Popular Indian dishes

Decoding food in India – Advanced guide for foreign travelers

Last updated on April 19th, 2017

India is one of the best destinations for foodies – the cuisine diversity of this land can turn almost everyone into a food lover. When I came to India for the first time, most of the dishes sounded new to me. It took me a few months to understand what I actually order and like. To make things easier for the new visitors, I decided to put up an intro guide to food in India based on my numerous experiences in the country from becoming involuntarily vegetarian due to the home rules, losing 5 kg of weight because of the lack of local knowledge, discovering spices and many others.

Since I was the only foreigner in the guest house and in the office, the opinions in this post were formed in the local environment. But that’s what you want to experience in India, don’t you? Here are the essential things I’ve learned during my stay.  Feel free to jump to any section of your interest:

  1. Indian states and their food specialties
  2. My recommended and favorite foods in India
  3. Non-vegetarian food in India
  4. Indian sweets and desserts
  5. Strange Indian food that you will either like or hate
  6. Foods that you will not find easily in India
  7. Other cuisines in India that are still kind of Indian
  8. Indian beverages you need to try
  9. Trying local Indian fruits
  10. Indian spices and how to adapt to them
  11. How to avoid getting sick in India?

Indian states and their food specialties

Each part of India is famous for its particular style of cooking and dishes. The infographic below gives a great idea about the signature dish of each state of the country.

Indian cuisine is mostly spicy and oily, thus you might want to double check what you are ordering if you have any diet requirements. It is possible to find plain and less spicy food, check out a separate section about spices.

After you have decided what to eat, it’s time to figure out which food places to choose to try particular dishes. If you would like to see the best restaurant near you, I would recommend Zomato. This free app will tell you the best food place around you. After I shifted from the guest house to the apartment where I needed to take care of food, this app was a great time saver. If you are staying for a longer time in a city and wish to order food to home, check out the Swiggy app.

My favorite foods in India

Since I was staying first 8 months in the guesthouse and worked among locals, I was eating ONLY Indian food during this time. This list is completely formed from my habits. Honestly, I like most of the dishes in Indian cuisine. There are several dishes like dal makhani (pulses), chaap(soya) curry that I can’t eat on a daily basis since they are buttery and heavy. I used to eat more diet food before coming in India.

If you have a goal to try the most dishes of Indian cuisine, I can tell you my “strategy”. For breakfast, I always used to take either paratha (bread) with vegetables or snacks. For lunch, I was going for combos. As a rule, a combo includes at least 2 types of curries and a bread of choice (chappati, naan, paratha, puri, kulcha are the most popular ones). For dinners, I go for either south Indian cuisine – it’s less buttery and lighter or one dish types (biryanis). This way, you try at least 5 new dishes per day. The list below doesn’t contain any delicacies, but the dishes I’m eating on a regular basis.

Indian snacks

  • Golgappa – this is one of the dishes you are going to like or hate. It is also known as pani puri as it includes a crisp puri filled with potato, green peas and spicy water. There are several sauces that define the final taste of the snack. It’s quite awkward to eat them initially since you have to eat the whole golgappa in one go. Once I got used to, this became my weekly addiction.
  • Dhokla – it’s a Gujarati dish. A fermented batter with chilies. It’s just a unique combination of sweet, plain and spicy.
  • Pokora – deep fried batter with different fillings: potatoes, paneer, onions and many others. There was a pokora bhaiya (Indian from “brother”) just 100 meters from my home and there was always a long queue around (in India, queues are around!). People used to tell, he was the best in our area. Couldn’t argue with that!
  • Pav Bhaji – it’s one of the famous foods in the west of the country (Maharashtra). It is a thick spicy curry served with special soft bread.

In India, there is also a concept of namkeen (ready packed snacks). There are different brands, but my favorites are Kashmiri mix and Aloo Bhujia in a green pack from Haldirams. You can buy them in any grocery shop.

Indian breakfasts

  • Paneer Paratha and achar.  Paneer is a type of cheese in South Asia. Paratha is a type of a flat bread. Achar is different types of very spicy pickles. I recommend starting with a mixed veg and mango achar.
  • Poha – this is flattened rice with peanuts and other vegetables.
  • Aloo gobi – these are fried potatoes and cauliflower. I think this dish is more about the spice mix. In our guesthouse aloo gobi was always cooked on Wednesdays and that was one of my favorite among all I’ve tried in different cities of India.

