Admission: my first time ever trying Indian food, was in Singapore. That’s right. Despite the thousands of Indian restaurants that exist in the USA and Southeast Asia, I had never had Indian food. The night before flying to India, a fellow at my Singapore hostel suggested we try out a new Indian restaurant down the street. We ordered a take-out meal of rice and chicken with some gravy, and took it back to the hostel. The guy showed me how to properly eat it with my hands, and after a while, I finally tasted the joy that was Indian food. It was the tip of the iceberg, in the sea of food I would soon be swimming in.
Indian cuisine is by far my favorite cuisine, for many reasons. It’s filling. It’s fun to eat. The spices are incredible. However, the greatest thing about Indian food (and what I will be focusing on in this article) is how much variety exists in it. The taste changes as you move throughout the country. It changes drastically. Just as there are dozens of languages in India, there are dozens of cuisines. For example, rice dishes are a staple in southern India, while northern India tends to use bread as a staple. The meals are pretty much endless, and you could feasibly eat something new every day. Sometimes, the dishes are state-specific; others are city-specific.
I’d like to talk about my personal experience with this incredible cuisine, by breaking it down into categories. I’ll share some of my favorite dishes with you, all of which are delicious. If you get a chance, you should try them all!
There is no way I can talk about Indian food, without getting this prominent category out of the way. There are many different kinds of Indian breads, most of which are used to dip into some delicious curry dish.
Roti – This is perhaps the best known of the Indian breads. It’s your standard flat, unleavened bread, which is often dipped into a delicious dal (sauce made from lentils and spices) dish.
Naan – It’s a delicious type of flat-bread that vaguely resembles a pita. It is often served buttered, and can be eaten along with a variety of dishes and dipping sauces.
Paratha – This is probably my favorite Indian bread. It is sometimes stuffed with cheese, potatoes and onions (aloo paratha), and other various foods. The parathas in the north and south differ greatly from each other. I personally prefer the southern paratha (also called “parotta”) which is doughy, layered, and wholly satisfying to eat!
Dosa – This large, crispy flat bread made up a significant chunk of my diet during my first month in India. It is made from rice batter and black lentils, and is indigenous to southern India. A delicious variety is the ubiquitous “masala dosa,” a dosa stuffed with potato curry. The food is then dipped in sambar (a lentil-based stew) and chutneys (condiments of varying spice levels and ingredients).
Puri – This is a deep-fried bread, which I personally love. Many people consider it to be too oily (and indeed, it is very oily), but it tastes fantastic when served as “puri bhaji” (puri with an accompanied potato dish).
Chapati – It is sort of like a roti, except cooked with whole-wheat flour, and smaller. It serves pretty much the same function as a roti, and is quite tasty.
Pav – It’s a small roll, usually buttered. This is used to dip into the amazing “pav bhaji,” a spicy tomato sauce dish.
Rice dishes tend to be popular in southern India. It can be cooked with any variety of curries and spices. Here are a few specific meals you might find at a roadside restaurant.
Rice Thali – A “thali” is usually one staple food, surrounded by many condiments. Rice thalis are pretty popular. You get a large scoop of white rice, and many different curries/vegetables/dals to mix it together with.
Pulao – More commonly known as “pilaf,” it is rice cooked in a seasoned broth. I’m a particular fan of “paneer pulao,” pilaf cooked with paneer (a delicious Indian cheese).
Biriyani – It’s another variation of rice cooked with spices, usually with a stronger taste than pulao. Sometimes, it is served with meat or cheese.
Bisi Bele Bath – This is a little-known rice and lentils dish, with origins in the state of Karnataka. It is made with spicy masala, and is among the best rice dishes I have eaten.
If you are on a budget, or just want something less fancy, there is no shortage of street food in India. Usually, the foods are deep fried, prepared quickly, and are very cheap. Different cities have different types of street food, but here are a few varieties I can recommend.
Vada Pav – This dish is very popular in Mumbai. It’s a sandwich made of a small bun, various sauces/spices, and a stuffed potato filling, sort of like a knish.
Samosa – It’s a fried pastry that can be filled with various vegetables, meat, and spices.
Idli Sambar – Particularly found in the south, this is a rice pancake that is commonly eaten for breakfast. You dip the idli (pancake) into the sambar (lentil sauce).
There are several drinks indigenous to India. They can be found at restaurants, street stalls, and liquor stores. Here are a few of the most popular ones.
Masala Chai – This is a delicious, ubiquitous tea, flavored with various spices and herbs. It is usually sweetened, has milk in it, and costs no more than a few cents.
Indian Filter Coffee – Coffee is actually just as popular as tea (if not more so) in certain states, such as Tamil Nadu. It has chicory in it, and is usually served sweet.
Lassi – This is a delicious, sweet or salty yogurt drink. It is often infused with fruits such as mango. In some states, it is even infused with cannabis (bhang lassi). They are sold at government approved shops, and are 100% legal.
Kingfisher Beer – This is the most popular Indian beer. It’s ok.
Indian Chinese Food
Surprisingly, India is home to some of the best Chinese food I have eaten. Instead of just trying to “do” Chinese food, many of the dishes blend Indian and Chinese food, and are delectable!
Chili Chicken – It’s exactly what it sounds like, and tastes fantastic.
Manchurian Chicken – Chicken with various vegetables and spices. It’s really spectacular.
Vindaloo – This is a curry dish, popular in the state of Goa. It is usually served with meat, particularly beef (rare for India, as beef is not eaten in many states).
Alu Gobi – It’s an awesome spicy cauliflower dish.
Chicken 65 – This is a spicy, deep fried chicken dish, from the south of India.
Sweets – This refers to Indian sweets/candy. They can be found at a lot of shops, and vary in terms of sweetness, crunchiness, and flavor intensity.
This has only been a small sample of Indian cuisine. There are many, many variations of each dish, and lots of dishes I haven’t tried yet. Every state has its specialties, and it is impossible to try everything. I hope you try some of the foods I have mentioned; each and every one of them is a small part of the most amazing, gargantuan, flavorful cuisine on Earth!