and often delicious. Dip it in your curry and dal, enjoy and be prepared to order another one, or two. Order the butter chapatti if you want bread smeared in melted butter to add to the oily ghee in your curry.
Triangular pastry most commonly stuffed with potato, peas, cumin and other spices. Delicious fresh, hot and crispy but not bad cold and soft as well. Meat varieties also available but you might want to be careful about the source and freshness.
There are many different types of dal, some spicy, some plain, some soupy and some dry. Wherever you go in India though, you will find this staple of lentils cooked until soft is ubiquitous, healthy and filling. Eat as part of a thali or as a side with other dishes, or simply with rice (in more remote places).
In Chitkul, at the end of the Sangla valley of Himachal Pradesh, we arrived off-season after a very long, uncomfortable and scary bus journey down some beautiful valleys ravaged by dam projects and military bases, to a town that was essentially shut. This place is at the end of the road, and through the mountains you can get to the Tibetan border. In the summer it is supposed to bloom with flowers and be a valley of plenty, but when we arrived it was one of the most desolate, inhospitable and unwelcoming places I have ever been to. We sat on the balcony of our guesthouse and watched two men attempting to plough a small patch of mud that looked as infertile as the moon, waiting for our dinner. We weren’t given an option on what we could have, and what we got was some boiled rice and the most bland slop of lentils cooked with seemingly no salt and absolutely no flavour. After several days eating dal like this you really can tell the subtle differences between what seems exactly the same dish, and this was by far the worst I ever had.
Jeera is Cumin so this is rice flavoured with cumin. Sometimes it is spelt Zeera or maybe even other variations but don’t let that fool you. It goes well with most dishes so if you want your rice to have an extra burst of flavour this is a good option.
Yoghurt and cucumber or other fruit to take the edge off that blisteringly hot curry
Puffed up bready goodness
While there are regional varieties of Indian food which are quite extreme in their difference, I’m creating a separate category for Tibetan food since it is so different and has its origin in a different country and culture.
After having tried Tibetan food on a few occasions I decided that doing a cooking course would be a good way to spend my morning. Lhamo’s Kitchen offers 2 hour classes in different types of Tibetan cuisine, pretty much in his front room, and the first one we attended was to see how to make the Momo dumplings that I may have gone on about. We discovered that “Mo” in Tibetan means “tasty” so the dumplings are literally “Tasty Tasty.”
A steamed Tibetan bread usually eaten with soup or butter tea. Pretty tasteless and has a slightly odd spongy texture for most western tastes but does go well in a good Thukpa.
Wow. Usually tried because someone gives you a cup, I’d be surprised if you order it after trying once. It is tea, made from butter, and pretty much as unpleasant as that sounds… Sometimes it is served as “tea” without too much indication so when in Tibetan areas I would suggest keeping a close eye and if the tea looks a bit pale then sip with caution..
Oat or Wheat porridge is available throughout India as a breakfast dish, usually served hot with banana, honey or other fruits. At the Tushita Meditation centre in Dharamsala they serve amazing big vats of porridge most mornings to Dharma students in silence, appreciative of something hearty in the chill mornings of the lower Himalaya. In these regions, where Tibetan refugees live you will also find Tsampa porridge made from the traditional barley flour that farmers would live on for days while travelling in the plains.
Another type of bread, this time stuffed. Aloo (potato) parantha is one of the more common and is usually served for breakfast with a spicy pickle and curd.
“Chai, Chai, coffee, Chai, Chai” is a call anyone who has travelled on an Indian train will be more than familiar with from the Chai Wallahs (or tea salesmen) who ply their trade up and down the carriages. Chai is ubiquitous wherever you go in India and not just restricted to transport but there is something strangely refreshing about the thimble sized cups of train-chai.
Don’t be confused by naming conventions, and don’t expect the same name wherever you go. It is advertised as Chai, Masala Chai, Chai Masala, tea, milk tea, masala tea etc and these may all appear on the same menu and be slight variants (or exactly the same). Tea may come with spices or may come plain – if you want the mix of cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves etc (which will vary from place to place) then the key word is Masala. Chai can mean either with or without.
A key task of any visitor to India, as far as I’m concerned, should involve thoroughly investigating the chai available wherever you travel. I have two favourite spots, the first is the Office in Rishikesh and the second opposite Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tiruvanimallai.
Service at either is haphazard, slow and maybe slightly surly in Tiru but at both it is worth it to receive the metal mug or beaker of hot, delicious tea. In the Office, if you are lucky and there is more than one guy working then the little old dude will sit over the deeply stained pot steeping tea leaves and spices in hot water and milk. The finished article comes in a large metal mug and is too hot to drink, although I guarantee that you will burn your tongue a few times, so impatient for the beautiful brew. It’s something to do with the cardamom and ginger that makes it so irresistible, and despite being several times bigger than your average chai, one is never enough. Perfect to sit around one of the tables and talk about yoga or listen to people play guitar while cross-legged on the balcony overlooking the Ganga (and beating off flies).
In Tiru, the ginger is prominent in the flavours and the metal beakers they serve it in are not the most practical items – you can expect to burn your fingers as well as your tongue here, but it is maybe even better than the Office variety. Here you sit in the shade, if you’re lucky, or in the baking sun where you can discuss non-duality, meditation and Shiva in the wake of Aurunachala, one of the holiest hills, said to be an emanation of the Lord of Destruction himself.
There are countless other places to get chai of course – I’d love to hear your favourites!
Omelette (man in Jodhpur)
I’m not sure India lays claim to the omelette but for a dish cooked around the world in a million different ways in India there are subtle local twists. By Jodhpur gate there is a man who goes through 10,000 eggs a week cooking fluffy Cheese and Tomato omelets or spicy masala varieties that will make your mouth water. He is very proud of his stall and has a guest book for you to sign to tell your tale of the best omelette in town. His success has had a common effect in India though and now he has to display a large sign above his stall declaiming that he and he alone is the original omelette man and the several copycat stalls that have now opened either side of him are merely imposters, serving under par egg dishes that presumably do a terrible dishonour to the very concept of an omelette. Great marketing strategy anyway, I’m not sure if he has Twitter yet but it’s a matter of time…
His omelets are great anyway and despite the fact that in certain holy places it is not allowed to eat eggs along with meat it does make you wonder that in such a spiritually awakened country the Om-lette is certainly a staple.
Museli Fruit curd
Many will claim to have found the best in India, but I give you the Office in Rishikesh for its huge bowl full of a variety of fruit, minimal muesli and oodles of yoghurt and honey topped with pomegranate seeds.
A savoury pancake, crispy and often as long as a cricket bat (nearly). This is a southern speciality that is found elsewhere around India BECAUSE IT IS SO GOOD!
Coming up in part two:
Aloo matar , bindi masala biryani, chaat, chana masala, kheer, kofta, pani puri, parantha, rajma, Appam, idiappam, idli, parotta, pongal, sambar, uttapam, vada, laddu and lots lots more!
Some non-Indian, Indian dishes too –
Mad Angles – and other Crisps and snacks
Shakshuka, Shacklab and others!