Main courses

Dosa sambar - food in India

Plain Dosa – a typical South Indian meal

  • Mix veg Dosa – a big crispy pancake with vegetables. Served with sambar and chutney.
  • Shahi Paneer gravy & naan – sweet spicy curry made with paneer and naan is a type of bread.
  • Biryani – this is rice with vegetables. There are many vegetarian and non-vegetarian varieties.
  • Chole batura – this is a curry of chickpeas with bread. It was one of my favorite dishes for a long time.
  • Aloo puri – potato curry and bread. This dish is also about spice mix.
  • Thukpa – this is kind of soup with noodles and vegetables, that you will find in Himalaya region.

Non-vegetarian food in India

There is a misconception that Indians are vegetarians. Well, many of them are, but you can’t generalize since there are many non-vegetarians as well. I have to admit, if you are a vegetarian, India will be one of your favorite food destinations. In fact, from all the countries I’ve visited in Europe and Asia, India is the most advanced country in vegetarian classification.

Firstly, all the products in India have either red (for non-veg) or green (for veg) dot on the package. It makes shopping much easier. Secondly, if you go to a non-vegetarian café something like “Punjabi kebab”, you will find there the section with vegetarian food. It doesn’t work vice versa. If you go to a pure vegetarian café, there will not be even a single meat item.

If you are a non-vegetarian, there are many great dishes you can try: Indian chicken curry (numerous varieties), chicken tikka, butter chicken, chicken/mutton biryani, fish curries and many others. You will not find the native taste of the dishes from cafes in India even in the posh Indian restaurants in Europe. You can find some great non-vegetarian options in Punjabi, Afghani, Tibetan cafes.

It is also quite easy to become a vegetarian during your stay. I did that for 8 months as I was living and working in a place where non-veg products were forbidden. Generally, many people believe that you exclude the important food elements by avoiding meat products, but in fact, you substitute them with the vegetarian alternatives.

Chicken 65 snack

Chicken 65 – spicy snack from Chennai. Image credit: Amiyashrivastava

Do Indians eat beef?

You might have heard that cow is a saint animal in India. It is a very emotional topic among local people, so don’t stare/honk/touch/hug cows. You will see them often on the roads in the smaller cities and villages. There will be also other exotic animals like monkeys – so better focus your attention on them. Whatever you want to do with cows, firstly ask an ethical advice from the locals.

Due to religious and cultural reasons, beef is banned in 22 states in India. Let me paraphrase, eating beef in these states is a crime! India is the last country you want to deal with laws, thus make sure to respect them. Nevertheless, India is the largest beef exporter in the world. Such a hypocrisy, right?

When you SHOULDN’T eat non-vegetarian AT ALL?

There are few cases when I recommend avoiding non-vegetarian products by all means. There are several national fasts around the year called Navratri. The biggest one is before the Diwali – festival of lights and there is one more fast in spring. During this time, many non-vegetarians also fast. This results in an extreme decrease of the meat consumption. Many non-vegetarian cafes close at all during these weeks, nevertheless, big international chains (McD, KFC, Subway, etc) and mixed local cafes are working.

I strongly recommend avoiding non-veg products during both Navratris and 2 weeks after. I got a food poisoning after eating in one of the international chains next week after Navratri. Of course, we shouldn’t generalize, but I recommend to exclude any risks of getting sick. Overall, two months in a year, you need to become a pure vegetarian. No, it doesn’t feel challenging.

Indian sweets and desserts

Indian sweet shop

A typical Indian sweet shop. Image credit: Felipe Skroski

Once you enter a local sweet shop, you will be confused where to start. Indian sweets are mostly made of milk. In fact, I can just think of a few options that don’t contain milk like jalebi (honey fried sweet), a type of carrot Halwa and few others. Indian sweets are also very sweet and quite heavy. Below are few suggestions of sweets, for which I’ve received positive feedback from other foreigners as well:

  • Barfi – this is one of the signature sweets in India. People gift it on different holidays and celebrations. There are many varieties of Barfi, but I recommend starting with plain and dry fruit types. It’s a thick milky sweet. You might like it.
  • Ladoo – It also has tens of types, but I strongly advise to try orange small grained. This is my forever favorite choice. They are also called shaadi ka laddu (marriage laddu) as these are often sent as gifts with wedding invitations. There is one more type made of dry fruits. It’s a specialty of East Uttar Pradesh, but you can find it in other cities.Laddoo is made from flour, dough and sugar. There are additional ingredients depending on the type.
  • Gajar ka halwa – it’s a carrot pudding with dry fruits. It is very soft in taste.
  • Kulfi – it’s a frozen sweet dessert that comes in many flavors. You can try it instead of ice-cream. It will be much creamier.

