Welcome to India, home to some of the most exotic flavors our planet has to offer. From cumin to coriander, biryani to samosas, India's rich history and integral geography makes this country an ultimate traveling foodie's destination. Pack your hand sanitizer and get ready to intestinal rumble.
India's location along ancient trade routes created a region of cultural crossroads. As a result of this commerce, a diversity of culinary traditions flourished. Today, India's eclectic cuisine is reflected in the wide variety of dishes that stylistically vary from one town to another. This article will focus on the cuisine of Northern India, particularly Uttar Pradesh and around New Delhi.
Perhaps on of the most important sectors of ancient commerce was the spice trade. For India, the spice trade encouraged a large spectrum of flavors to be incorporated into local cuisine. Herbs like cumin, turmeric, curry, cloves, ginger, coriander, cardamon, and cinnamon are commonly used in making Indian food. This variety of ingredients generates an explosion of flavors. No two Indian dishes ever taste the same.
A great way to start the day is with a proper "Indian Breakfast". When purchased from street vendors, Indian breakfast commonly includes a yellow potato curry that is served from a small, cardboard bowl. Alongside the curry is type of flakey bread called "puri", a wheat flour flat bread. The puri is fried so that it blows up with air. Then, it's deflated with a quick slap of the hand before serving.
The puri is eaten by hand, and used to scoop curry from the cardboard bowl. Sometimes, the puri is crumpled up and mixed right in with the curry. This is a style typically found in Delhi.
Indian Breakfast is not to be missed. The best part: at most food stands, the server will replenish your curry and puri until you request that they stop. Hell hath no fury like an American facing an all-you-can-eat scenario. As street food, Indian breakfast will cost just 25-75 cents per unlimited puri/curry session.
Curd and lassi are also popular options at breakfast time. These foods are served in either cardboard bowls or clay pots, along with wooden sticks used for the scooping.
Make sure to save room for imarti, or as I like to call them, "those killer honey pretzel thingy's". Slightly akin to American funnel cake, these deep fried pastries might single-handedly be responsible for my future diabetes (give me a break it runs in my family).
It's quite entertaining to watch imartis get made, as the batter is carefully dripped onto the oil in a twisted, floral like pattern. Once removed from the pan, the imartis are covered with an oozing sugar sauce that'll melt your tastebuds with a new love for deep fryers.
No Indian breakfast is complete without a cup of chai milk tea. In fact, no hour of the day in India is really complete without a cup of chai. At train stations, vendors walk up and down platforms, passing tiny plastic cups of chai through the window bars to passengers. In transit, chai goes for about five cents per cup.
"Chaaaaai? Chaaaai? Chaaaai?" vendors call as they walk up and down rail cars carrying large metal tea pots.
In the streets, tea stands are a popular place for convergence.
It's also easy to find fresh juice stands in the street. Whether you're in the mood for orange, pomegranate, carrot, or beet juice, they'll make it to order for twenty cents a glass. Just keep in mind that the glasses are rinsed with water between customers, and the likelihood of the vegetables having been washed is slim.
"Panipuri" is a treat that uses lime juice as a central ingredient. This is mixed with chili, coriander, and other spices. The sweet and/or spicy liquid concoction is contained within a deep fried shell, which bursts open with flavor once it is devoured. Panipuri must be eaten in one big bite, or else the liquid will spill and the treat will be wasted.
Tali is probably the most common type of meal to eat in north India. It is served on a plate that has several compartments. The largest section holds rice, roti, and/or chapati. The smaller sections hold various curries and sauces, or perhaps green chili peppers and sliced red onions, to be eaten by mixing with the rice or flatbread.
One such sauce is called dal. It's made from lentils and varies in thickness and consistency. Two common lentils used in Indian dal are green peas and chick peas. These are mixed with a variety of spices. Be sure to try the dal-heavy tali at Punjab's Golden Temple, where you can share a meal with hundreds of Sik pilgrims.
It is common to find potatoes included in tali. They are sometimes prepared with fennel seeds, dill, or garam masala.
