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Hindi words you'll find useful for your culinary experience in India (The English words are arranged alphabetically):
Try to learn a few common Hindi words before arriving in India. A few words/phrases that might help you can be found here:
The above page will also provide many practical tips to overseas tourists for an enjoyable trip to India.
This page is for the benefit of non-Indians visiting India for the first time. Indian restaurants located in foreign countries usually adapt to the local taste and conditions and hence everything said here may not apply.
You may have read about Indian food in many places and you probably have some first hand experience about Indian food and speciality Indian dishes. But still, I am sure, you'll learn something new from this page and find this page quite different from average writings on Indian food, specially in travel books or travel articles. This is because I lived the first 41 years of my life in India and as of the time of writing this page (June, 2012), I have been living in USA for 30 years. Besides I have traveled in many countries of the world and I always take interest in the local food wherever I travel. I am not partial to any particular kind of food. Therefore, I can discuss different kinds of food objectively and from my own personal experience.
Click on any topic listed below to jump to that topic. To those who are going to visit India for the first time, I recommend that you read everything that is written on this page from start to finish. That will prepare you thoroughly for your visit to India, as far as eating in India goes, and you will not have any unpleasant experience. Learning about the place beforehand is the key to a successful and pleasant trip. Knowing what to eat is as important as knowing what to see in a new country.
Indian Food - Healthy or Unhealthy?
Some General Hints
Easiest Way of Getting Familiar with Indian Dishes
How to Order Indian Food in a Restaurant in India
1. Indians (and people living in the Indian sub-continent) typically eat with their fingers. You don't have to eat with your fingers but this information will help you understand why some Indian foods are very difficult to eat with forks and knives, or chopsticks. (Tip: It is a good idea to always carry some wet napkins or hand sanitizers in your pocket or purse in case you are forced to eat with your fingers. After meals, all standard restaurants supply "finger bowls" containing warm water and a slice of lime to cleanse your fingers at your table. Otherwise, you can go to the hand washing sink or bathroom to wash your fingers.)
Indians typically eat with their fingers.
After eating with fingers, you get a
"finger bowl" to cleanse your fingers.
2. Bulk of a typical Indian meal usually consists of carbohydrates (rice and/or Indian flat bread called roti or chapati). Along with that, Indians typically eat Dal (lentils), vegetables (called Shabji in Hindi), and a fish, meat, or poultry dish. Vegetarians often eat two or more different vegetable dishes, in lieu of the meat/fish/poultry dish. Remember, percentage of vegetarians in India is very high as compared to Western countries. One reason for this is religious. But economic conditions also contribute to this as meat, fish, and poultry are much more expensive in India as compared to many Western countries. Rice and bread are cheap and as such poor people fill themselves with rice or bread accompanied by Dal and Shabji. Extremely poor people are even known to survive only on rice and salt! Average poor people in India survive on Dal-Roti (lentils and bread) or Dal-Bhat (lentils and rice) - both provide complex carbohydrates and lentils are very high in protein. So medically speaking these are not bad diets at all!
3. Indians eat rice or bread with every item, weather it is lentils (Dal), vegetables (Shabji) or meat/fish/poultry. One is supposed to mix a little rice with Dal or Shabji or meat/fish/poultry dish and eat the mixture in every bite. When eating Roti (Indian flat bread), Indians tear off a piece of Roti and scoop up some Dal or Shabji or meat/fish/poultry with it and then put the whole thing in the mouth. That is the style of Indian eating and it can be best achieved when eating with fingers. Rice can be eaten with a fork or spoon in the Indian style but Indian flat bread cannot be eaten with a fork in the authentic Indian style. What Westerners often do is roll up the flat bread and hold that with one hand and using the fork or spoon with the other hand, they scoop up the Dal or Shabji or meat/fish/poultry, put that in the mouth and immdiately takes a bite of the bread from the other hand and eat the items together. In other words, the mixing takes place inside the mouth!
4. Indians always eat with right hand only. People frown when they see someone eating with left hand. This is so because Indians wash themselves after using the toilet and for this job they strictly use the left hand. Even though they wash their hands with soap and water afterwards, the left hand is considered dirty and unsuitable for eating (or giving or rceiving anything with it). The left hand is a no-no in India for anything! Lefties beware!