There are few more popular, like rasgulla and ras malai (though I find them both quite plain (maybe because they are both from paneer) in a sugar syrup), gulab jamun and jalebi – they are both too sweet in my opinion.

Gola ice (Chuski) – this often gets skipped as it is sold on the streets. It’s an ice that you drown in the flavored juice. Somewhat like an iced juice. I tried many flavors, you might also want to give it a chance. By the way, it’s coloring lips, tongue, teeth for the whole day.

Chuski in Delhi

1. Chuski stall ->2. My friend with chuski ->3. Chuski color after effect

Strange Indian food that you will either like or hate

Like everything else in India, food also forms a love-hate attitude. Despite the local cuisine is yummy, there are numerous foods in India I couldn’t imagine exist. Most of them are not exotic and consumed all over the world, but the way Indians eat them are quite unusual.

  • Masala fruits. During the first month in India, I cut a melon in the office for everyone. The first question my colleague asked: “Will you eat it just like this? Without anything?”.

At that moment, I dig my memories about eating melons and couldn’t come up with an addition to it. My colleague went to the kitchen and brought masala (spices) and covered the plate of fruits with it. Imagine adding a bitter-sour-salty taste to a sweet fruit. Later I’ve seen that most of the street cut fruits are sold with masala unless you ask not to add it. I can’t give a strong opinion on this taste, but I can manage it, at times I even like it.

  • Ghee – this is somewhat like home-made butter. I find it very fat, though my former flatmate added ghee to most of the dishes.
  • Masala soda – this is a regular soda with black salt and spices. This is a local specialty, plus if you like an exotic taste, maybe give it a chance.
  • Chaat – This tops the list of strange things I tried in India. It’s a snack that combines in itself sweet, sour, spicy and bitter. Too many tastes for one dish, in my opinion.
Indian chaat

Chaat – the strangest dish I ever tried

  • Dishes with paneer – paneer itself is tasteless, it’s a plain cheese – neither sour nor salty. But it’s very soft in structure. I liked it, but I’ve met a few foreigners who can’t stay any dish with paneer.
  • Sweet potatoes – I belong to East Europe which is actually a potato area. We have tens if not hundreds of dishes made from potatoes, but I have never ever thought of making them sweet. Maybe that was the reason I didn’t find a common language with this plant, but many of my friends actually like it.
  • Fried banana – there are many types of banana and it can be both fruit and vegetable in India. You can casually buy bananas from almost any sabji-walla (vegetable seller) or find them in some readymade dishes of Indian cuisine.
  • Any dish with karela – This is a type of bitter sour vegetable. I made a long way trying to understand it, but couldn’t.
  • Sweet noodles – there is a desert with sweet noodles. Unlike sweet potatoes, I liked it.
  • Paan – this is a type of a big and long-lasting mouth freshener that is made of spices and leaves. You can keep it in the mouth for 20 minutes and look like a hamster (just kidding). It has several flavors and an interesting taste. I love it!
  • 1 Rupee walla fresheners – so there are street vendors literally at every corner of the street selling different gums, mouth fresheners, jellies, lollypops. This might be the only case in India when you can buy something for 1 INR (~0.015 USD). After you visit any café, as a rule, you get in the end a box with small grain shaped items as a freshener. You can buy these from the street vendors as well in the small packs.
Indian local stall

Whatever is hanging around is either sweets, spices or fresheners. Maybe the only thing you will find for 1-2 INR in India

The items from the above list are not delicacies and this is what people eat in India regularly.

Foods that you will not find easily in India

Despite the overall abundance of products in India, there will be a few that are hard or impossible to find. I think they might be available in more touristic places like Goa, though with all my local connections in Delhi I failed to identify them. You will not feel this lack, if you come for a short term. I think this list of products might differ depending on your culture, though here is my list what I missed the most:

Cottage cheese – as much as locals tried to convince me that paneer is a cottage cheese – it’s not. If you have tried both, you will agree. Paneer is kind of pressed cottage cheese. Anyway, I was making cottage cheese at home in Delhi (YES, I missed it that much!), but I couldn’t achieve the 100% natural taste since I could use only processed milk, but I needed raw.

