Inhaling India (A Diarrhea Adventure): A Foodie’s Guide to India on a Budget
“If you take the foods of the world on one side and the foods of India on another, our pile would easily tip the scales.” –Rocky Singh
You might think you know Indian food.
You might frequent a few Indian joints at home. Maybe you can even cook a Chicken Tikka Masala or Lamb Vindaloo. Or perhaps you just know about “curry”—that mushy colonic kryptonite your Bengali co-worker scrapes out of a Tupperware box every lunch break, filling the office with fumes that speak ginger and jock straps.
But until you’ve stepped out of Indira Gandhi International Airport, and pulled up a chair in a dingy, Delhi dhabba—until you’ve seen the smoking woks, smelled the pungent curry pots, and felt the heat of the tandoor while ogling a menu as long and indecipherable as the Rosetta Stone—you cannot imagine how robust, perplexing, and wonderful the cuisine of India truly is. Because when it comes to India being one of the most stunning foodie destinations on the planet, it’s a naan-conversation.
Below, I’ve drawn out a road map to hopefully help demystify the great banquet table of the subcontinent (the information of which is based entirely upon my own meandering experiences and opinions). And while regional specialties like Bengali Chicken Bharta and spicy prawns in Mangalore deserve recognition, the sheer, staggering size of the cuisine could fill an encyclopedia, and I’m trying to write a blog, not Atlas Shrugged. Thus, the dishes described below are only the ones you’ll most likely run into throughout the country.
During your culinary gallivanting, it’s important to remember that what might seem a celebration in your mouth can prove a tempest in your tummy. If you only eat food that’s hot, avoid uncooked vegetables, and only patronize busy, hygienic(ish)-looking food stalls, you can ensure more time pounding the streets and less time gripping the toilet. For further aid, I’ve rated the food below on their potential health risks, on a scale from One to Five Immodium tablets.
Indians start off the day with something light, and I recommend you doing the same. Or, if you’re traveling on the cheap and enjoy sleeping late, you can simply hold off until Lunch.
Omelet: Just an omelet—inescapably common and thoroughly unexciting. If it were any more boring, the vendor would fall asleep. To me, going to India and eating omelets is like going to a wedding banquet and filling up on the communion wafers.
Indian Flat Breads: I’ve never waxed poetic about a loaf of bread before, and I’m not about to now, but trust me that Indian flatbreads are really, really yummy. Stuffed kulchis, rich naans, puffy puris dipped in sabzi, or even a humble paratha are all tasty and cheap options for starting your day.
Jalebi: Sweet, juicy fried dough drowned in sugary syrup. Sometimes they’re sickeningly sweet, other times they’re oh-my-god-so-good-it’s-impossible. The only constant is that they’re always recklessly fattening. It’ll have plumpy fans of Krispy Kream donuts begging for a salad. Perhaps a salad covered in Jalebis… They’re especially delicious when hot.
Dosa: Like a crepe on steroids, dosas are crispy, wafer-thin mystery packets of potato, sweet onion, cilantro, and whatever else tickles the chef. It’s traditionally a Tamil dish from the south, but has since infiltrated menus across the country, becoming a staple as pan-Indian as Coca-Cola and staring. You break it open from the center, and then dip it in sweet coconut chutney and sour sambar.
I typically tackle lunch in one of two ways: tracking down a gargantuan thali that can hold me over until dinner, or foregoing a sit-down meal to rampantly snack on street food.
Thali: A vast, colorful, and confusing smorgasbord of unidentifiable ‘things,’ which are always invariably delicious. The secret of the thali (and Indian food in general) is to stop asking ‘What is it?’ and simply ask ‘Is it edible?’ The thali is often refillable, so you can stuff your face as your increasingly concerned waiter doles out more, until your inner-pigger is finally sated.
Kathi Rolls: The burrito’s sexy, Indian cousin. Succulent cubes of chicken tikka or smoky mutton kebabs covered with tart, raw onions and wrapped in the warm, flaky embrace of a paratha. When done right, they’re worth the price of airfare.
The delicious and bewildering domain of Indian street food scares quite a number of visitors away.
Oh well. That’s their loss.
Sure, a spoiled samosa might land you a bad case of the uh-oh sauce every once and a while, but to miss out on Indian street food would be to miss a highlight of Indian travel.
Samosa: If you’ve eaten in Indian restaurants, you’ve probably tried a samosa. If not, most travelers quickly become fine connoisseurs of these rich, fried dumplings, stuffed plump with potatoes, onions, peas, and spices. Those counting their pennies will eat that shit like Lembas bread.
Aloo Tikki: It’s like a fatorexic french-fry cake that’s all for you and you don’t have to share with anyone. It’s best served mashed and spiced in a leaf dish, or enthroned atop a bun with ketchup and pickles, like a sad apology from India for not serving beef burgers.
Pakora: Less a dish and more a style of cooking, where foodstuffs (potato, cauliflower, chili, onion, bread, etc.) are dunked in artery-punishing batter and then deep-fried to a state of golden-brown unrecognition. It’s like Japanese Tempura’s grotesque, sausage-fingered spawn.
Pani Puri: Wildly popular with locals, though I never understood why. It’s not filling, and the taste and texture are confusing in the extreme. The fried, paper-thin balls are punched open, then filled with an array of piquant sauces and liquids. Travelers with fragile, Aryan tummies beware—these crispy time bombs are just as watery a few hours later, when they urgently reappear in the toilet, again and again every hour after that for the next day or so… Buy a diaper.
