If you ask someone who has travelled to India about the cuisine, the first thing they’ll tell you is that it’s different to the watered-down version on offer in the west. They might also mention how vegetarian-friendly it is. In India, every dish is packed with flavour from a variety of spices, but most feature the essentials: cumin, garam masala, turmeric, and, of course, chilli powder.
My advice? Try as many different dishes as you can. Quell your fears of Delhi belly by taking a few probiotics before you leave and pack some Imodium, you know, just in case. As long as that hasn’t turned you off, here are nine essential foods to try in India.
Pakoras are a favourite comfort food for locals. You’ll find dozens of street vendors selling different varieties of this fried snack, but they’re almost always served in the home when guests are coming over because they’re so easy to make in big batches. Pakoras are essentially fried clumps of battered vegetables, served with chutney. Most recipes recommend choosing or one two vegetables. Potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, onion and spinach are popular inclusions. The batter consists of chickpea flour, with a generous sprinkling of garam masala, chilli powder and coriander. One spoonful at a time, these glorious treats turn golden brown in a deep pan of oil or ghee (butter). It sounds sacrilegious but the locals dip them in mint chutney and tomato sauce!
India’s answer to the savoury crepe. The first things you’ll notice about these crispy treats is their size. They’re enormous. Indians consider these a “snack” but you may want to share one. A classic dosa masala requires a good batter made from rice flour, dal (lentils), fenugreek seeds and salt. Once fried, the dosa is stuffed with spiced potatoes. Here’s where you can get creative with the flavours, but one essential ingredient is the first thing that goes in your pan (besides oil); cumin seeds. The dosa comes with chutneys and sambar; a lentil and vegetable stew that usually has a bit of kick to it.
Following the trend of fried food, samosas are perhaps the most well-known Indina snack around the world. Shapes vary by region but they’re usually folded into a triangular shape. Common fillings include mashed potatoes, onions, peas, lentils and sultanas. The pastry is the easiest part; a mix of Maida or all-purpose flour, a splash of oil and water. The dough is rolled flat, folded into a cone shape, then stuffed, pinched at the top and fried.
In India, chai is a way of life, or so I read on many a gift shop t-shirt. The term translates to tea with spices. The core ingredients are black (Assam) tea, cinnamon, cardamon, ginger and peppercorns. Recipes vary by household and are often seasonal. In summer, they use cooler spices such as tamarind and fennel seeds. During winter, nutmeg and cinnamon feature prominently. The locals prefer their chai with lots of sugar but you can ask for it without. Enjoy it black or with milk.
This is a common street food among locals but many foreigners don’t seem to understand the hype. Imagine the sandwich triangles you put in your kids’ lunchboxes – battered and deep fried. The main question is, why? Because Indians love fried food. Also known as bread bhajis, these pakora-style sandwiches usually come with a spiced mashed potato filling. After a good dunk in a bowl of chickpea batter, they’re submerged in a pool of molten-hot oil or ghee.
More of an eating style than a food on its own, a Thali-style dinner is an essential Indian experience. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet, but with your own personal servings. Waiters will come around and top up your dishes constantly. A thali is a type of round serving plate with multiple bowls and sections. Usually, you would choose your selection of dishes by region. Southern Indian cuisine is usually coconut-based, whereas northern or Rajasthan food tends to contain more dairy and meat-based curries.
Potatoes are a huge part of Indian cooking. Most home cooked meals contain an element of protein (lentils or meat), rice, bread and vegetables. Jeera aloo, or cumin potatoes, are a popular (and delicious) vegetable side dish. They’re not too spicy either, so they’re great for kids easing into Indian cuisine. Diced potatoes are shallow fried and tossed with cumin seeds, turmeric, curry powder, salt and pepper, then finished off with a squeeze of lemon.
Flatbreads are an essential element of most Indian meals. Something that will surprise westerners is that Indians rarely eat, let alone cook naan bread. Traditional naan bread requires a clay oven, something most households don’t have. It requires a lot of time and effort to knead the dough, and the flour required is difficult to digest. For these reasons, naan is more of a special occasion food. But that’s not to say Indians don’t eat their fair share of breads. Paratha, chapati, poori, kachori, bhakri, parithi, appam; I could go on. Each bread differs by choice of flour and cooking method. Most are relatively easy to make at home and form an integral part of every main meal.
This vegetarian dish is simple but flavoursome and wildly popular all over India, Pakistan and Nepal. The English translation, “potato & cauliflower,” reveals the two main ingredients. The other elements are spices including cumin, chilli powder, ginger, garlic and, most importantly, turmeric which gives the dish its signature yellow colour.