The food in India: the good, the great, and the very best

This post is so long overdue. I love food. And not in a normal moderate ‘oh yeah, I like food’ way. I’m obsessed. I love eating, cooking, researching the history of food, and seeking out new things to try. There’s not much I actively dislike- celery/ celeriac, liver, and whole cooked fish (raw fish is FINE though, weirdly) are pretty much it. Everything else is consumed with joyous abandon until I eat so much I can’t move.

Indian food has been a revelation to me, at has been so much more than I thought it was. Every region has its own distinct food culture. In New Zealand, what we think is Indian food is pretty much just Punjabi. Nothing wrong with that because I LOVE Punjabi food, but there is just so much more to offer! This post will take you through a few favourites of mine.

Disclaimer to Indians: Sorry, I don’t like idli very much, pani puri is only ‘ok’ (yes, yes, I need to try it in Delhi not Bangalore) and I’m not a huge fan of rice (!!!).

Indian cuisine basics

There are five ingredients that pretty much form the basis of Indian cuisine.

Chilli – From Mexico, the Portuguese brought it to India.

Potatoes (aloo) – From Peru

Onion – From Iran

Garlic- From West Pakistan/ East Iran

Tomatoes – Hola! From Mexico

There are things that are local though- for instance, turmeric is from South India. But, the food culture has grown so much around imports! There’s a bit of Chinese (gobi Manchurian) influence, Tibetan (momos, some kick-ass noodles), and increasingly, American.

A quick note: Mutton in India is goat. Not sheep. ‘Beef’ (not widely eaten because there’s a bit of social disapproval and some heavy-duty drama happening around this right now) isn’t always cow. Could be ox, or buffalo. It’s a lucky dip for me, although locals know which places serve beef and which serve ‘beef’ (‘buff’).

Breakfast

Ask any South Indian what their favourite breakfast is, and the answer will likely be dosa (or idli, but I’m not a fan and this is my blog, so, dosa). Even North Indians like dosa! Kind of a pancake, grains (rice, daal, millet) are fermented, blended, cooked, and served with sauces, generally sambal and coconut chutney. I am a true dosa lover, I could have it every day. There are more than 100 varieties of dosa and I love them all. Probably my most favourite (and most common) is masala dosa. The dosa is made from rice and daal and the inside has a masala aloo mixture. You tear bits of the crispy dosa off, scoop up some masala, and dip in the sauce. Heaven. I also like neer dosa, which is Mangalorian. Neer= water, the batter is very thin, almost water like. It cooks into a white dosa, slightly thicker than masala dosa, with a chewy texture.

L- R A ‘Bangalore’ dosa with veges in it, a ghee roast paper masala dosa from Chennai, and a classic masala dosa from MTR

I also quite like kesari bhath. It’s a sweet masquerading as breakfast. It’s made from semolina, sugar, milk, and ghee, it’s probably not good for you but it’s delicious.

Kesari bhath- Photo credit Jaideep, The Hungry Jedi

Chai or coffee. In the South, the filter coffee is strong, sweet, and delicious. I love it! Also like chai (but that’s not exclusively breakfast- it’s in all-day, every-day affair).

Now what to talk about next? Oh where to START?!

Probably with the dish that divides and unites Indians.

Biryani.

Basically, this is some tender meat (vegetarian biryani is pulao… not biryani!) served with a towering pile of fragrant, delicately flavoured rice. You eat with your hand, pulling the meat from the bone and mixing it with the rice. Every region has a variation to biryani. I like the Hyderabad spiciness, and the Bengali version which adds hunks of potato. I also like lots of thick raita to mix in… YUM.

A Muslim ‘wedding-style’ biryani I had last weekend at a bohri thaal meal – not pretty, but pretty delicious.

I don’t think I can adequately describe how passionate most Indians are about biryani… it’s like New Zealanders and fish and chips/ mince pies but 100 times more passionate. There’s no better way to make friends here than to eat biryani with them (with a glass of beer of course).

