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Food, Dining, & Drinks in India

WARNING: Terrorist threats continue in India, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Indian Food - Indian dishes
Indian dishes

India's food originated with what was available in their area and this primarily consisted of vegetables, multiple spices, and a number of game animals and seafood. The region that is today India is and always has been a very fertile land (with a couple exceptions, including in the northwest). Due to this, fruits and vegetables are very common in the diet and these were often made more interesting by adding local spices.

Meats and fish were also consumed in India's early history, but not in substantial quantities. Although animals are common in the region and fish is common in the land's lakes, rivers, and coasts, the historic diet was primarily vegetarian, although meats were not unknown.

Culinary Influences

Indian Food - Tandoori chicken
Tandoori chicken

The first and most significant change to their diet occurred well over 2,000 years ago with the introduction of Hinduism. Hinduism, still the dominant religion in India, doesn't allow the consumption of beef and many followers became dedicated vegetarians. Despite the lack of meat, Indian food remained very flavorful as their food is heavily seasoned with their local spices. More recently Buddhism and Jainism were introduced and many followers of these philosophies are also vegetarian, making many of the people vegetarian.

Over the past couple hundred years, the Muslims and British have also changed Indian cuisine. Although pork was never popular in India, the Muslims helped further reduce this meat. The British's greatest influence was the introduction of tea, which is now an integral aspect of Indian culture, although it is never served with meals.

Staple Foods & Vocabulary

Naan: a thin bread that is common everywhere, but most common in the north
Rice: common everywhere, but more common in the south where wet dishes are more popular
Curry: any "wet dish" cooked in oil, can contain any combination of spices
Pulse/legumes: any bean, chickpea, or lentil dish, each of which act as a staple in various parts of India; dal and masoor are both forms of pulses
Masala: a term used for any dish with a combination of five spices or more

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Goa & the coasts: seafood is the protein of choice and many people in Goa eat meats and fish
Kerala: the country's spice capital and home to black pepper; spices and coconuts are common
Punjab: stuffed parathas, tandoori-baked foods; this region is the inspiration for most American and British "Indian Restaurants"
Rajasthan: known for extremely spicy food
Sikkim: foods are more Himalayan and hardy; includes potatoes, wheat, meat, and dairy products

Dining Etiquette

Indian Food - Curry
Curry

Having a freshly washed right hand in India is essential if you want to make it through a meal without an emergency trip to the bathroom, although even that may not prevent illness in the world capital of dysentery. One of the safer and more rewarding dining experiences is at the home of a local. If you're lucky enough to get an invitation to a home (Indians eat late so dinner may not begin until 9:00 or 10:00 pm), bring a gift of chocolate or flowers and if the family has children, be sure to bring them a gift as well. Arriving a little late is normal, however don't keep them waiting too long and once you arrive leave your shoes outside the door (take them off with your left hand); most families will have a pair of slippers for guests to wear.

If you're eating at a restaurant and you initiated the meal, expect the locals to bring a guest. The table will greet you with a plate and perhaps a glass of water (no other drinks are typically consumed with food), but little else. Instead of utensils (cutlery), use your right hand to eat. Before eating, everyone washes their hands and this acts as their food delivery device. If the food is very liquidy a spoon will probably also be provided.

Before dining, your host may direct you to a chair and you may find yourself sitting on the floor, which is customary in India, although tables are gaining popularity and nearly every restaurant has them. After sitting down, most Indians will take a minute to give thanks for the food, no matter their religion.

All the food is supposed to be served at once, however if individual plates are ordered, few restaurants can time their food preparation so everyone is served at the same time. Many Indians are vegetarian, plus beef and pork are almost always absent from the menu due to a large number of Muslims (who don't eat pork) and Hindus (who don't eat beef), so the food ordered may be vegetarian. As the dishes do arrive, your host may serve you, but wait to eat until the oldest male guest is served and begins eating. Typically, people are served by order of importance and eating is done in this same order. In more traditional settings, men and women may even eat separately and men will always be served first.

After your host serves food from the communal dishes to your plate, you must be aware of a few important aspects to dining in India. First, don't ever touch any of the food with your left hand, the left hand is considered unclean and reserved for bathroom duty and taking your shoes off, only eat with the right hand, even if using a spoon. Second, once food touches your plate, even if you haven't touched that plate, no one else will eat it and you shouldn't offer it to anyone. In much the same way, taking something off another person's plate, even your spouse's is strictly off limits.

Being served a second helping is common in India, but everyone tends to be served at nearly the same time, so pace your eating to match the pace of others. As you finish, clear off your plate since leaving any food is rude. If eating out, the person who invites the others is expected to pay for everyone.

Tipping in India is inconsistent, but at tourist locations is similar to much of Europe. At restaurants catering to tourists, about 5-10% is expected, while at local restaurants rounding up is fine.

Celebrations & Events

There are a large number of celebrations and festivals that include specific foods and drinks, but, like their regular diet, these festival foods are generally vegetarian. Among the more popular foods served during festivals are the sweets and other desserts; these are served at both Diwali and Lohri.

For the country's Muslims, Eid al Fitr is the primary food holiday. This festival takes place after Ramadan, an Islamic religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days. To celebrate the end of this fast Eid al Fitr is filled with numerous foods, which differ from family to family and region to region but general consists of various meats and fish.

Drinks

In regards to non-alcoholic beverages, tea is perhaps the popular, hopefully made with boiled water. Coconut milk is also very common, especially on street corners as vendors cut the top of the coconut off and serve it with a straw. Milk is not common, but due to British influence it can be found in many locations that serve tea. Colas and juices are also common and easily accessible. For a more local specialty, try lassi, a yogurt drink that is often times mixed with spices or salt.

Alcohol isn't real popular in India, partly due to the significant Muslim minority. However, beer is the alcohol of choice for those who do drink and there are a few local breweries with large national distribution, including Kingfisher. Wines as well as international brands of beer and hard liquor are widely available at most hotels catered to foreigners. There are a few states in the country that outlaw alcohol, states that include Gujarat as well as some states in the far eastern part of the country.

The tap water in India should not be consumed because it is not safe. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits may have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well. Bottled water is readily available throughout the country, but be sure the cap is sealed when you first open the bottle as some people are known to fill old bottles with tap water and sell it.

This page was last updated: March, 2013