What and What Not to Eat in India
India is a fantastic country, both in culture and culinary opportunities. It's obvious from every angle that India loves its food; from the endless opportunities to buy snacks, to the big bellies of the men.
The country never stops and there's always an opportunity to buy something to eat. Personally, I've eaten from street stalls and restaurants, I've eaten meat and I've eaten fruit. I was ill once (for the record, it wasn't from street food, but I think from a hotel restaurant) and that frankly is a rite of passage.
In the cities the street food opportunities are pretty much endless. Some of the most popular options are my favourites, such as the simple pakoda; vegetables, usually involving potato, onion and chilli, fried in a light gram flour batter and often served with a tamarind sauce.
Another personal favourite is kachori, a flat round fried disc of crisp bread encasing a hot and spicy chilli and dal mix. These are especially popular in Rajasthan, although varied according to region, and often eaten for breakfast.
Simple or spicy
Most simple restaurants in India offer both fantastic value - usually a few pounds per head - and also good quality safe food. We've discovered simple dishes can have the most satisfying flavours on your palate. Some standout dishes have been dal makhani, stuffed parathas and basic vegetable curries like aloo ghobi, which have excellent fresh and bold flavours.
A biriyani we've discovered is pretty much down to the chef's preference, sometimes wet and more like a risotto and other times very dry. Everybody who visits India, and more specifically Rajasthan, should also try traditional Tandoori chicken. It's got great fresh flavours, is well spiced, and meat always tastes better if you haven't had any for a few days!
I'm a big fan of savoury snacks and India is a great place to indulge. There's no such thing as Bombay mix here, but almost all nuts, pulses and other bits are mixed with spices to create something similar. Two of my favourites are moong dal, and khatta mitha mix.
Moong dal looks a bit like rice crispies. It's made from split moong beans which have been deep-fried until golden and crispy, and then salted. They're absolutely delicious.
Khatta mitha is going to take some explaining. Principally, it's cornflakes, puffed rice, mitha and peanuts all together with (as the packaging states) curry leaves, salt, turmeric powder, black salt, fennel seeds and dry mango powder. It has the familiar masala flavours, but it's also sweet, while at the same time has a slightly citrus edge. If Willy Wonka made savoury snacks he would make something like this. It's both weird and yummy, all at the same time.
Keep yourself sweet
If you've got a sweet tooth you'll probably enjoy sweets in India. You're just as likely to find jalebis and gulab jaman from street vendors as you are in a restaurant.
Jalebis look like bright orange sticky pretzels. They're a fried flour mix, soaked in sugar syrup. Gulab jaman are small spongy balls the size of gobstobbers, again soaked in a syrup.
Another sweet option is barfi. Texturally, it's similar to fudge. They are available in all sorts of flavours, such as pistachio, and rose water. A similar option is gudiya. Visually, like a tiny glazed cornish pasty with a sweet almond paste filling.
If desserts aren't really your thing, these will probably not be for you; they are incredibly sweet and sugary.
Personally, I don't really want to recommend anybody not to eat anything. There are so many flavours and textures in Indian food that there's something for everyone. From a health point of view however, I would suggest staying away from pani puri. You'll recognise the wallahs by the see-through drums of light deep-fried dough (pani), which is mixed with tamarind flavoured water (puri). Often this sauce can be made from unpurified water and can be pretty bad for the travellers gut. Also, sometimes mutton will be lamb, sometimes it will be goat. However, both flavours are great with Indian spices and highly recommended.
All in all, explore. Don't be afraid to try something from a street vendor; don't be afraid to try something new. I always go by the same rule; if local people eat somewhere, it's good enough for me. I've only managed to scratch the surface in our short time in India, and haven't touched on the south where food can be incredibly different, but I have every intention of coming back to this incredibly rewarding country and visiting the south to experience a very different side to Indian cuisine.
If you're interested in finding out some more information about Ben's travels then head over to his blog thehungrybackpackers.wordpress.com.
You can read Ben's first feature on Finding Food on the Road; here he talks about finding some sumptuous street food while travelling.
And if you're a vegetarian traveller and you need to get your fill while backpacking and travelling then read Nikki Smith's guide to vegetarian travelling.
About the Author: Ben Turland
Ben is a tea drinking, food hunting travel fan. Since his first trip InterRailing in 2004 he has mostly been working boring jobs and dreaming about trips, or travelling. Ben has recently become a travel blogger and specifically writes about street food and assorted adventures. When not reading, or dreaming about travelling, his interests are photography, graphic design and music. His favourite places are Scandinavia, Thailand and Australia. His dream holiday trip is a food tour of Tokyo; he expects it to be one big crazy adventure with lots and lots of food...