A Variety of dairy products – If you go to almost any market or supermarket in Europe, you will have the whole separate section with tens of varieties of yogurts, shakes, milk types, spreads, a huge fridge with cheese and other dairy products. In India, you will get to choose from basic required products, though there are many interesting local specifics. Try Misti doi (kinda sweet curd), lassi (plain or flavored local drink), Yakult. Talking on dairy, I couldn’t find sour crème. No, it’s not Dahi (curd).

Bakery – though you will see numerous bakery shops around big cities, they will be mostly selling creamy birthday cakes. But there is no culture of baked food – like croissants, pies, muffins, eclairs, pretzels, strudels and many other varieties that you see in a bakery shop in Europe. I think this has something to do with the climate. Since bakery goes well in cold weather, you might find some more varieties in Himalaya area. Though overall there is no bakery culture in India.

Bakery

Bakery – one of the foods I was missing the most during my long-term stays

Non-vegetarian varieties – despite an abundance of meat and fish supply in the market, it’s quite hard to find meat & fish products like various types of sausages, bacon, herring, wurst, etc. There are some of the products imported from Europe that you will find at the markets, but they are way overpriced and quite limited in options.

Some grains – India has a huge variety of grains to choose from, but there are some you will not find easily. For example, roasted buckwheat, grained wheat, semolina to name few. I’ve seen quite a few foreigners selling/exchanging such stuff on arrival for a huge percent. I found an alternative of green buckwheat in Chandni Chowk, but that’s a different type.

Other cuisines in India that are still kind of Indian

In addition to North and South Indian food, you will also find continental, Chinese and European cuisines. Sometimes due to the spice factor, the continental may not seem continental and chilly chicken may seem like a chicken put among chilies. For some reason, European food is mainly represented by pasta and salads. There are also numerous restaurants (mainly Asian). Nevertheless, absolutely all the cuisines are adjusted to the local reality. Even if you order pasta, you can expect it to be quite spicy. Chinese momos will be also different from the ones you will find in China. Remember, if you see in the menu just one type of salad – it is just sliced vegetables.

Indian cuisine guide

Indian beverages you need to try

There is a huge list of beverages in India you will find online. Without going into too exotic options (like Jal jeera – a lemonade with jeera powder, or chaach – a yogurt-based spicy drink), I would advise you to try the following:

  • Masala chai – it’s a typical tea with milk, ginger and spices. I prefer black tea over this, though you might want to try masala chai as a local variety. You can try it literally everywhere. Consider also that India is a tea country. If you go to the meetings, you will be served with tea. Though, you will not find a huge variety of flavored teas like in Europe. I think this is already a product of marketing. In India, you can find classic natural tea varieties. Despite I liked the interiors and atmosphere of several coffee shops, I didn’t manage to find good coffee. If you know a place, please advise.
  • Coconut water – it’s unbelievably affordable in India. Though it is quite tasteless, it has a refreshing property and helps a lot to survive the hot weather in summers.
  • Fruit shakes – you will find fresh fruits in India all year around. I loved the watermelon shake and it became my weekly habit during the season. Fruit bhaiya told that mango is the most popular among foreigners. You might want to give it a try.
  • Masala soda – this scored in love or hate products – it’s a spicy soda basically. It does have a strange taste, but give it a try.
  • Lassi – this is a sweet milky product. It has several flavors. For some reason, I got crazy about mango and banana varieties since I tried them first. I also love kullad lassi – it is a classical thick lassi with dry fruits in the pottery glass.

There are also some local alternatives for the soft drinks. For example thumbs up – it has something in common with coke, but it’s sweeter and more caffeinated. Don’t drink it in huge quantities, it’s a choice against your health 😀 By the way, absolutely all soft drinks are available in masala version.

Trying local Indian fruits

native Indian fruits

On the fruit cart in the upper row after bananas: pomegranate, custard apple, chiku. Below: watermelon, papaya, guava.