Namkeen: Trail mix for the gourmand. India’s thick-wristed response to sissy bar snacks of the West. Those with aversions to spiciness tread lightly: the orange wafers that resemble animal crackers might look innocuous, but are laced with fire-lava, and will kick you in the nuts with logging boots. Great for trains and heavy drinking. Bad for vanilla palettes.
Bhel Puri: A mélange of namkeen, vegetables, garam masala, and lime juice. Like Pani Puri, it’s an odd conflict of textures and flavors, is not very filling, and might make you weep acid tears out the backside. Again, diapers are recommended. Mamy Poko Pants brand is comfy, reliably absorbent, and comes with happy butterfly designs around the waist.
Pace yourself. Dinner is the main meal of the day, and for many visitors, the highlight of it.
Kebabs: In an overwhelmingly vegetarian country, finding kebabs is as rare and spectacular an occasion as the solar eclipse. Columns of smoke reveal grills laden with tender chicken and mutton, minced or skewered as tikkas, all smothered in mouthwatering spices.
Biryani: A fragrant orgy of basmati rice, saffron, ghee, onions, cilantro, chili, and spices, slow-cooked with yoghurt- and spice-marinated mutton for several hours. It’s a similar culinary tradition to American Barbecue—humble cuisines of explosive taste, born from regions where locals have little better to do than devote eight-plus hours to watching things cook.
Curry: The centerpiece of the Indian kitchen, served over rice or scooped up with bread. Until fairly recently, I found curry entirely unappetizing (something about the smell, and its disconcerting resemblance to a bowl of afterbirth). But considering that curry can be a whole myriad of things (from chicken, pork, prawns, cheese, potato, etc.) cooked in thick sauces of equally diverse ingredients (spinach, coconut, tomato, cashew, onion, etc.), to say “I don’t like curry,” would be as broad and unjustifiable as saying, “I don’t like sandwiches.” Sure, it’s possible, but it’s more likely that you just haven’t tried that many sandwiches.
Describing India’s innumerable curries would be an impossible undertaking, so here are a few favorites to look out for:
Makhani (Butter) Chicken (chicken in a rich, buttery tomato gravy), Pork Vindaloo (a volcanically hot specialty of Goa with colonial Portuguese influences, pork and potatoes in a curry containing vinegar and wine), Korma (a sweet curry, sometimes flavored with coconut, cashews, and fruit), Palak Paneer (a specialty of Panjab, cubes of paneer [unfermented cheese] in thick, creamy spinach sauce), Kashmiri Dum Aloo (a lightly sweet cashew curry containing a steamed potato stuffed with nuts, cheese, and spices), Shahi Paneer (sometimes savory, but best when sweet, a cashew curry containing soft chunks of paneer), Malai Kofta (heavy, white coconut curry, dizzyingly sweet and thick, containing fried vegetable balls), Channa Masala (curried, spiced chickpeas), and Aloo Gobi (curried potatoes and cauliflower, it’s always cheap).
You best leave some room in your bloated stomach for dessert, because India has a sweet tooth. If the thought of taking another bite is nauseating, I can only suggest that you politely excuse yourself from the table and boot and rally.
Paan: Like an after-dinner cigarette, Paan is eaten as a digestive, a flowery potpourri of betel nut, dried fruit, and an array of sweet accouterments neatly wrapped in a paan leaf. It’s very floral, and probably a similar experience to eating a urinal mint (and I mean this in the most positive way possible), but with the slight narcotic effect of betel nut. Don’t swallow it. When the betel-buzz sets in, you’re suppose to do as the locals and gracelessly spit it back out on the sidewalk.
Falooda: Falooda must have been created by an unsupervised ten-year-old, strung out on sugar, trying to cram as many sweets into one glass as he could. It’s a puzzling concoction of sugary ice cream, sugary vermicelli noodles, sugary fruit, sugary tapioca pearls, and sugary flavored syrups. Despite its Frankenstein qualities, the flavors all work together in delicious (albeit sugary) harmony.
Lassi: A cool, sweet, refreshing curd drink, sometimes flavored with banana or mango, like yoghurty manna from heaven, LASSI TO MY FACE. ALL THE TIME. YES, LASSI. ALWAYS.
Mithai: Overwhelmingly rich and sweet for some Western palettes, mithai is the Indian equivalent of cookies and candies. Flavor themes include ‘floral,’ ‘cardamom,’ ‘SUGAR!!!’ and ‘wait, what’s that.’ Try everything, especially Gulab Jamun (best when hot), and the fudge-like barfi that are coated in edible silver foil. It’s estimated that Indians consume 14 tons of this edible silver per year.
The repertoire of the Indian kitchen is so impressively vast that even after nine months of binge eating through the subcontinent, I still raise an eyebrow with each new menu. There’s always some esoteric dish that I need to ask the waiter to decipher, and he’ll always reply with something incomprehensible, which always proves to be delicious. So don’t be afraid to tread unchartered waters. Go forth, sample every last oddity, savor every flavor, gobble up a bunch of antibiotics, and eat like a pregnant woman.
(Unless of course you really are pregnant, in which case I don’t recommend you eat anything in India…)
For a more regional foodie guides, head to Thailand in “A Wok to Remember: A Foodie’s Guide To Thailand on a Budget,” Vietnam in “Poodles & Noodles: A Gastronome’s Guide to Vietnamese Food“
Or kill your taste buds with “Have You Eaten?: 5 Terrifying Dishes of Burma“
For more foodie adventures from across Asia, click the “Foodie Mania” tab at the top of the page.