5. Indians traditionally eat bone-in meat/fish/poultry (though due to modern day Western influence and increase in international travel for business or pleasure, boneless preparations are becoming increasingly available in better class restaurants). That is why I mentioned in the beginning of this section, you might find some Indian foods difficult to eat with a fork and knife. Since Indians use their fingers to eat, de-boning while eating is not difficult for them. So while ordering non-vegetarian dishes in a restaurant in India, always ask if they can make the preparation boneless. Of course, items like minced meat preparations such as meat koftas, kebabs (kabobs), fish fry, etc. are always boneless.
6. Like most Asian countries, cheese is not very widely available in India. Production of milk in India is rather limited. The only cheese that is used in authentic Indian meals is Paneer or Panir (compressed cottage cheese).
7. As regards alcoholic drinks, do not expect quality wines, liquors, and liquers in India except in 5-star hotels and top class restaurants and clubs. Local brands are of low quality as compared to Western standards. Beware of imitations. It is big business for many unscrupulous traders in India to sell, for example, imitation Johnny Walker Red Label Scotch at exorbitant prices to unsuspecting customers. It is better to stick to local beers which are generally okay and are reasonbly priced. Average Indians drink beer only. It is only the very rich or some Westernized Indians who go for wines or hard drinks or cocktails. Also, please remember India has some so-called "Dry States" where sell of alcoholic drinks are prohited. To buy alcohol legally in these states, one has to obtain a "Permit". (Of course, everything is avaialble everywhere in black market if you want to take your chances with the law.)
8. Indians are basically tea drinkers although people living in the four Southern States (i.e. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala) are mainly coffee drinkers simply because the Southern States grow more coffee than tea. Average Indians drink tea with milk and sugar added. If you want your tea in any other way, please remember to specify before hand. A type of tea called Masala Tea is popular in Northern India. It is made by boiling tea leaves, milk, sugar, and aromatic spices together, and then the mixture is strained and served. Street vendors usually serve tea in earthenware pots or paper cups both of which are disposable and hence more hyegenic. Regular cups and saucers made of china are also sometimes available but stay away from those as they are never washed properly. Typical South Indians drink their coffee in a funny way. They use stainless steel cups (without handle) that sit on small stainless bowls. Their coffee typically has milk and sugar in it and when served you will see the half-filled cup is sitting on the half-filled bowl (kind of disgusting looking)! Instead of using a spoon or stirrer to mix the milk and sugar well with the coffee, South Indians pour the liquid from the cup to the bowl and then back to the cup again several times. This way the milk and sugar get mixed with the coffee thoroughly and also cools down the coffee a bit so that you don't burn your tongue! The stainless cup and bowl they use have flat edges or lips that don't get hot so quickly. That way you prevent burning your fingers and lips while drinking hot coffee from a metallic vessel! Experts do the back and forth pouring from a distance of about one meter and hence South Indian coffee is often called "meter-long coffee"! Strange system but it is real. I am not making anything up. The locals drink coffee in their houses this way and coffee is also served this way in average eating houses. Of course, in 5-star hotels you can expect international standards and customs.
South Indian style of mixing coffee
and milk and creating a froth.
The process also cools the coffee.
Note the proper way of holding the cup
and the bowl by their flat edges (lips).
9. Eating outdoors, such as in sidewalk cafes or eating while walking on the street, can be a very unpleasant experience in India. You will be immediately surrounded by beggars (often with babies in their arms) asking for food or money. (You can be attacked by stray monkeys too in some places!) Try to avoid it however tempting it may look. Rooftop restaurants are fine. So are secured outdoor areas such as in 5-star hotels.
10. In interior places and villages, food is often served on banana leaves or plates made from tree leaves wooven together with little sticks or stalks of leaves. These are actually better for you since small eating places in the interior places do not wash their dishes very hyegenically. Disposable plates are preferable in such places.
A complete meal served on a banana leaf
11. Wherever possible, ask for "mild" food only. Indians like their food a "little hot". But it may be "too hot" for your palate!
12. Lastly, you already know to drink only bottled water in India and avoid ice in your drinks. Sometimes you might want to drink tea or coffee or beer to quench your thirst and avoid water altogether. In interior places, rinse your mouth after brushing teeth with bottled water also.
