Before we left on our trip, we did a pre-trip interview to document our expectations for a year of travel, and to track how our answers might change over time. One of the questions was: which country will have the best food? Our answers included: Vietnam, Georgia, Italy, and Taiwan. Perhaps we were too sleep deprived to think clearly at the time because, somehow, we completely forgot about Indian Food! And what fools we were… After tasting our way across the Indian States of Delhi, Punjab, Rajastan, and Mumbai, we both agree that Indian food was hands down the most diverse and delicious food we have tried yet on our trip.
During our three weeks in India, we learned a lot about Indian cuisine. For starters, we learned that ghee (clarified butter) is in everything! After eating lean-and-mean dal bhat in Nepal, we definitely put on a few extra pounds in India. Snacks (chaat) are very popular in India, and it is common to eat two or three “mini-meals” in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Even though beef is essentially non-existent due to the sacredness of cows in the Hindu Religion, Indian people love dairy products. Curd (dahi) is extremely popular in Indian cuisine and many desserts incorporate milk or yogurt. Lassi is a classic Indian beverage that is like a milkshake made with yogurt and fruit. Paneer (fresh cheese) is ubiquitous and so delicious it will make you forget all about meat. Pulses such as lentils (dal) and chickpeas (channa or chole) are the staples of vegetarian Indian cuisine. However, not all Hindus are vegetarians; butter chicken is the real-deal after all, and the significant Muslim population has contributed many chicken and lamb dishes to the cuisine. Thalis are set meals, and give you a chance to try four or five different regional specialties at once. Finally, chai (spiced black tea with milk and sugar) is omnipresent throughout all of India and a pleasure to sip daily.
We also learned that there is a big difference between North Indian Food and South Indian Food. Every state in India has unique regional dishes but, broadly speaking, the difference boils down to: what do you soak up the gravy with? In northern India, bread is extremely popular and eaten with every meal. In southern India, rice is the preferred sauce-absorbing medium. Obviously, this is a massive oversimplification, but that is the main difference we noticed, and we don’t have time to get into all the details!
In this post we will highlight some of the tastiest dishes we tried during our travels in India and share some mouthwatering photos.
North Indian Food
In northern India, we traveled in Delhi, Punjab, and Rajasthan. What stood out most to us was the variety of delicious breads and foods cooked in a tandoor (clay oven) such as chicken tikka, paneer tikka, and naan.
In Delhi, we took a food tour with our hostel to sample the famous street food in Old Delhi.
Famous Delhi kachori – crumbled fried dumplings in a curry sauce
Punjabi food was some of the best food we ate in India. We enjoyed eating at the dhabas (casual fast-food eateries) in Amritsar.
In Jaipur, Rajasthan we took an excellent cooking class and learned to make a variety of Indian dishes. We were surprised at how easy it was to make fresh paneer!
Chapati or Roti (generic term for “bread”) is the simplest of Indian breads, and perhaps the most commonly eaten. It is made from wheat flour, water, and salt. The dough is rolled flat and cooked over a gas flame or hot-plate, which causes the dough to puff up and form a little pocket on the inside.
Paratha is made from the same dough as chapati but it is layered with ghee or oil to give it a flaky consistency. Paratha can also be stuffed with potatoes, herbs, or onions.
Kulcha is the famous leavened bread of Punjab and it is heavenly. It can be eaten plain or stuffed with herbs, potatoes, and onions.
Naan is a leavened bread that is cooked in a tandoor. It can be made with different flavorings such as garlic, cheese, or herbs, and, like all Indian bread, is typically served slathered in ghee.
South Indian Food
South Indian food includes many curry and rice dishes and can be a little more zesty, tropical, and spicy than its northern counterpart. Lime, curry leaf, chilies, and coconut are common ingredients. We did not travel further south than Mumbai during our recent trip but we stayed with a friend whose family is from Mangalore on the southern coast, and her mom prepared some home cooked southern Indian feasts that were some of the tastiest meals we had in India.
Street Food (Chaat)
Some of the best food we ate in India was street food. Each vendor has their own specialty and often times they have been following the same recipe for more than 20 years. Part of what makes street food so delicious is how unhealthy it is; street food vendors don’t hold back when it comes to the ghee, and many dishes are fried in oil on top of that.
Another type of chaat that Indians are obsessed with is puri, which can seem a bit strange if you’ve never tried it before. The puri is a small shell of fried dough, roughly the size and shape of an empty egg shell. Typically a small hole is poked in the top and filled with various chutneys.
There is a staggering variety of sweets in India, most of them sinfully sugary. Indian sweets are as beautiful as they are delicious. Edible silver foil is a common accent which, while tasteless, adds a certain regal charm.