There are many fruits and vegetables you will find in India all year around. Here you can buy a whole bunch of bananas for half of a dollar. Most of the fruits I get for cheap in my home country like apples, cherries, plums, pears – are crazily expensive in India. It will not be expensive for you if you are a tourist, but if you live in India, these fruits are at least 3 times more expensive than bananas, mangoes, papayas and other local specs.

Among typical fruits in the market, you will find apple, mango, banana, watermelon, guava, papaya, pomegranate, melon, orange, sweet lime, black plum, pineapple, anjir, custard apple, chiku, kiwi, coconuts. My favorite ones are litchis, papaya and mangoes. Actually, there are over 500 varieties of mangoes. This is one of the reasons I love India in summers as this is mango season. By the way, there is an annual mango festival in Delhi at the end of June each year. It’s one of the most popular food festivals in India.

I haven’t written about vegetables in details as you will not cook most probably and this post is getting too long haha. But if you need a piece of advice on peculiar vegetables, drop me a message. If you are craving for a fresh salad, you will find cucumbers, tomatoes, onions all year around for a dirt-cheap price.

Mild Indian food – how to adapt to spices

Indian herbs and spices

Too many spices? A question never asked by an Indian.

During first months in India, I had an impression that Indian people don’t really understand the concept of less spicy.  Even when I used to ask non-chili dish, every time I was tasting it, I felt like burning from inside. Though you will get used to the level of “spiciness” everywhere with time, I can give several recommendations for people who are susceptible to spices:

Limit yourself in main gravy dishes – e.g. Daal, curry, Rajma, Shahi paneer, Sambar, etc. These dishes might sound weird if you are new to Indian cuisine though you will learn and love them after a while. These main curry dishes are always pre-cooked, so you can’t really influence the level of spices there. Another tip: the more foreigners visit a certain restaurant the more flexible is their level of spices.

Give your preference to breads or some South Indian dishes – e.g. parathas, naans, dosa, uttapams, vada, idli, etc. These dishes are cooked upon request, so you will be able to ask and manage spice levels.

Other dishes where you can regulate the level of spice – different biryani types, poha, upma, noodles, plenty varieties of fried vegetables (sabji), different snacks (they might create an impression of the main course for many foreigners. Double check which course you are eating, especially if you are attending a traditional function. When I and my friend were attending an Indian wedding we tasted tens of varieties of snacks. Everything was so delicious. When we were ready to enter a food coma the hosts invited everyone for the main course).  That’s how we learned different Indian courses.

How to avoid getting sick in India?

I think it’s an important topic to discuss. To be honest, I haven’t met even a single foreigner who didn’t have a food problem at least once. Nevertheless, if you follow some local rules you will minimize the probability of any digestion issues:

Avoid ice cubes in the drinks – I know two cases when my friends had a sickness because of the ice cubes in reputable cafes.

Avoid street food if you come for a short period of time. An exception might be an organized tour for foreigners! Yes, it is safe to eat street food in India, but it takes much longer to adapt your stomach to local cuisine and know the good places. If you still decide to try it yourself, don’t take non-vegetarian and pick the places with many local women customers. They are pickier by nature. Generally, for a long period of time, I used to eat street food on every alternate day. It was just fine, but you need to know, how to choose the right place. Otherwise, one “Delhi Belly” and your 3 weeks of vacation will be gone.

Don’t eat meat after Navratri – as mentioned in the non-vegetarian section, exclude meat at least 2 weeks after big fasts in autumn and spring. As a bigger part of the country is fasting, you don’t want to take a risk and test the validity of the products on yourself.

Spices are good – unless you have gastric or other stomach problems that would limit you in spicy food, many spices play a role of a sanitizer. Of course, I’m not talking about the restaurants here, but some offbeat cafes on the road.

Drink water – lots of water. Always. Especially in summer. I came to Delhi for the first time in May, it was extremely hot. I started losing weight with unbelievable speed. Just in one month, I switch from M to S size in my clothes and constantly experienced weakness. The local people told me that in the hot season you need to drink at least 2 liters of water in addition to all other liquids. That was like 4 times more than my European norm. After I started following this rule, I started looking healthier and strengths also came back. Note, buy only bottled water during your stay.

Decoding Food in India - guide for travelers

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I think this was the core information I would want someone to tell me before my first trip. And yaaai! You are still here! Thank you for reading. Do you have any other tips or suggestions about Indian cuisine? Leave a comment, let’s have a foodie talk)