In many ways the eating habits of Indians and Indian foods are heathy. Indians tend to eat a lot fiber. They get plenty of fibers from whole wheat flour (Atta), lentils (Dal) and other beans, vegetables, and fruits. Indians eat a lot more vegetables than an average Westerner. Vegetables are much cheaper than animal products in india and Indians know to cook the vegetables in numerous ways. Using different spices and cooking styles they can create many different delicious dishes out of a single vegetable. This is a big difference from the Western world who tend to eat less vegetables and do not have as numerous and tasty vegetable dishes as the indians do.
Since Indians do not eat much meat, saturated fat and cholesterol intake by them is automatically less. (An average Indian eats meat only about once a week.) Beef is rarely eaten by the Indians, mostly because of religious reasons. The most commonly eaten meat in India is goat's meat (and also some lamb's meat). Goat's meat has less fat and cholesterol than beef. Chicken is the most commonly eaten bird in India but chicken is less harmful than animal meats. (By the way, turkey is not popular in India.) In eastern India and coastal regions, non-vegetarian Indians eat a lot of fish (normally twice a day). Eating fish, as you know, is much better than eating meat and poultry (medically speaking).
Indians use numerous spices in their cooking and practically every single spice has one or several medical benefits. Eating these spices (e.g. turmeric) 2 or 3 times everyday, over a long period of time automatically prevents many diseases including some forms of cancer!
Indians tend to eat a lot of yogurt more or less everyday. It is eaten with meals as well as in drinks such as Lassi which is made with it. Yogurt contains friendly bacteria that improves the digestion and promotes gastro-intestinal health.
Indians prepare their foods from scratch everyday. No processed foods and no preservatives means more natural and more healthy food. Since many Indian households still do not have a refrigerator, they buy their groceries (vegetables, fruits, fish, meat etc.) fresh everyday and eats fresh food everyday. Every lunch is cooked in the morning and every dinner is cooked in the afternoon. How much fresher can one eat?
On the flip side, Indians tend to eat a lot of deep fried food such as Puri, Kachouri, Bhatura, Namkin, Samosa, Pakora, Dalmuth, Papadum, etc. That counteracts some of the health benefits discussed in the preceeding paragraphs.
Also, Indians generally eat more salt than the Western world. This is not good but a lot of salt is excreted in the sweat since India is a hot country and profuse sweating is common. So some extra salt is needed by them.
Though the Indians eat a lot of vegetables, they mostly eat them in the cooked (and sometimes over-cooked) form. That destroys some of the nutrients, such as the vitamins, contained in the veggies. So some health benefits of eating vegetables are in fact lost.
1. Indians do not eat pasta or turkey. If you see them in the menu, they are for foreigners visiting India!
2. Indians are not big on soups. Mulligatawny soup (a curry-flavored soup introduced during the time when the Brits ruled india) is considered as the speciality soup of India. Coconut soup is a close second. Chicken soup, tomato soup, and vegetable soup are also available wherever soup is included in the menu. The Indian word for soup is Shorba.
3. Indians do not eat sandwiches for a major meal. They eat what the British call "English tea sandwiches", generally with afternoon tea! These are small, triangular, light sandwiches generally made with white bread. Cucumber & cheese and chicken sandwiches are popular.
4. Indians are not big on salads either. (This is because they prefer to eat cooked vegetables.) They typically eat a small cucumber, tomato, and onion salad served with lime wedges and green hot chilly peppers on the side as an accompaniment with meat dishes. Often times Indians just eat some slices of raw onions and green hot chilly peppers as accompaniment. Pickles are also common accompaniments.
5. True Indians do not eat Samosas as appetizer. It is a snack food in India. But I have seen Indian restaurants outside India push Samosas as appetizers! Samosas unnecessarily fill you up and you lose your appetite for the meal. Unfortunately, most Indian appetizers like various kinds of Pakoras and Samosas are deep fried foods and are, in reality, appetite killers! You are better off ordering Jeera Jal (water flavored with cumin seeds) or Nimbu Pani (water with lime juice) if you must have an appetizer. These drinks actually builds appetite! But make sure the above named items are made with bottled water before you order. Roasted, not deep fried, papadums are also good appetizers.