There is a vast variety of vegetables and recipes used to make tali. What you are served depends on the cook, as well as the region. Tali is a dish with seemingly endless possibilities thanks to the variety of flavorful ingredients India has to offer.
Tali is often eaten with your hands, although some people prefer to consume with a spoon (and a smile!)
The best part about tali is that the portions are sometimes bottomless, not unlike breakfast curry. The servers come by and refill any empty spaces on your plate straight from the ladle. This is typically the case for local restaurants and street vendors. It is less likely to find this kind of refill service at high end restaurants.
Paneer is a dish that is harder to find on the street. It is more common place at restaurants, particularly establishments that cater to foreigners. Paneer is a solidified cheese curd that is mixed with a variety of curries and sauces.
If you are a fan, try mixing it up by ordering palak, shahi, or mattar paneer.
For a change of pace, you can try restaurants that specialize in south Indian food. They serve crepe-like dishes called "dosas" that are stuffed with yumminess. The dosas are accompanied by sauces that are thinner than northern curries. I've heard that the food from south India is entirely different, and deserves a foodgasm of its very own.
Samosas are another kind of deep fried pastry. They're typically stuffed with potatoes, peas, and onions. Like chai tea, samosas are frequently sold through train car windows for about five cents apiece.
Chutney is a sour relish that is served as a side or sometimes as a condiment. It looks like it should be spicy and delicious, but looks can be deceiving. I don't care for chutney. No sir, I don't like it, it's too salty for my tastes. Moving on.
I had expected the food in India would be spicier. As many of you know, I'm a spicy food masochist. In realization, Indian food relies heavily upon "spice" with regards to a variety of flavors, and not in terms of "spice" as a heat.
Chicken biryani is probably one of the more spicy dishes India has to offer. It includes plenty of chili to achieve a certain level of hotness. Chicken biryani is also one of the only dishes in India that regularly includes any form of meat for ingredients.
India might be the easiest country to go vegetarian. This is a result of various religious practices, which discourage locals from consuming meat products. For example, Hindus refrain from eating beef because they believe that cows are sacred. So revered are these animals that they are permitted to roam the streets freely. It is not uncommon to watch tense traffic patterns conform to avoid the disruption of relaxing cows. India is not a carnivore's dream. Yet, what this country lacks in meat, it makes up for in flavor.
One of the best places to find optimal flavor is on the streets of India, from push carts to hole-in-the-wall restaurants and independent food vendors. This is also one of the best places to find e-coli, including foreign strains that are more difficult for our bodies to cope with. At one glance, it is no secret that India is grimey. There is a lot of that dust and dirt makes its way into the street food.
One of my more treasured Indian memories is enjoying a delicious plate of tali at one in the morning on the streets of Lucknow when a roaming cow took a giant, waterfall cow piss not ten feet from the food. When something like this happens, you've just got to shrug your shoulders and chaulk it up to India.
To make matters worse, this is a country where public hygene is severely lacking. For example, hand soap is not a common fixture in Indian bathrooms. Many street vendors are not educated about food preparation, and may not wash their hands or the vegetables before making curry. Just know that when you eat street food in India, you're playing with fire. Prepare to get burnt (most likely your butthole).
However, if you're a dumbass like me, you'll dive head first into street food because it tastes better and is easier on your budget. There is no comparison in authenticity when food is prepared in this manner - by locals, for locals, at local prices. You can be even more stupid and drink the water served from the tin cups and pitchers that are found on every table. You wont feel at all bad about your inevitable Melissa McCarthy "Bridesmaids" impression when you know your experience was utterly authentic and literally dirt cheap.
More cautious travelers prefer to eat at established, high end restaurants and drink bottled water. Yet, a trip to India might seem incomplete without at least one violent bout of food poisioning, along with the obligatory Taj Majal photo op. Which, by the way, I grumpily passed upon because it was too crowded. I'm jaded, whatever. The Taj was still visible from this rooftop restaurant. Which begs the question, who's ready for lunch?
"My Indian Foodgasm"
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