Meals (Thali)

If you think that you’re going to faint from hunger, then fossick around and find a place that serves ‘meals’. This is a South Indian thing. You will be seated with a large banana leaf before you (your plate). Then, for around NZD$2- $6, you get unlimited food. Rice (of course), breads, and a selection of curries, chutneys, and everything in between. Not only is this super delicious and awesomely cheap, but you pick what you like. Waiters with bowls of food circle you like vultures, but with opposite intent…  you will roll out the door an hour later and realistically you will require a nap before attempting anything further with your day.

A vegetarian ‘meal’ – Photo credit Jaideep, The Hungry Jedi

Curries

What we Westerners think of when we consider Indian food is likely a curry. And the varieties of curries are endless. Of course you have your butter chicken and rogan josh (I have not had rogan josh here yet! Or a vindaloo!) but there is so much more to life than that. Indian vegetarian food is OUTSTANDING. Me, the meat eater from the land of meat, could easily go a couple of weeks and not miss gnawing on dead flesh. There are many different types of daal, there’s paneer (Indian cottage cheese), and Indian food takes potato, cauliflower, and eggplant, (aloo, gobi, brinjal) and turns them into MASTERPIECES. I have developed an enjoyment of a North Indian dish called rajma, which is red kidney beans in a thin gravy, served with rice (one of the only ways I enjoy rice).

The curries themselves range from I-can’t-feel-my-lips through to creamy, rich, and mild.

Dinner at a friend’s restaurant, Oye Amritsar. Lamb shanks in a stunning gravy, and a rich, creamy butter chicken

L- R Paneer, daal, and tandoori broccoli (an obsession of mine) Photo credit Jaideep

Breads

Pretty much, breads are breads. Naan, roti, and paratha. Eaten with every meal as a vehicle for transporting the curry to your mouth. No need for forks here! Roti is the most common. Paratha are richer, often stuffed with seasonings and other yummy things.

Chaat

Basically, savoury snacks. Come in a variety of forms but my favourite is probably pav bhaji. Pav is a soft white bread roll, cut in half, fried in butter (good already, right?). Then it’s served with bhaji, which is a vegetable mix with masala. Top with onion, a squeeze of lime, and sometimes cheese.

Bhel puri (Blore) and pav bhaji (In Mumbai)

I’m also a fan of papdi chaat, which is crispy crackers, hunks of potato, all served with a spicy sauce, some green sauce, and I like to drench mine in yoghurt. OK, I’m not painting this in a very good light, but I assure you that they are fabulous.

A selection of chaat. Clockwise from 12, Dabeli, bhel puri, papaya chutney, fafda ganthiya, dhoklas, pav bhaji

Dessert

Thums Up is a drink but I put it under desserts because it’s so sweet that it actually makes your toes curl. Flavour is much like Coke, but it’s syrupy and viscous.

thums up

Gulab jamon is how to get diabetes. They are balls made from milk powder, ghee, and curd. They are deep fried in ghee (feel your arteries hardening yet?) and then rested for a few hours in cardamom-scented sugar syrup. They are the sweetest, stickiest, fattiest dessert ever, and I like them with icecream.

Gulab jamon – photo credit Jaideep, The Hungry Jedi, our very own jiggy jiggy gulabo

So- that’s a very broad overview of some Indian foods. It’s far from exhaustive; I could write a post every week for the next year! Every State has different specialities, different spice blends, and all are fiercely proud of their food – and rightly so. I don’t miss any bland NZ food (except for cheese).

Postscript: Wondering who Jaideep is, my photo- supplier? He’s my friend and fellow food lover (this sentence grossly underestimates his importance in my life- he has kittens- KITTENS!) Go see him here.

1 thought on “The food in India: the good, the great, and the very best

  1. Jist has the chance to go through this in great detail. And guess what? It’s making me hungry (and I’ve just finished a rather sumptuous breakfast). Thank you so much for the entertaining and informative article, and the photo credits. Have a safe trip and give your grandpa a bear hug 🙂

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