6. Indian Kebabs (Kabobs) are heavenly. You can not only eat them in lunch or dinner, they are superb hors d'oeuvres with your pre-dinner cocktails.
7. Indians chew Saunf or fennel seeds (usually mixed with some crystallized sugars) after meals. Almost all restaurants in India serve this mixture for free. It ususally comes with your check. Try this. It not only helps to digest food and prevent gas formation but also freshens your breath. Avoid the Paan (betel leaf) which many Indians chew. Most probably you'll not like it AND it will stain your teeth red!
Typically, in India you have to order everything a la carte. Normally, they don't serve any side-dishes when you order an entrée. (Usually just rice comes with an entrée). But exceptions are there. All over India the regular eating houses (as well as some classy restaurants) have an item called Thali in their menu. That is the cheapest complete meal one can get and is recommended for back-packers and low-budget travelers. The word Thali literally means a plate. This complete meal called Thali is usually served on a stainless steel plate and usually contains the following with minor variations.
A typical North Indian thali meal
In South India, Thalis do not usually contain chapatis (South Indians eat rice only, no bread) and usually have veggie dishes, Sambar (South Indian version of Dal), Rasam, and buttermilk (instead of Dahi). And they invariably serve some warmed ghee (clarified butter) over your rice to add extra flavor to the meal. Indians love ghee.
If you are not familiar with Indian meals or do not know the names of the different Indian dishes, it is a very good idea to order Thali to get familiar with the Indian dishes. This also is the cheapest complete meal you can buy. Many restaurants also offer things like Maharaja (King or Emperor) or Maharani (Queen or Empress) "dinner for two". These are more elaborate complete meals (Maharaja dinner is more elaborate than Maharani dinner). These are more expensive than the typical Thalis, but you can taste more items this way and they are always cheaper than ordering each of the items contained in these meals separately. The Maharaja and Maharani dinners begin with appetizers and end with tea or coffee.
An Example of Indian Maharaja/Maharani dinner for two
Talking about cheap meals, another option is to eat in a Dhaba (where available). Originally, a Dhaba used to be a eating (and sleeping) place for the long haul truck drivers by the side of the highways. Dhabas can be found on highways, especially in North India. Dhabas originated in the state of Punjab and they serve Punjabi style food. Dhabas are usually run by Punjabis and hence the name Punjabi Dhaba. Their food is wholesome and cheap but choices are limited. Meat dishes are available in Dhabas because the truckers prefer to eat meat/poultry. As for sleeping facilities, roadside Dhabas provide only a string cot with a wooden frame (called Khatia in Hindi). No bedding is supplied and the truckers usually sleep under the open sky. This kind of sleeping facility is offered free of charge to those who dine in the roadside Dhaba on a first come first served basis!
What I described above is a true Punjabi Dhaba and they exist along highways only. (These are actually crude and primitive rest stops or motels.) But a slightly better version of Punjabi Dhabas have now spread in many North Indian cities and towns. These are basically cheap restaurants offering "dhaba-style" wholesome (and tasty) food. In a Dhaba you cannot have your own separate table. You have to share a table with others. The amenities are barebone and in city Dhabas cots are not available for sleeping through the night! You may not want to eat in a Dhaba, but I mentioned them because many locals eat in Dhabas. The food in Punjabi Dhabas are usually wholesome, tasty, and very cheap. True backpackers might find them very useful.
Typical Punjabi Dhaba food, serving plates, and table
I would like to mention another point here. If you do not want to eat Indian food every day while in India, there is no problem. Most middle class restaurants in big cities and towns throughout India have three types of offerings in their menus - Indian, Continental (Indian version), and Chinese (Indian version). So you can try different things on different days.
This, of course, is your personal taste and budget. I shall just try to give some general ideas and some of my personal preferences. These might help you in your first few days in India. After that you'll know what you want to order.
This is how Masala Dosa is generally served.
It comes with thick coconut chutney and sambar
(South Indian lentil dish) on the side.
A Masala Dosa is so large that its two ends typically
hang outside the plate!
A freshly sqeezed sugar cane juice vendor in Mysore, India.
Absentee green coconuts vendor in an interior place in India.
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This page was added on June 3, 2012