Food and Drink in India
Information about eating and drinking in India: national cuisine, regional specialities and mealtime customs…
Food plays a major part in Indian culture. All celebrations involve food – usually a lot of it. Food also seems to be available everywhere and around the clock. All towns and cities have numerous “hotels” (a word commonly used across the country for small eateries) restaurants, snack stalls and even pushcarts offering a wide variety of delicious snacks and dishes from morning to night.
Many Indians are vegetarians for religious reasons. Indian vegetarians do not eat any kind of meat, fish, chicken or even eggs. Some Brahmin vegetarians do not eat garlic or onion. Jains do not consume any root vegetables either. Though veganism is still a new concept in India, many Indians are turning to a vegan diet for health or ethical reasons. India is therefore a paradise for vegetarians and vegans. All restaurants and cafés have a vegetarian and “non-vegetarian” menu, and there are many exclusively vegetarian eateries. Vegans should request dishes without paneer (a type of cheese), butter, ghee (clarified butter), yoghurt, cream or buttermilk.
The number of Indians eating meat is increasing, as this is thought to be a sign of upward mobility and sophistication. Most Christians and Muslims are meat eaters. The most common non-vegetarian dishes comprise chicken, fish, lamb or mutton. Hindus will generally avoid beef, while Muslims will not eat pork.
Indians will almost always assume that a foreigner eats meat, so vegetarians should make their host aware if they are invited to an Indian home. Indians are tolerant of food preferences and will cater to them, rather than making a fuss. At dinner parties, meals are generally served buffet-style and never before 22:00 or 23:00, after which guests are expected to leave.
Indians usually share all the dishes and one person takes care of the ordering. Meals are generally eaten with the hands – always with the right hand only – even outside of the home. In upmarket restaurants, cutlery will be used, especially if the food being eaten is not Indian.
“Thali” meals are popular across India. In southern India, they are simply referred to as “meals”. A large metal plate is filled with small bowls of different dishes made of dhal, vegetables and meat, if it’s a non-vegetarian thali. This is served with an Indian bread such as a chapati or puri, and rice. A sweet dish rounds off the meal. In southern India, such meals are traditionally served on a banana leaf.
Every Indian city has many restaurants and eateries, offering a wide range of cuisines at various budgets. Some expats prefer to avoid small eateries, street food, salads and juices for hygienic reasons. Middle- and upper-class Indians love to try new foods, and “continental” and “Mediterranean” restaurants are popular.
Most big Indian cities offer the widespread Italian and Chinese restaurants, as well as more “exotic” cuisines such as Japanese and Lebanese. American fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Taco Bell are quickly gaining ground in the bigger cities.
Indian food is aromatic because of the spices used. The most common are red or green chilli peppers, turmeric (haldi), tamarind, cumin (jeera), ginger, black mustard seeds, fenugreek (methi), asafoetida (hing), cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg and saffron. Herbs such as coriander, mint, bay and curry leaves, and fenugreek are used for flavouring.
Indian food can be spicy for the uninitiated. Avoid moderately to highly spicy foods until your palate adjusts. Cut raw vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots and cucumber, as well as yoghurt and raita (yoghurt mixed with chopped tomatoes and onions), are often served as accompaniments to meals for their “cooling” properties.
As diverse as Indian food is, there are some staples that are common across the country. A typical Indian meal will always have a lentil (dhal) dish, one or two vegetable dishes and one or two meat-based dishes (for non-vegetarians) that will be served with either rice or Indian bread.
In northern India, bread is the staple. Flat unleavened breads such as naan and roti are cooked in a clay tandoor oven fired with wood or charcoal. Chapati and paratha are cooked on a tawa (flat frying pan).
In southern and eastern India, rice is the staple, often eaten at every meal. The preferred rice is white and polished, while in Kerala, an unpolished “red” rice is also popular.